Friday, November 30, 2012

Of Import: Star Luster (1985, Famicom)

Japanese arcade giant Namco (a.k.a. Namcot) was active in home videogame publishing during the 8- and 16-bit era.  While many such titles were ports of the company's arcade hits, occasionally they targeted the home market more directly, with titles like Star Luster, released in 1985 for the Nintendo Famicom:


"Luster" in this context appears to refer to starshine, not to, shall we say, more earthly fires; it's clearer in motion, where the outline around the logo shimmers through a rapidly shifting palette.  Star Luster is another in a long line of games that starts with the mainframe computer "Star Trek" programs, travels through Atari's Star Raider, and still turns up now and then today.  The player's mission, as usual, is fairly straightforward:



The main display features a map of enemy clusters (denoted with the letter E), intent on destroying the player's star bases (B) and neighboring stars (*); asteroid fields (//) appear to serve no purpose beyond creating risk when we try to fly through them.   A cursor is used to select a destination, then we shift into hyperspeed to reach the targeted sector, while the action continues in real-time in all the sectors we are not dealing with at the moment.  The action is seen from the player's cockpit perspective; the player aims and maneuvers with the D-pad, using the B button to fire and the A button to accelerate.

According to Wikipedia, Star Luster is set in the same universe as the Galaxian / Galaga / Gaplus arcade games, but there's not much evidence onscreen; the style reminds me more of Xevious. The cartridge label depicts a starbase that looks very like the ones in Namco's Bosconian arcade game, though I never actually saw one in-game (and I suspect the NES would have had a hard time managing a sprite that large.)

The enemy aliens are generally blue or gray, rendered in a variety of detailed shapes with different attack patterns and behaviors.  They flit about the screen fairly quickly, exchanging fire with the player against a 3-D starfield, and while there isn't a lot of variety to the gameplay, the intense dogfighting and chasing is fun and challenging.


We're free to travel around the galaxy as we please, but occasionally an onscreen alert calls upon us to DEFEND STAR or DEFEND BASE, and it's good etiquette to check the map and fly to the vicinity of the fading target (the icons turn black when they are under attack.)  Sometimes multiple enemies attack the same base or star, and we have to cross our fingers and hope we're taking on the biggest threat first.

Eventually, of course, our bases and stars are taking heavy damage, and more critically, we start to run low on energy, which is consumed by taking enemy damage as well as by traveling.  Eventually the EMPTY ENERGY message pops up, and the game is over.

The scoring model is fairly complex, taking time and energy use into account against enemies and outposts destroyed.  I played a couple of times, and didn't do tremendously well on the scoring or ranking front:




I got the same ranking both times, so I have no insight into how the scale works -- if I did better, would I be upgraded to Ensign Wang?  Or am I a step up from Cadet Butt?  Does British New Wave band Wang Chung, popular at the time, figure into it at all?

Star Luster never came to the US -- by the time Nintendo's console was released here, this cartridge probably looked a bit simplistic, though Acclaim released a similar game in the US called Star Voyager early in the NES' life (no relation as far as I know to Imagic's Atari 2600 Star Voyager, which was also a Star Raider clone.)  It's not a great game, but it's well implemented and I enjoyed spending an hour with it.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Sam & Max 105: Reality 2.0 (2007)

This week we're tackling the fifth episode of Telltale Games' first complete (and longest at six episodes) episodic adventure season, bringing Steve Purcell's Sam & Max characters back to the world of adventure gaming.  Episode 105, Reality 2.0, pays homage to classic video games and RPGs, with much of the Sam & Max universe redesigned in virtual reality terms.


The Sam & Max games are generally well-written and funny -- the characters, a sardonic noir-ish detective dog and his hyperactive rabbit buddy, readily lend themselves to outlandish and absurd situations and puzzles.  They've always seemed perfect for adventure gaming, although the visual tone of these early Telltale games is a bit more cartoonish than Purcell's independent comics.

As always, I encourage interested readers to play Sam & Max 105: Reality 2.0 before proceeding here, as my comments are likely to give away most of the plot and many of the surprises and gags.  But it's been out for five years now, so I'm not going to feel the least bit guilty about the multitudinous...

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


As the story opens, President Max (running the country remotely from the detective office, not the White House) is dispatching giant battle robots to enforce his policy decisions, which apparently have him embroiled in impeachment hearings and war crime trials.  As usual, the commissioner (who, we assume, has no qualms about ordering the Commander in Chief around) calls shortly with this episode's crisis -- computers are going haywire due to an "electron surge."  Sam & Max have absolutely no idea how to handle this, so it's time to jump into action!



The jokes discovered by poking around the office have been updated, welcome after some visible recycling in the first few episodes.  The former President's severed head from Episode 104 has been added to the closet, along with the accumulated artifacts from the season to date.  And, in a hint of references to come, the cheap VCR under the TV has acquired a decidely Nintendo-esque look about it:


Down the street, the perpetually career-hopping Sybil has gone into the beta testing business, and we find her playing some sort of action RPG with virtual goggles on.  Sam assumes this is a hypnotic device -- it does feature those little whirly hypnodiscs we've been seeing all season -- and we need to administer a blow to Sybil's head to free her from the trance.  But we can't just shoot her or hit her with the boxing glove left over in inventory from a previous episode, because she's swinging wildly as she fights off VR monsters in-game, so we'll have to be a little more creative.

There's a Secret-Serv Ice Cream truck parked outside the office -- which Sam correctly declares is "not fooling anyone."  Bosco's Inconvenience is open for business, and as usual the proprietor has adopted a disguise in defense of his paranoid fantasies.  This time he's wearing blue pointy ears, speaking in Renaissance Fair-ese, and calling himself Elboscodril, a mighty half-elf ranger:



He's trying to take his business to the Internet for security reasons, primarily because Jimmy Two-Teeth (the neighborhood rat) has gone into the arms dealing business, setting up his competing shop on a table in Bosco's own store.  Bosco has a virulent biological weapon for sale (we can probably guess what this will turn out to be) at a price of one billion dollars; this is not likely a problem for President Max, but we can only pay online so we will have to figure out a way past Bosco's online security. 

Jimmy Two-Teeth has a cannon for sale, but he's unwilling to sell to the police despite Max's gleeful threats.  The DeSoto is out of commission, too, so all of our initial puzzle-solving is going to have to happen right here downtown.  If we try to take Jimmy's cannon, he fires a ball at Sam's chest, knocking him down.  But while Sam is getting up and Jimmy is reloading, Max can push him headfirst into the cannon barrel, allowing us to take the whole assembly with us.

Firing Jimmy at Sybil knocks the goggles off her head and disrupts her trance, but she's not thrilled to see her rescuers -- she was supposed to be beta-testing a computer game called Reality 2.0, and now the goggles are damaged.  We also learn that the C.O.P.S. have moved in next door - that is, the Computer Obsolence Prevention Society -- at Lefty's old abandoned hardware store.  They're reportedly doing some kind of computer work, immediately arousing Sam's suspicions.



The C.O.P.S. turn out to be a motley assortment of outdated technology -- a coin-op Bluster Blaster arcade cabinet, an answering system/phone, a PING home video game console, and an old luggable PC equipped with a voice synthesizer.  Interrogation confirms the Internet's plan to enslave all of humanity, with the perhaps unwitting help of the C.O.P.S. who are taking the 0x0c (hex 10 for you non-programmer types) steps to recovery (presumably of their former glory).  Bluster Blaster seems to be the most power-mad, frequently quoting Williams' Sinistar arcade game: "I HUNGER!" "I LIVE!"  These machines, appearing here for the first time, will continue to appear in the Sam & Max series.  They even have a motivational techno song called "Useful to Boot," presented in four separate verses if Sam is persistent in asking about it.  The luggable PC appears to be on an IV drip, but it's not cooling its super-fast processor -- the system indignantly acknowledges that it is for output, not input.  At last, the C.O.P.S. dispense a "junior" set of goggles for Max, and a replacement chip for Sybil's broken headset so that both characters are equipped to enter Reality 2.0

Entering this new world, we find it looks a lot like the regular Sam & Max neighborhood, except it's all glowy and TRON-like, with streams of ones and zeroes replacing the ever-rumbling subway cars.  The Internet plays host, manifesting as a floating head apparently re-purposed from Episode 102's TV director character.  Sybil is replaced by a virtual avatar, but a floating pair of lips ties into her audio-blog feature, allowing Sam & Max to explore her short VR gaming history -- she started playing on a Monday and remained in a trance until interrupted by our heroes on Friday.  We can return Sam & Max to reality easily enough, by taking the VR goggles off; they are protected by Sam's shielded hat and Max's imperviousness to outside influences.  Many of the game's puzzles depend on switching back and forth between reality and Reality 2.0.

Sybil's closet is locked in both realities -- the key is lost in the real world, and the door, apparently concealing a treasure, can't be opened in Reality 2.0 either.  Outside Sybil's, the world is quite different, with videogame landscape elements and AI characters based on people we've already met for "familiarity" (and budget) reasons.  TV host Myra appears here as Auntie Biotic, a disease/virus- filtering email cop.  She's wearing +1 armor that we might want to get hold of, or we may need to overcome.  A jack-in-the-box produces a "pop-up ad" (get it?) for Ted E. Bear's Mafia-Free Playland and Casino, seen in Episode 103.

We can visit the C.O.P.S. in their Reality 2.0 control room, and apply our Computer Bug (in reality, the listening "bug" from earlier episodes) to each of them to alter the virtual reality in various ways.  Bluster Blaster's failure causes virtual gravity to weaken; slowing down the phone shrinks Sam and Max to tiny size; and shutting the luggable down flattens Sam and Max out (something I didn't know this engine could handle, it appears to render them as 3-D and then inserts them into the scene as 2-D sprites).  PING just goes crazy with a cute little musical tune, not an immediately useful effect.

Outside we find some floating coins -- gravity reduction will probably be useful here -- and Jimmy has another coin he conceals in his rat hole, which glows, suggesting there's another in Sybil's locked closet.  It looks like we will be rounding up coins as part of completing this story.



A wizard hat-sporting analog of Hugh Bliss occupies the storefront next to Bosco's; he's an Internet Wizard who claims to be able to predict our future, but sees only nothingness and blackness.  But he provides a Rainbow Customization Kit, i.e., a can of paint for the DeSoto.  There's a one-click "save point" floating outside Bosco's E Convenience store, which conveniently invokes the engine's actual auto-save function.

Bosco's Reality 2.0 store is more clearly an RPG shoppe, selling such items as a wooden long sword and a Cloak of Visibility.  There's also a direct reference to the Sam & Max comics, with a sign promoting adult beverages: "DRINK Cheap, Evil-Smelling Beer Every Day of Your Life" (there are also Potions of Staggering Drunkenness for sale behind the counter.)  Bosco's wooden long sword can be purchased for 5 gold coins; presumably we can raise the cash, then use it to kill the sludgie slime monster lurking in the concessions area.

So we're off to round up the necessary gold, disabling various C.O.P.S. components to assist.  With gravity reduced, and a mighty "It's-a me, Sam!", three are quickly collected.  Shrinking down (and temporarily going back to reality to make it up the stairs to the office) allows our boys to collect the coin from Jimmy Two-Teeth's rat hole, with a little requisite pummeling.  Slimming down to 2-D gets us under Sybil's door to find the fifth.

Buying the wooden long sword allows Sam to do quick Legend of Zelda "sword get!" take.  Taking on the nearby opportunity for battle pits Sam (dexterity 3) against the blue sludgie slime (dexterity 2), and we can choose to ATTACK WITH ITEM, ATTACK WITH QUIP, or FLEE!  The sludgie blob isn't up to matching Sam's repartee, but it flees and no XP or items are gained.  Attacking with the long sword takes it out easily, and Sam collects the leftover blue slime slime, after jumping up and down a la Final Fantasy victory celebrations.

What else is there to kill?  Fighting Auntie Biotic seems an obvious thing to try, but she always gets the initiative, and her dexterity way overpowers Sam's defensive skills and quips.  We can knock Bosco back into real reality with the sword, so that he's replaced with an AI simulacrum in Reality 2.0.  In the real world, we can talk to him about his account at Banco-Lavadero.com, which we could access to buy the bio-weapon... had he not had the password wiped from his memory and tattooed on his body for safekeeping.  Sigh.  We can get Bosco to look behind himself with various ludicrous suggestions, but can't easily see the tattoo.

We might as well explore some more -- in Reality 2.0, we can now travel to Banco Lavadero, but can't get in -- as other cars drive in and enter, we can see that the license plate and the paint job have to match, front to back.  The virtual DeSoto's plate reads BRP, so we go with a blue-red-purple color customization, and now we're in.

We still don't have Bosco's password, but can we route money in anyway by toying with the bank's complicated money laundering flow?  No, we do need his password; in reality, we can "borrow" Bosco's own binoculars from the counter, read the back of his neck, and see that his password is... BOSCO.  It seems we may also need to unlock the account of a "MR. BIV," possibly a reference to Hugh Bliss via the traditional rainbow mnemonic (ROYGBIV) but we don't have that password either.

Sybil doesn't want her VR goggles back -- now she's testing contact lenses that get darker in sunlight, though her job is to stay out of the sun to verify that they don't darken, so her participation in this episode may be wrapped up.  We can click on PING in the control center to turn off pop-up ads, allowing us access to the Ted E. Bear jack-in-the-box outside.  Its only purpose seems to be to generate the ads, but taking it with us may be useful...

And yes, the pop-up ads prove very useful for warding off Auntie Biotic's withering attacks!  But Sam's sword is unable to do her any damage in return; the best we can do is fight to a turn-based draw.  Returning to Banco Lavadero and playing around with the "Cook the Books" buttons (I mistakenly thought this was just for password entry) to alter the cash flow, I managed to get the flowchart configured to send $1000 million, i.e. one billion dollars, into Bosco's account.  The ensuing transaction yields a tissue-bonded sample of Bosco's cold germs, as we more or less expected.

The mucus (a deadly Computer Disease as seen in its Reality 2.0 analog) doesn't do anything to Auntie Biotic directly.  But we can see a +2 sword stuck into the billboard above Sybil's shop.  We can readily jump up there using low gravity, but it's well-embedded and can't readily be pulled out until we apply a little blue slime for lubrication.  One hit with Sam's new, more powerful sword, and the troublesome email guardian is dispatched.

Sam & Max jump at the chance to send the Computer Disease into the email system, and all 7734 breaks loose.  In its death throes, the Internet no longer wants everyone to be happy in its simulated reality; it has completely lost its respect for living things.  In a fit of pique, it turns off the graphics, and we find ourselves in vintage text adventure mode, picking up the story where it has left off.

 

We can try to GET RESPECT FOR LIVING THINGS, but it falls into a chasm and is eaten by a Shambling Corporate Presence.  There's a rather sweet homage here to the power of the text adventure to render events that are expensive to pull off in animated form -- chasms rip open in the ground, Bosco's shop tips and empties, a foil card and tons of cute kittens shoot out of Sybil's roiling walls.  There are also some really nice gags for text adventure veterans and modern multimedia gamers alike in this sequence.  For example, we can try to GO BONKERS, but You do not see any "bonkers" here -- prompting Max to ask, "Where's the bonkers, Sam? Where?", and Sam to respond, "Closer than you know, little buddy."

We can GET BOSCO'S and feed it to the Shambling Corporate Presence, but consuming the whole building doesn't come close to satiating its hunger.  But we can easily take another one, as a replacement appears each time we take the shop, with some name variations that sound suspiciously like proposed but unused names from early in this series' development, e.g. Bosco's Cheapo-Mart, Bosco's Buy-n-Sprint.  We can dip Bosco's into the lake of nauseating cuteness flooding Sybil's place, making it a NAUSEATING BOSCO'S.  Feeding this to the SCP causes it to vomit up the Respect for Living Things. Then all we have to do is USE RESPECT FOR LIVING THINGS WITH INTERNET, and all is well!



Well... maybe not all is completely well.  The Internet has gone down for the count, but it reveals it was tricked into trying to take over the world by one Roy G. Biv.  The plot thickens!  But at least now Sam and Max can have lunch, as the credits roll to an uninterrupted cut of "Useful to Boot."

I liked this episode's novel reuse of familiar environments -- the episodic business model depends on later use of assets created earlier in the process, and this one does a nice job of disguising the corner-cutting and even taking advantage of it.  We still have one episode left to play in this season, and I'm sure I'll be getting back to it soon.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Go visit Gamasutra!

Up today in the Features section at Gamasutra is my brief gaming history of the Radio Shack TRS-80:

Games from the Trash: The History of the TRS-80

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Jungle Adventure Part I - The Elephant's Graveyard (1981)

This week, we're back on the TRS-80 playing another adventure by John R. Olsen.  This one moved up my list recently -- I'd played the sequel, Jungle Adventure, Part II - King Solomon's Mines, and hadn't been able to locate the first game.  But reader A.J. Luxton tracked it down, so I'm glad to finally experience the beginning of the story.  Thanks, A.J.!

As with Olsen's other early games, this one was published in the cassette-based CLOAD Magazine, in 1981; he later rewrote it for other platforms using the AdventureWriter system, a Quill relative.  It's a treasure-hunting game, with a minor twist in that there's really only one treasure we need to retrieve.


Like Olsen's other games, this one features a simple BASIC parser -- it requires input in uppercase, though it renders text in mixed-case on TRS-80s so equipped, and there's no EXAMINE verb (though there are some other verbs, the presence of which tripped me up a bit!)  The core of the map and a few of the puzzles are identical to what I'd already seen playing the second game, so the sequel must have been a quick project, though the two games do feature distinct storylines and unique areas to explore.

As always, interested adventurers are advised to sample Jungle Adventure Part I - The Elephant's Graveyard for themselves before proceeding here.  This one's not as demanding as its sequel, with fewer time-sensitive puzzles though due care is still advised.  The two Jungle Adventure games taken together are self-spoiling to a degree due to significant recycling, but even if you've played the second game, this playthrough contains at least 25% new, pre-consumer...

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






We begin outside a trading post, with a watering trough, and a notice we ought to take a look at.  We are also faced with a bit of old-fashioned stereotyping, as the parser presents itself with, "I am your African native guide.  What do you want me to do, Bwana?"  Though it could be argued that "Bwana" is just as much of a stereotype of the player's Great White Hunter character, so that takes the curse off a bit.


READ NOTICE announces the game's objective, though we might have guessed it based on the title.  To win the Great African Explorer Contest, we must "find the fabled Elephant's Graveyard and bring back some IVORY as proof."  This sounds straightforward enough, but Mr. Olsen is known for tricky and exacting designs.  For instance, we are already dying of thirst in 5 moves, as I stand here exploring things; we can DRINK WATER from the trough but will need some way to carry water with us if we're going to venture far from the trading post.  This allows us to travel more freely, but we still run out of water from time to time and need to return to the trading post or find other sources of potable water to refill the bag.

This Part I game is almost identical to Part II at the outset -- same trading post, same revolver, same plastic bag available for carrying water.  And I had to re-learn that we can't GET WATER or FILL BAG or DIP BAG, but must PUT BAG -- In two words, tell me where? -- IN TROUGH to get some water. 

East of the post is a mountain with cliffs towering above, unclimbable at the moment.  There's a grasslands to the west, near a swamp containing foul water and a large crocodile, who tends to attack and kill us before we can leave the area.  We can SHOOT CROCODILE with the revolver, and the corpse floats off, allowing us safe passage.  We can DRINK WATER in the swamp, but it's not a good idea (if we have the bag we'll drink the safe water, otherwise we sample the swamp water to fatal results.)

A dead tree south of the swamp has some bark eaten away, and a sharp machete lies nearby.  Trying to leave this area means that a BOA constrictor drops out of TREE!  We have been killed!  We can LOOK TREE to allow the snake to emerge, and then SHOOT BOA to turn it into a dead BOA.  Atop the tree, we see native huts to the west, and a swamp to the north; this is nothing we can't find out at ground level, it seems.

The village to the west contains a large group of PYGMIES, who block the way south.  We can GET ("several handsfull of") GRASS with the machete in the grassland area, but this doesn't help us here.  We need to take one of the skulls posted on poles outside the Pygmy village into the vilage, where now the PYGMIES move about nervously.  As in Part II, we can then DROP SKULL, scaring the pygmies away when the sacred skull touches the ground!  It's not clear why they don't secure these a little bit better, instead of just leaving them lying around outside the village for strangers intend on abusing the local superstitions.

South of the village, we pass through a canyon and come upon a temple, where a witch doctor says something about snakes and drops a map.  We have time to GET MAP, but then we see poisonous SNAKES slithering towards us.  The snakes don't actually seem immediately dangerous, though if we stick around too long they prove to be fatal; the map shows a path through the mountains, so I went back up to the northeast to see what we could do there.

At this point, everything was seeming way too familiar, so I went back and read my post on the sequel to make sure I wasn't replaying the same game under a different name.  It seems that the map is pretty much the same, but the details and puzzles differ, so I was happy to proceed.  FOLLOW MAP in the mountains allow us to squeeze through a narrow pass to Hidden Valley (we need the map to get through it, so if we accidentally exit the area by heading west we can't come back here, though if we take the boots found here we can take an alternate route.)  Here we find some climbing BOOTS, and, more disturbingly, the REMAINS of a lost safari.  No ranch dressing, however.

With the boots (we must WEAR BOOTS), we can climb the mountains to reach the top, leading to a jungle with a roaring lion charging at us.  We can SHOOT LION, not killing him but causing him to limp off, never to be seen again as far as I could see.

Nearby is a river where we can drink and refill our bag (by putting it in the WATER, not the RIVER).  A waterfall at the south end of the valley hides a "secret" (unless we play a lot of these games, as this is a well-established trope) -- we can GO WATERFALL to discover a darkened cave.  It is, of course, too dark to see in there, and a less-fondly-remembered trope insists that with one wrong move, or even one right move without illumination, We fell in the dark. We have been killed! This happens even if we're trying to go back the way we came, so it's wise to SAVE GAME often.

We can TAKE some VINES if we have the machete.  The stones in the rock canyon are flint, as in the second game.  But we still don't have a workable light source -- the vines burn, but too quickly to see anything, and the dry grass I picked up before apparently gets wet going through the waterfall.  Ah... we have to empty and use the plastic bag to get the grass through, then run back and get some drinking water again before we expire.  Still -- drat it all! -- the grass burns up without shedding any light on the subject.

Can we rig a torch somehow? Apparently while vines and grass will not burn well separately, we can MAKE TORCH out of both of them to get a usable light source.  This gets us into the cave, where a section with damp walls leads to... the Elephant's Graveyard, unexpectedly soon!

But the story is not over yet -- getting the ivory back to the trading post proves a little bit tricky, as something heavy is keeping us trapped in the Hidden Valley.  Dropping everything else doesn't help, confirming that it's the ivory that's the problem.  We can't TIE VINE TO IVORY, it seems, nor can we throw it off a cliff somewhere and hope to find it elsewhere on the map.

Aha!  we can MAKE RAFT using an armful of poles stolen from the skull display outside the pygmy village, and some more cut vines.  We can't use the raft ourselves, it appears, but we can PUT IVORY / ON RAFT to load it up.  And while we can't GO RAFT, we can RIDE RAFT to float to the west, past the weight barriers.  So now we just -- well, not yet, now we learn that the ivory is too big to squeeze through the mountain pass.  But we can simply walk up the hill and down the mountain, to return to the trading post and victory (somehow word of our find has spread remarkably quickly!)  The celebration also sets up the sequel, which appears to have been ready for imminent release:



I've enjoyed both of the Jungle Adventure episodes -- they're good stuff, fairly challenging but not as painstakingly nerve-wracking as some of Olsen's later games, allowing a safety margin even when move counts require conservative play.  A fairly quick but interesting play.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Stranded (1992)

I had no idea what I wanted to play this week, so I rooted around in the archives at random and came upon Stranded, a text adventure for the Sinclair Spectrum ZX home computer popular in the United Kingdom.  It's yet another escape-the-alien-planet tale, written by Dave Hawkins and published rather late as text adventures go, coming out in 1992 courtesy of the dedicated adventure publishers at Zenobi Software.



The game was written in PAW, a descendant of the popular authoring system The Quill.  The Spectrum's generous 48K of RAM allows for lots of detailed text, so while the game is fairly simple there's a lot of detail on display.  The game's interface is impatient -- if we're not providing input, it assumes a WAIT command from time to time -- but this doesn't seem to cause any gameplay problems, and I may only have noticed it because I spend so much time taking notes while playing.

Once again, I encourage interested readers to get Stranded themselves before proceeding below.  This is a pleasant and generally logical adventure, marred only by some hidden items and a few parser struggles.  My playthrough diary commences shortly, and there will necessarily be a comprehensive and ruthless series of...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
 




We begin, as is usual for these sorts of adventures, in the cockpit of our space transport, the Talisman, following the also-traditional emergency landing.  The ship is still spaceworthy, but not functioning properly, so our primary goal seems clear -- we have to figure out what ails our trusty spacecraft and get her back into the air.  At the outset, we have no inventory and are wearing "nothing," so it seems we are ill-prepared for an adventure across an alien world, but we will likely be able to find the necessary items if we poke around the neighborhood enough.

The ship's control panel has a red button and a black button.  The red one does nothing at the moment, but the black one opens the doors to the west; we actually have to PUSH BLACK BUTTON, the usual PUSH BLACK shortcut isn't recognized, suggesting that this parser handles -- nay, insists on -- adjectives.  A cargo hold to the south contains a flat droid battery (flat means dead, I presume, not shaped like a watch battery) and some mining explosives, as well as Maxwell, the service droid, who is currently powered down.  The engine hold south of the cargo hold contains an empty cuplink, meant to hold a power crystal that isn't there, so now we know what we're looking for.

Outside the Talisman we find ourselves on a rocky plateau.  We can DETONATE EXPLOSIVES (there's a visible switch on the mining explosives for the purpose, but PUSH SWITCH and PRESS SWITCH don't do the job), but this is only useful if we wish to kill ourselves while we're holding them.

West of the plateau we suddenly find ourselves in a jungle, with animal tracks leading in several directions, as though we've stepped out of one adventure genre and straight into another.  A clearing to the northeast contains a strange tree in its center.  We can't climb it, though it seems the obvious thing to do, as some bees surrounding it begin to sting us when we try.  We'll probably need some protective gear.

Further north is a sweet-smelling cave entrance, guarded by a rare two-headed Bagalurk.  West of this area is another path leading to a temple; we can acquire some dried grass on the way.  The temple is dedicated to the Flarg god Jhyopi, presumably phonetic spellings of an alien language that our narrator fortunately understands.  An antechamber to the north seems dangerous -- the floor is lower than the incoming steps, and we hear stone scraping against stone after we enter.  Are we about to plunge into a pit of spikes?  Ah, no -- that was the sound of the temple door opening outside, and it instantly closes again when we leave the chamber.  We'll probably want to put something heavy in here to keep the door open.

The western section of the jungle is blocked by heavy vegetation, for now at least.  We can try to go U to a rocky ledge but are informed that "You can't reach!"

The southern path through the jungle forks, leading southeast to a Flarg village (the Flarg being the aboriginal culture here, to a stereotypical degree -- they live in small grass huts with a huge stone idol nearby, presumably for regular worship services.)  A hut we can enter contains a can of Lubri-plus Lubricating oil and a large coiled Groba-rock snake who will bite us before slithering off if we simply GET OIL.  After being bitten we start feeling much weaker (per INVENTORY) and are probably not long for this world... yes, we're dead in ten turns or so, so we're going to have to restore an earlier save and forego taking the oil for now.

A burial mound east of the Flarg village is haunted by a wailing spirit, guarding some Flarg luck beads with its intense wails and shrieks.  We're not able to take the beads due to the noise, and there doesn't seem to be any way to grab them from a little farther way.

At some point we may encounter an attractive Flarg woman, though it's not clear whether human or Flarg standards are being applied; the use of the word attractive makes me wonder if we're not actually on an alien planetoid after all, but have simply taken a wrong turn and ended up in the village of Flarg.  She seems confused, much like the player, though we can't understand her language as we try fruitlessly to EXAMINE or KISS her.  I tried to follow her and ended up near the Flarg idol -- the local chieftain was not happy to see me, and killed me with a flint axe.  So we should avoid that area for now, though before our untimely death we did see an empty power crystal there, which we will definitely want to obtain at some point.

A plexiglas dome to the west features a pile of wood and a happily chirping bird.  We can try to TAKE BIRD, but it struggles free and flies out of reach, without leaving the room.  Oddly, if we try to KISS BIRD we end up with it in inventory, and can then DROP and TAKE it easily; I think this is a bug, as there's a cage hidden elsewhere in the map that's probably meant to solve this little puzzle the right way.  The dome is impenetrable, but its exterior features a small credit-card-sized slot.

With the wood, the flint and the dried grass, we can go to the strange tree and MAKE FIRE (BURN WOOD and BURN GRASS don't work) and see that The acrid smoke soon disperses the thick swarm.  And now... well, we still can't climb the tree, because the smoke is too thick and we start choking every time we try.  Can we EXTINGUISH FIRE or COVER FIRE?  Apparently not; we'll just have to hope Smokey the Bear doesn't show up to disapprove.

Can we help the wailing Flarg spirit at the burial site?  GIVE BIRD TO SPIRIT accomplishes nothing, except that the happy little bird vanishes from the game world; this seems to happen any time we use GIVE in an inappropriate or an unexpected manner, so we soon learn to avoid using it.  But we will need to try it on occasion --  EXAMINE WOMAN reveals that the Flarg beauty is about 19 years old, and is carrying a plastic security card.

I was getting stuck here -- the world was pretty much mapped out but I was not making any progress on the puzzles.  Dorothy's walkthrough at CASA suggests that we can not only EXAMINE items, but we can SEARCH parts of the environment for different results.  This was useful -- searching the vegetation finds a rusty cage, though it seems we don't need it thanks to our deviant bird-kissing ways.

We can't carry much -- 4 items seems to be the limit, though there are exceptions when solving a puzzle stuffs a new item into inventory.

We can DETONATE EXPLOSIVES at the burial site, if we drop them first so we don't detonate ourselves in the process.  The explosion doesn't do the same thing as digging, it just makes a small crater.  But the explosion temporarily deafens us, making us immune to the spirit's wailing so we can grab the beads.  We can then give the beads to the Flarg woman, obtaining the card in exchange.

Now we can enter the plexiglas dome... except INSERT CARD just drops it on the ground.  We have to PUT CARD IN SLOT, which causes the door to open; the card is returned to us for reuse, though in point of fact once we've used it we don't need to unlock the entrance again. 

Entering the dome, we find ourselves in an elevator with a red, blue and black button.  The color-coding is consistent here, it seems; PUSH BLACK BUTTON closes the elevator door.  PUSH BLUE BUTTON does nothing at this point; PUSH RED BUTTON causes the room to feel like it is revolving, and the opposite is true after we've pushed the red button once, allowing us to switch between the two areas accessible from the elevator.

A storeroom south of the elevator contains a boiler suit, a blank holograph disc, and a big metal table, 6ft by 4ft and ... made of high-tension plexi-chrome.  It's heavy and we can't pick it up, but we can PUSH TABLE NORTH... so maybe we can get it into the temple room far to the north.  We can, but it doesn't seem to be heavy enough to keep the temple door open.  Drat!

Well, what else can we do in the dome?  The boiler suit is dirty and old, apparently belonging to a worker; we've seen security patrolling the western corridor, so perhaps we should wear it as a disguise.  The security guard doesn't seem to bother us as long as we are wearing it.

The Power Plant room contains a battery recharger; we can't PUT BATTERY IN RECHARGER (misleadingly, the parser indicates that I don't think putting that there is going to help at the moment) but we can CHARGE BATTERY.

This is good, because we may need Maxwell the service droid to help out, as some doors to the north are blocked by a keypad with a 12-pin droid interface.  The Spares Room to the west has a high shelf with something on it we can't quite see.  If we SEARCH PARTS at ground level, we can find an Electro-spanner.  I'm now realizing that I was probably supposed to push the table into this room so we can see what's on the shelf.  A control room upstairs has a complex instrument panel we can't understand.

Using the table, we can LOOK SHELF (EXAMINE SHELF fails) to discover a twelve pin interface extension arm for the C class droid.  We will likely need this, but I can't figure out how to take it -- it doesn't seem to be a TWELVE PIN INTERFACE, an EXTENSION ARM, or an ARM, or a TWELVE PIN INTERFACE EXTENSION ARM.

Well, first things first.  PUT BATTERY IN MAXWELL wakes him up; we can't command him with the Infocom convention, i.e., MAXWELL, FOLLOW ME, but he clearly wants to repair the ship and will follow us once he's activated, expressing general doubts about our abilities all the while. 

Back in the factory, GIVE ARM TO MAXWELL fails because we're not holding it, so ARM appears to be the right word.  Ah -- the parser is being picky again, as TAKE ARM does not work but TAKE ARM FROM SHELF does. Now can we get Maxwell to open the door using the panel?  USE PANEL, CONNECT MAXWELL TO PANEL, and MAXWELL, OPEN DOOR all seem to fail.  I had to reference the walkthrough to learn we must instead SAY TO MAX "OPEN DOOR"

We can now access a loading bay, and another storeroom containing a holograph projector and a full-length mirror.  The projector is also a recorder, apparently, with on/off/play/record buttons.  We can use it to record our surroundings using the blank disc we found earlier... PUT DISC IN PROJECTOR, PUSH ON, PUSH RECORD -- but I'm not sure why we want to do this.  Maybe we can use it to conceal our presence in the room later on.  The projector is portable, but the disc can only be used once, so I restored in case a more useful opportunity presents itself.

Stumped again, so I was glad to learn that we can SEARCH HOLD in the spaceship to find a towel -- shades of Douglas Adams!  We can also use the table to climb the "rocky shelf" in the jungle (an intentional word choice, it seems) to reach an Outcrop, leading to a Small Dell where a stream flows.  Now we can SOAK TOWEL, and hopefully put out the bee-smoking fire... hmmm.  COVER FIRE WITH TOWEL doesn't work, the parser thinks the fire is much too hot to touch.  I tried to THROW TOWEL, and again EXTINGUISH FIRE... no luck.  I tried to WRING TOWEL and SQUEEZE TOWEL... ack.  Ah... we have to WEAR TOWEL, presumably over our face, and now we can climb the tree without choking, and discover a beehive, though we must GET HIVE and not foolishly attempt something entirely stupid like trying to GET BEEHIVE.  We may observe that Maxwell the service droid happily follows us up and down the tree, sporting a highly advanced propulsion system that makes R2-D2 look like a Roomba.

Now what to do with this hive of bees, so long in the fetching?  The first thing I tried worked -- we can THROW HIVE, and the honey-loving two-headed Bagalurk chases it.  Except... he doesn't leave the area, so we still can't enter the cave.  Ah!  Walkthrough to the rescue -- we have to THROW HIVE WEST so he will leave the area; he continues to hang out in that location, but he's never really a threat, we just needed to clear him away from the cave entrance.

Inside the cave we find a Flarg witch doctor's costume.  Disguises seem a common device in this game.  If we WEAR COSTUME, the Flarg chieftain doesn't immediately throw a fatal axe in our direction.  But if we try to TAKE CRYSTAL, the chief yells and snatches it back.  Hmmm.

We can get the oil from the hut by THROWing the BIRD at the snake, who slithers off.  I had to reference the walkthrough once again to learn that we can EXAMINE WALLS in the cave to find a strange, green glowing rock.  And that we can SAY TO MAX "WAIT" to get him to stay in the temple ante-chamber and keep the door open for us.

Before we enter the temple, it seems we've used most of the available items now.  Can we use the holograph projector to distract the chief?  Yes -- I recorded some footage of the cave, dropped the projector in the idol area and turned it on in PLAY mode, allowing me to take the crystal while the Flarg leader was inexplicably mesmerized by static footage of a cave situated within a short walking distance from the village.  I guess the Flarg are pretty hard up for entertainment.

Now we enter the temple -- presumably the glowing rock is illuminating the area so we don't have to stumble around in the dark.  A huge stone statue of the Flarg god Jhyopi sits cross-legged on the floor, with an altar in his lap.  A chamber to the north contains a winch handle, which is rusted, hence the need for the oil can.  Turning the handle opens the roof, allowing a beam of sunlight to shine down into the temple.  What now?  I put the crystal on the altar, along with the glowing rock, but nothing seemed to happen.  (We can also TAKE [object] FROM ALTAR to retrieve it.) 

Oh, wait -- bad assumption on my part, the sunlight isn't necessarily shining down on the altar.  It's time to go back to the industrial dome and grab the mirror found in the boiler area; we DROP MIRROR with the roof open, and now the light strikes the crystal with a blinding flash.  Good thing I made a map -- oh, wait, it's not literally (or at least not permanently) blinding.

The crystal is now fully charged.  We put it in the Talisman's engine room cuplink, close the door, PUSH RED BUTTON and... You seem to have left some cargo behind.  Oh, no, is this one of those collect-all-the-available-junk-to-stretch-out-the-gameplay puzzles?  Ah -- Maxwell is still holding the doors open at the temple.  Maybe he's the key cargo we need, and he's ready and willing to follow us back to the ship with a simple SAY TO MAX "FOLLOW ME" command.  That was the sticking point -- now we're on our way home, victorious!



Stranded was a bit of a mixed bag for me -- it has some interesting puzzles, but it never really establishes a strong sense of an alien environment, aside from a few high-tech gadgets that might as well have been magical in nature.  The parser struggles provided the biggest challenges, though there were certainly enough obtuse puzzles (like using the explosives to deafen ourselves) that I don't think I'd have gotten very far without help. 

Still, while Stranded is derivative, it's competently written and coded, with readable prose and proper grammar and spelling.  Mr. Hawkins wrote a couple of other adventure games, and I wouldn't object to sampling more of his work someday.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Of Import: Nuts & Milk (1984)

It's been quite a while since I've had time to do any import gaming, so I'm shifting back into gear with a change from my usual PC Engine fare.  This summer my excellent brother and sister-in-law ran across a batch of Nintendo Famicom cartridges, and a colorful stack of rectangles has been sitting here awaiting my attention.

I had to start with Nuts & Milk (translated phonetically, Nattsu & Miruku) whose mysterious title manages to sound cute and potentially salacious all at once.  With a little research, I discovered that this particular cartridge represents a significant piece of Nintendo history.  Produced by Hudson Soft, later co-creators of the PC Engine, Nuts & Milk debuted on Japanese home computers like the MSX series.  It was also the very first third-party cartridge released for Nintendo's 8-bit Family Computer system.


Nuts & Milk is an arcade-style puzzle-platform game featuring cute animated blobs with big eyes and feet -- our hero, Milk, is a pink blob, and his enemy, Nuts, is a blue blob (some levels feature multiple Nuts running around).  Each level challenges Milk to collect several pieces of fruit, after which the door to his girlfriend's house will open so he can join her for a brief moment of bliss.



Unlike this game's obvious inspiration, Donkey Kong, there's no external force tearing the couple apart at the end of each apparent success; presumably, Milk's girlfriend eventually tires of his gambling and womanizing and throws him out.  He wanders off in a drunken haze; eventually he gets her new address from her confused, passive-aggressive mother, and their whole insane relationship plays out another cycle.

Seriously, it's hard to believe that this game was not created specifically for the Famicom, as it wears its Nintendo influences on its sleeve.  There are jump-boosting springs and sections of green pipe a la Super Mario Bros., and a countdown bonus for completing each level borrowed from Donkey Kong.  The game is also an excellent fit for Nintendo's 8-bit hardware -- the chiptune music is bouncy and charming, and everything is colorful, cartoony and simply animated, taking full advantage of the system.  Later NES games sometimes tried to do too much, adding visual detail that became muddy and confusing; Nuts & Milk keeps it clean and simple.




The controls are solid, and the gameplay fairly challenging.  Milk's jump distance is powered in part by his momentum, and it's a lot easier to drop down than climb up, making careful route planning a must.  There's time/score pressure to finish each level quickly, and while we can earn bonus points by leaping over Nuts, it can be dangerous.  There's also no way to dispatch Nuts other than tricking him into falling into the water or getting him temporarily stuck someplace, and he re-spawns almost immediately so timing remains critical.

There's no real story to Nuts & Milk, or rather there's just one venerable classic tale, as old as humanity itself.  The player's only goal is to reunite Milk and his best girl, as the levels become progressively more difficult.




Ain't love grand?



Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1990 VGA version)

Lately I've been playing a lot of early text adventures, so this week I'm stepping up to a more substantial game, tackling the 1990 VGA version of Lucasarts' Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Lucasarts produced two games as tie-ins with the movie's release -- an action game and this point-and-click graphic adventure designed by Ron Gilbert, David Fox, and Noah Falstein.  It was released in EGA and VGA versions, but never saw a "talkie" CD-ROM edition.  I'm playing the VGA release, currently commercially available at a reasonable price via Steam; this modern edition runs in a Windows SCUMM interpreter using the original game's data files. 



I thought I had played this one all the way through back in the day, but as I revisited it for this post I realized I must have gotten stuck at some point and moved on to another game.  So this time I am determined to finish it, with a little help from walkthroughs if necessary.  It's more difficult than many of the Lucasarts adventures, with some fatal scenarios and tricky navigation sequences, though it does feature several alternate story pathways so I don't think this was entirely due to time pressure to make the movie's release window.

The game and interface design predates The Secret of Monkey Island -- this iteration of the SCUMM engine is essentially a VGA version of the Maniac Mansion approach, with dialogue appearing above the image window instead of as an overlay tied to the character.  And hovering with the mouse pointer doesn't pick up object names -- we have to click on each spot to see if there's something clickable there, or explicitly choose the "What is" verb.  And there's no double-click-to-do-the-obvious support -- all those small improvements took time to emerge as the Lucasarts style developed.

As always, I urge interested adventurers to buy and play Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade before proceeding with my comments below; while familiarity with the movie will give away certain plot developments, the game's pacing and focus differs quite a bit from the original.  In the interest of historical documentation, I will be revealing all the details of my gaming experience here.  In other words, there will be...

***** SPOILERS!  I HATE SPOILERS! *****

The game opens with a scene of young Henry Jones running across the cars of a circus train, then falling through the roof.  We cut to Barnett University, 1938, where Dr. Jones returns, dripping wet, with the Cross of Coronado he has been seeking.

Indy stops in the gym to change clothes, and takes a moment to break the fourth wall, explaining that we will use F5 to save.  We can spar with the gentleman in the boxing ring; oddly, the manual does not actually spell out the fighting controls; after fiddling with several possibilities, I searched online to discover we use the numeric keypad for blocks and high/low/middle punches.  This training will come in handy later.

Indy's colleague Marcus Brody informs us that last month an expensive Mexican statue was brought in for dating, which Indy broke in half to show the cross-section indicated it was an obvious fake.  As a result, there seems to be some tension between Professor Mulbray and a new geology professor, an amateur archaeologist who advised Mulbray to buy the statue.

Dr. Jones' classroom is full of students needing his signature as faculty advisor.  Dialogue choices allow Jones to be dismissive or helpful; we can hold them off by asking Irene the administrator to take down everyone's names so they can be seen in order, but having escaped to his office, Jones is trapped. 



His boiler-room office features a Sam and Max totem pole, courtesy of artist Steve Purcell.  Under a stack of junk mail, letters, and papers of no interest, we find a package from Indy's father, containing the elder Jones' Grail Diary. 

We can examine many objects in Jones' office, but most are just for comic relief or atmosphere; one item, the Sankara Stones, sets this adventure about 3 years after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Another is a meteor fragment oozing purple slime, a Maniac Mansion reference.  Our goal for the moment is to help Indy escape his office; we can open a window, as the office is on the ground floor.  But freedom is short-lived, as our hero is shortly met and taken away by two rather insistent gentlemen.

Jones is taken to meet Walter Donovan, a major donor to the university and a Holy Grail enthusiast.  He shows Indy some fragmentary clues about the Grail's location (available in the game manual), and tells him his expert has disappeared while searching for more information in Venice, Italy.  That expert, we shortly discover, is Jones' father, and our story is underway.

The game squeezes in as much traditional Lucasarts humor as possible, given the basically straight nature of the story.  We can prepare for the trip by checking the student bulletin board, where we discover such notices as, "For sale: 6000 rats, 500 snakes, call S. Spielberg."  We can't explore any of the other classrooms, as classes are in session.

More productively, Indy can travel to Henry Jones Sr.'s house, which has been ransacked.  We can remove a plant and a tablecloth to find a locked chest, and take a childhood painting Indy made of a trophy his father won; it looks suspiciously like a grail.  A piece of sticky tape on the back of the bookcase (once we accidentally knock it down) is lumpy and too sticky to be opened; that jar of solvent on Indy's office shelf may come in handy now.  It does -- the tape dissolves, revealing a small key.  We can unlock Dad's desk to find a boyhood diary Indy kept, meant to look like the real Grail Diary; given that this is an adventure game, we'll probably want to take this along for deception or swapping purposes.

It seems we've exhausted the local puzzles, so it's time to head off to Venice.  Indy and Marcus are planning to meet a Dr. Schneider -- Dr. Elsa Schneider, as it turns out.  A fountain nearby is "a beautiful example of Purcellian design."  Marcus heads off for a gondola ride, conveniently getting him out of the way for plotting purposes, and at a library in a converted church, we begin searching for the Roman numerals Dad mentioned before his disappearance from this very building.  They prove to be easy to find:


It's not quite as simple as it appears, though -- there are multiple rooms, each with these numbered tiles on the floor, and lots of details to investigate for clues or jokes.  One plaque is "Donated by Giorgio Lucasi," while others make Dante Alighieri, Galileo and Spielberg jokes.

What can we do here?  We can explore the stacks, and see a variety of stained-glass windows with differing details.  One design is depicted in the Grail Diary, with a cryptic note -- "If ye would enter, follow the third on the left."  There are three numbers on each of the pillars in the matching room -- the one on the left has "IV" in the third position.  It seems we want slab IX in the room matching the drawing.

To open the slab, we need something for leverage.  A red museum cordon on a metal post should do -- we'll keep the red cordon as well.  After we break the slab, a Nazi guard arrives to investigate, and Indy has to leap into the hole to escape.

Now we are in the famous catacombs, with skulls creepily embedded in the walls.  It's a maze down here, with limited visibility; one room has a torch, which might be handy if it weren't held firmly in place by hard, dry mud.  There's also a slab we can't get a grip on. Another room has a plug, with bubbles leaking out underwater, but Indy refuses to go swimming in the dank water (not that we can blame him.)  A sewage pipe leads to a much more formal burial room, behind a locked gate, with skeletons neatly arranged on shelves and a coffin placed on a central slab.  A nearby manhole leads back up to the restaurant where we first arrived in Venice.

So it seems we need to solve some puzzles underground.  A room I hadn't visited yet features a skeleton with a hook at the end of his arm; it's removable, but not useful for opening the slab.  There's an old rusty lock on the grating into the burial room, but we can't pick it with the hook, at least not from this side.  The church/library is now locked, so we can't reenter on the main level to try to find Elsa.  We can notice that the Purcellian fountain is full of water, which suggests a connection to the water-filled catacombs.

Hmmmm... we can pick up a bad bottle of wine circa 1924 from a couple of drunken lovers in the dining area.  Then we can fill it with water from the catacombs, and loosen the mud to free the torch.  Attempting to take it, however, trips a trap that sends Indy tumbling down to a lower level of the maze, breaking the wine bottle in the process in the traditional purpose-served adventure game style.

This smaller sub-level has a ladder that leads back up to the first level, coming under the immovable slab, which slams shut after Indy emerges, necessitating a trip the long way around if we want to go back below.  We can also locate the wooden plug from the underside, visibly leaking water.  We can attach the hook, but Indy won't pull it directly, so the whip comes in handy for the first time in this adventure.  Once we've pulled the plug, we can no longer access a small dead-end room past the torrent of water, so I restored to an earlier save to check it out; the inscriptions on the walls here confirm either the Persian or Book of Merlin account of the Grail as correct, depending on how the game has randomized its setup.  This is an optional clue, it appears, but we earn some points for doing so.

After draining the plugged chamber, we can return to the upper catacombs and pass through a tunnel that was formerly underwater.  This leads to a room with a set of statue tiles resembling patterns seen in the Grail Diary; opening the book confirms one "correct" combination and one "certain death" pattern.  Ah, moving one statue may affect the others -- I was lucky here, and got the right combination with a couple of clicks.

Now we can explore some more; the game's second act takes place almost entirely in this maze of catacombs.  A ramp over a small chasm is impassably raised, apparently operated by a chain; another room has an assortment of cogs and, yes, a chain.  It appears to have thrown a belt, which is lying broken on the floor, suspiciously red in color.  The red cordon from the library works as a replacement, and turning a wheel operates the gadgetry.  Now Indy can cross the gap and reach more catacombs.  This maze is pretty substantial!

The next puzzle consists of a set of skulls, and a fragment of sheet music identified in the Grail Diary as "Per Hos Sonos Sepulcrum Aperies", which my casual Latin roughly translates as "Song For Opening the Tomb."  There are six notes, and six skulls, but only five lines on the staff; in my playthrough it took a couple tries to get my "notes" aligned with the musical notation, hitting the right skulls to open yet another door.

The final (I think, based on feel and the amount of time we've been down here) section of the maze offers lots of dead ends and only one successful path, finally returning to the room with the casket we glimpsed through the grating earlier.  It's the casket of the Lost Knight, and the legend on his shield sends toward Iskenderun, where the Grail should be; this is one of the game's most striking images in VGA:



Having finally accessed this room and gotten a clue, Indy can simply pull on the old rusty lock on the grating to escape this area. Elsa and Marcus arrive just as Indy emerges -- Marcus has learned that Henry Jones is being held captive in a German castle.  Elsa and Indy head off to Germany, and Marcus says he will meet them in Iskenderun.  (Marcus is soaking wet, and we never learn why his gondola ride apparently went badly.)

This is where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade starts to get difficult -- Indy has to talk and/or fight his way into the castle.  Dealing with the butler at the entrance is easy -- he doesn't believe Indy's hastily improvised cover story about being a Scottish lord here to inspect the tapestries, but he goes down with a single punch.  A cutscene informs us that the Nazis are guarding a painting of "an old cup."  This is likely a link to the Grail's location; we can guess that we'll probably need to substitute Indy's childhood painting and make off with the genuine article.

One tapestry is ratty looking, apparently just for visual variety.  A supply room contains a keg, and a boar roasting over some hot coals.  A drunken guard staggers around one room; offering to get him another drink gets Indy his "beer shtein."  We can in fact get him another drink, but that doesn't seem to earn us any progress; maybe we should just keep the stein, after filling it with ale again.  We can pour ale on the boar-roasting coals to produce hot steam, still too hot to touch; after it settles down we can take the roast boar with us.

Some areas of the castle, a large, multi-floor maze presented from a top-down perspective, are patrolled by guards that must be talked to or fought.  In one ornately decorated room, a suit of armor holds a deadly axe that we can knock down; Indy puts it back up but can't seem to carry it with him.  A nearby fireplace features a couple of statues; something's odd about one statue's belly.  Pushing it opens a secret panel in the fireplace that leads outside; a motorcycle parked here looks like a good escape vehicle, but we still need to rescue Indy's Dad.  Walking around to the front of the castle establishes that Elsa has disappeared from the car, and Indy suspects she may have been captured.

Running into a guard inside establishes an enduring Lucasarts adventure joke, as one of Indy's lines is "Hi! I'm selling fine leather jackets like the one I'm wearing!" -- variations on this theme appear in a number of later graphic adventures.  But Indy can't always talk his way out of trouble -- in my playthrough, I had to fight a guard after failing to pass myself off as a Nazi, finding 15 Marks on his unconscious body.  Another had nothing to yield.  But Indy can get an SS uniform from a closet, if he can get it off the locked clothes rack.  For now he'll have to settle for a servant's uniform.

Unlike most Lucasarts games, we can actually lose and fail in our mission; it's not even very hard to do in this part of the game.  If Indy loses a fight with a guard, he's doomed to a lifetime of polishing Hitler's ancient artifacts.  Well, Hitler's lifetime anyway... which, since his people found the Holy Grail and, apparently, its life-extending properties, is definitely not the kind of ending we want.  It works better (for my aging reflexes) if we talk our way through instead of throwing punches, but I had to restart the guard section to figure out how to deal with each encounter successfully.  One guard can be accused of leaking information, another can be sold a fine leather jacket -- with 15 marks payment in advance.  The game seems to adjust to the player's style -- after talking past two guards I did not run into the tough guard that caused me problems earlier on the second floor, which was much more playable on this second run.


A chest contains 50 Marks, so Indy has 65 now.  Another room contains an officer's uniform, but it's too small for Indy... but it has a key in the pocket.  Now we can take the grey uniform from the first floor and wear it.  Changing back into Indy's normal IndyWear (TM) evokes the classic Raiders of the Lost Ark theme -- as Indy looks around and asks, "What was that?"

A gallery storage room contains a variety of artwork, including a painting of Maniac Mansion characters Dr. Fred and Nurse Edna on their wedding day.  A statue has a plaque that reads, in French, "If found, return to the Louvre, postage paid," alongside a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa. 

Putting the uniform on too early draws suspicion from the guards we talked our way past earlier.  I had a lot of trouble getting through the castle, probably due to my poor fighting skills --  even one brief brawl tended to take a lot out of Indy, and I ultimately had to resort to a walkthrough to get the right approach nailed for each of the guards.  I needed to know that we can avoid violence by convincing the butler his relative Otto needs help, and getting the name of the drunken soldier's commanding officer for later use.  We can give the fake Grail painting to a guard on the second floor, and via a cutscene we learn that the combination to something is in a file drawer in the commander's office.  We can talk our way past other guards by citing Indy's presumable authority when he's wearing the grey uniform, and acquire a first aid kit for use if we get into any more fights.

Up on the third floor of the castle, Colonel Vogel is away from his desk; we can give the roast boar to the guard dog and take a security pass from the file cabinet; it's unsigned, but has the combination we heard about earlier written on the back.  We can also pick up a trophy that might pass for the Grail in a pinch. 

Down the hall, there's a burly blonde Nazi we need to deal with, and he's tough to beat in a fight.  We can avoid a fight by giving him the stein full of ale, but he still won't let Indy past; he "barely tasted that thimblefull."  This suggests, that a larger drink might be useful, and we can fill the trophy with ale to provide a more suitable dose.  The big guy drinks (for quite a while) and crushes the trophy against his forehead, after which Indy can fell Biff the Nazi with one punch.

We can explore the rest of the third floor now -- one room has some suspicious wires above its door, suggesting an alarm system is in place.  That might be a good location to check, but Indy has no way to cut the wires at present. 

Another guard confronts Indy -- we can fight him, gaining 25 marks for the trouble.  An elegantly appointed room has large windows, through which Indy can see Elsa with some Nazis across the way.  Is she captured, or colluding?  We have no way to find out now, but we should grab the silver key hanging on the candelabra here.

Returning to the art storage room, we can't pick it up, but we can Push the paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa aside to reveal a vault that we can open with the combination on the pass.  Inside is Indy's childhood "grail" painting -- and a real painting of the grail, with a glowing aura about it as mentioned in the Grail Diary.  We can't move or take the painting, and the Grail Diary doesn't have anything apropos to say in-game, but if we look at the printed (or PDF via Steam) version of the game manual we can see that it resembles a particular description.  In my playthrough, it was gold or brass and glowing, and shaped like a chalice; the metal, the shape (chalice or shallow bowl) and glowing/non-glowing seem to be the distinguishing factors here.  The painting doesn't seem like a good match for either of the descriptions I have, though, so I may be on the wrong track somewhere.


We can use the silver key to unlock the rooms near the alarmed door -- a cabinet in one yields 75 marks.  Unlocking the wired door frees Henry Sr., but Vogel shows up and confiscates the Grail Diary, tying Indy and Henry up downstairs.  Fortunately, we can inch the chair we're tied to across the floor -- with a frankly excessive amount of tedious Pull/Chairs clicking -- then push the suit of armor to free the Jones as the axe falls, cutting the ropes. 

Outside at last, we take the motorcycle -- to Berlin, to recover the Grail Diary.  (This plotline varies depending on whether or not we've lost the real diary at this point, which I had.)

Elsa gives Indy the Grail Diary, which she has managed to recover, but then Hitler himself shows up on his way to speak at a rally -- and if we offer him the unsigned pass, of all things, he signs it and we can go on our way.  This is a short and bizarre little interlude -- I think it's just here to cover in case we lose the Grail Diary; I should have offered Vogel the old book instead.

Arriving at the airport, we discover that we need 175 marks to fly out of Germany, but Indy only has 165 (in my game.)  Henry has some coins, but they are not legal tender, apparently.  Hmmmm.  And we can't engage Henry in conversation for ideas.  We can talk to a man reading a newspaper, who will happily talk about his grandchildren but seems to know nothing about the Zeppelin.

We can walk out onto the tarmac, where a biplane sits waiting, but Indy has no clue how to fly it; again, this can vary depending on what Indy studied while he was at the library in Venice.   In my case, we have to engage the man inside with talk about his grandchildren, then switch to the other character and snatch the tickets from his coat pocket.  This moment is one of the few that suggests this game was more hastily assembled than the Lucasarts norm -- if we don't do this correctly the first time we talk to the man, there's no way to re-trigger that conversation, so we're stuck. 

With the Zeppelin tickets in hand, we can take off for Iskenderun.  (We can try to get a refund from the ticket counter for the tickets to raise some cash, but that doesn't work.)  After we board the zeppelin, a cutscene informs us that Vogel knows we are trying to escape, and he orders the zeppelin radioed to return to Germany.  How this information reaches Indy is never really clear, it's just a plot point for adventuring's sake, but we need to distract the radio operator.

Putting coins in the piano player's bowl in the Zeppelin's lounge seems like a possibility, but figuring out what to do next has to be quick, as the operator returns shortly and we don't get a second chance; if we fail to stop the radio order, soon we're back on the ground, and both Doctors Jones are taken to the firing squad for a rather darker ending than expected.

What we have to do is open the locker, grab a wrench and destroy the radio, then talk or fight our way out of trouble when the radioman returns.  If we leave the room before he gets back, he tries to fix it quickly, so we need to stick around and make sure that doesn't happen.  We can now use the wrench in a hole in the wall to turn a bolt, lowering a ladder to the zeppelin's upper level.

This leads us into a large and fairly difficult maze -- there are lots of guards to fight, no options to bribe or talk around these confrontations, and no rooms where we can take a break and use the first aid kit to restore Indy's health.  We can avoid many of the guards with careful maneuvering and use of ladders and loops, but it's not at all easy -- it took me a few hours to get through this part, and often I got very near the end of the maze, only to get knocked out by one of a cluster of guards.  Finally I had a lucky run where I managed to elude the guards and make it to the end of the maze.  We find Henry already in the biplane attached to the bottom of the zeppelin -- after a brief flight, we get shot down by enemy fighters and crash-land on a farm, with no major injuries for either of our heroes.



A red car parked nearby has no gas and can't be taken, but a similar blue vehicle is ready to go.  We encounter several Nazi roadblocks along the way -- we can talk our way through or fight, but there are quite a few different conversational options and in my case most of the paths led to fighting.  These fights are not as difficult as the earlier ones, fortunately, and once we're past the roadblocks, we arrive at an ancient tomb.  This is the resting place of the Holy Grail, and Marcus and Elsa rejoin the Jones just in time to wrap up the quest.

Inside the Grail Temple, the first sight we see is a freshly decapitated head bouncing across the ground.  We soon encounter our ethically challenged patron Donovan, who has run out of his "volunteers" conscripted to attempt the three trials leading to the Grail.  Donovan shoots Henry, forcing Indy to seek it himself -- the healing power of the Grail is the only thing that can save Dad.  Elsa is also here, but it's not clear what her role in the proceedings is at the moment, and there's no time to discuss.

The first trial, the Trial of Penitence, calls for a "man who is humble before God" -- and if we just try to march through, Indy is sliced into bits by a giant sawblade.  If this were a text adventure, I would try to KNEEL or PRAY, but we don't seem to have those options in point-and-click mode.  But ah, wait, we actually do -- if we click on a slightly brighter pixel near the blade zone, Indy cries "Kneel!" and then ducks and leaps out of the blade's path, with some rather effective and sprightly spritework.

The second trial features letter tiles on the ground -- we have to spell out GEHOVA, an alternate spelling of Jehovah/Yahweh.  Actually, we don't have to spell it out -- we just have to find a path of tile movements using only the letters in GEHOVA.  This isn't too difficult, aside from viewing the letters sideways onscreen so we don't mistake I for H.

The third trial appears impossible -- there's an invisible bridge Indy must use to walk across a wide chasm, and no real way to detect its location.  I needed some tips here -- again we have to click on exactly the right pixel to get Indy off on a successful foot, and it's a pain because if we miss the spot, we have to pass through the first two trials again.  We also aren't allowed to quit or save at this point in the game, either, making it doubly frustrating.  But once we see what we're looking for, it's manageable.

Entering the grail's resting place, we encounter an aged knight, still alive some 700 years after completing the quest for the Grail and anxious to pass the duty of guarding the Grail on to someone new and worthy.  Indy's not interested, but explains that he needs the Grail to rescue his father, and the knight commands him to choose one from a broad selection of Grail-like objects. 



The painting in the castle indicated a bronze/gold, glowing cup in my playthrough, so that's the one I selected.  Except apparently I chose wrong, as drinking from the grail aged Indy into a skeleton, which then exploded in a comically grisly manner.  Time to restore and make my choice more carefully.

Checking the printed Grail Diary again, I note that a key difference between the two leads we have (Staubig's letter and the Persian manuscript) is that one purported Grail glows and the other does not.  We know we're looking for a glowing one based on the painting in the castle, so I guess we want the glowing shallow bowl of pewter engraved with a design of grapes.  This is the right one, and Indy is able to rescue Henry.  Then Elsa tries to make off with the Grail, despite the Knight's warning that it must not leave the temple.  The temple shakes, Elsa gets her just deserts by falling down a newly open hole, and the Grail would be similarly lost, were it not for Indy's whip, which he hasn't really used very much in this game but employs now to retrieve the treasure from the chasm:



We give the Grail back to the ageless Knight for safekeeping, and the game is over as everyone heads home (aside from the dedicated Knight, whose future career possibilities now seem extremely limited.)  The game tracks a score for this playthrough as well as for the series as a whole, since different choices can be made.  Frankly, I'm just glad to have played to a successful conclusion once after all these years!



I'm generally a big fan of the Lucasarts point-and-click adventures -- they almost always feature great artwork and a sense of humor that I appreciate.  But while there is much to enjoy here, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade gets bogged down in tediously difficult sections and frustrating dead ends that tend to dilute its impact -- it would be a better game in my opinion were it a few hours shorter, with a design more in keeping with the other player-friendly Lucasarts adventures.  Fortunately, Lucasarts' non-movie sequel Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis does everything right, and I'll get around to playing it one of these weeks.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cover to Cover: Jaguar EGM Promo (pp. 14-end)

Life has settled down a bit, so I'm finally getting around to wrapping up our most recent cover-to-cover series.  Atari and EGM collaborated on this paid advertising insert in 1994, as the legendary videogame company tried to convince gamers to adopt t its newest (and final) console, the Atari Jaguar.

Page 14 includes a couple of Amiga ports, the weakest entry in a popular series, and the beginning of a long-running modern franchise:



Cannon Fodder is still one of my favorite Jaguar games, even though it's a port; the comical action/strategy is augmented with a simultaneously cute and dark British sense of humor about the horrors of war.  Theme Park is also a great game, a forerunner to the modern Tycoon games, though it was slightly clunky running on Atari's powerful but unwieldy console.  Double Dragon V sullies its family name with lame one-on-one fighting action. And Michel Ancel's beautiful platformer Rayman was slated to premiere on the Jaguar -- but cartridge manufacturing lead time meant that the Playstation version arrived a little bit earlier, and I was one of many Jaguar gamers who ended up buying it for the PSX instead.


Page 15 features one original title, a couple more PC/Amiga ports, and an actual sports game:


Flashback remains a classic, though its polygon graphics occasionally chug a bit on the Jag -- the system's multiprocessor power remained difficult to harness, with many ports relying on the 16-bit CPU with minimal optimization.  Syndicate's cyberpunk mission gameplay translated well, throwing followers and flamethrowers around with aplomb and making good use of the Jaguar's multi-button controller to handle weapon changeups.  Ultra Vortex was another Mortal Kombat-inspired fighting game that failed to better its inspiration.  And Troy Aikman Football made it to market, at least, unlike many of the licensed Jaguar sports titles planned, but it felt a lot like the Genesis/SNES versions and couldn't compete with EA's Madden juggernaut as the Playstation and Saturn came to market.

And the back cover's "LET THE GAMES BEGIN" once again serves as documentation of Atari's hopes for its fading console, listing a bevy of upcoming titles, many of which never saw the light of day even in prototype form:




Note a few artifacts of the pre-World Wide Web era -- Atari had a presence on Compuserve and Genie, promoted in the ONLINE FEVER! section of this page. 

And I wonder if anybody called the "exclusive" ATARI TIP LINE! to find out what the pre-release testers were up to.  Was there ever a time when they answered "Pffft... not much"?  Or had the line already shut down as the software pipeline dried up?