Thursday, December 31, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Spiral Wave

This time, we tackle an old-school pseudo-3D shooter for the PC Engine - Spiral Wave, published for the PC Engine in 1991 by Media Rings Corporation.

The game's positioned as a sci-fi adventure, which in gameplay terms means that there's a great deal of text involved.  Most of the menus are in English, so I found the game fairly playable, but all the dialogue is in Japanese, which means I know little about the plot, other than a guess that the line in quotes is either the name of the invading robot alien armada, or the name of the ship sent to defeat them:

The game apparently didn't have a large development budget -- note that the scrolling text above is printed on a black background, not a transparent one, so the background doesn't show through the lettering as it would in a more polished title.

The game cheaps out on the storytelling as well.  Right from the get-go, the game gets bogged down in a lengthy introductory dialogue between a brave pilot, his commander, and his female robot co-pilot.  This is a HuCard-based title, not a CD-ROM release, so there's no exciting music or animation to enhance the exposition -- just three talking heads, with some facial animation to convey emotion and the occasional clenched fist from our waxen-jawed hero to enliven the text (which can be accelerated, but not skipped):


Finally we get into battle, which resembles Sega's old Astron Belt and Galaxy Force arcade games -- it's sprite-based 3D, scaling in crude steps as the ship flies into the screen and shots converge on the center:


Here we encounter the game's most frustrating flaw -- the player's ship can initially take one hit, and one hit only.  One alien missile contacts the player's ship, and it's GAME OVER.  I thought maybe I'd done something wrong, but checking the specs confirms that our shocking pink star cruiser has no shields at all:

I explored the universe a little bit -- the player can choose to visit several destinations, a few of which offer no combat -- to see if I could enhance the ship a bit, to no avail.  Still, it's possible to avoid the enemy onslaught long enough to face the boring, tiny mothership -- it moves from side to side, throws three shots at the player's former position every five seconds or so, and eventually explodes if the player keeps dodging and shooting instead of, say, turning off the console or falling asleep.

 Then we're treated to further dialogue, in this case with a Vader-esque alien commander:

So after a few rounds of this, it was time to slam myself into the broad side of an asteroid:

Spiral Wave is entirely playable with little working knowledge of Japanese.  But it's hardly worth doing so; maybe the story would be compelling in translated form, but the gameplay didn't keep my interest.

I don't recommend this game, but if this sort of import experience is exactly what you're looking for, it can be purchased through our affiliate link here.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Video Podcast - Timeline: Video Pinball

We take a look back at the evolution of video pinball games, from 1980 to the present.

The podcast is also available at iTunes (search the Podcast Directory for "Gaming After 40") and YouTube.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Adventure of the Week - Blackbeard's Island (1984)

This week, we visit Blackbeard's Island, a fairly obscure illustrated text adventure published by Tom Mix Software in 1984 for the TRS-80 Color Computer.  It was written by Greg Miller, with design assistance from Eric Nelson and art by Patricia Dawn Miller.  (And should not be confused with the recent Zuma-style Blackbeard's Island puzzle game.)

The title screen doubles as the color-test screen -- the CoCo's analog colors were unpredictable at bootup, swapping red and blue at random, so many games used the RESET technique to set the colors properly:

Tom Mix Software did not publish many graphic adventures, and this was a one-off by the creative team as well.  It opens with a bit of historical information about Edward Teach, the infamous pirate Blackbeard, but then drops us into traditional adventure territory as we, as a ne'er-do-well rich kid, are challenged to hunt for his treasure and a way off the island, as its volcano threatens to erupt.

Blackbeard's Island is an old-school design with a sense of humor, and it's fairly challenging.  I suspect playtesting was limited -- there's a major game-breaking bug at large, and the logic and parser are obstinate on numerous occasions.  But it's playable and I enjoyed the experience, frustrating as it was at times.

I always encourage readers to try these games for themselves before diving into the giveaways below, and this is an easy game to get hold of.  You can download it with the author's full permission from the archives at L. Curtis Boyle's excellent TRS-80 Color Computer Game List website.  It ran fine for me under MESS emulation.

I will admit that it took me longer than usual to finish this game -- mostly because, as far as I can determine, there have been no hints or walkthroughs made available online.  When I got stuck, I was well and truly stuck.  But I did prevail, so following the spoilers section below, I'll provide a full walkthrough for this relatively unknown game.  Adventures are supposed to be fun, and there's no shame in seeking a little help when the journey becomes a slog.

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

The volcano lurking in the background constantly threatens eruption, but never seems to manifest as a real threat.  A more imminent danger is dying of dehydration -- the player must focus on solving this puzzle at the very beginning, or death comes swiftly:

An interesting and much appreciated design choice here is the VOCAB command, revealed early in the game.  It displays all the verbs the parser knows, which is a handy reference, although the SCORE command is erroneously listed as ESCORE.  There's also a HELP command, which in some rooms provides a useful hint about how to proceed -- although it seems it only works once for each possible hint, and restoring a saved game doesn't reset the hint flags, so if a tip is missed or forgotten, the player has to start over from a fresh boot to see it again.

Unlike some early illustrated adventures, objects disappear from the screen when they are taken from their original locations -- although they are not generally displayed in any other room when dropped there.

The designers apparently presumed the player would no longer be thirsty when reaching some areas of the game that appear to contain fresh water -- actually, DRINK in any context other than the correct one yields Drink what?? Surely not SALT water!!! as a response, regardless of location.
In addition to death of thirst, the player can die by trying to CLIMB DOWN the cliff without adequate preparation, attempting to JUMP RAVINE, or drowning at sea.

There are a number of parser issues in the game, mostly where a specific word choice is expected and feasible alternatives are ignored.  CLIMB DOWN and CLIMB UP are required in one context where CLIMB BELT should but does not; in another situation, CLIMB ROPE does not work, but GO ROPE does.  Similarly, EXAMINE UNDERBRUSH yields That's not here, but GO UNDERBRUSH succeeds.

The world of Blackbeard's Island is truly deserted -- there are no animals or people to speak of, which makes it a very lonely place.  Though there's no one to trade with or feed, classic adventure cliches still surface -- we enter a hut and are told there are floorboards in it.  Hmmmmm!

Experienced adventurers also get yet another opportunity to GO WATERFALL.

Opening a coconut to slake our thirst is a bit of a tricky puzzle -- an axe is available, but CUT COCONUT and the milk spills out.  After trying for a while to find some way to contain it, I found a knife and was able to open the coconut.  Fortunately the game is smart enough to prefer the knife if it's in inventory, and does not force inventory juggling by assuming the axe should be used to CUT.

Objects can be tied to other objects, but only in a limited way.  There are two tieable objects, each of which has one specific target; everything else yields Not to that!.

Another parser anomaly -- we discover a bird's nest made of string, but TAKE NEST does not work because we can't reach it, while TAKE STRING mysteriously does.

The most difficult puzzle I ran into was in dealing with the thick, impenetrable underbrush near the start of the game.  We can cut it with the bamboo axe, but the axe gets destroyed in the process, and the underbrush just regrows after we come back through it.  We need to revisit the area behind it; I tried several ideas for preserving the axe, to no avail, and considering the required sequence of other events, I finally realized I needed to find some other way to get back and forth between the two areas.

But I was still completely stuck -- I had figured out most of the other puzzles, but couldn't gather everything I needed in the same place at the same time.  I finally resorted to hacking a look at the raw disk image, and was happy to find that most of the in-game text is stored as plain ASCII.  My meta-adventure therefore discovered that the sign on the cliff can be pushed, revealing a tunnel.  (I consider this a parser issue, as PUSH SIGN works, while MOVE SIGN and TAKE SIGN imply that the sign can't be moved.)  I also discovered a note buried in the code, aimed at the cheating likes of me, which made me laugh:
Aren't you being a bit nosey? Yes, you. The guy going through the program!!!
There are a couple of other jokes visible in normal play -- STUDY SKY reveals a fairly subtle ad for Tom Mix Software:

In large skywriting:
From the author!
Welcome to BlackBeard's Island!
If you like the island, maybe you'd like to vacation here?
Call (616)-957-0444 today for details!
And DROP or THROW BELT produces This adventure isn't X-rated!!  I also noted that TAKE BELT doesn't work if inventory is full, but if the rope is tied to the sign, UNTIE BELT does so and puts it in inventory regardless.

The HELP command was very useful in the small boat -- ROW, SWIM and MOVE commands weren't getting me anywhere, but the in-game hint revealed that we can just GO HOME.  Of course, if we haven't yet found Blackbeard's treasure, this premature escape ends the game unsuccessfully.

Here's the game's biggest, most problematic bug.  Once we have tied the rope to the anchor, we're supposed to take it to the room with the picture of the pirate ship, which is actually a window, and THROW ANCHOR like a grappling hook to board it.  BUT the game doesn't restrict where we can THROW ANCHOR -- we can do it on the beach, far away from the picture, and still get the game to respond as though we had thrown it through the window.  The present room even contains a description of the rope going through the non-existent window to the non-existent pirate ship -- though we cannot GO SHIP, or GO PICTURE, or CLIMB ROPE, or GO ROPE successfully.

Once the anchor is thrown in any room, the picture room graphic is, in fact, updated to show the rope going through the window, if we can find our way there -- but GO ROPE still doesn't work there if we threw the anchor in the wrong location!

Still, it's not hard to work around this issue once it's discovered, and with that problem solved, we're able to fetch the necessary implements to discover Blackbeard's Treasure:

And it's a quick trip east to make our way home with Edward Teach's ill-gotten gains:

So I was able to finish the game, though I did have to use the HELP and even cheat a bit to get there.  To save others these headaches, I herewith present a full walkthrough, in under 100 moves.



************ END WALKTHROUGH ************

That sums up my trip to Blackbeard's Island.  It's too bad this team never rounded up a few QA resources and produced another graphic adventure -- there's considerable talent in evidence here, and I enjoyed the ride, glitches and all.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The LoadDown - 12/28/09 - Castlevania Rebirth!

Time once again for our weekly roundup of downloadable console games in North America.  I've had some time off and have been busy playing through Shadow Complex and catching up on Tales of Monkey Island, but I'm being tempted by a couple of these already.

WiiWare -- 4 games this week, from several major publishers.  First, the much-anticipated Castlevania The Adventure Rebirth is an old-school 2-D Castlevania game from Konami, a sequel to the mediocre Gameboy title of 1989.  Tecmo releases Eat! Fat! FIGHT!, a sumo wrestling game that makes use of the Wii remote.  RABBIDS LAB puts one of Ubisoft's insane but oddly lovable Rabbids into the Wii remote, as a virtual pet.  And venerable GAME ARTS, Ltd. releases The Magic Obelisk, a light-based puzzle/action game.

Wii Virtual Console -- Just one game, but it's a good one -- PilotWings, the relaxing Mode-7 flight simulator game that launched with the SNES and has been missing too long from the VC catalog.

DSiWare -- 5 games this week.  The Oregon Trail brings the classic, often-remade Apple II simulation of American pioneer adventures to the DSi.  SUDOKU SENSEI is a challenging 100-puzzle sudoku game intended for the hardcore puzzler.  Glow Artisan is a puzzle game, with an unusual feature allowing players to take photos with the DSi camera and turn them into puzzles.  Master of Illusion Express: Psychic Camera continues to extend the magic-trick series, with a fresh entry that involves taking photos combined with a mind-reading illusion.  Finally, Arcade Hoops Basketball uses the stylus as an intuitive motion control, challenging players to shoot baskets against a 45-second time limit. 

XBLA -- Two games last week.  0 Day Attack on Earth is an old-fashioned shooter with dual-joystick controls, not badly done.  Polar Panic is yet another puzzle game, this one a block-based puzzler reminiscent of BoxyBoy or Kickle Cubicle, and looking like a slow-motion Pengo.

PS3 on PSN -- Polar Panic also hit the PS3 downloadable service last week.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Before the Wii Balance Board...

Before they unleashed their amazing 16-bit computer on the world in the late 1980's, the Amiga engineering team cut its teeth developing peripherals and games for consoles. Their most memorable contribution to the gaming scene of the early 1980's was the Joyboard Power Body Control:

Despite the hyperbolic ad imagery and bizarre name, the Joyboard Power Body Control wasn't really capable of sending kids into space or shaping and slimming busts and thighs.  Similar in concept to the Wii Balance Board, but not nearly as sensitive, the Joyboard connected to the standard Atari joystick port and allowed a player to execute the cardinal joystick movements by standing on the board and leaning forward, back, left and right.

There was, however, no fire button support, which meant that only a few games could really be played this way -- Atari's Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, perhaps, and the Mogul Maniac skiing game included with the Joyboard.  I don't think Q*Bert would have worked very well this way, and I can't think of many other Atari 2600 games that completely ignored the single available button.  I suspect Tigervision's Jawbreaker could be played sans button, as the ad specifically mentions enemy pickles.

The pack-in Mogul Maniac game is quite rare now, so the Joyboard was apparently a non-starter at retail.  The ad copy urges kids to beg, borrow or save up for it, and warns potential fence-sitters:


Which doesn't really mean anything I can think of, other than "we have a warehouse full of these furshlugginer Joyboards, and if they don't go out the door this Christmas, they're still gonna be sittin' here in February."  Which, one gathers, they were.

Fortunately, the Amiga team survived this interesting misstep and went on to bigger things.  Great minds learn from every opportunity, failure included.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Games For the Ambipolydextrous

First Star software released four new games.  The kid in this ad is overdosing on fun:

It appears he is running an Atari 2600, an Atari home computer, a Commodore 64, and a Commodore Vic-20 (the TRS-80 Color Computer being eliminated as the only one of these systems that DIDN'T use the classic Atari joystick.)  And playing all four at once, presumably on four different televisions.  That's a pretty good trick.  It's a pity the games weren't more memorable than the ad.

At least First Star's titles featured "real-time animations," unlike, I suppose, those other games where you had to mail away for the movement part of the experience.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Holiday Oddities: The Official Father Christmas

Seasonal games are uncommon, mostly because they only really sell during the holidays, and technology moves so quickly that a game may be viable for one or two seasons at most.  But novelty Christmas games are fairly salable, if they're inexpensive enough to be picked up as last-minute stocking stuffers.

Back in 1989, UK publisher Alternative Software released The Official Father Christmas for the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum ZX, developed by Enigma Variations and presumably licensed from St. Nick himself.  A portion of sales went to benefit the Save the Children foundation:

The game is a three-stage arcade affair, sending Santa on a mission to deliver toys to good little girls and boys.

First, he must collect all the parts of his sleigh, while keeping his elves from hiding them again.  It's not clear whether there is some sort of labor dispute going on, or the elves are just mean little people, but it's really difficult to collect the pieces.  The elves move quickly and appear randomly, and it's impossible to retrieve a stolen part by chasing the culprit down -- instead, Santa must wander all over the house until he spots its new, random location, and make another attempt to carry it safely to the staging area without running into an elf.  Once a part is placed on the sleigh, thank goodness, it becomes immune to elf-thievery:

Once the sleigh is ready to go, the player issues his or her Xmas demands to the man in red by picking gifts from a scrolling list:

Father Christmas must then collect the six presents selected by the player, by catching them as they fall from the sky in a fast-moving barrage of holiday merchandise.  The objects fall quickly and are hard to make out against the background, so this level consists mostly of moving Santa around at random, making chance contact with as many toys as possible until the quota is filled:

On my first attempt, I ran out of time -- fortunately, it's Christmas, so the designers have arranged for a happy ending courtesy of the suddenly helpful elves:

If St. Nicholas manages to collect the toys in time, he delivers them by dropping them over populated areas, dodging jetliners and birds, while trying NOT to drop the gifts into the incredibly viscous clouds that dot the sky and keep the parachuting gifts from landing below.  Only one gift can be onscreen at a time, so if a gift gets caught in a cloud, Santa has to hightail it in the other direction to move it safely out of play.

The high score board puts us in good company:

And that's about all there is to The Official Father Christmas.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gaming for the Lizard Brain

Recently I've been playing a couple of videogame sequels with my discretionary gaming time -- Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys on the PC Engine, and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts on the XBox 360.

One of the things that interests me about videogames as an art form is the way these electronic constructs connect to our brains and emotions as human beings.  There's an experiential component to gaming that isn't present in non-interactive media -- while at a conscious level we know we're just playing a game with rules and objectives, our brains are still processing the game world like any other environmental input, mapping it out and filing useful landmarks away for future reference.  The part of our neural complex that handles that work doesn't necessarily care if the input is real or artificial -- the wiring for spatial relationships and recognition of our surroundings seems to function in exactly the same way.  And while we know the characters we encounter in videogames are wholly artificial, cartoonish and mechanical approximations of intelligent entities, social and emotional impressions and attachments can still develop.

This is nothing new, of course; good fiction, and bad fiction for that matter, can introduce us to people and places that don't exist and convince us to care about them.  What makes videogames different, it seems to me, is that these connections form at a deeper level, as compared to simply reading or watching a story play out on a stage or screen.  Because we have been empowered to explore and learn, without necessarily being led down any specific path at any specific moment, we feel like we have been to these places, learned our way around them, and gotten to know the characters in them.  And if those characters have helped or hindered us in some memorable way, we can develop emotional responses to them like goodwill, irritation, esteem and mistrust.  Our deep-seated lizard brains behave like these virtual events have really happened to us, even though our "higher" processing regions know it's just a game.

And so, when we revisit a familiar game world in a new release, a genuine sense of nostalgia can be triggered.  We know things have changed since our last visit, and there's genuine pleasure in finding out exactly what has gone on in our absence.  At the beginning of Ys IV, I ran into several characters I first encountered almost twenty years ago while playing the original Ys I & II.  They hadn't aged much, of course, as in story terms only two years had passed.  But I was quite frankly surprised at how glad I was to "see" them.  I know they're not actually people; I know they don't remember me; I know they consist of digital drawings and scripted dialogue, and that they function primarily as storytelling devices.  But some part of my emotional history is tied up with these characters -- even if it was only for a few weeks twenty years ago, our association mattered in some way that my brain recorded for the long term.  And so when Dogi takes me out for a drink, or Lilia rushes to the house the morning after my arrival to greet me, at some level I respond emotionally to these simulacra as if they really were long-lost friends.  The bond is not as strong as those formed in the real world -- but it's a difference of degree, not kind.

I never played the original Banjo-Kazooie at the time of its original release, but playing the new game motivated me to go back and look it up.  And even though the timing is inverted, and the graphics of the original game are much more primitive, I feel nostalgic as I explore the world of Spiral Mountain as it was earlier.  There are areas that feel familiar, and areas that do not; the characters are largely as I remember them from the later game.  And it seems that whatever cosmetic differences my higher brain is capable of perceiving don't filter down into this experiential domain -- perhaps in the same way that real-world memories of people and places are imperfect, but certain details stick with us.  And that storage mechanism is perfectly capable of handling virtual worlds and people. 

There have been a number of failed experiments and genres over the decades as game designers work to create compelling interactive entertainment.  My hypothesis is that most often, bad games fail because they break the rules of our lizard brains -- too little interaction, too little control, too few choices.  We don't necessarily want or need realistically drawn and voiced characters -- a game doesn't have to look just like the real world, or pretend that it's not a game.  What we want is a world we can explore, learn about and attempt to master; an environment that contains, if possible, some semi-intelligent entities that can play an emotional role in our quest.  We want a gameworld that makes us feel like we've accomplished something, that we will live to see another day, and that we have a reason for wanting to do so.

That exercise satisfies something deep-seated in us, something that evolved long before our more sophisticated neural capabilities developed.

Good gaming is all about the lizard brain.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Video Podcast - Joining Xantor's Empire

This week on the podcast, we finally get around to giving Xantor's Empire a call, as we have been meaning to do since 1982.

(The Gaming After 40 video podcast is also available on iTunes, YouTube, DailyMotion,, Zoopy and Veoh.)

This episode was inspired by the original Xantor's Empire magazine ad:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Adventure of the Week: The Time Machine (1981)

This week, we tackle another of Brian Howarth's series from the UK, running on the classic Scott Adams interpreter -- Mysterious Adventure #2, The Time Machine, originally published in 1981.  I played the game in text-only mode using the modern ScottFree interpreter to begin with, then captured screenshots from the enhanced 1983 version with graphics for the Commodore 64.

The game is dedicated to Howarth's wife and son, Liz and Michael, and opens in the midst of a dense fog on the Moors...

I found this game a lot more accessible than Howarth's first effort, The Golden Baton.  The puzzles were logical, and in two spots where I got stumped, I was on the right track conceptually and just hadn't satisfied the parser's (rather narrow) expectations.  The game presents a nice variety of locations, and it's a straightforward little adventure.  My only disappointment was that it doesn't really do much with the titular Time Machine... it's simply a transportation mechanism for the game's different areas.  There are no puzzles involving the passage of time, unlike last week's adventure, The Vortex Factor.

This one's not likely to challenge veterans, but it's a good one for novice adventurers to try, as the player can accomplish quite a bit without getting too stuck in any one spot (once past the initial fog maze -- see below.)

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

The game opens in a maze of dense fog -- and no available inventory items with which to map it out.  But a little exploration establishes a safe route through -- it's N, W, S, N from the starting point.

One interesting difference between Scott Adams-format interpreters -- Howarth's own C-64 interpreter reports the contents of empty inventory in colorful UK fashion as Not a sausage!, while ScottFree returns the more conventional Nothing.  I also noted that ScottFree implements a DROP ALL command, but will not drop worn items or the glass prisms in this game, while the original interpreter does not support DROP ALL.

My main challenges with this game were in the parsing area -- some synonyms did not follow conventions seen in other adventure games.  Early in the game, a wrong turn finds the player sinking in a quagmire near a small bush -- TAKE BUSH is beyond my power to do that, but GRAB BUSH is successful.  READ is not recognized, with EXAMINE serving the purpose, and, surprising for a game with a crowbar in it, PRY is not a valid verb -- CROWBAR is the expected command.

The game is fairly gentle on the player in terms of unpredictable deaths, but breaking a window without wearing gloves early in the game proves instantly fatal:

The game feels like an old dark house mystery early on -- we enter a study with a painting, and soon find a pistol, crowbar, and key.  But we soon run across a cassette recorder that plays back this message:
Find the 3 Prisms that control my Machine. Rescue me!

We soon locate the Time Machine promised by the title, and entering it, find it has three sockets and 2 buttons marked FOR and REV. The machine is a bit temperamental and doesn't seem to move consistently forward and back in time -- it sometimes takes several button pushes to get to the expected "next" location. 

There are five locations to visit - an Egyptian Sphinx, a sailing Brig, a fetid Swamp, a Time-Warp, the Cellar in the area where the game starts, and a Grassy Plain.  None of these seem to be geographically related, i.e., presenting the same area in a different time period -- so the Time Machine is really just a transportation portal.  The five areas contain some interrelated puzzles, and most of the accessible areas are easy to explore and map.

In the Sphinx area, I got stuck for a bit trying to figure out how to escape once I had entered the dark passage.  I was able to PULL LEVER, causing a strange noise to no apparent effect; I could even take the lever, though I could only pull it in the room where it originated.  I backed up and explored the desert south of the Sphinx, with no productive discoveries.  I couldn't DIG in the area, which was a bit surprising, nor could I PUSH or MOVE LEVER to change its behavior.  I couldn't pick up and move the portal for reentering the time machine to a different location, which was not surprising.  I got closest to a solution when I unsuccessfully tried to JAM OPENING, JAM CROWBAR and JAM SHOVEL, but needed a walkthrough to tell me I had to JAM LEVER using the rock in the adjacent room.  Past this point, I encountered a classic adventure game trope -- a savage, hungry guard dog can be distracted with food found on the sailing brig, though GIVE BEEF did not work, while FEED DOG did.

The Brig was easier to handle, with no real puzzles, just quite a few rooms to explore.  The ship's log reads MA.Y .EL.STE .OV 18.1, revealing the vessel as the legendary Mary Celeste.  There are lots of useful items onboard, but no serious challenges.

The swamp area contains a small maze, but like the other mazes in this game it doesn't take a lot of effort to find the interesting areas.  We here encounter a brontosaurus, which is -- wait for it -- hungry, and vegetarian, and can be fobbed off with some sea biscuits.  (From a paleontological perspective, the brontosaurus' appearance in this game is a bit surprising, as the identification mixup was discovered in 1975.  But the game calls it a brontosaurus, rather than an apatosaurus, and so must we.)

Past the saurian of questionable provenance, we find an old boat that we must repair with several specific items in hand -- the game responds to FIX BOAT with My repair kit is incomplete! if anything is missing.  Finally, we can GO BOAT -- which includes boarding and sailing in one simple step -- to reach an island, where we can DIG for a prism.

Once all three prisms are INSERTed in the Time Machine, we can reach the Grassy Plain, where there's nowhere to go and nothing to do but contemplate a metal plate in the ground.  I got stuck again here on a parser issue -- a walkthrough informed me that I could CROWBAR PLATE, my attempts to PRY PLATE and USE CROWBAR having been rebuffed by the game.  We climb down the revealed shaft and turn off the robot guard (sadly unseen in the illustrations) with a simple BREAK GENERATOR (not STOP GENERATOR or TURN OFF GENERATOR, mind).

Past the now-defunct robot, we find the good Doctor, and although initial impressions of his status are not promising based on the illustration, victory is close at hand:

I've certainly played more complex and challenging adventures than The Time Machine -- this one only took an afternoon to polish off and document.  But I enjoyed it nonetheless, and look forward to further Howarth adventuring as our series continues.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The LoadDown - 12/21/2009 - Super Smash Bros. At Last!

A relatively quiet week on the downloadable scene, it appears, as the holidays kick into gear... but there's one HUGE title and a number of good ones.  And my slightly-early New Year's resolution is to start covering PS3 downloadables in this feature as well.

WiiWare -- Chances are you'll decide to go play Super Smash Bros. on the Virtual Console.  If that doesn't appeal, there are 3 WiiWare games and one application this week.  Eco Shooter: Plant 530 is a scrolling shoot/vacuum game.  TV Show King 2 is a sequel to Gameloft's original, which debuted on WiiWare before going to retail disc release last year, and adds three much-needed features: online play, a bigger 8,000-question database, and the ability to create and share new questions.  Pallurikio is an action platformer with tilt/roll controls.  Happy Holidays Christmas is not a game, but an application allowing users to create and send holiday cards to friends via the Wii messaging system. 

Virtual Console -- Two games.  First, the long-awaited Nintendo 64 classic Super Smash Bros. makes its Virtual Console debut -- Nintendo's first Mario-universe fighting game remains a frenetic fan-favorite, sure to provide plenty of local multiplayer holiday fun.  And Tecmo brings the original coin-op Ninja Gaiden to the Virtual Console Arcade -- most of the home versions were derivatives "inspired by" the original (the Atari Lynx edition being the sole exception), so it's nice to finally have the actual arcade game at home.

DSiWare -- 5 titles this week, 4 of them games.  UNO is the classic card game.  Dragon's Lair is the dated but still beautifully-animated laserdisc arcade game of yore, rendered fully and well on the DSi.  Hot and Cold: A 3D Hidden Object Adventure takes the familiar online Flash object-hunting game concept into true 3-D, with hot/cold voice feedback as the player throws stuff around searching for the target item.  High Stakes: Texas Hold 'Em is a traditional poker game with local multiplayer support.  Finally, myNotebook: Green continues the popular DSi utility series.

XBLA -- Two games last week.  Alien Breed Episode 1 is the first chapter of an overhead-perspective action series from Team 17 (Worms) -- it's kind of like Alien Syndrome a la Dead Space; I spent some time with the demo but wasn't compelled to buy the full version.  Puzzlegeddon is yet another colorful puzzle game, set in cartoon outer space, with multiplayer and customization features to bring some variety to the table.

PS3 -- One downloadable game debuted last week, Puzzlegeddon (also on XBLA, see above).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Much Ado About the CARDBOARD

There were lots of cartridge-switching devices marketed for pre-disc consoles, but Cardco, Inc. takes the prize for the most technically-detailed marketing, with this full-page ad devoted primarily to a single product for the Commodore 64.

Unfortunately, the many technical features detailed in the ad copy are easy to overlook when the product is named the CARDBOARD/5.

It featured high quality glass/epoxy circuit board, gold plated contacts, convenient toggle switches, and a full plastic enclosure.  And its blinking LEDs were probably great for lending that sought-after 1960's Star Trek quality to the computer desk.  And no doubt it was useful, especially with those override switches and convenient reset button.

But CARDBOARD, even CARDBOARD/5, just sounds cheap.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Can You Handle the Reality of Your Life?

Once upon a time, computer software publisher Datasoft produced a hands-free joystick called Le Stick.  It relied on mercury switches, a primitive and dangerous forerunner to the electronic sensors used in the Wii remote.  But it was a novel approach to the standard single-button joystick -- tilt your hand to move, press the top button to fire.

Unfortunately, this ad campaign does little to sell the concept:

This gentleman has clearly rushed home from work to his spotless fake study, whipped off his jacket, dropped his briefcase and picked up a joystick to play Star Raiders, without bothering to take off his tie.

And now he's having hallucinations about a rubbery green alien peeking in his window.

In real life, there's a time to work, and a time to play.  The guy in this ad has no life.  Or no sense of reality.

I'm not sure which one I envy/pity more.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Gambler Jikochuushinha Mahjong Puzzle Collection

This week, I pit my pitiful Japanese skills against Gambler Jikochuushinha Mahjong Puzzle Collection!

The game was produced by Game Arts, the developer responsible for late-Eighties classics Thexder and Silpheed, and released by Taito in 1992 for the PC Engine.  The game's central conceit (and a pretty good joke) is that inveterate gambler Jikochuushinha is thrown into a traditional RPG setting.  He dons armor, shield and sword, but still wears black sunglasses and has a cigarette dangling from his mouth.  The opening is rendered in a naturalistic, hyper-dramatic anime style:

But then segues into a much more lighthearted look:

There's a training mode that cuts straight to the puzzles, and a Tour mode with a storyline.  Jikochuushinha's challenge is to solve mahjong puzzles by removing matching tiles that can be connected with a line taking no more than two ninety-degree turns.  Unlike Shanghai, two tiles can be matched along any edge and around corners, as long as an unobstructed line can be drawn between them.

The game was never released in the West, but must have sold fairly well, as several Gambler Jikochuushinha sequels appeared in Japan for the Super Nintendo and Sega's Mega CD, Game Gear and Saturn platforms.

And it's NOT an easy game.  The basic puzzle gameplay is difficult enough -- it's possible to get oneself into a "no more moves possible" situation by matching non-optimal pairs, and there's no option to reshuffle the remaining tiles.  Even in the Training mode, where infinite time is available as an option, I got myself stuck this way.  And in the Tour mode, the timer ticks down much faster than my Western eyes can spot and match pairs.  The game will provide hints a couple of times, but once those are exhausted or no more moves remain, it's game over:

Still, it's fun trying.  And retrying.  The graphics are colorful and funny, Japanese language skills aren't absolutely essential, and the CD-Audio music is excellent, making sorting through the tiles a pleasant pursuit no matter how little time remains, nor how far victory remains out of reach.

If it's currently in stock, you can buy Gambler Jikochuushinha Mahjong Puzzle Collection here at Play-Asia.  This is an affiliate link supporting this blog.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Oddities: Chuck Norris Superkicks / Artillery Duel

Before he brought macho back as Walker: Texas Ranger, Chuck Norris was a kung-fu hero and a genuine karate champion from 1968 to 1974.  K-Tel's short-lived Xonox videogame label produced a videogame featuring Norris' karate prowess for the Atari 2600 back in 1983.  The game served as the marquee title for one of Xonox's gimmicky "double-ender" cartridges, with the woeful Artillery Duel tacked on at the other end.

Chuck Norris Superkicks starts out with Chuck wandering through a vertically-scrolling Asian countryside.  Perhaps it's Route Super66.

The game is fairly sophisticated by 2600 standards, in that it has TWO different screens of gameplay.  There's no real action on the main screen, beyond Chuck marching along, but as he reaches various points along the path, he gets jumped by gangs of rival martial artists, and the game transitions from the countryside screen to the fighting screen:

The fighting action isn't awful -- it's no Street Fighter II, but it's faster-paced than Kung Fu Master. Chuck's technique relies heavily on the fabled Thrust Kick, which the instruction manual tells us is an effective technique for attacking the opponent's lower body when he or she is protecting his upper body.  In the early levels, all of the enemies are of the body-protecting variety; the game, however, doesn't actually care where Chuck is when he opens up a can o' thrust kick -- connecting with head, feet, or torso sends the enemy flying offscreen.

Chuck can also use his punch to attack enemies with upper-body vulnerabilities, and to block thrown weapons, which look like small gray bricks but (again per the manual) are meant to be Chinese Throwing Stars.

The real problem with the fighting is that the Atari 2600 joystick only has one button.  The joystick is used to move Chuck around the screen, while the stick and button must be used in precisely-timed combination to execute attack moves.  If the button is pressed at the same time the stick is moved up, Chuck punches; press the button and move the stick down to make him perform a kick.  Later screens allow him to do somersault kicks and Superkicks, but the control mechanism is always the same -- move the stick in the proper direction, press the button at exactly the same instant.  This proves difficult to pull off in practice -- at least in my experience, Mr. Norris frequently runs around, stops, tries to ready his attack, and fails to execute it, getting knocked on his backside.

When he has been defeated three times, Chuck sits in the middle of the road, weeping like an infant as the game's nada de macho "nyahh-nahh-na-nyahh-nahh" tune of schoolyard defeat echoes in his weary ears.

Press the reset button, and Norris gets up to resume wandering the land like a bearded, vaguely spaced-out transient uncle, repeatedly getting into brawls he is ill-equipped to handle.

Like so many early games from established media companies, K-Tel's Chuck Norris Superkicks came out just as the Atari era was fading, and a sequel never appeared.  Most likely because they would have had to call it Super Chuck Norris Superkicks, or perhaps Chuck Norris Ultrakicks, neither of which was likely to set the retail world on fire.

And what of the other end of the cartridge -- Artillery Duel?  It's not a bad implementation of the traditional two-player aim-and-lob game, if one can deal with a few minor flaws.  Like the fact that it's strictly a two-player game -- there's no player-vs.-CPU support.  And that the angle of attack isn't represented visually onscreen -- the player's gun remains at a fixed position, with only the numbers at the top of the screen changing to denote the current setting, making intuitive visual aiming impossible.  And that the Atari 2600's mirror-or-copy background hardware is incapable of handling destructible landscapes, making randomized layouts like this pretty impossible for the player on the left, who has no hope of carving out a path to the target:

Rock on, K-Tel.  Rest in peace, Xonox.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Video Podcast - Devs vs. Critics! Mortal Kombat Mythologies - Sub-Zero

We pit game developers' enthusiasm against videogame press response, with 1997's Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero!

The Gaming After 40 video podcast is also available on iTunes, or if you prefer, the gamingafter40 channel on YouTube.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Adventure of the Week: The Vortex Factor (1985)

I mistakenly believed I had covered the entire Mark Data Products series of graphic adventures for the TRS-80 Color Computer over the past few months, but somehow this one slipped through my cerebral cortex.  Bob Withers and Stephen O'Dea created one last adventure game in 1985, a time traveling treasure hunt called The Vortex Factor.

It's a good one, perhaps the best of the series, employing everything the team learned on the five previous games.  The map is much larger, the spot animations are more sophisticated, and the puzzles are more inspired and challenging.  It's a fitting end to a quality series.

Remember, if you want to experience any of this fresh, you'd be well advised to play the game yourself before reading on.  My intention is to document these games for the merely curious, and for the historical record, going beyond what a normal review would cover.  I am therefore very likely to give away some neat surprises in the remainder of this post.

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

The game is set in 2063, but like the 70's haircuts in the original Star Wars, the designers can't escape the grip of 80's technology -- the time machine is driven by cartridges!

The game starts in an office, but the building layout is logical and consistent, and a little exploration soon establishes that we're inside a museum.

The goal is to track down a number of treasures and return them to the curator's workbench for points.  Unlike many adventure games, the treasures are not scored equally -- it's not clear at the outset how many treasures there are to find, so completion is more of a challenge.  And the treasures aren't denoted with asterisks in the traditional manner, so some treasures might be difficult to recognize, especially when typographical errors interfere:

There's a large device in the mining exhibit that makes for a neat time-travel treasure puzzle.  It has two states, ALL CLEAR and PRESSURIZED, and the game won't let the player enter while the pressure is on.  The device exists in two accessible timeframes, and there's a lump of coal available...

Powering the time machine's dry battery is a puzzle in itself.  I had the right idea, based on reading some notes (containing a literary clue) found in the science exhibit:

The Cyclase Theorem - Wells was right, an enzyme is the key.

Later I found a lime, a promising source of enzymatic power generation a la H.G., but the parser tripped me up for a while.  I learned that the player is able to SQUEEZE LIME indefinitely as Nothing happens.  I needed a hint to learn that I had to SAW LIME first, producing lime halves, after which the juice would go onto the floor, or into the small vial if I was carrying it.  The puzzle makes sense in retrospect, but while I was on the right track I was missing a critical step.  I liked the puzzle being a pun of sorts, restoring the battery's "juice."

There's a small bug in the time machine logic -- we have to leave and return after filling the battery and inserting a cartridge, or READ GAUGE still returns Vortex Factor unresolved.  After that point everything works as expected.

This was one of my favorite rooms, because the graphics are nicely done, and the designers did a good job of picking personalities who might still be recognizable in 2063:

There's also a space exposition room, which references the SS Trekboer from an earlier game in this series:

I believe the aquatic exhibit room reuses some graphics from Sea Search.

The design does a good job of setting up interrelated past and future events, and doesn't take itself too seriously -- an empty room contains a sign reading:
In the curator's workroom, we finally encounter a variation on the traditional Scott Adams score notice -- this one reads, Just stack new treasures here.  The curator.
The King Tut exhibit moves to Chicago on June 12th.  Tut Tut  Tutsie, goodbye.

The office contains a wall safe, and it's a fun puzzle.  OPEN SAFE isn't a recognized command, so I guessed it would spring open when unlocked (which it later did.)  The player can TURN DIAL -- it only takes two-digit numbers, but after I ran through all the combinations from 00 to 99 it became clear it wasn't going to be that easy.  Via time travel, I finally found an old document with a date on it -- I tried 11-29-19-42 to no avail, but leaving the century out worked, yielding a blue cartridge for the time machine.

The red cartridge is used to return to the starting time period and location -- which turned out to be Detroit in June 2063.  I live in the Detroit suburbs, and it's nice to think we'll pioneer future modes of transportation here.

The yellow cartridge goes back to just before I was born -- Detroit, May 1967, when the museum was already established but not as large as it is in 2063, lacking the wings to the west.

The blue cartridge travels in space as well as time, taking us to London in April 1200.  I needed to map the dungeon maze in this area out, and the job was made more difficult by an amusing, clever innovation.  My usual approach to mapping is to gather some random objects and drop one in each new room I find, so that I can recognize when a "twisty passage" has actually brought me back to a location I've already visited.  But in this game, an unseen person wanders through the maze -- for example, A distant voice says: Who left a calendar just laying here? -- and makes off with these bread crumbs!  The maze wasn't too hard to map, fortunately, and I always appreciate a design choice that anticipates the player's possible actions and humorously thwarts them.

I got stuck again and needed a hint to learn that there was a pink cartridge in the bookcase in the past.  The pink cartridge takes us to a traditional sci-fi setting, the post-apocalyptic future:

 The news clipping informs us that at some point in our future, NUCLEAR ACCIDENT CONTAMINATES ENTIRE WEST COAST, which is kind of a downer.  It's dangerous to be in this area without the spacesuit, though we don't have to explicitly WEAR it in this game.  There's a mutant humanoid to the south, and in one of the few conventional puzzles in this game, we learn that he looks hungry, and GIVE SANDWICH to obtain the white cartridge.

The white cartridge in turn takes us to an area that's pitch black initially.  But if we wander around and inadvertently die in the darkness, the current room is displayed, revealing that we're in an Egyptian tomb, a traditional adventure treasure-hunting ground:

I needed yet another hint to learn that the bird statue I found in the wax museum room can be melted down and combined with a bit of string found in the London dungeons to make a candle so we can see in this area.  Fortunately the wax can be re-melted repeatedly if we forgot to bring the string along on the first attempt, like I did.

The candle doesn't burn very long, so efficient execution is needed to find all the treasures in the mummy's tomb.  Once we've opened the sarcophagus and taken the ruby necklace, we are unable to CLOSE SARCOPHAGUS, which made me nervous.  But giving the brass ring to the mummy reveals a secret passage in the wall and a hidden lever in the sarcophagus, both of which yield treasures.

Close to the end, I needed a hint to learn that I could TURN TORCH in the dungeon to find another treasure.

Here's a table of the various treasures and points allocated to them, only because I haven't seen this documented elsewhere -- the scores seem to be based on how difficult it is to obtain each treasure:   

platinum bracelet - 2 points
large sapphire - 10 points
gold nugget - 6 points
diamond - 16 points
jade buddha - 13 points
jewel encrusted scepter - 18 points
ruby necklace - 15 points
large emerald - 10 points
sliver [sic] cup - 10 points
After we drop the last treasure in the storage location, victory is ours!

I really enjoyed The Vortex Factor -- it wasn't frustrating, so I remained motivated to keep experimenting, but I did need several hints to get through it, unlike the earlier Withers/O'Dea games.  It's unfortunate that this more sophisticated entry in the Mark Data Products lineup was also its last gasp -- the CoCo market was dying in 1985 as the 16-bit era dawned, and this more elaborate and challenging adventure may have taken more effort to produce than it yielded in profit.  But it does exist, and I recommend it without reservation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The LoadDown - 12/14/2009

First, some great retro news from Sunsoft -- the company is releasing its classic games on the Virtual Console, starting this week as it turns out, and has also picked up the rights to the long-defunct Nihon Telenet library, which means we may see PC Engine classics like the Valis series on the VC soon.  Working Designs' Victor Ireland is involved -- he brought many of Nihon Telenet's games to the US TurboGrafx-16 once upon a time.

On to this week's roundup of downloadable games for Wii and XBox 360...

WiiWare -- 4 games this week.  Diatomic presents retro arcade-style action on a microbial scale -- it's a kinetic 2-D shooter, sort of like Omega Race crossed with AsteroidsStunt Cars is a local multiplayer racing game on treacherous elevated tracks.  Moki Moki is a puzzle game with gravity effects, and a playfield controlled by tilting the Wii Remote.  Rubik's Puzzle Galaxy: RUSH revives Ernst Rubik's puzzle franchise, with a game that seems to be mostly about traffic control, but does include a version of the classic Cube as a bonus.

Virtual Console -- 2 games.  First, Sunsoft makes its Virtual Console debut with one of my favorite 8-bit games, Blaster Master -- a Metroidvania-style action game from before the term was coined.  We also get Earthworm Jim 2 in its Sega Genesis incarnation, always reliable for well-animated cartoon platforming fun.

DSiWare -- 5 games.  LITTLEST PET SHOP brings the long-running toy franchise to the DSi, with a virtual pet approach.  Miami Nights is a T-rated game that seems like a mini-Sims -- create an avatar and take him or her through a life simulation, making moral choices, friends and possibly enemies along the way.  Bejeweled Twist brings PopCap's popular rotate-the-jewels-into-place franchise to the DSi.  Yummy Yummy Cooking Jam is a Diner Dash-style game with a dash of Cooking Mama.  And Master of Illusion Express: Matchmaker is a new toy expanding on the magic tricks title from a few years back, bringing the DSi camera into play.

XBLA -- Just one game again this week, as Taito continues its update series with Qix++, perhaps the geekiest name ever given to a videogame.  But Qix remains good clean old-fashioned fun.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

John Madden Will Help You Beat Wizard of Wor!

John Madden's association with the videogame industry began long before Electronic Arts published the first Madden Football game in 1989.  Here he is in 1982, as the "sportscaster" for CBS Video Games, offering strategy tips for the Atari 2600 editions of Midway's arcade hits, Gorf and Wizard of Wor:

The headline is actually misleading, as the copy indicates that Madden got to "watch some of the best players in the country."  And clearly states, "Here are some of their winning strategies" (emphases mine.)  And the "strategies" aren't really strategies, anyway -- they're summaries of the gameplay, with a few trivial notes that will be obvious to anyone who's actually spent any time with these games.

So we may never know how John Madden really viewed Wizard of Wor and Gorf, or if he ever even played them himself.  And the Intellivision versions promised at the end of this ad never came out, no matter how hard players looked for them, or how soon, which means Mr. Madden's fact-checking may have left something to be desired, presumably in his rush to cash the check before CBS Video Games went under.  That in itself may have been a fine strategic decision.

But whatever was going on here, thanks to two decades of successful football games that bear his name, John Madden will live on in videogame history just the same.