Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Elsewhere: Atari 5200 Mario Brothers Ad

No video podcast this week, so instead feast your eyes on this vintage television ad for the original Mario Brothers, licensed by Nintendo and published by Atari for the 5200 console.

I estimate that more was spent on the creature props for this single ad than I have spent in total on all 36 episodes of the podcast to date.  So enjoy the production values:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Adventure B - Inca Curse (1981)

I recently enjoyed playing Artic Computing's A game, Planet of Death, so this week I'm tackling the company's Adventure B: Inca Curse.  There's no author credited on this one either; the style seems similar to its predecessor, although the spelling is even less reliable.

As in Adventure A, our basic objective is laid out at the start -- in colored text, even -- as we set out to find some treasure and bring it safely hence to claim victory:

What's that further down the tunnel?  It glimmers like a treasure... but no!  It's...

 **** SPOILERS AHEAD! ****

This game really is a treasure hunt -- there are a few puzzles, but most of the challenge lies in mapping out the extensive Inca temple and finding the golden goodies.  There are lots of one-way passages, and the task is complicated by the occasional hidden passage or misleading room description; one room has an invisible path DOWN, and another says the exit is WEST when in fact it lies to the east.  There's some compensation in the Emperors Corridor, where the text plainly informs us that A SECRET PASSAGE LEADS WEST... making it somewhat less than secret.

The two-word Artic parser has a few new tricks up its sleeve in this game.  A branch that is HEAVY WITH LOTS OF LEAVES -- too heavy to pick up, it seems -- can be made portable with REMOVE LEAVES.  There are some other situation-specific verbs, but WITH handles most of the workload.

Very few of the game's challenges are really puzzles at all, and most of the useful objects are lying around in plain sight.  We encounter a locked door early in the game, but LOOK DOOR reveals that THE LATCH IS VERY FRAGILE, and we can easily BREAK LATCH - HOW? - WITH BRANCH.  At another point we need to CLIMB BOAT and ROW.  In general, we just need to have found the correct items and use them sensibly.  The game also prevents us from doing certain things -- BREAK WINDOW yields only NO.. I AM NOT A VANDEL [sic].  Apparently breaking and entering for the sake of tomb robbing is okay -- we will shortly need to BREAK LOCK / WITH ROCK -- but Artic urges us to say no to, er, vandelism.

Behind the unbreakable window is something interesting, actually - an in-game ad a la Scott Adams, the first one I've seen in quite a while:

The game's misspellings are legion -- whatever playtesting it may have gone through was clearly not done with a proofreader's eye.  We visit a SACRAFICIAL CHAMBER, a GUILDED REST ROOM and an ARMARY, are informed YOU ARE NOT CARRYING THE CORRECT POSSESIONS, and most memorably must translate some HYROGLITHICS with the HYROGLIPHIC TRANSLATOR.  One such bit of dictionary sloppiness impacts gameplay -- we find *** GOLDEN KNIVES ***, but cannot TAKE KNIVES; we must TAKE KNIFE.

There aren't a lot of fatal scenarios in this game, but we do have to escape the Fire Room within a few turns, or find that I HAVE BEEN ROASTED ALIVE.  There are also dead ends ahead if we have not carried key objects with us, and the critical red and blue stones cannot be dropped, lest they turn into useless powder.  There's a warning for one dead end -- if we translate the hieroglyphics, we learn that DEATH AWAITS ALL WHO GO WEST UNPREPARED.  I had already gotten stuck there once when I translated the sign, and discovered that the real threat was boredom, much moreso than death.

Inca Curse's most notable feature is its unusual lamp implementation.  At one point we have to SMOTHER FIRE with a magic blanket, at which point everything goes dark.  There's a lamp in the Fire Room, and if we have a match we can continue adventuring.  But the darkness is actually handled as a blinding device -- we can move around freely if we have a good map and know where we're going, but simply getting ourselves back to a lighted area doesn't restore normal vision.  We can not see clearly again until we GET LAMP and WITH MATCH, and find the darkness lifting wherever our wanderings have taken us.

The game's second act, where all the treasures are hidden, takes place in a large, maze-ridden area where even the normal, unique rooms (like a kitchen) don't necessarily map according to the rules of the compass.  We can only reach this area if we WITH CHISEL to get the magic ring out of its surrounding flint, and have also found the red and blue stones.  And we need to bring rope to get back out of this section of the map, which leaves precious little room for the many golden treasures left around for the taking.  Most are standard stuff, like the *** GOLD COINS *** and *** GOLDEN STATUE ***, but I don't recall seeing a *** GOLDEN THUMBSCREW *** in many past adventures.

The game's minimal approach to description gave me entirely the wrong impression when I visited the SLAVE PREPARATION ROOM and the SLAVE EATING ROOM.  I believe the latter is meant to be some sort of cafeteria.

As in Planet of Death, the maze in Inca Curse can be mapped, but key locations can be reached with non-repeating permutations of the cardinal directions.  From the maze's starting point, N, S, E, W gets us to the TRAITORS HALL; S, N, W, E reaches the HALL OF HALLS; and S, N, E, W reaches the MIRROR ROOM.

Inca Curse is not particularly difficult to finish, as most of the puzzles are straightforward.  I did get stuck near the end, and referenced a walkthrough to learn that I could get back out of the sand dungeon by CLIMBing UP - HOW? - WITH ROPE, which I should have figured out on my own (though not having tied the rope to anything prior to coming down, it might have taken me a while to think of trying it; the ladder seemed a more likely tool for the job, but of course did not work.)  I was glad I looked up the solution anyway, as I learned in passing that the Artic games employ a REDESCRIBE verb, solving my growing irritation as I repeatedly fell for the old LOOK - I SEE NOTHING SPECIAL gag. 

The SCORE mechanism behaves oddly.  As I picked up and dropped treasures before leaving the temple, I saw my score change from 3000, to 0000, to 9700.  Its behavior seems consistent, but I couldn't figure out how it was meant to operate.
The game's ending is rather abrupt -- perhaps this is what the title screen's warning about greed is all about, but it surprised me.  I had found eight treasures, but could not carry them all in one trip, and the moment I set foot back in the clearing with a few treasures in tow, it was instantly victory time with a score of 2800:

Different treasures carry different point values, so it behooves the player to experiment and find the most score-worthy combination of treasures to carry out of the temple.  We are limited to six inventory items, and need to carry certain items lest we get stuck in the temple forever, so this challenge constitutes one final puzzle.

But I was satisfied with having explored the Inca temple and SUCCESFULLY [sic] finished the adventure, and I look forward to tackling ** ALIEN SPACE SHIP ADVENTURE **, apparently the working title for Artic's Adventure C: Ship of Doom.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The LoadDown - 06/28/2010

Another week in downloads...

WiiWare -- Three new games this week.  Jett Rocket is a fairly substantial and nice-looking 3-D platformer.  Pong Toss Pro - Frat Party Games is that rarity of rarities, an E-rated frat party game.  And Robin Hood: The Return of Richard is a reasonably-priced target-shooting game with lovely 2-D artwork -- it reminds me of Exidy arcade classics like Crossbow

Wii Virtual Console -- Even with all the WiiWare releases today, we still get a Nintendo 64 release on the Virtual Console --  the original Mario Tennis.

DSiWare -- Six, count 'em, six releases this week.  Either somebody's making money on this platform or hope springs eternal.  Maestro! Green Groove is a musical platformer.  Animal Color Cross is a sudoku-style image puzzler.  Ancient Tribe is a real-time strategy game set in a tribal village, similar to another recent DSi release.  Brain Drain is a stylus-driven puzzler that sometimes fights back against the player's attempts to unscramble the puzzle.  Battle of Giants: Mutant Insects - Revenge is a sequel providing ten more levels of bug-battling action.  And Date or Ditch proves that, just like manga several years back, dating sims are making inroads in North America with younger folks.  It has DSi camera support so you can put your own face in the game, which is kind of creepy, so I'll stick with the original character screenshot:

XBox Live Arcade -- Two solid games last week - Duke Nukem Manhattan Project continues the wise-cracking violence with 2.5D, low-polygon visuals.  Risk: Factions brings the classic strategy boardgame to XBLA, with new mission and campaign modes.

Game Room -- Game Pack 006 debuted, with its first week of releases including Atari's rarely-seen vector coin-op Black Widow, three Atari 2600 games including Atari's Casino and Activision's H.E.R.O. and Laser Blast, and Intellivision omnibus title Triple Action.

PS3 on PSN -- Nothing new last week.  But I do notice that the PSOne Classics downloadables have been coming out very regularly, with major classics and interesting obscurities available, so there shouldn't be any shortage of stuff to play on the PS3.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

ASCII Entertainment and the Dress Code from Hell

During the 16-bit era, ASCII Entertainment Software produced enhanced game controllers for the Sega Genesis and Super NES consoles, promoted with very similar magazine ads:

Both take the "crazy gamer" motif into bold new biological territory, implying that once a kid picks up this controller, his DNA is instantly altered, causing one side of his body to adopt weird new mutant texture and coloration.  The Power Clutch SG for the Genesis apparently gives kids a Mephistopheles/Freddy Krueger makeover, while the SNES ASCIIPad induces a Frankenstein's monster vibe a la vintage Ozzy.

I'm sure the ad was meant to appeal to kids, not parents, whose nightmare images of teenage rebellion manifest here in the starkest visual terms.

But there's also a bit of a Lampwick vibe haunting these images -- to my mind, the kids willing to buy into the ad's message of coolness conferred would likely be deeply disturbed by its apparent irrevocability. 

I call B.S.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Adventure News: Scott Adams resuming work on "The Inheritance"

I know a lot of text adventure fans stop by here, at least on Tuesdays, so I wanted to share some exciting news Scott Adams posted as a comment here earlier today:
I think I am going to take this post as my world-wide announcement that I have started work once again on my next adventure "The inheritance". I stopped work on it about 3 years ago and I hope this time to complete it! Happy Adventuring all!

I've been playing a lot of early text adventures lately, and while some of them have been pretty good, Adams' games have endured for good reason.  A new adventure from the master will be welcome, whenever it's ready.

An Attractive Addition To Your TV Game Machine!

Back in the pre-crash early 1980's, the back pages of Electronic Games magazine were festooned with small black-and-white ads.  It seemed every technology entrepreneur in the country was trying to find a way to hop on the videogame bandwagon and cash in on this newfangled craze, doing whatever it was they already knew how to do.

The Grand Stand Company's technology was of the woodworking variety:

Note that the promised stabilization and support is provided mostly by the player's own two feet, holding the stand down, and the source of the SCORE ENHANCER capability remains a mystery. It's not even clear how the joystick is affixed to the top of the stand, though the ad copy claims the product ADAPTS TO ALL POPULAR JOY STICKS (not JOYSTICKS, mind you.)

The claim that the Grand Stand is an attractive addition to your TV game machine implies that the marketer was a little behind the times -- to my recollection, nobody was calling them "TV Games" after the first wave or two of dedicated ball-and-paddle machines had sold through at retail.  Although the simulated wood grain of the original Atari VCS might indeed have gone well with the Grand Stand's fine walnut finish, or some of the exotic hard woods available at extra cost.

Like many of the products offered in these old advertisements, I wonder how many of these were actually sold, and would be absolutely floored and strangely thrilled if I ran across one at a rummage sale or flea market.

But I still wouldn't pay $34.95 for it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Of Import: Mr. Heli no Daibouken

Here's another Japanese PC Engine game that could have been released in North America with just a little title screen revamping -- Irem's Mr. Heli no Daibouken ("Mr. Heli's Great Adventure"):

Irem created seminal arcade games like R-Type and Vigilante, and Mr. Heli is very much in the same tradition.  The original coin-op came out in 1987, and this PC Engine port produced a few years later is a game on the cusp of the 8-bit/16-bit hardware transition -- the gameplay is nothing that wouldn't have worked on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but the audiovisuals are clearly a step up.  The game features a scrolling, colorful 2-D background, bouncy theme music, and a cute helicopter protagonist pitted against cartoony mecha-enemies:

The first level isn't too hard to beat, once one gets the hang of the floaty controls and can keep Mr. Heli's unwieldy, bulbous body out of the line of fire.  But the enemies become quite a bit tougher and the maneuvering tighter in the second level, which starts out in darkness until the player gets the lights turned on and is greeted with an onslaught of enemies, many of whom can pass through the walls:

Fortunately, Mr. Heli can fire lasers to the left and right, toss missiles upwards, and drop tiny bombs for crystal mining and secondary defense.  In addition to points earned for destroying the endless bad guys, the player can hunt down hidden crystals for cash, enabling the otherwise unusable powerups scattered through the levels:

Mr. Heli is oddly anthropomorphic -- when he lands, feet sprout from his body, making him resemble a cute little alien robot.  But the charming graphics are deceptive -- the Normal mode, which allows Mr. Heli to absorb quite a few enemy hits before he expires, is difficult enough, but the three-hits-and-you're-out Arcade mode is tough.  The second boss is no pushover, either -- the six gun emplacements bombard the player and regenerate shortly after they are taken out:

Mr. Heli isn't a masterpiece -- it's harder than perhaps it ought to be, and there's not much of a story, just a chubby little copter fighting the good video fight.  But the character was popular in Japan, making cameo appearances in later Irem titles, and it's a solid game, much better than some of what NEC chose to release for the TurboGrafx-16.  Irem licensed several of its other titles for the American system, and the game is almost completely in English, so its absence on North American shelves seems like another missed opportunity.  Mr. Heli no Daibouken is a fine little import game, with plenty of challenging action crammed onto Hudson's HuCard format, and well worth trying out.

This one's worth playing, but it's on HuCard so it will only work on a real PC Engine.  You may be able to find it in stock at this affiliate link.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Games and Critical Thinking

There's always talk, generally unsubstantiated, about the negative affects of videogames on lifestyle and attitude.  So once in a while it's valuable to point out some demonstrably positive effects of the hobby.

One benefit that doesn't get much press, in part because commercial media outlets don't necessarily recognize its value, is development of critical thinking skills.  Playing games of any kind encourages us to understand the rules of the situation, and if we're clever we can figure out how to exploit them for gain or protection.  Videogames, moreover, are uniquely positioned to encourage exploration and questioning -- the world is artificial, designed, so if something appears unusual, there's probably a reason behind it worth investigating.  A waterfall may lead to a hidden area; an unusual patch of wall may hide a secret passage; a flashing, unexplained light in the distance is something we ought to investigate.  From Adventureland to Grand Theft Auto, game worlds reward players for being suspicious and inquisitive, and testing our fundamental assumptions -- the greatest rewards are often reserved for those with an urge to do so.

Real life, of course, is vastly more complex and unpredictable than any video or computer game.  Major life decisions involve circumstances and emotions and timing and confluences of factors beyond what any game engine could readily muster or manage.  But within specific problem-solving domains, approaching a real-world situation as a game can have great benefits, enabling us to understand the situation better, stay objective and figure out what's behind anything that seems a little off.  A sense of play can be a valuable asset.

I've been thinking about this because recently my wife and I had a window salesperson in for what proved to be an entertaining evening (for us.)  This was not something we solicited -- someone knocked on our door a while back, offering a free estimate, and we had been thinking about replacing our windows at some point for better energy efficiency, so we agreed to meet with a sales rep and look at the possibilities.  It's not a must-do by any means, but it's on our long-term list.

We knew we were in information-gathering mode going in, which the salesperson did not seem to know, although we told him several times; he may have assumed he could overcome that and talk us into a sale.  So we had an advantage from the get-go -- this was a recon mission from our point of view, and if we had some numbers in hand at GAME OVER, our goal would be accomplished.  We were not in a mood to be sold anything on the spur of the moment, and any salesperson would have found it difficult to move the goalposts.

As gamers, my wife and I are skeptical by nature and inclined to probe the situation -- so as the presentation got underway, we both made mental note of sales tactics that were not exactly lies, but seeemed exaggerated to favor the selling proposition.  What we noticed did not make us inclined to take the company up on its offer, even as the price dropped and dropped in the face of our casual disinterest, which the sales rep interpreted as active resistance.  Not once did we say, "Can you do better on the price?"  All we said from point one was that we were interested in an estimate.  Preparing for combat, we had no other estimates in hand, and we knew we were naive and ignorant about the whole subject of replacement windows going in.  But we knew the general rules of the game, so we assumed our opponent would try to take advantage of our lack of hard data, armoring us against his attempts to do so.

The salesperson seemed not to notice this, of course, because his job, as he stated toward the end of the whole debacle, was not to write quotes, but to close sales.  He assumed from the get-go that we were "upset" (his word) with our existing windows, which was not really the case; we know they could be better-insulated, but we have no emotional drive to replace them.  He insisted on taking a certain seat at our kitchen table, which I presume was meant to gain some sort of psycho-tactical advantage, though I couldn't fathom the rationale.  He assumed that we would take his word for the quality and superiority of his products, and asked me to read aloud from a couple of magazine articles supporting his claims; I did so good-naturedly, but quickly.  I assumed this was meant to encourage me to internalize the material and think of it as my own words, an effort I did my best to contravene. 

Then he brought out a heat lamp for a demonstration that seemed fishy at the time, and in retrospect may have been very deceptive; I wish I'd asked for a more direct A/B comparison at the time, but only thought of better experiments later on.  What transpired was this -- he turned the infrared/red light lamp on and asked us to feel the opposite side of his sample window, observing that the glass remained cool to the touch; then he sent us outside and turned it on again, beaming a palpable level of heat through our existing sliding glass door.  It seemed like an impressive demo, but I couldn't help recalling that I felt no such heat near the lamp itself during the first pass at our kitchen table -- which means that the lamp may have two modes of operation, light-only and light-and-heat, or that it had warmed up by the second round, or that other factors like distance from the glass were being manipulated in the salesperson's favor.  I also don't know how much relationship an infrared lamp really bears to natural sunlight -- the frequency range is different, certainly.  Given the source alone, I was inclined to dismiss the demo as flashy, irrelevant and skewed, at least until we had a chance to do some independent research on the actual differences between what the salesperson claimed were R 0.5 and R 4.8 windows.

By this point, we had a pretty good handle on our opponent's algorithm.  Unscrupulous salespeople usually follow a script that makes the most rudimentary AI bot look sophisticated -- maximize profit and commission, don't brook any questions or delays, and close the sale NOW.  The grains of salt with which we received his statements were getting larger and larger as he estimated our likely savings from upgraded windows, based on his guess about "a house this size," and gave us a number that was clearly exaggerated, as it claimed an annual savings in heating cost that amounted to more than half our gas and electricity costs combined.
In the end, he had made a reasonable case for what he had to sell, but didn't seem to understand or could not accept that we were not going to make a decision in this meeting.  As we had stated up front, we were meeting to obtain the estimate; of course, we wished to verify his claims for ourselves, comparing pricing and options from other vendors before committing to anything.  He actually feigned personal insult to his ethics when we suggested that we naturally assumed he would promote the products he was selling, and did not expect him to present any counterarguments, but that we could do that research on our own.  At this point, the algorithm shifted to a price-based approach.

It became a boss battle of attrition, though all we had to do was keep our shields up.  We repeated that we were not going to make a decision right now, because this was the first estimate we were obtaining and we intended to do some more homework and shop around a bit.  He responded by doing "a little better" on the price -- a range that started at one number, then with "discounts" and "deals" and "incentives" came down to less than half of that.  When he thought he had softened us up a bit, as we were giving each other inside looks, he claimed to have been paged and stepped outside for a while.  Guessing that his expectation was that we would talk each other into it now that we had a "great deal" on the table, we laughed and resolved once again not to do anything at this time.

When he returned, and was met with our consistently lukewarm response, he went into a "now or never, yes or no" spiel, a completely unsupported assertion insisting that we had to do this tonight or we probably never would.  This was a transparently self-serving argument -- we could have done this two years ago, or five years ago, and we can just as easily do it two years or five years in the future.  If his company doesn't want the business, someone else surely will take it on.  But it was his "experienced opinion" that we'd never get such a deal from his company, or anyone else, ever again... although he could now come down to about a third of the original price quoted.

When we pointed out for the umpteenth time that price wasn't the central issue, we just had no reason to commit to this right now, and that it seemed foolish for him, from a business perspective, to walk away and not be willing to discuss the deal further someday, he began swearing on his "father's grave" that he would not be able to offer us the same low, low price at a later date.  Which may in fact be the case, as business circumstances do change, but the missed opportunity for us to spend what was still a fairly large and discretionary amount of money seemed to be a much greater tragedy in his eyes than it was in ours.  We knew the "retail" price range now, and how far he was willing to come down if forced to do so, which was quite a bit more than we had expected to get out of the discussion.  His algorithm's unwarranted confidence that it could get us to sign on the dotted line by focusing solely on price adjustment ultimately tipped his hand, completely.

There was some hesitation on our part, truth to tell - the final price did seem reasonable, at least much moreso than the original quote.  But we also learn from videogames that stress and risk are temporary, that if a problem seems intransigent there is probably another, better solution available, and that we can always go away, level up, power up, come back and try again.  So our reply, given the proffered ultimatum, was that if we had to make the decision right now, our answer remained a clear and resounding no.

It was an interesting transformation to watch -- the salesperson metamorphosed from a glad-handing, friendly guy who laughed at all our lame jokes and humored our questions into a frustrated, ticked-off individual who seemed determined never ever ever to sell us windows no matter how hard we might beg, just for spite.  Before he went his way in the highest of dudgeon, I had the distinct impression he wanted to stamp his feet so hard he would disappear into the ground.

You know that sound when Pac-Man dies?  That dvvuu-vvuu-vvuu-vv-wk-wkkk sound? 

It's nice to be the monster once in a while.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Video Podcast - Rick Dyer's Halcyon Days

After co-creating Dragon's Lair with Don Bluth, Rick Dyer went on to launch the Halcyon laserdisc system.  It retailed for more than $2000, and... didn't work so well.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Adventure A - Planet of Death (1981)

I have been neglecting an entire -- what's the word?... range?... collection?... whatever, a whole bunch of unique text adventures written for the Sinclair home computers.  Spectrum!

These machines from Sir Clive Sinclair's company were very popular in the UK, but the 8-bit Spectrum never gained a foothold in the US, after Timex tried and failed to market the original, primitive ZX-80 on our shores.  But the emulation era has arrived, opening up a fresh world of vintage games for us Yanks to explore.

To celebrate our contemporary good fortune, I'm playing through a seminal adventure game for the Speccy entitled Adventure A: Planet of Death, first in a series published by Artic (not Arctic, mind you) Computing in 1981.  The author of this game remains anonymous in all the records I have been able to find -- there's some online speculation that it may have been written by Simon Wadsworth, who created several adventure games for Artic, but precious little confirmation.

Unlike many games of this vintage, this one kindly gives us some general guidance about our objective at startup:

Planet of Death, as the title suggests, is yet another escape-the-alien-planet-in-your-presently-disabled-ship story, but it's pleasantly executed in the classic two-word parser style, with some interesting puzzles and a colorful sense of fantasy.  If you plan to play the game yourself, which I always encourage, be aware that there's no in-game SAVE command; only when we QUIT are we given the option of saving.  It's a cumbersome approach, given that there are several deaths and dead ends that are impossible to anticipate, so I recommend taking advantage of modern times, and playing on an emulator with save state capability.

There are also numerous red herrings, parser roadblocks, dead ends and bugs, most of which I will discuss in some detail, as we enter the realm of...

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

The Artic parser is rather primitive even by the era's standards - few synonyms are recognized, and there's not a lot of feedback given when we mistype a word or otherwise fail to satisfy the computer.  The game's text engine also appears not to support esoteric characters, such as the apostrophe.  At the game's start, we find ourselves on a mountain plateau near a handy piece of sharp flint, where the game and I had this frustrating exchange: 


In an adjacent room, we find a rope hanging from a tree, and frustration ensues again:


Or ever, as it turns out.  Eventually we learn that EXAMINE and TAKE don't work, though LOOK and GET often do.  And USE covers a range of complex activities, like affixing a rope to who-knows-what -- certainly, as my best efforts established, not the stalactites a few rooms to the east -- and using it to climb down into a pit.
At least in the latter case a cave drawing provides a hint, showing a man climbing down into a pit using a rope --it's not much of a tip, really, but at least we know we're on the right track in attempting to obtain the rope.  GET ROPE - HOW? - WITH FLINT does the trick; actually, WITH FLINT alone will suffice, but GET ROPE WITH FLINT is a no-go.  After the rope HAS FALLEN TO THE FLOOR (presumably the forest floor) the room description still shows that it's hanging from the tree.  And there's a potentially game-breaking bug here -- if we WITH FLINT a second time, the rope gets removed from our inventory and returned to the floor, but the internal item counter doesn't get adjusted, permanently reducing the number of items we can carry.

The game's location and object model occasionally makes things easier, and occasionally misleads.  A strange house contains a pair of boots, and A FLOOR BOARD, rather calling attention to itself.  We don't actually find anything by executing a MOVE BOARD or GET BOARD, but it's handy for crossing the ravine nearby.  It must be quite a long floorboard, as JUMP RAVINE yields only ITS TOO WIDE. I FELL AND BROKE MY NECK., but USE BOARD gets us across with no muss or fuss.

This is an old-school adventure game, so once again, I AM IN A MAZE. THERE ARE PASSAGES EVERYWHERE.  We can map the maze in the usual manner by dropping objects, and must take careful notes as we go, because LOOK flouts tradition and does not repeat the room description or its contents.  If we do not know about the REDESCRIBE verb, which does what LOOK usually does, we have to leave and reenter to confirm that we are where we think we are and actually dropped what we think we dropped.  As it turns out, the maze is relatively linear -- most directions out of each room take us back to the first room, while heading N, S, E, W in defiance of real-world geography gets us to the ice cavern at the end of the maze.  There is a block of ice here, which melts in a few turns if we take it with us; I never actually needed it or the resultant undroppable pool of water for anything, so it was rather a waste of time exploring the maze.  There also seems to be a bit of randomness in the maze's behavior, though I was not able to nail it down; a second try from the starting room always sufficed when I seemed to have gotten myself lost.

Similar design oddities persist throughout Planet of Death, giving the game an unfinished feel, as though puzzles were planned but only partially executed.  We can't GO LAKE initially, as BRRR. THE WATERS TOO COLD in this land without proper punctuation.  But if we WEAR BOOTS, we can enter the lake once -- a gold coin is added to our inventory without comment from the game, and subsequent attempts to re-enter the lake yield I CANT DO THAT YET.  And, of course, I found no actual use for the gold coin after going to the trouble of obtaining it, making it the reddest of herrings. 

Another oddly incomplete puzzle involves a small green man sleeping on a mirror we apparently would like to have (it actually serves a purpose in helping us get through a security force field nearby.)  GET MAN yields UGH! HE IS ALL SLIMY.  I didn't realize at first that, despite the game's protestation, the small green man actually does get put into inventory; a second try yields THE GREEN MAN AWOKE AND THROTTLED ME, indicating that waking him is not a good idea.  So it's best to just GET MAN, GET MIRROR, and DROP MAN.  There are some slimy green gloves in a room to the east, which seem like they should be related to this puzzle, but I never found cause to do anything with them.

Similar confusion resulted when I encountered a security area, featuring a force field and a loudspeaker emitting dance music.  My instinct to DANCE caused me to fall, knock myself out and wake up in prison.  We can also enter the prison cells of our own accord in several locations in this area, with the door locking behind us, leaving us facing a barred window with no apparent hope of escape.  In my playthrough, I simply avoided entering or getting thrown into these rooms as I found them, reverting to a saved game as necessary; there's nothing in the cells we need to finish the game.  But subsequent research indicates that LOOK UP reveals that THE BARS LOOK LOOSE!; pity that LOOK BARS yields only I SEE NOTHING SPECIAL.

Returning to the problem at hand, I discovered a computer room with a working computer, a keyboard and a key.  Thinking I might be able to turn off the loudspeaker and/or the force field, I tried to PUSH KEY and TYPE COMMAND and SWITCH COMPUTER and BREAK COMPUTER, all to no avail.  I eventually realized that the key is actually a physical key -- it doesn't work on the prison locks, but can be used to unlock the lift control room later; the computer has no apparent use.  I had a laser gun, but SHOOT SHIELD was not productive.  Neither was BREAK FIELD.  But SMASH FIELD works, as long as we have the gun, a combination I had to rely on a walkthrough to discover.  Once the force field has been weakened, we can DANCE right through it as long as we have the mirror in hand.

We emerge into a HANGER [sic], where our small but powerfull [sic] ship resides.  There's a sleeping security guard here, but he was an extremely sound sleeper during my playthrough.  The Tall Lift (a huge elevator) is out of order, indicated by an OUT OF ORDER SIGN that we can't actually READ or LOOK at, an apparent triumph of alien technology over basic literacy.  There's a starter motor in the lift, which we need to start up our spaceship, but we have to get the lift back into working order to facilitate our escape.

Fortunately, the Lift Control Room has three switches which can be used to activate the lift.  In my first attempt, PUSH SWITCH 2 blew a fuse;  I restored and found that PUSH SWITCH 3 succeeded.  Experimentation establishes that we actually have to PUSH 3, PUSH 2 and PUSH 1, in that order, to activate the lift.  Hindsight enables us to make some sense of the cryptic sign posted nearby reading, 5, 4 NO DUSTY BIN RULES.

We're almost there at this point.  We enter our ship, which has a MAIN switch and an AUX switch.  I made the mistake of PUSHing MAIN first, and THE SPACE SHIP BLEW UP AND KILLED ME.  Restore, PUSH AUX, and our ship flies into the lift, enabling us to reach four buttons that were previously untouchable.  PUSH 1 or 2 or 3 alerts the security guard, ending the game.

PUSH 4, however, gets us safely to a plateau and victory:

I enjoyed playing Planet of Death more than this post might lead one to believe; even though a lot of my exploration had no ultimate purpose, I still enjoyed wandering around the world, fiddling with items, teasing the parser and taking it all in.  I might have had difficulty finishing it without a walkthrough for emergencies, but the design is open enough to encourage play in the more traditional sense, regardless of concrete progress, and that's not a bad thing in an adventure game.

Monday, June 21, 2010

E3 2010 Reactions

I didn't pay much attention to E3 while it was going on this past week -- there's usually some interesting news coming out of the industry's annual confab, but this year seemed notoriously light on big announcements.  Still, there were quite a few major titles announced, and a generally high quality standard.  A few things that caught my attention but did not send me running naked through the streets...

Microsoft has officially branded the Project Natal motion camera for retail - it will now be known as Kinect, a play on kinetic and connect, I presume.  Microsoft is showing off a number of family-friendly titles -- I don't see a Wii Sports killer among them, though obviously there is a Kinect Sports ready to give it a shot.  But I like motion controls and I'm looking forward to seeing how it all pans out.

Nintendo showed off its 3DS, the latest iteration of its handheld, with a novel glasses-free three-dimensional screen from Sharp.  I'm reserving judgment until I can see the display technology in person, as it obviously doesn't translate to 2-D news coverage.  But the software lineup looks strong -- long-awaited Kid Icarus and Pilotwings sequels, and a re-release of Starfox 64 in 3-D.  Third-party support is behind the system as well -- Konami has a Metal Gear Solid title, Square/Enix a Kingdom Hearts game, Tecmo a Dead or Alive sequel, and Capcom is promising a Resident Evil title as well.  At the very least, Nintendo seems to be avoiding some of the technical and support issues that plagued the Virtual Boy, and the system has a built-in 3D camera, something we haven't seen since the View-Master was at its peak.

There are some decent franchise extensions for the Wii as well - the Wii Motion Plus-specific Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Kirby's Epic Yarn and Donkey Kong Country Returns.  And Epic Mickey, a major new Disney title, is apparently looking pretty good too -- I'm a vintage animation fan, so the thought of Mickey dealing with legendary Disney characters including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has me at "Howdy, Folks!"

The Playstation 3 has Sony's Move motion controller, and Infamous 2, SOCOM 4, and Gran Turismo 5 series entries.  And something called Kung Fu Rider that I'm curious about.

Telltale Games, whose episodic adventures I love, announced two major Universal Studios/Steven Spielberg-related licenses -- Back to the Future and Jurassic Park.  On the one hand, I'm very glad that adventure games are becoming mainstream again, enough to support licenses of this magnitude.  On the other, both franchises have a legacy of middling game adaptations.  If anyone can pull it off, I trust Telltale can do the job.

Valve has Portal 2 coming up at some point, I really enjoyed the first one.  And I'm excited about id's Rage, the first major new game from DOOM's creators in quite some while.

It's kind of sad that, for the most part, the games I'm most excited about are sequels.  But none of them strike me as quick cash-ins -- they seem to be worthy projects.  This hardware cycle is lasting longer than usual -- we're five years into the XBox 360 this Christmas -- and perhaps that's giving the industry a chance to breathe and mature.  I certainly can't complain about that.

The LoadDown - 06/21/2010

What's up loading down this week... there seems to be a new trend toward releasing multiple titles in a new franchise at the same time, instead of spacing them out over multiple weeks; perhaps the goal is to make a bigger initial splash in hopes of gaining some traction:

WiiWare -- Three new titles.  Art Style: Rotozoa continues the series with a microscopic action-puzzler.  And two games support The Tales of Bearsworth Manor debut -- Chaotic Conflicts and Puzzling Pages.  Both revolve around placing animated paper bears into puzzle-picture environments, with one story about a boy named Pina and the other about a girl named Kina.

Wii Virtual Console -- Nothing new on the VC this week.

DSiWare -- Five new games again this week.  Spin Six is a puzzle game with numbers instead of colored gewgaws.  Puffins: Lets Fish! is an action game set in the natural world.  Mega Words features a word scramble game, an anagram contest, and hangman.  Super Swap is yet another puzzle game, clearly a popular genre on the handheld.  And Legendary Wars: T-Rex Rumble is a RTS/tower defense hybrid challenging the player to lead a tribe of early humans (with magical shaman powers and dinosaurs, so it's not exactly a realistic simulation.)

XBox Live Arcade --  Just one new XBLA game last week, Space Ark, a family-friendly collect-'em-up.

Game Room -- A third week of games unlocks within Game Pack 005, including Atari's Air-Sea Battle and Activision's Chopper Command for the Atari 2600; Motocross, a rareish late-release title for the Intellivision; and coin-op arcade titles Konami's Ping Pong (not to be confused with generic Ping Pong), and the only game to feature the Atari Force from the DC comics, Liberator.

PS3 on PSN -- Lots of activity last week.  Telltale Games' excellent Tales of Monkey Island arrived on the Playstation 3 as a full-season set.  Catan also arrived, adapted from the popular tabletop strategy game and long popular on the XBox 360.  And Rockin' Android debuted three indie Japanese twitch titles -- all bullet-hell shooters, entitled GundeadliGne, Gundemonium Recollection and Hitogata Happa.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The First Violent and Adult Video Games

Back in the dawning home VCR era, Wizard Video was a pioneer in bringing exploitation movies to VHS and Betamax.  The company was ready to leverage some of the movies it had licensed into another new medium for Christmas 1982, running this full page ad in Electronic Games magazine:

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre actually made it to market, but wasn't really as violent as the ad would have one believe -- the Atari 2600 didn't have the horsepower to render realistic blood spatter.  As promised, the game did cast the player as the vengeful Leatherface, but the innocent victim looking for safety mode failed to arrive at retail.

The titillating X-rated space adventure promised by Flesh Gordon sadly failed to show up at all; its place in Wizard's brief two-game venture into the industry was occupied by Halloween instead.  Based on the ad copy's description, it sounds like Flesh Gordon was planned as a maze/adventure game, loosely based on the movie.  But as it never saw the light of day, kids longing to visit the planet Porno would have to wait until they were older, and would find it to be a sad, pathetic place.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Nintendo Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Whatever one might say about Nintendo's marketing in the late NES era, it certainly wasn't afraid of the proverbial:

In theory, of course, this World of Nintendo photo spread is a concise way of featuring everything from Milton Bradley's licensed Mario and Zelda puzzles to plastic game cases and caddies.

But the two players pictured here are clearly much more interested in each other than in playing Konami's Castlevania -- as evidence, we note that neither can bring himself to actually look at the screen.

And why not?  Nintendo's brochure designers, no doubt recruited from the company's love hotel division,  have created the perfect atmosphere for romance, right down to the neon magenta mood lighting.  And each young man's role is clearly laid out with complementary coded hair-dos -- closeted preppie on the left, rough trade on the right.

A glass of Kool-Aid, a beanbag chair, and thou.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Import: Advanced V.G.

There's a reason Street Fighter II endures, while so many rival 2-D fighting games have come and gone.  It's a deep, well-balanced game that rewards practice and technique, timing and finesse.  It's still just a "best in the world" championship story, but its cast of outlandish characters makes up in personality what the plot fails to provide in terms of believable motivation.

Unlike, for example, Advanced V.G., a Japanese fighting game for the PC Engine Super CD-ROM which gets just about everything... not wrong, but not particularly right either.

The publisher, TGL (Technical Group Laboratory) is still around as a systems integration company, but has not been in the game business for quite a while.  The game supports the 6-button PC Engine controller as well as the classic 2-button model, and the game's primary appeal seems to be its all-female cast:

The game doesn't go out of its way to be sexy or "adult," so it never feels seedy; it's played mostly for cuteness, with the occasional bit of modestly torn clothing for ecchi spice.

That said, main character Yuka really ought to invest in a longer skirt if she's going to be doing this sort of thing on a regular basis:

The music is generic -- the best (or at least the most interesting) track is the techno tune accompanying Ayako's dance club environment.  And the character animation is weird -- instead of full-body sprites, the characters are often structured in blocks, with most of the body remaining stationary while arms or legs fly.  The approach leads to weird angles and static, hunchbacked postures that never quite look natural.

On the other hand, the floor scrolls in simulated 3-D perspective, no mean feat on the PC Engine, and the game has some substance, with a lavishly illustrated and fully-voiced Story Mode that (from what my English-only observation can discern) lays out Yuka's story from birth to fighting adulthood.  All of the still images are quite nicely presented:

I found the game fairly challenging in Story Mode -- I spent several rounds trying to help Yuka defeat her first opponent, Jun, to no avail.  So I switched to the Normal Mode, and tried out several different characters before discovering one of those fatal flaws that lesser fighting games tend to exhibit.

As it turns out, crazy little cat-pawed pink-haired Manami is equipped with rapid-fire kicks and punches that make very short work of her opponents.  I was able to breeze through the game in about half an hour on the default difficulty setting, just being aggressive and beating on all comers with Manami's fists of furry:

Even her own doppelganger proved easy to beat:

This lack of balance is in large part due to weak AI -- opponents tend to block even when a blow is in no danger of landing anywhere nearby.  This makes it easy for Manami to fake them out with quick feints, causing her rival fighter to freeze momentarily while she inches close enough to administer a rapid-fire series of uppercuts.
There's not even a final boss to deal with; once Manami has beaten all 9 playable characters, her victory ending appears, yen flying:

Although we shortly discover she's just a little girl fantasizing a la Walter Mitty, hiding out with her siblings while Mom wonders who broke the window with her overenthusiastic fists:

I'm not particularly good at fighting games, so the fact I was able to beat this one in my first play session says something about its overall quality.  It's not so much that Advanced V.G. is awful -- it's just nondescript, and a bit on the easy side after a little experimentation.  The fighting action is weak, the animation isn't impressive, and the characters are stereotypical.

Though it does come with a nice full-color manual.

Not recommended for most purposes, but if you're a fan of anime girl fighters, be my guest.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

At Random: Cyber Speedway

I tend to grow my game collection eclectically and indiscriminately, i.e., whenever I find something I don't already own at a reasonable price in reasonably good condition.  So I'm starting this occasional feature to force myself to close my eyes, pick something from the stack and get around to actually playing it.  In this first installment, we'll take a look at Sega's Cyber Speedway, a futuristic racer for the ill-fated Sega Saturn console published in 1995, with visual design assistance from the legendary Syd Mead:

The first consoles to take 3-D seriously hosted a lot of racing games, because the genre was an obvious fit for the technology.  The Saturn was intended as a 2-D powerhouse, hastily retrofitted to face Sony's impressive Playstation.  Creating polygonal 3-D characters was a serious challenge on the Saturn, but vehicles and simple backdrops were more feasible, and a straightforward racer could provide a solid library title without eating a lot of development resources.

Syd Mead was a visual consultant on the movie TRON, and his influence on Cyber Speedway is most visible in the racer design -- the ships are sleek, angular beasts with energy forks at the front and flat, smooth panels, carved into low-polygon models suited to the Saturn's capabilities. 

The backgrounds are less successful -- popup is a major problem, with distant walls flickering in and out until the player approaches more closely.  And visual variety is limited by available memory -- most circuits are barren and repetitive, with just a few textures that become visibly low-res up close:

I appreciated the simple but worthwhile controls provided for adjusting and balancing the ship's fundamental characteristics; several special features are introduced gradually as the game progresses: 

The game has a straightforward arcade-style racing mode, and a story mode concerning the main character's quest to be the best on the galactic circuit, limited to 3 continues to maintain a level of challenge.  The story is presented using nicely-shaded manga-style intermissions, albeit on a budget -- the voices are professionally acted, but there's no animation to speak of, and the Saturn had no transparency or alpha-channel capabilities, so the characters display rough pixel outlines when overlaid on the Mead-influenced backgrounds:

Sega produced many worthy arcade racers, and the racing action here is moderately enjoyable, but this Saturn title was easily outflanked (OutRun?) by Psygnosis' impressive Wipeout for the Playstation (and later the Nintendo 64).  Cyber Speedway feels sluggish and earthbound in comparison --  the ships hover and bank nicely enough, but there are no ramps or steep curves on the basic looping tracks, and the offensive weaponry feels pedestrian and proves hard to deploy effectively against opponents.  It took me a little while to master the controls, learning how to drift through a curve, accelerating partway through to account for the lack of friction, but once I was able to place consistently in the top three I started to lose interest.

One down...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Elsewhere: Solar Fox TV Ad

YouTube has many worthy purposes, time warping among them.

So as I have no new podcast episode for you this week, please entertain yourselves with this vintage television ad for the console versions of Midway's arcade game Solar Fox, starring Jane Krakowski, recently of 30 Rock, doing her best space valley girl:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Oo-Topos (1987 ver.)

This week, we take a look at a classic Penguin/Polarware game created by Michael Berlyn of Infocom fame, with Muffy Berlyn: Oo-Topos.  The game started life as a text adventure, published by Berlyn's own Sentient Software in 1981; this upgraded 1987 release added vector-and-fill graphics that ported well to multiple platforms, thanks to Penguin's Graphics Magician toolkit.  For this playthrough, I tackled the IBM PC edition in 4-color CGA; former Polarware principal Mark Pelczarski has graciously made the IBM and Apple II versions available for free download here.

The plot is standard sci-fi text adventure fare -- captured by aliens, the player needs to solve puzzles and round up items to repair his/her ship and escape.  But the execution is very solid -- the illustrations are clean and attractive, the text is evocative and detailed, and the puzzles are challenging but make logical sense.  It's one of the best executions I've seen of a classic interactive fiction trope; if you played one escape-the-alien-ship adventure in 1987, I hope it was Oo-Topos.

Oo-Topos isn't overly easy, but the puzzles are fair and it's a great game, so I urge interested readers to go and play this one before continuing here.  As always in this series, I will be documenting the details to illuminate this title's place in the genre's history -- which means there are plenty of...

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

The player starts out in a prison cell, with nothing but a bottle of liquid, some food, and a locked door.  I liked the way this puzzle sets the tone for the game -- a little examination reveals that our alien captors have used a rather cheap means of securing the otherwise impenetrable door, and BREAK LOCK (three times) gains us some measure of freedom.

The first sequence requires tight timing, building a solid sense of drama -- we have to emerge from the cell, turn off the alarm, and avail ourselves of a laser gun to take out an alien guard.  I was initially disoriented by Berlyn's substantial text, because it scrolls behind the graphic illustration, and the four lines visible at the bottom of the screen aren't always enough to keep track of what's going on.  I quickly learned to use the ENTER key to toggle between graphic and text mode, where the exits are usually listed as part of the room description.

There are fatalities, but they are gently presented -- getting caught by the scaly Oo-Topans just sends us back to the cell, stripped of progress, and other deadly situations like poison gas, radiation sickness, and unprepared airlock access involve passing out before anything graphic occurs, with a press of the R key to restart the novel.  It's a pleasant approach, one that allows for unhappy endings but doesn't gloat over the player's demise.

Most of the shipboard puzzles are practical and mechanical in nature -- it's too dark to see in many rooms, but a light-rod that lasts for a reasonably generous 200 turns can be found with a little exploration.  There are no neck-breaking falls in the dark, so with familiarity it's possible to navigate without switching the light on and off (note that LIGHT LIGHT-ROD does not work, probably due to the parser's dictionary; we use the more sensible and intuitively complementary TURN ON LIGHT-ROD and TURN OFF LIGHT-ROD.)  There are colored buttons with sensible functions we can discover with experimentation, and a strange warp zone that behaves consistently and can be mapped to provide shortcuts around the large alien ship.  My only disappointment was an intriguing-looking alien game discovered in progress -- I expected to have to learn and master an interesting new challenge, but a simple PULL HANDLE generates an instant win.

The path of most resistance in the game's first act involves a sentinel robot that protects a critical translation device.  To disable the pesky droid, we have to obtain a flask of acid and the laser, using one to open up its reflective laser-proof armor and the other to knock it out for good.  I ran into an odd bug here when my attempt to POUR ACID ON SENTINEL failed -- I was knocked back, but until I figured out I had to THROW ACID instead, the room displayed the remains of the sentinel robot AND an active sentinel, which continued to harass me with its sonic blasts.

Compared to earlier Polarware graphics adventures like Transylvania, where the illustrations were fairly crude, the graphics of Oo-Topos are excellent.  They're rendered in formal perspective, with clean, sharp lines and good use of color, even on the CGA IBM PC.  There are some limitations -- objects are only visually displayed in their initial locations, so we must rely on text if we drop something and have to go looking for it.  And the illustrations inadvertently make the "strange zone" mapping much easier, as the abstract room drawings vary and make it possible to navigate based on visual cues, rather than dropping objects, moving north-west-south-east-up-down, and laying out a map in the traditional fashion.

One oddity of the text/graphics approach is that whenever we drop something, the response includes the phrase, Here, there is:, followed by the name of the item just dropped.  It doesn't show everything in the room, just the item recently deposited, which can be misleading on quick review.

I'm beginning to think this is a personal bias on my part, but once again I find myself appreciating the well-explicated, sensible science fiction on show here.  We get to explore futuristic technology and meet strange creatures, with plenty of room for the imagination, but the rules make sense and puzzles can generally be figured out without resorting to magic words or nonsensical actions.  Even ENTER 4-D MIRROR seems plausible, because the mirror is clearly presented as some kind of transdimensional window into other locations.  I did get stuck at one point near the game's climax, needing a mission code I had failed to discover; it's actually in the documentation (and apparently was different in the text and graphics versions of Oo-Topos, so walkthroughs may confuse the issue.)

The game exhibits a refined and accommodating old-school sense of humor in its responses, anticipating actions both successful and unsuccessful.  EXAMINE PODIUM yields Be daring! Go on up there!  An acid-dispensing nozzle refuses to accept the plastic bottle, or any object other than approved lab equipment, i.e. the flask.  And objects often have multiple uses, or attempted uses -- WEAR GOGGLES darkens our vision, enabling us to see in a painfully bright room.  The goggles don't do anything to help resolve our confusion in the mirror room, nor can the mirrors be broken (also anticipated), but they do reveal a bit of graffiti added to the illustrated edition:

As it turns out, the energy-absorbing plasma sphere obtained by wearing the goggles is not strong enough to soak up some nasty radiation blocking our access to a Navchip.  To do that, we need the energy converter guarded by the Grix -- a creature with incredible lung capacity, whom we can distract by caging and releasing a cute, furry Snarl in the medical theatre.

The game's story is well-developed early on, but ultimately it's a creatively-framed, two-pronged object hunt.  We have to round up quite a few parts to restore our ship to working order, AND find enough treasures to convince the ship's AI that we can raise the cash needed to make our way home.  More plot-related, to ensure a successful escape we have to turn off the Oo-Topan tractor beam and AVOID calling the pirate fleet back -- fortunately, we get an early warning that the fleet will return in ninety minutes, giving us time to restore and avoid the poor decision.
The tractor beam isn't the only Star Wars reference at hand; when we discover a holographic crystal containing all knowledge of the human race, and insert it into the handy holographic projector...

At one point we learn that the aliens piloting the ship on which we are held captive haven't really figured it out either -- the biolab has been unused for years.  This idea doesn't figure into the plot much, but it does explain why so much of the ship is deserted, and it's an intriguing concept that enriches the game world.

The translator, hard as it is to obtain, doesn't ultimately prove very informative.  A mural caption reads Battle of Androli Kalaptus; the bottle reads Save for emergencies, a useful hint about its life-saving properties should we be bitten later by a crab on the beach.  The only required use of the translator is to read a pillar with a transporting sphere that reads taka ele leva in the Oo-Topan dialect; TAKA takes us to another location, LEVA brings us back.

I didn't have much luck with the gravtubes scattered around the map, until I found the central chamber and pushed a button to activate the gravtube system.  It can be used to navigate around the map, and is the only route to a garbage disposal area.  Here, we have to use the goggles to find a button that shuts off the disposal system; otherwise there isn't time to retrieve our spacesuit, helmet and gloves no matter how efficiently we move.

Oo-Topos is a substantial game -- I thought I was about done as I entered the airlock, but eventually found myself in an alien jungle with quite a bit more to accomplish.  Going E or N from the airlock is a fifty-foot drop; my first attempt proved fatal, and I spent some time looking for a way to make a softer landing to the east before attempting suicide again, and landing softly on the north side.  Fortunately, we can (and must) get back up to the alien ship by using the gravcar parked in a tunnel to the south.  It travels up or down only, passing through a natural airlock, and if we leave it parked at the upper end and jump down from the airlock, we're stuck.

I had to rely on a walkthrough for a little help in this area.  It wasn't clear to me that a jungle flower was a manipulable object in one jungle location, where we have to GET or TOUCH FLOWER to reveal an emerald.  I also wouldn't have realized that THROW [object] INTO SEA gets rid of the collecting robot guarding the shield generator -- the reed is a good item to use, after mesmerizing a creature called the Huja, though it appears any item will work (and be lost in the process.)

I also had a hard time figuring out how to disable the force field in the TAKA/LEVA catwalk area -- it kept me from exploring freely, but I couldn't figure out how it worked or how to turn it off.  I tried wearing the gold ring found in the airlock, but that didn't make any difference, nor did exhausting pretty much every other puzzle in the game.  Even the walkthroughs I found online were not directly forthcoming about the actual solution, though they incorporated it into their procedures -- we have to bring the shield generator along, as it apparently counteracts the force field in some way.  There's not much to do in this area once we're free to investigate, but it does contain several of the parts we need. 

In case you get hung up as I did, the MISSION CODE prompt expects a bit of text from the documentation -- different versions appear to accept TSE957X or VUG957A.  The onboard computer recites quite a litany of missing parts at this point; fortunately, the STATUS command will reiterate and update as we fill in the blanks.

Once all the missing parts are found and installed, the computer refuses to launch as it doesn't know if we have enough money to buy fuel at the Mealy Sukas outpost so we can make it the rest of the way home.  We have to go through our inventory and VALUE [item] until the computer has confirmed that we possess 497.9 frods' worth of treasure -- and of course, it's fairly easy to get to 497, but reaching the stated goal requires a bit more thoroughness.  I liked this -- it was a creative way to handle what would otherwise just be a treasure hunt with no direct bearing on the plot.

Once the computer is satisfied, the rest of the game is straightforward, assuming we haven't left the tractor beam on or otherwise impeded our escape.  The computer prompts us to close the airlock, sends us to the bridge, and we're off -- the rest of the story is wrapped up with text and illustration.  We arrive back on Earth to greet the cheering throngs, in one of those unfortunate moments where graphics diminish the scope of the text.  But it's a happy ending nonetheless:

I thoroughly enjoyed playing Oo-Topos -- Michael Berlyn's prose is solid, the world is fun to explore, and the game features worthwhile challenges that aren't obtuse or aggravating.  It's the closest thing to an Infocom game I've seen among these early graphic adventures, and holds up well today.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Video Games Are Un-Islamic

A BBC news story today describes a spate of religious thuggery in parts of Somalia where Islamist militants hold sway.  Roving enforcers spent the weekend threatening and arresting people caught watching the World Cup.  Two people were even killed in an attack on a house where the game was being watched, in violation of local rebel authorities' strict interpretation of Sharia law.
The full story is here.

I bring this up because the article mentions in passing that video games are similarly banned, along with music and other distractions that might tempt young men into having premarital fun.  (This particular belief system's holy decrees are notoriously light on concern for young women, one will note.)  And there's no coming-of-age threshold on this matter -- such things are never to be tolerated.

Video games.  Separation of church and state.

I think the world can always do with a little more of both.

The LoadDown - 06/14/2010

A very active week on the line...

WiiWare -- Three titles this week.  A big PopCap name in casual gaming arrives with Bejeweled 2Arcade Sports features Air Hockey, Bowling, Pool and Snooker.  Yard Sale Hidden Treasures: Sunnyville is a hidden-object game on a subject near and dear to retro gamers' hearts.

Wii Virtual Console -- The VC is back in action this week with Natsume's Shadow of the Ninja for the 8-bit NES, featuring 13 levels of intense ninja action created (if memory serves) by former Konami employees.

DSiWare -- A whopping five titles this week.  A Kappa's Trail tasks the player with helping a kappa (a Japanese river spirit, not a frat boy) to make his way to the human world.  Telegraph Crosswords brings crossword puzzles from the Telegraph newspaper to the DSi.  Flips: Silent but Deadly is another interactive eBook for young readers.  Music on: Electronic Keyboard turns the DSi into a simple synthesizer, though the touch screen's single-point-of-contact technology seems limiting.  And Hudson's truly hardcore 16 Shot! SHOOTING WATCH challenges players to match or beat the legendary Master Takahashi's rapid fire button-pressing skills, with graphs and statistics.

XBox Live Arcade -- Two games last week -- Earthworm Jim HD brings the classic 16-bit platformer to XBLA with redrawn graphics that maintain the original style.  NeoGeo Battle Coliseum brings multiple SNK fighting-game franchises together, with some new characters and plenty of action.

Game Room -- Steady releases continue, with Game Pack 004 unlocking Intellivision Baseball, Atari's Circus Atari for the 2600, Activision's 2600 games River Raid II and Sky Jinks, and Konami's arcade game Video Hustler, an odd choice given that the company already has another coin-op pool contest (Rack 'Em Up) on the platform.

PS3 on PSN -- Two games last week - Joe Danger, an E-rated comical stunt racing game with a track editor, and multiplatform action/puzzler Voodoo Dice.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Get Disorganized with the World of Nintendo!

When the NES was at its peak around 1990, Nintendo convinced numerous retailers to open "World of Nintendo" specialty areas within their stores, pushing all things Nintendo EXCEPT actual videogame hardware and software.  Nintendo produced a 20-page brochure to promote these gewgaws, and its pages are rife with 80's-cum-90's style -- weird neon/pastel color combinations, feathered hair, and young models doing their best to look enthralled by the complete Nintendo lifestyle.

Two pages of the brochure are devoted to a "Get Organized!" theme.  Unfortunately, either the photographer and model were having a laugh and never intended this photo featuring A.L.S. Industries' Wood Cartridge Holder to be used in the finished brochure, or nobody at the shoot had a clue what they were doing:

The teenager in the Nintendo hat and Zelda shirt appears to have removed all of his cartridges from the A.L.S. Wood Cartridge Holder, and is unsuccessfully trying to stuff his Bandai Hyperstick, Acclaim Remote Controller and Nintendo Zapper into the box instead.

For its part, the cartridge holder, indignant at this misuse, is actively rejecting the inappropriate items, registered trademarks flying as the Zapper dangles, upside down and forlorn.

And A.L.S. management, no doubt, is rejecting any idea of challenging its benefactors at Nintendo over this no doubt honest mistake, and is frantically downsizing its sales projections for the Wood Cartridge Holder.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Intellicon Fixes the Atari 5200

Clearly, Atari didn't do everything right with the release of the Atari 5200 Supersystem, meant to be the obvious successor to the hugely popular 2600.  Third-party company Intellicon (unlicensed, but in the pre-Nintendo days every third party publisher was unlicensed) saw a couple of opportunities and decided to fill the most prominent gaps in Atari's own product line:

The Masterplay 5200 simply mapped an Atari 2600-style joystick to full-throttle cardinal directions on the 5200's analog joystick -- which was exactly what gamers needed for arcade games like Pac-Man that didn't work well with the 5200's floppy, non-centering stick.  And durability was always a problem -- I can't remember the last time I ran across a 5200 with joysticks in working condition -- so this device would be a welcome addition to any modern collection.

And for some reason, Atari opted not to release its 5200 version of Asteroids, leaving a major hole in the software lineup where one of the company's most popular games ever should have been.  So Intellicon produced its own version called METEORITES, and was cheeky enough to include a review quote here, calling it "a dead ringer" for Atari's original game.

Both of these products actually did come out, albeit primarily via mail-order, and Intellicon likely benefited engineering-wise from its proximity to MIT.  And the marketing department knew enough to write a credible ad appealing to the knowledgeable -- bypassing the Atari 5200 player/missile system to get more moving objects on screen was a clever idea.

Which means... wow.  I have actually found nothing snarky to say about this vintage advertisement.

Oh, wait... here it comes.

Atari! WTF?!?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Of Import: Brandish

The Ys games are among my favorite action RPG's, and I'm always interested in publisher Falcom's other projects, most of which never came to the US.  Brandish started life on Japanese personal computers, and was actually released in this country on the SNES by Koei.  I hadn't encountered the game before I picked up this imported version, one of the few games for the PC Engine that runs on the Super CD-ROM system card but also takes advantage of the Arcade card's additional memory capacity.

The game opens with a narrated prologue, followed by an animated confrontation between our hero and a comely sorceress who features prominently on the game packaging.

For American gamers, the game proper isn't too hard to deal with -- much of the text is in English, and useful objects are represented with icons that will be familiar to anyone who's spent any time playing these sorts of games.  We can't read the plaques on the wall for the hints presumably contained therein, but a little wandering trial-and-error generally suffices to figure things out on our own.

The screen interface is similarly scrutable -- a large window depicting our hero and his surroundings, HP and MP bars, a display of his current equipment and additional items, a text status window (blank below) and an automap window:

The first real adjustment the player has to make is to the game's perspective -- the dungeon is presented using an overhead view, but the map rotates around the player whenever our hero turns.  We can walk backward and forward by pressing up and down on the D-pad, but pressing right or left causes us to turn in that direction, unless we hold the I button down to lock into a strafing type of movement.

Of course, our hero can't actually strafe -- he's equipped with the most short-ranged of weapons, and faced with enemies who blit from block to block, often narrowly avoiding his blows.  He can only attack enemies directly in front of him, and we must hit the button to help him do so.  This makes certain classes of enemies, such as the fast-moving dragonflies encountered early on, rather difficult to deal with.

The less-frequently-used controls are also challenging -- the game does support the PC Engine mouse, but the standard two-button control scheme most players will use relies heavily on tricky combinations.  To open a door, we must face it, hold the II button and press down; to jump we have to hit the I button and up together. Opening doors can usually be accomplished with repeated attempts, but jumping over pits and traps is significantly more difficult.

Even though Brandish came out late in the PC Engine's lifespan, the in-game graphics are not very detailed, with small, simply-animated sprites.  The Arcade system card is exploited primarily to minimize loading time, and the CD-ROM storage capacity isn't used for much in the way of illustration.  At least there are a few attractive close-up portraits of shopkeepers and other useful individuals, who in the grand RPG tradition seem to have no problem reaching their offices despite the vicious monsters marauding through the hallways:

The utility menu is mostly in English, but it has its operational quirks. The Save and Load interface seems to be inverted from the norm -- one has to select File I or File II first, THEN click on Save or Load, which in my initial forays caused all of my save attempts to fail.

The RPG aspects of the game are very traditional -- there's an experience bar that fills up as we fight, and eventually we graduate to the next level, with attribute improvements per usual.  But the game doesn't make it easy to reach the second level -- the character starts out injured, below his full complement of hit points, and the low-level monsters are more capable than the player.  Most frustrating of all, the enemies continuously respawn, but the player's best weapon can only deal out so much damage before it is destroyed and he must equip another, if he has been lucky enough to find one.  The player can fight reasonably well with his fists alone, fortunately, but until I discovered a healing fountain, I saw this screen a lot:

Brandish is old-fashioned in many ways, with grid-based dungeon layouts and simple statistics.  And the interface is clunky, making it seem even older than it is.  What I could grasp of the story didn't motivate me to try to finish the game's many levels, but I still enjoyed spending a few hours wandering through the bowels of Falcom's dungeons, yet again.

It's a novelty, but not a bad game.  The SNES version is in English, but if the more exotic PC Engine version appeals, you may be able to find it at this affiliate link.