Sunday, January 31, 2010

This Kid Loves Him Some Sunsoft!

It's common practice for print advertising to make use of stock images, or to produce and reuse common elements in multiple layouts within a given campaign.

But Sunsoft clearly spent good money to shoot photos of this kid holding an NES controller and looking at the (likely blank) screen with vaguely insane, generalized excitement.  You'd think they could have at least shot a couple of slightly different poses.  Or decided not to run these ads one right after the other, on pages 83 and 85 of the June 1990 issue of Video Games & Computer Entertainment.

Or used a nice clean image of Batman.  Or lined it up with the angle of the television screen a little more precisely, so it would look like it was actually being played on the monitor.

Or maybe included a gameplay-related image from Fester's Quest, instead of a pixelated rendition of Lurch.  Maybe the ad execs got their pop culture confused and thought all the 90's boys were into Ted Cassidy, when in fact it was all the 70's girls who were into Shaun Cassidy.

None of this matters to the kid in the photo.  He seems to be loving it, whatever it is they've put in front of him.

Though if you look closely, it's apparent that he's going slowly, slowly insane.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Anything and Everything About This Campaign Is Great!

Culture Brain's ads in the late 8-bit era were always entertaining to read, because the company assumed its Japanese ads would work more or less as-is in the West.  Their layouts always gave the impression that the copy had been translated from the original Japanese just barely in time to hit the presses.

In 1990, they sponsored a contest to promote their NES game Kung-Fu Heroes:

This is actually an improvement over the early Culture Brain translations -- most of the ad is cleanly worded and readable, but whenever the copy gets excited, it gets a little weird.  Specifically...

The contest is inclusive:

A Big Chance for the Whole Family! 

The tournament is not only for the game maniacs but for any family members.

There are in-store freebies to be had, if you can find them:

STEP 1 GIVE AWAYS: The limited edition of the Kung-Fu Heroes board games and buttons will be given away at the participating retail stores.

There are, of course, legal and procedural disclaimers:

The finals will be performed by the blocks.

Don't reach the 100 million mark.  The highest score you can get with this game is 99,999,900.  If you go over it, the score will reset and start at 0, and the points you have gotten will be invalid.

Please no inquiries by phones.

With a nod to the hardcore fans:

You are the torchbearers of the video game culture which is to be transmitted to the next generation.

And a self-congratulatory bit of hyperbole:

Anything and everything about this campaign is great!

Yes.  Yes it is.

Though maybe for the wrong reasons.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Stratego

Venturing once again into Eastern gaming, I expected this one to be pretty straightforward, even in Japanese -- after all, the strategy board game Stratego originated in Europe and arrived in the U.S. of A. as a very popular Milton Bradley product.

The game's Western roots run deep -- this edition was produced in Japan under license from its German creator, Hausemann en Hoffe, and Accolade, the American game publisher controlling the computer rights at the time.  It was produced for the PC Engine in 1990, interestingly enough by another company with American origins:

I had always suspected that Japanese game publisher Victor Musical Industries was related to the old American Victor company, but this was the first time I'd actually seen the little dog famously listening to "his master's voice" on a PC Engine screen.  The company produced several decent games for NEC's little white box, including popular TurboGrafx-16 title The Legendary Axe.

The HuCard-based Stratego provides player-vs.-computer action only; there's no two-player mode, as in the offline era there was no way to reveal the opposing player's pieces without both players seeing them.  But it's otherwise pretty solid, with a lot of features and options.  In fact, my biggest challenge after placing my pieces on the board was finding my way through the Japanese menus and actually getting the game started -- I ended up resetting the game to the pre-setup state more times than I'd like to admit (okay, four times.  Maybe six.)  Here, I discover the game's background music track list:

I finally figured out that making a move on the gameboard after I had placed all of my pieces was the way to get the contest underway.  Being a novice at the game (I think I played it once in grade school back in the 1970's) it took me a while to get the hang of it -- I was soon down by 30 units to the computer's 19, anticipating imminent defeat:

But it's always darkest before the dawn -- the computer foolishly left his most critical position open, allowing me to make a lucky guess, march straight in and capture the blue army's flag:

I think Stratego successfully makes the transition to videogame form, but the game itself may be a bit simplistic for modern players.  The rigid, ranking-based rules of engagement and single-square movement make it very easy for one powerful unit to plow through the opposing forces, or for a relatively weak unit to march on an undefended position, and it lacks the strategic depth of chess or hex-based games like Military Madness.

It might have been more fun if the computer AI were able to put up more of a fight -- perhaps there's an option for difficulty settings that I missed.  But the rules of the game are pretty cut-and-dried, with a considerable element of luck involved, so I don't think there's a lot of room for variation. 

I enjoyed my brief time with Stratego on the PC Engine, but I'm not surprised that this version never made it to North America.  Looking back at it from a 2010 perspective, it's a pleasant enough diversion, but more of a retro curiosity than a classic.

If you're in the mood for strategy on the PC Engine, there are several better options out there. But if you're a dedicated Stratego fan who absolutely must own this rareish variation, you may be able to buy the PC Engine version at this affiliate link.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Oddities: How To Be A Complete Bastard (1987)

There's a quintessentially British style of humor that focuses on the antics of the brat, the bad boy... and the bastard, as in Ade Edmondson's 1986 book How To Be A Complete Bastard.  Edmondson is best known to American audiences as punk rocker Vyv on the comedy television series The Young Ones, and in 1987 Virgin Games saw fit to license his successful book as a video game.

The object of the game, as one might expect, is to be a complete jerk and chase away all the guests at a posh Yuppie party, primarily by playing nasty pranks and charging up the Drunkometer, Smellometer, Fartometer and Weeometer to maximum effect.  It's very much in the tradition of British kids' comic tabloids like the Beano, where bratty, juvenile characters with no mitigating goodheartedness reign supreme, giving polite society the two-fingered salute at every opportunity.

Unfortunately, the gameplay of HTBACB is similarly relentless in its assault upon the player's good nature and interest level.  The game's two-screen presentation is innovative but a bit confusing -- the top and bottom display offer different perspectives on the room the spiky-haired protagonist is in.  The views can be rotated to match or complement each other, but there's not much reason to pay attention to both views, except when forced to do so in order to navigate around awkwardly placed objects.  The perspective is very compressed, and the unfortunate net effect is that the player's movement seems to be fast from side to side, but very slow from top to bottom -- and as it's none too speedy to begin with, it becomes the proverbial pain just looking for something to do.

Beyond the sluggish navigation, the game plays like a poorly-constructed adventure game.  The player has to approach objects, bring up the menu, and hope something appears besides the default LOOK IN YOUR POCKETS and DO NOTHING options. This is often not the case.

Some items discovered can be eaten, imbibed, smashed and/or thrown about to make a mess, but the results are merely described in text, not shown in any visual way.  The player character can also kill himself by drinking TOO much at once.  When something more interesting does appear, like plastic wrap to put to cheeky use over the toilet seat, it's still a thankless chore to actually set the prank up, and once all the payoffs have been described, what remains of the game's appeal swiftly vanishes.

The game's graphics are so simple as to be schematic, with little personality.  There's also very little sound in the game, and the opening theme doesn't quite seem to fit; bad sound is a real lost opportunity on the SID-equipped Commodore 64.  In the end, the game is interesting for a moment, but not compelling enough to play to completion.

So that's How To Be A Complete Bastard.  Or at least one of the ways in which this noble goal could be accomplished in the U.K. circa 1987, and presumably safer than standing in the street shouting, "Eff off, Maggie!  Third term my arse!"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Video Podcast - GameScience: Painting With Phosphors

This week, we take a look at exactly how an electronic device puts an image on a TV screen in the first place.

The Gaming After 40 video podcast is available ad-free at iTunes and on YouTube.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Adventure in Mythology (1986)

We're venturing into mythological Greece this week, as we tackle Scott Cabit's illustrated Adventure in Mythology, published by Saguaro Software in 1986 for the TRS-80 Color Computer.  Mr. Cabit has given his kind permission for the game's free distribution here, although the surviving copy is a pirated version as evidenced on the title screen:

Adventure in Mythology was a fairly late release in the CoCo's life cycle -- it supports the Tandy Speech'n'Sound cartridge for enhanced music and speech, and features spot music and sound effects without it.  It also has a novel navigation interface -- the arrow keys are supported for movement in the cardinal compass directions, which is handy as the game will not accept N/W/E/S shorthand and the player  must otherwise type GO NORTH, etc.  The game does not access the disk during play, so the game disk can be removed and a blank disk inserted for save/restore purposes.

This one isn't a particularly difficult adventure, but it is VERY large -- most of the challenge lies in mapping out the environment thoroughly and finding everything needed to finish the game.  None of the puzzles are very difficult if the right items are in the player's inventory, but there are lots of one-way paths and many dead-end scenarios.  The game's HELP command is occasionally genuinely helpful, and there's a VOCAB command as well that lists some of the game's key words.

I didn't find any published walkthroughs for this game, but as the puzzles are not difficult and so much game time is spent just wandering through the world, I'm not going to write one up here for fear of introducing confusing navigational inaccuracies.  But I will note the general geographic locations where key items can be found.

Adventure in Mythology isn't a bad introductory adventure, and it's a unique CoCo release, so if you haven't played it, I encourage you to do so before proceeding.  I will provide a number of hints below, in roughly chronological order, but I will also give away much of the story -- so continue at your own risk if you wish to enjoy the game on your own.
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The game's objective isn't spelled out within the story at all -- it's really up to the player to explore and find interesting things to do.  The initial areas of the map punish excessive exploration by throwing fatal bandit attacks at the player:

It's safest to explore the forest to the south, and after emerging on the southern path head east to the village.  Be sure to pick up the key in the western area (just lying on the ground, like most of the objects in the game) and find the bird's nest in one of the trees (it's in a location with two trees displayed and north/south/west exits.)

The hut and clothing shop in the village appear to play no useful role in the game.  The sculptor's shop contains a classic mythological reference (and a surprising bit of pixelated nudity):

The player must imitate the classics and KISS GALATEA to be transported to the fabled Isle of Crete.  Here, we must enter King Minos' castle (using the key that for some reason was just lying in the forest earlier), meet the King and Princess Ariadne, and retrieve the torch, knife, and three golden apples (sitting in the dining room near the castle entrance -- it can't be entered via the obvious directions, the player must GO DINING to enter the room.)

Exploring the beach yields a rock.  I ran into one confusing parser bug at this point - EXAMINE ROCK yields the same description as EXAMINE WINGS later in the game.  After meeting Icarus and discovering his need for inspiration, I ended up backtracking and trying to find some way to keep the rock for later, which as it turns out is impossible to do.  The feather (which I missed in my first trip through the forest) actually plays the role I was imagining the rock would.

In his throne room, King Minos gives us a rather out-of-character quest, given his traditional relationship to the Minotaur, but it's the first concrete direction we are given:
You must slay the Minotaur, or Die! 

It's important to light the torch before entering the Minotaur's dark labyrinth.  We can't move safely in the dark at all, even though the exits are clearly listed, or return from the maze once we've gone in.  And the guard (who cannot be bribed or otherwise interacted with) confiscates our flint knife and rock at the point of entry:

The labyrinth is huge, with more than 100 very similar rooms, but it's consistent in its layout and easy to map.  Roughly to the south of the entrance is a dead-end room where Princess Ariadne appears and hands us a much-needed sword.  I encountered the minotaur in two different locations (dying as a result of the first run-in) -- in the extreme northwest corner and in a room roughly to the west of the entry point -- and he may appear in other places, but he only needs to be killed once.  The labyrinth's exit lies in the extreme northeast corner.

Once we're out of the labyrinth, we meet a bored-looking Icarus in Daedalus' lab, and can SHOW FEATHER to inspire him to create two sets of wings.  He takes off (presumably for the sun, as he is never seen again in the game) but we can use the remaining set to fly to a new area.

We never do get back to Crete to thank Princess Ariadne, but in the great plains, we come across a sign from a different king, offering another classical quest:
The king decrees that he who races his daughter, ATALANTA, and wins, shall have her hand in marriage!  He who races and loses... shall die!
There's a racetrack to the south, and when we RACE ATALANTA we get another glimpse of digital naturism:

Following mythological precedent once again, we THROW APPLES to distract the fleet huntress, winning the race and, rather abruptly, the whole game:

So that's Adventure in Mythology.  It's not a great game -- there's no coherent plot, it's just a short series of mythologically-inspired events spread out over a huge, sparsely-populated map.  And while the puzzles are not frustrating, they're not very challenging either.  But I was entertained for the several hours it took me to play through it, I didn't need to reference any hints or walkthroughs, and that's more than I can say for some adventures I've tackled recently.

Monday, January 25, 2010

New DS Game Rips Off Pulitzer Prize Winner?

This is just too bizarre -- the new Nintendo DSiWare downloadable game from Gevo Entertainment appears to steal its premise from the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.

The game is Escapee GO!, described in today's official Nintendo press release as follows:

In Escapee GO!, players take on the role of Claire, who awakens with no memory of who she is. Save for her name, all information about her has been destroyed. In its place, something within her has changed. Hunted down by an unknown enemy, she must find a way to escape her pursuers using her newfound powers. Will she be able to survive? Using her heightened senses, Claire is able to detect enemies before they come into visual range. During her daring escape, Claire will find mysterious items that can temporarily enhance her abilities, allowing her to level the playing field.

The play is Fuddy Meers, with an opening scene with the following characteristics:

  • Lights come up to reveal a sleeping woman named Claire.
  • She awakens with no memory of who she is. 
  • An unknown man appears (who later proves to be an enemy.)
  • He urges her to make a "Thpeedy, thpeedy escape!"
  • And tells her repeatedly "Let's go!" and "We've gotta go!"

Now, of course, this is likely just a coincidence.  Lindsay-Abaire's play does not send Claire out to escape her enemies using her newly-heightened powers to sense approaching enemies before she can see them; quite the opposite, in fact.  And it plays on a stage, rather than on the Nintendo DSi.  And the game's creator, Gevo Entertainment, is based in Singapore, which makes it unlikely they caught the show during its 1999 Off-Broadway run.

Remember, video game fans -- statistics tell us that weird coincidences SHOULD occur on a regular basis.  Given that anything can potentially resemble or recall anything else, it's likely that these creative domains would collide at some random point.

But it's fun to point it out anyway.


The LoadDown - 1/25/10 - UNO for WiiWare!

Capsule impressions of this week's arrivals on the console downloadable scene...

WiiWare --  Three games this week.  The biggest is probably UNO!, which has been a major hit on XBox Live Arcade and now comes to WiiWare with local and online multiplayer features intact.   bittos+ is a square forming/nesting strategy game that intends to be "the next big thing in casual gaming," which likely means it is not.  "Aha! I Found It" Hidden Object Game challenges 1-4 local players to find specific objects onscreen.

Wii Virtual Console -- One game this week, Lucasarts' Ghoul Patrol for the SNES, which was marketed as a sequel to Zombies Ate My Neighbors but was not as successful.

XBox Live Arcade --  Two games last week.  Konami continued its venerable square-based RPG strategy series with Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment.  If you've played the earlier series entries, the initial tutorial will test your patience, but after the warmup is over it's traditional Vandal Hearts action -- right down to the repetitive sound bites, text-based dialogue popups and simple 3-D models.  Also, Square-Enix released DEATH BY CUBE, which tries to capture the frenetic energy of classic dual-stick 2-D shooters like Robotron: 2084.  But the camera doesn't show the entire playfield, which makes the rapidly converging enemy cubes difficult to track, and in my opinion the action depends too much on the "dash" move to confuse and evade the incoming foes.  The game ends up being mostly about flitting around before being overwhelmed, and the blood-splatter effects seem way out of place.

DSiWare -- Three games this week.  NUMBER BATTLE is a strategy game involving rules based on the mystical concept of Feng Shui, except here you can actually measure and predict the flow of "chi" so it becomes a genuinely useful concept.  AiRace: Tunnel looks to be a S.T.U.N. Runner type of 3-D action/obstacle course game.  And most bizarre for me personally, the premise of Escapee GO! sounds a lot like a play I just finished doing -- players take on the role of Claire, who awakens with amnesia.  Except David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers does not send Claire out to escape encroaching enemies using her newfound enhanced (cybernetic? psychic?) senses.

PSN Store -- Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment also turned up for the PS3 (see XBLA notes above), fitting for a series that debuted on the original Playstation.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Release the Power of Your Demon Sword!

Taito's Demon Sword for the NES was promoted as a heroic struggle between the forces of good and evil in magazine ads circa 1990:

It's full of the usual Conanesque videogame folderol -- the hero warrior Victar (not Victor, mind you, because he's a mighty barbarian from a much cooler world) wields the ancient and broken Demon Sword yada yada yada find the missing pieces blah blah Wizards, Troglodytes, and Undead Souls and so forth.

But the final paragraph of the ad puts all Joseph Campbell pretensions to stirring pulp mythology aside, and makes a more direct appeal to the source of all adolescent male power fantasies:
The journey is long and the way is hard.  Gather your courage, grasp your blade, and release the power that is yours to control!
Awwwwyeah.  My blade's gonna conquer all seven o' them levels, dude!

Then girls will like me.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Experience the Realm of Kid Kool

Yeah.  You know him.  That rockin' rebel from the eighties.

Kid Kool.

He looks like Tom Cruise.  And Patrick Swayze.  Sort of.

He's got kool shades.  A ducktail haircut.  Torn jeans and a black leather vest.

He's adventuring in a realm that might have been, in a time that could have been long ago, or just tomorrow.  Which sounds really kool, even if it doesn't mean anything.
He's got a fistful of wonder herbs.

And a giant wizard in the background, looking him over with mild astonishment and vague discomfiture.
And the monstrous love child of an owl and... uh, an acorn, I guess... looking over his shoulder.

And some kind of mutated... er... dragon/lizard thing... humping his leg?

Kid Kool.

Either he's the epitome of kool, or somebody at Vic Tokai needs to lay off the wonder herbs.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Mahjong Goku Special

It's time for another round of Japanese import gaming, during which I finally learn to play Mahjong!

We're booting up Mahjong Goku Special, one of many such games released for the PC Engine.  This one was published by Sunsoft and Chatnoir Inc. in 1990 on the HuCard format, and is more family-friendly than a lot of these titles.  At least the comical animals keep their clothes on.

The game gets off to a good start -- a pretty title screen, accompanied by charming intro music with a reasonable facsimile of taiko drums:

It was a bit of a challenge figuring out how to get into the game proper -- despite the deceptively gaijin-friendly title screen, most of the important text is in Japanese.  I found my way in and out of the password continue screen, only to muddle my way smack dab into another text options screen:

Finally, I found a display I could handle, with pictures for selecting three opponents:

I found the story mode shortly thereafter, and discovered that Mahjong Goku Special is based on the classical Chinese legend of the Monkey King.  The story mode opens with Goku, the self-proclaimed Monkey King, emerging from the rock from which he was born, in keeping with tradition.  He runs amok for a while, then get himself imprisoned in stone by a Buddha-esque Indian deity.  Rescued by a kingly figure, he and his companion set out to make the journey west.

Of course, this is an epic mahjong game with RPG overtones, so after the animated intro, Goku finds himself making his way across a map, faced with enemies at every stop.  And how does he defeat them?  By occupying the southern position at the mahjong table and taking their money:

Each player starts out with 25,000 points/yen/what-have-you, and at the end of each round the impact to one's score gets added up:

I am the crying monkey at the bottom of the screen.  Humiliating loss apparently capable of generating a drive to which pixelated cartoon deshabille has never moved me, I finally started figuring out how to play this game.  I'm no expert, but after a few Google searches I now have a few basics under my belt.

The goal is to end up with a specific mixture of tiles in hand; often, the game calls for 14 tiles total, with 4 sets of three tiles in the same suit, plus one pair of tiles in the same suit.  The sets of N must be N-of-a-kind, or N-in-a-series within a suit.  Unneeded tiles are discarded onto the table.  This particular game seems to accept the standard winning combination - 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 = 14 - as well as some other combinations, like 2 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 1.

I found a useful Wikipedia page depicting the tile sets, so I could tell what constituted a sequence within a suit.  Some are numbered, but many are not, so it's important to familiarize oneself with the standard ordering.

And after a few hours getting the hang of it... I was still unable to come out on top of the first round of opponents.

But third place isn't bad.  And at least I know how to read the tiles now.

Look out, winsome, big-eyed anime nurses!

There are less technologically complicated ways to play Mahjong, certainly. But as these games rarely make it to the US, you may find this affiliate link of interest.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Oddities: Shaq-Fu

At the height of his popularity, Shaquille O'Neal was always willing to embarrass himself in pop media to entertain his young fans -- he appeared as a genie in Kazaam and as a superhero in Steel back in the day.  Even now, he continues to crop up in stuff like The JammX Kids All Star Dance Special.

But he's been steering clear of videogames of late.  Why?  We find a clue back in 1994, when Mr. O'Neal battled nasties with his theretofore unseen and never-seen-since karate moves!

The title screen is a little weird right off the bat -- the main character is recognizably an African-American basketball player, but neither his face nor his build call Shaq specifically to mind.  And his look shifts and changes from scene to scene, as though no reference photographs were available to the art team.  But according to the title, this is indeed Shaq-Fu -- a digital pop culture artifact from the 16-bit era, published by Electronic Arts and produced by the otherwise reputable French developer Delphine Software International.

One imagines EA phoning up Shaq's agent to propose this deal, offering too little money, being summarily and obscenely dismissed, and mishearing the response as the suggested game name and concept.  But seeing as the final product doesn't feature any Shaq-Off minigames or Shaq-ing Idiots (onscreen at least), we can only blame human error on a much grander scale.

The game opens with plenty of product placement for Pepsi, as Shaquille wanders the streets in his basketball uniform and is drawn into a web of kung-fu intrigue so intense it causes him to change tense mid-sentence:

Of course, the old man is Japanese, therefore he has mystical powers of prophecy and teleportation; at least that makes for a more interesting premise than watching Shaq take him on in a pick-up game of b-ball.  It isn't long before Shaq is packed off on a mystical quest to rescue a little boy named Nezu, with nothing but the uniform on his back:


Now, I remember when this game came out, and somehow, despite all the ads and hype, I never realized Shaq-Fu was actually a fighting game.  I always assumed it was a side-scrolling platformer with combat elements, based on screenshots featuring relatively tiny animated figures.  But as it turns out, the route to rescuing Nezu is to beat up anyone who refuses to provide Shaq with information, no matter how bizarre their costuming or out-of-character their dialogue:

Oooooooh!  It's ON, man!

Having pounded Clearly-Not-Mumm-Ra (a.k.a. Mephis) into a yellow puddle of goo, which isn't very hard to do, Shaq does a little victory dance in his foe's bodily fluids and moves on.  Next he encounters Kaori, a cat-woman who greets him with something that might be a threat, a come-on, or both:

She proves a little tougher than Mephis:

Lest we think the designers have been watching a little too much Thundercats, they slyly hint that they have also been playing Prince of Persia, as Shaq accosts Rajah with his mighty wagging basketball finger of doom, and Rajah responds with a threat, a bizarre come-on, or both:

I have to give Shaquille O'Neal credit for one thing -- he did not insist that his likeness be kept handsome and scratch-free.  He's willing to take his lumps for the sake of the game, even if he does pout a little:

Kaori offers sage advice.  Go home, Shaq.  Go home.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Video Podcast - Why Do Christian Games Suck?

Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

The Gaming After 40 video podcast is also available free in the iTunes store Podcast Directory (search on Gaming After 40) and on YouTube.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Derelict (1982)

This week, we're playing one of the more obscure text adventures of the early 1980's -- Derelict, from Aardvark Software, written by Rodger Olsen and Bob Anderson.  It's a treasure hunt set aboard an abandoned alien ship -- we must find ten treasures and escape the derelict vessel whose tractor beam has ensnared our small spaceship.  It was released for a number of 8-bit computers, including the TRS-80 Color Computer, OSI, Timex/Sinclair, Vic-20, and TI99/4A -- here, we're playing it on the Commodore 64.

Derelict opens after the alien ship's tractor beam has drawn us into its landing bay.  The game was advertised as the "Toughest Adventure at Aardvark" back in the day, and it's certainly difficult -- but not for the usual reasons.  As the game gets underway, the game's quirky, non-standard, highly uncooperative parser immediately begins to make our lives difficult:

The game has no separate dictionary entries for items as displayed and referenced in the game -- adjectives are taken as the proper name of objects, and the parser grabs the first word and the last word, ignoring anything in between.  So TAKE BOOTS and TAKE MAGNETIC BOOTS both fail; TAKE MAGNETIC works.  Furthermore, verb recognition is based on the initial characters, so while there's no actual CLIMB verb implemented, the word is accepted and interpreted as CLOSE.  Derelict also has a tendency to respond with nothing at all when it doesn't have anything interesting to say, and it's not always clear whether actions like WEAR have had any effect.

So I really can't recommend this game as anything but a historical curiosity.  Aardvark used to advertise that its adventure games contained 30-50 hours of gameplay, but that seems to be because the parser is so terribly frustrating to deal with, and there are random deaths afoot.  Making matters worse, there's no SAVE command at all, so I took full advantage of modern technology, relying on an emulator with save state capabilities to work my way through this game.

***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

Usually the DROP TREASURE HERE-TYPE SCORE signs can't be taken in adventure games, but this one allows it, though there's no practical reason to do so.

An interesting implementation choice is that exits dynamically change -- rather than OPEN IRON (door) and GO IRON, we have to LOOK and see that a new exit direction (DOWN) has become available.

Death without oxygen is fairly abrupt, with a flashing YOU DIE - NO OXYGEN screen.  But the game doesn't require us to have the oxygen until we actually leave the ship -- we can open the airlock and breathe perfectly normally in the vacuum until we set foot in the next location, outside.  There is a handy ATTACH/DETACH OXYGEN note on the bottle -- but there's no gauge, although it does eventually run out.

More parser oddness -- we don't have to WEAR MAGNETIC - carrying the magnetic boots counts them as being worn - but we do have to explicitly WEAR NYLON (spacesuit).  However, WEAR SPACESUIT returns YOU ALREADY ARE WEARING ONE, without that actually being the case.  So does WEAR SPACESHIP, which likely explains the confusion.  Wait, no.

One nice science-fiction touch -- in the rotating alien ship, we travel in directions including AFT, FORWARD, SPINWARD and ANTISPINWARD.

The game's ad copy promised that we would have to learn an alien language, but as it turns out it's just a simple letter-substitution cipher disguising plain old American English text.  And the alien code is really easy to crack -- after visiting a couple of [something] ILLN locations, I speculated that ILLN must mean ROOM and worked from that premise.  It didn't take long to discover that the alien "encryption" code is simply an inverted English alphabet, so A = Z, B = Y, and so forth.  So it becomes very easy to translate, although the aliens are apparently not great spellers, judging from the CAPTIANS CABIN and LABROATORY.

The game features a pretty large map; to save memory, a number of rooms seem to be coded with variations of floor/wall color and location sign within a standard template.  It works well in this context to expand the size of the game.

Objects that can be opened appear to be designed consistently -- or it could be a bug, as LOOK TRANSMITTER in the communications room and LOOK OVEN in the kitchen both return A LID.  When we do successfully OPEN something, the game just responds O.K., and we have to LOOK again to see if anything's been revealed.

I had to resort to a walkthrough to get the safe open.  I was trying to learn something useful from the captain's log, but READ LOG returns nothing, while LOOK LOG returns:

     HZUV: #!!!-#!##-#!!!

It translates to SAFE: -- uh, something.  The walkthrough informed me that it was a binary code, but of course that could still be evaluated as 7-4-7 or 8-11-8, depending on which character is taken as 0 and which as 1.  Even past that hurdle, the syntax required to open the safe is not clear - when prompted for the combination, 7-4-7 does not work, and 7,4,7 yields ?EXTRA IGNORED (in the C-64's BASIC interpreter, at least.)  747 is the required syntax.

The parser continued to get in the way as I tried to PUT SHIELDING and INSERT SHIELDING with no luck; PLACE SHIELDING finally yielded an IN WHAT? prompt, and LARGE (for large machine) turned out to be the only target that works.

There are ten treasures worth 9 points each -- some can be found easily, others must be discovered or created aboard the ship.

Pushbuttons on the Control Deck are labeled RED, GREEN, and BBLUE [sic]; but again the parser doesn't quite behave as expected.  PUSH RED yields THAT'S NOT HERE; we have to PUSH PUSHBUTTONS, and respond to the WHAT COLOR?  prompt with RED.

The ship has glass teleportation booths, each with a keyboard and keys numbered 1 through 99.  Learning which keys correspond to which rooms is a process of trial and error -- at least that's how I approached it; a chart of colors found in the communications room might have mapped mathematically to the floor/wall colors somehow, but I didn't think about that until after I'd found my way around.  This process requires frequent save-state restores -- as button 1 yields:



Buttons 2, 3, and 11 also lead to this fatal result; buttons 4-10 go somewhere interesting, as do several values above 20. Room 10 is a location otherwise inaccessible, which is the major point of this vexing puzzle.  Actually leaving the glass booth was a bit challenging -- the game tells us, OUTSIDE YOU SEE: VERTICAL SHAFT, but GO SHAFT returns THAT'S NOT HERE; GO OUT works.  (Incidentally, the glass booths adjoining each room appear to be distinct locations, as objects we leave in the booth do not transfer with us.)

At one point, we find a phaser, which should offer some defense against the ship's numbered, laser-armed droids -- but again the parser gets in our way.  SHOOT DROID fails, SHOOT #5 also fails -- BLAST #5 is the accepted syntax.

The game does give us a little guidance on our status -- SCORE with all ten treasures stored reports 90 points, and the message GOOD-BUT YOU'RE STILL STUCK HERE.  We have to actually take off to score the remaining ten points.

The game is written in BASIC, but utilizes an encoding trick at the start of the code to prevent LISTing of the source code.  I'm glad I found a walkthrough online, as I couldn't figure out what the GRAY BOX-WITH KNOB was for.  It turns out it's a remote control for what the GREEN pushbutton in the control deck does.

After much exploration, puzzling, and hair-tearing word-guessing, victory is ours:

So that's Derelict, from the Aardvark adventure game series.  It's not recommended -- and I can't say I really enjoyed the trip.  But I'm happy on occasion to play certain games so others don't have to.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The LoadDown - 1/18/10 - Muscle March, Dark Void, Serious Sam HD

Rounding up recent downloadable releases... everything slows down a bit after the holidays, but there are still some interesting titles afoot.

WiiWare --  Two games this week, and believe it or not, Namco-Bandai's Muscle March is actually coming to the US with all of its sheer weirdness intact.  It's the most frenetic action game this side of Cho Aniki as thong-sporting musclemen rush helter-skelter through a 3-D world -- players must make them pose properly so they can make it through holes in the walls.  We also get The Amazing Brain Train!, a brain games epic starring one Professor Fizzwizzle, who presumably has some sort of infection.

Wii Virtual Console -- One game this week, Sega's Genesis title Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi, with a more arcade-style feel than most of the console Shinobi titles.

DSiWare -- 4 games this week.  STARSHIP DEFENSE is a tower defense game set in space.  Dark Void is a historically interesting Capcom platofmer -- originally in development for the NES, it was shelved as the market shifted to the SNES, and has now been finished in proper 8-bit style for the DSi.  Me and My Dogs: Friends Forever is yet another virtual pet game for the portable platform.  And Chronos Twins is a downloadable re-release of an unusual dual-screen platformer originally put out on DS cartridge in 2007 (and recently remade for WiiWare.)

XBox Live Arcade -- One release last week, Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, remaking the first-person shooter circa 2002 in high-definition, using Croteam's new Serious Engine 3.  The game is pretty frenetic -- there's not much in the way of plot or puzzle-solving, but the enemy onslaught comes fast and furious and the over-the-top design choices and evil spawning layouts make for great fun.

PSN -- Nothing new for the PS3 last week.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Future Is Now. The Game Is... um...

Hudson's elaborate ad spread for its 1990 NES title, XEXYZ, has just about everything.  Two pages of air-brushed outer space artwork, tantalizing screenshots photographed from an actual TV display, a catchy tagline, detailed plot summary, Nintendo Seal of Quality, contact information...

There's only one critical detail missing.  How the heck do you pronounce XEXYZ?

Could it be Zekzeez?  Zekziz?  Sexies?  Zeeziz?

Any word that potentially rhymes with sexy and/or Jesus has its pronunciatory work cut out for it.

Oh, wait!  Problem solved.  The ad copy clearly reads:

Look for it today at your favorite video store.
If we had to ask for it, then we'd be in trouble.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

For A More Realistic Tank Simulator, see 1995

Spectrum Holobyte came up with a decent tagline for its TANK M1 Abrams simulator/game in this ad from the June 1990 issue of Video Games & Computer Entertainment magazine... but the gap between "realistic" graphics and reality was still very, very wide at the time.

The PC EGA graphics were impressive at the time, with polygonal, outlined hills and flat topographical shading.  But the look would be obsolete a mere five years down the road, as hardware-accelerated texture-mapped polygons became the standard, even on consoles.

No doubt the technical aspects of simulating the M1 were also very advanced.  But then, as now, "realistic" usually just means "as realistic as we can get right now."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Out Live

It's far a Future on PLANET! as we take a Japanese-impaired look at Out Live, published by Sunsoft in 1989 for the PC Engine.

There's quite a bit of Japanese text involved in this title, but I was able to make out the basics without much trouble.  Out Live is an RPG set in a futuristic sci-fi environment -- the player is housed in a warrior mech, armed to the teeth, and sent out to battle evil (one presumes alien) robots in a 3-D maze environment.

Per usual, we can visit shops outside of the maze to acquire items for healing and transportation:

We can power up our mech's weapons and armor, for a price:

And we can venture into the colorfully lit tunnels to face the biomechanical nasties:


Inside the dungeons, the interface is simple -- the player can navigate forward and backward, turn left and right, and bring up a menu to use items, check status, and get compass bearings:


But that's about the extent of it -- the action consists of running around the dungeon space maze, destroying monsters robots, gaining experience and leveling up, with periodic trips out of the maze to shop and maintain equipment.

The dungeon-crawling presentation is technically impressive -- the tunnels scroll very smoothly in 3-D, and there's a neat sprite-scaling routine used to zoom in for an initial sizing-up when enemies are encountered.  And the background music is quite good by PC Engine chiptune standards, with some quality samples.

But Out Live feels seriously handicapped by its medium -- it's a HuCard-based title, not a CD game, and it appears that the storage space is largely consumed by the 3-D maze graphics.  There isn't much room left for a story, and precious little variety in the environment -- the colors change as we enter different sections of the dungeon, but every part of the map essentially looks the same.  And doors are depicted with a legend reading [DOOR] when one is directly in front of us -- we can't see the doors in any detail, and can't see them at all from the side or from a distance.  There's no automapping provided, so there's some old-fashioned fun and tension to be had in mapping out the maze by hand on graph paper, but that doesn't necessarily make for a compelling gameplay experience in 2010.

Out Live is one of those games that has simply had its day -- there was a time in my youth when wandering the maze, mapping it out in detail and slowly beefing up my mech would have been a fun and inexpensive way to spend hours of my gaming time.  At my age, though, this brief sampling is enough to remind me why it's a good thing technology moves on once in a while.  Great retro games live on; weak retro games just get weaker by the year.

If a really old-school dungeon crawl is just what you have in mind, I'd really recommend Double Dungeons over this one, and point you toward Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder for a quality experience that hasn't aged so poorly.  But if you insist, you can purchase Out Live (if it's in stock) via this affiliate link.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Value of Gaming Patience

If you pay any attention to the little XBox Live doohickey posted alongside this blog, you'll likely have noticed that I'm almost never engaged in playing the latest and greatest XBox 360 games.  As I write this, I'm still working my way through Bioware's excellent sci-fi RPG Mass Effect, while all of the cool kids are gearing up for Mass Effect 2.

Part of this is because the blog consumes much of my available gaming time.  Playing, writing, research and editing all take time away from trying out the new stuff.  I still consider it gaming time, because it's directly related to my hobby, and I certainly don't begrudge the effort it takes to do this.  But it's an inhibiting factor when I'm staring a brand new, 40-hour game in the face that may take me several months to tackle.

But as my free time has become more limited over the years, I've also realized that a little patience makes it easier to be picky and focus on the high-quality experiences, and also makes my gaming a lot cheaper. 

See, I could have paid $60 for Mass Effect when it came out, then bought the additional downloadable chapters for $10 apiece.  I have no doubt I would have gotten $90 worth of entertainment out of the experience.  But as it turned out, I paid $20 for a new copy of the Platinum Edition, with the DLC content included, thereby saving myself no little cash.  I didn't necessarily pocket that extra money --during the holidays, when I had some extra time for games, I picked up Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts for $10, Raiden Fighters for $15, and Shadow Complex for $10 (normally $15 on XBLA.)

Were any of these games hurt by the delay?  Well, it's very difficult to get an 8-player Banjo-Kazooie race going on XBLA, because nobody seems to be playing it online anymore, if they ever did.  So the multiplayer-related achievements for that title will likely remain out of reach.  But I am still enjoying all of these games -- the technology is still current, the games are still worthwhile, and playing them "late" doesn't damage my own experience in any measurable way.

The economics also apply to retro gaming -- while a few rare titles are pricey and hard to come by, most vintage games can be had now for considerably less than their original retail price.  Some quality computer titles have been released into the public domain by their authors for no-cost enjoyment, and downloadable channels provide many classic games at reasonable prices.

And there's still satisfaction in finally getting around to acquiring that great game or system I never tracked down during its heyday.  Lots of great stuff is still out there, waiting. 

Personally, I know that someday I will buy that arcade-quality Neo-Geo console -- the one that taunted me with its $600 price tag and $200 games back in 1989. 

Mostly because I already have several cartridges for it, still new in the box.  $30 each on closeout.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Video Podcast - GameScience: Fugue in 60 Hz?

In which we consider the technical roots of videogame music.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Arrow of Death (Pt. 1) (1981)

Returning to the oeuvre of Brian Howarth, this week we tackle the first of a two-game saga, Arrow of Death (Pt. 1) (Mysterious Adventure #3).  Howarth's games run on the Scott Adams engine and can be played on modern machines using the ScottFree interpreter.  I solved this one using ScottFree for the sake of better save/restore support, then played through the illustrated version on the Commodore 64 for screen capture purposes.

Set in the same universe as Mysterious Adventure #1, The Golden Baton, this fantasy story sends us off to destroy a bad guy named XERDON with a magical arrow.  As it turns out, Part 1 is concerned strictly with acquiring the components of said magical arrow, so we'll have to wait for Part 2 to wrap up the storyline.

The game opens in a courtyard, with a dead messenger at our feet; it's a sign of dark things to come:

This game wasn't too difficult, but I did resort to a walkthrough after running out of experiments to try, and I needed a hint to solve a parser challenge where I was otherwise on the right track.  Suffice it to say that searching every room and object is key to solving Arrow of Death (Pt. 1) -- there are lots of hidden items and clues, and while the map is straightforward within each area, it's vital to acquire necessary objects before making any navigational leaps.

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

Many of the in-game clues are informational in nature -- which means the puzzles and actions revealing them can be skipped altogether on a replay.  The amulet is decorated with a picture of a barge, for instance, but the player does not need to discover this in order for it to work as intended; also, it's not strictly necessary to visit the burned-out village or roll away the boulder in front of the cave.

We find ZARDRA the magician early in the game, and he dies shortly thereafter, though not until we LOOK ZARDRA and get to hear his dying words, which set the plot in motion.  It's very considerate of him to delay his demise on our account.

We also find the Golden Baton we reclaimed playing the first of Howarth's adventures, but times have changed -- even looking at it proves fatal in this one.

Bribing the beggar isn't initially essential -- he doesn't block our way in the traditional guardian-puzzle mode, but he reveals a critical clue that tends to dead-end the game if the player doesn't know about it: we have to WAIT in several locations for magical transport to take us elsewhere.  He also gives us the Glass Orb, which is critical to finishing the game.

The game's map is straightforward -- there are a few mini-mazes where similar rooms are adjacent, but nothing that randomly wandering can't handle.  Deciding when to move forward is a bigger challenge, as after certain moves the player can no longer return to previously visited areas.  This geographical constraint may have been a design decision, if the author wasn't sure where Part 1 would end and Part 2 would begin.

There's a slave chained up in one area, and fortunately the parser helps us out a bit.  FREE SLAVE yields Cut his chains!, so CUT CHAINS has the desired effect and the slave begins following us around.  We have to avail ourselves of the slave's assistance before wandering into the Toadstool location, however, because the Beggar shows up here and drugs him.  This bit of uncalled-for nastiness is apparently meant to demonstrate the toadstools' effectiveness as a sleeping drug, though I happened to discover it myself by eating the mushrooms (and dying when the giants found me asleep) before freeing the slave.

Magic-based puzzles can be irritating, because there isn't always a clear reason why the player would want to act the way the designer expects.  The most difficult puzzle I ran into involved the suit of armour (UK spelling) found early in the game.  It has only one purpose -- if we don't wear it when facing the serpent, the serpent eats us, and it provides no defense against the giants.  Finding the armour's use is a "path of most resistance" puzzle -- we can't carry it up to the cliff ledge, and there are no clues as to what we should be doing there anyway.  I had to resort to a walkthrough to learn that RUB ORB on the ledge opens the cave where the serpent resides; I had discovered the Orb's alternate use as a light source, but it hadn't occurred to me that it might have another purpose.  It then became clear that getting the armour up to the serpent's cave was going to be necessary, and I might never have found the necessary rope, if not for seeing the first few steps of the same walkthrough while looking for a hint.

The vintage two-word parser has a few annoying limitations.  TIE HOOK does not work, but TIE ROPE assumes (to hook) and does.  TALK is interpreted as SAY, and there's no way to talk to another character; any verbal clues are triggered by more direct actions.  And I could not for the life of me figure out how to drug the giants' broth -- BREW TOADSTOOLS, BOIL TOADSTOOLS, ADD TOADSTOOLS, MIX BROTH, DROP TOADSTOOLS... none of these worked.  The lack of prepositions always makes these kinds of puzzles difficult to solve -- fortunately, the walkthrough led me to DRUG CAULDRON, which sufficed (DRUG BROTH also works.)

The game allows us to KILL EAGLE, but it's not a good idea.  PLUCK FEATHER gets us what we need and also transports us to a new location.

Death is everywhere in this dark tale -- a dead dwarf lies in what would otherwise seem an idyllic hut near the babbling brook:

If we borrow the dwarf's spectacles, steal his silver medallion, and find the trapdoor in the burned-out village nearby, we can read an ancient book to learn that we should:
Destroy XERDON the Evil
with an Arrow from the Sacred Willow
The Guardians of the Willow
Lust for Silver!
These instructions seem pretty clear.  However, GIVE MEDALLION in the Willow Grove does not work or provoke any informative reaction from the guardians.  THROW MEDALLION causes them to chase it, however, giving us a chance to CUT WILLOW, leading immediately to this chapter's rather abrupt ending:

We are now, presumably, prepared to proceed with Part 2 of the adventure with the titular Arrow of Death in hand.  There's no password given at the end of this chapter, or required by the next one, so it's not technically necessary to finish this game before tackling the next one.  But the story makes more sense in the proper order -- and of course, we will take on Arrow of Death (Pt. 2) in a future installment.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The LoadDown - 1/11/10 - Phoenix Wright

Once a week, we cover recent downloadable games -- the Wii Shop Channel, XBox Live Arcade, and the PSN Store just keep 'em coming...

WiiWare -- Three games this week, two of which are based on solid DS games.  Capcom's Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney brings the popular investigation/trial mystery-drama series to the Wii for the first time, with four cases and good use of the Wii remote.   Time Split: Chronos Twins DX brings the DS sleeper hit Chronos Twins to WiiWare; it's an unusual dual-screen platformer, with the same location visible in two different timeframes, each influencing the other.  Shadowplay is an interesting attempt to bring hand-shadow tomfoolery to the puzzle game genre.

Wii Virtual Console --  One game this week -- Activision's Genesis edition of the mahjong tile solitaire puzzle game, Shanghai II: Dragon's Eye.

DSiWare -- Three simple, inexpensive games this week.  Touch Solitaire puts iPod-style Spider and Klondike solitaire card games on the DS.  Jazzy Billiards simulates 9-ball pool with a smooth musical soundtrack.  WordSearcher puts search-a-word puzzles on the DS.

XBLA -- Last week saw one new release, Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond.  It's an homage to several classic action games, with a Contra-meets-Duke Nukem kind of vibe and lots of game development in-jokes.  It might be a bit too much of a muchness in large doses, but it's nice to see an action game keep its tongue firmly in its cheek.

PSN -- As has been the trend recently, Matt Hazard (see above) also hit the Playstation 3 last week.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pac-Man Pareidolia

Pareidolia is the term used to describe human beings' propensity to see and hear things that aren't necessarily there.  We're pattern-recognition machines, highly sensitized to detecting faces and voices, and it doesn't take much to fool us into seeing Elvis in a water stain or hearing mysterious whispers in a staticky recording.  Generally we come to our senses and realize what's really happening before the lepers and pilgrims arrive.
But I was reviewing some blog-related metrics recently, and this evidence is irrefutable:

I can now live secure in the knowledge that Pac-Man is blessing my blog with his chompy beneficence.