Thursday, June 30, 2011

The LoadDown - 06/30/2011

Another week of new downloadable titles... I must have jumped the gun on last week's reporting, as several games flew under my radar, so I'll try to include appropriate updates this week.  One other detail I've neglected to note is that Nintendo's recently launched eShop for the 3DS actually prices its wares in cash terms -- no more "points" to accrue and leave unused when the platform goes away some day.  Microsoft is doing the same for downloads of retail games, and I'd like to see this trend continue.

WiiWare -- One new title this week, Big Town Shoot Out, a collection of Western-themed light gun (Wii remote/Zapper) minigames.

Wii Virtual Console -- A big one this week: Square-Enix's classic SNES RPG Final Fantasy III (US numbering) arrives on the Wii Virtual Console.  I never actually played this one back in the day, so I may have to pick it up.

DSiWare -- Several new games, as usual.  Moto eXtreme is a wild motocross game with attractive graphics.  Boardwalk Ball Toss dives as deeply into the old carnival milk bottle target game as seems humanly possible (and seems like it would be more at home on the Wii, though I guess the DSi stylus can recognize a throwing action.)  Hearts Spades Euchre is a collection of three classic card games, per its title.  The Lost Town - The Dust is an interesting anime/RPG with a combat-heavy, tower defense-influenced approach; oddly, it appears to only be available via the Nintendo eShop, and not through the normal DSiWare channel, though I can't be sure I'm understanding the publicity materials correctly.

3DS eStore -- A Game Boy classic starring Nintendo's roly-poly power-acquiring hero, Kirby's Dream Land, is now available on the 3DS, in its original 2-D form.  Moto eXtreme, Boardwalk Ball Toss and Hearts Spades Euchre are also available on the 3DS as well as the DSi.  I'm still confused about whether The Lost Town - The Dust is available for the 3DS; hopefully Nintendo's press releases and DSiWare/eShop direction will clarify shortly.

XBox Live Arcade --  Catching up here, as contrary to my impressions, there WERE a few new XBLA titles last week.  Trenched is yet another interesting small-scale title from Double Fine, featuring tower defense and shooter action with a nice retro art style.  Lucha Fury is a side-scrolling beat-'em-up featuring masked wrestlers.  This week, there are three new titles: Namco's Galaga Legions DX, a followup to the earlier enhanced/remade version of the classic coin-op shooter; Half-Minute Hero Super Mega Neo Climax, a series of very short RPG challenges brought over from the PSP; and Backbreaker: Vengeance is a set of minigames based on the Backbreaker football game.

PS3 on PSN -- Somehow, last week I missed one new PS3 game:  Alien Zombie Mega Death, a side-scrolling platform/shooter game with cartoonish 2.5-D graphics.  This week, PS3 owners get several new titles.  Beyond Good & Evil HD is a visually upgraded version of the flawed but worthwhile action game.  Gatling Gears is an isometric steampunk co-op shooter, seen on XBLA in May.  Puzzle Dimension is a casual puzzle game that starts out looking retro and becomes more visually modern as the player progresses.  And Streets of Rage 2 is the classic Genesis beat-'em-up, with trophies added.

PSOne Classics -- Nothing new here this week, or last.  At least I'm pretty sure that's correct!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ultra Review Roundtable: NEC Insanity!

Ed.: The Ultra Review Roundtable crew returns, with a tribute to NEC's popular PC Engine, a console near and dear to my heart.  We have a special contribution this round from sunteam_paul, curator of the PC Engine Software Bible and host of one of my favorite game music podcasts, Wibble.  Enjoy!

Welcome to the wonderful world of NEC! After numerous showings with strong titles on other systems, the Hudson Bee has graced us with one of the greatest systems of all time. All of NEC’s systems have become something of a collector’s dream as the gaming generations continue to expire. In this article we will list a majority of the different consoles that were released by NEC as well as the portable systems that played the same line of games.

TurboGrafx-16 Entertainment SuperSystem

Manufacturer: NEC Corporation

Generation: Fourth

Released: 1989

Media Format: HuCard

The TurboGrafx-16 has an 8-bit CPU and a dual 16-bit GPU; and is capable of displaying 482 colors simultaneously, out of 512. With dimensions of 14 cm × 14 cm × 3.8 cm (5.5in × 5.5in × 1.5in).

PC Engine / CoreGrafx I & II

Manufacturer: NEC Corporation

Generation: Fourth

Released: 1987,  1989, 1991

Media Format: HuCard

The NEC PC Engine is the Japanese version of the TurboGrafx-16. It holds the record for the world's smallest game console ever made.

Turbo Express / PC Engine GT

Manufacturer: NEC Corporation

Generation: Fourth

Released: 1990

Media Format: HuCard

The TurboExpress/PC Engine GT is a portable version of the TurboGrafx/PC Engine. It was the most advanced handheld of its time and could play all the TG-16's HuCard games five years before the Sega Nomad could do the same for Sega Genesis games.

PC Engine LT

Manufacturer: NEC Corporation

Generation: Fourth

Released: 1991

Media Format: HuCard

Semi-portable system with no battery option that is similar in size to a normal PC Engine. It uses a very large attached screen, and folds up like a laptop, hence the LT moniker.

PC Engine CD, SuperCD / TurboGrafx CD

Manufacturer: NEC Corporation

Generation: Fourth

Released: 1989, 1991

Media Format: CD

The TurboGrafx-16 was the first major video game console to have a CD-ROM peripheral, following the PC-Engine Super CD-ROM² add-on in Japan. This was the first time that CD-ROM discs were used as a storage medium for video games.

TurboDuo / PC Engine Duo, Duo R, Duo RX

Manufacturer: NEC Corporation

Generation: Fourth

Released: 1991-1994

Media Format: HuCard & CD

The Duo systems combined the TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine and an enhanced version of the CD-ROM drive (the "Super CD-ROM²") into a single unit. The system could play audio CDs, CD+Gs, CD-ROM2 and Super CD games as well as standard HuCards.

Pioneer LaserActive NEC PAC Module

Manufacturer: Pioneer & NEC

Generation: Fourth

Released: 1993

Media Format: HuCard, CD, LD

Pioneer Electronics (USA) and NEC Home Electronics released a module for the LaserActive that allows users to play 8-inch and 12-inch LaserActive LD-ROM2 discs, as well as current TurboGrafx CD-ROM discs, game HuCards and CD+G discs.

Onto the Reviews!

Sushi-Xpired from

TurboGrafx16 Memory: Buying a TurboGrafx-16 and a copy of Legendary Axe at Toys R Us on a Saturday night in the fall of 1989, rushing home to hook it up, and finding out that my first console wasn’t quite assembled correctly. I still managed to play a little bit of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, with garbled graphics, before taking it back to exchange the next morning. My second favorite NEC memory is finally buying a real PC Engine in 2010.

Developed by: Hudson Soft

Published by: NEC

Released: 1990

Genre: Action / Platformer

Perspective: 2D Side View

Quote: “This one’s a peach, boy!”

The legend of Momotarou, the Peach Boy, is as well known in Japan as the tale of Hansel and Gretel is in the US. It has all the traditional mythic fairy-tale elements -- an aging laborer is served a peach by his loving wife, and to the couple's great surprise a boy hatches out of it. The boy grows up, grows strong and sets out to liberate a demon's treasures, armed only with a sword and some dumplings made by his adoptive mother, assisted by some animals he meets along the way.

Demon Attack! Tough!

Several Momotarou-inspired RPG games were produced for the Japanese PC Engine, but Momotarou Katsugeki took a different tack -- it's an excellent little platformer made by the system's creators at Hudson Soft. It plays reasonably well without knowledge of Japanese, and is an inventive game, always coming up with something fresh, even an homage to Nichibutsu's arcade game Crazy Climber. It’s even more impressive that it’s all crammed into a HuCard cartridge, with chipper chip-tunes and decent animation.

There's also considerably more depth to Momotarou Katsugeki than is at first apparent. We can visit towns to restock our health-restoring supplies, play a variety of gambling mini-games to earn or lose coins, and purchase odd power-ups like gassy foods that give Momotarou a temporarily bidirectional mode of attack. And if we've earned sufficient funds by mugging demons along the way, we can upgrade our weapons courtesy of the cutest arms dealer ever.

While the cartridge format means that inevitably a lot of enemy sprites get reused later on, there’s still a lot variety. Pirouetting yellow demons are invulnerable until they spin themselves sick and collapse on the ground, fire-breathing demons have a much greater range than Momotarou's standard weapon, and irritable bunny rabbits hop across the land, sowing destruction wherever they bounce.

It’s not an easy game, either. The platforming challenges are tricky in places, and it’s not hard to take so much damage that Peach Boy shuffles up this mortal coil and wings his way heavenward:

Does Mario give you full frontal nudity? I think not!

It's too bad that Momotarou Katsugeki never came to the West. Peach Boy could have been another Bonk for NEC's TurboGrafx-16 in the US, but sadly it seems to have been deemed "too Japanese" by the American marketing department. Another missed opportunity for NEC.

4 Hudson Bees out of 5

RetroJC from
TurboGrafx16 Memory: Completion of Castlevania Rondo X Blood, took me 2 years!

Developed by: UPL Company Limited

Published by: NEC

Released: 1990

Genre: Action

Perspective: Overhead

Quote: “Some of the most fluent and crisp graphics on the PC Engine as well as an equally enjoyable soundtrack”

The PC Engine for me is the castle in which many hidden treasures lie, but above all others Gomola Speed sticks out as the consoles finest.

You’ll notice 2 things when you first start playing Gomola Speed, English text (very welcome) and a tutorial.  Practically unknown at the time, a in game tutorial will teach you the basics, which covers almost all of everything you’d need to know.

You play as a worm made up of many or few sphere segments, with the sole purpose of escaping. Here lies the problem; to escape you’re going to need to navigate the levels, which are littered with enemies. To destroy an enemy you have to encircle it, but with your worm like body breaking off segments at any instance of enemy contact this game isn’t easy; however, you’re able to recollect segments and pick up the extras scattered throughout the levels.

You’re able to drop bombs, and speed up which I advise doing in that order as no matter how advantageous dropping a bomb on an enemy is bombs don’t discriminate, and you’re likely to get hurt. Bombs only stun enemies, so hold on to them, encircling an enemy also gives points which is worth doing until you realise they regenerate a faster, more aimed enemy. Throughout you’re also going to face level bosses, these need to be defeated before you can go on, unlike almost all enemies you’ll encounter throughout.

Though in text Gomola Speed sounds like some weird take on a generic dungeon crawler, it’s more a cross over of a puzzler and dungeon crawler, but don’t worry you’re going to have difficulty categorising it too.

Gomola Speed excels in graphics and sound. With some of the most fluent and crisp graphics on the PC Engine as well as an equally enjoyable soundtrack, Gomola Speed to this day looks and sounds great almost 2 decades later. Levels are varied, and with 25 different levels to play through Gomola Speed isn’t a quick game either.

Though the game will frustrate at points (blame the developers arcade background) you won’t ever be as far pushed to throw down the controller. It’s a fantastic game that remains a hidden gem, sadly the developer separated shortly after Gomola’s release, however rumours are rife with Gomola Speed’s development team in that they were head hunted by Nintendo, a testament to how good this game is.

Not only is this Japanese game English text throughout but it’s also a truly brilliant game that truly deserves a genre to its self. To this day it’s still remarkably cheap to pick up, and for me the PC Engines greatest unknown.

4 Hudson Bees out of 5

HagenDragmire from
Favorite NEC Memory: I remember the classic asshole neighbor kids who always seemed to get every game when it came out. Of course they got the TurboGrafx-16 when it was released and a ton of the titles for it that came out at the time. Playing Bonk’s Adventure for the first time was such an amazing new experience, kind of like playing Mario or Sonic for the first time. There was just something about playing a brand new, solidly made, platformer back in that era with all those crisp graphics and cheery music that was always a great experience.

Developed by: Hudson Soft

Published by: NEC

Released: 1990

Genre: Action / Adventure

Perspective: Overhead

Quote: “The entire presentation makes this game an amazing alternative to the typical Hyrule Fantasy.

Being a huge Legend of Zelda fan, I can’t believe that I never played Neutopia until recently. If you could have taken the hero Jazeta and replaced him with Link it would be difficult to tell it apart from the series.

Neutopia begins with the young warrior Jazeta arriving at the Sacred Shrine and is given the task to retrieve the eight spiritual medallions and defeat the evil Dirth and his invading demon horde to rescue the captured Princess Aurora. Throughout the land of Neutopia, there are four self contained areas and the Climatic Castle. This is all your standard fantasy plot fare and doesn’t stray story-wise whatsoever.

The gameplay in Neutopia is so similar to the Legend of Zelda it’s almost uninspired. You move along an overworld to find a dungeon to get the medallion. In each dungeon there is an item to power you up as well as a boss to fight. After defeating the boss you get your health increased by one and move back to the overworld to find the next dungeon to get the next medallion. One difference in Neutopia is that you basically have to go to each dungeon in order as there are only two dungeons in each area and the second generally needs an item found on the overworld in order to access it or navigate through it.

Straightforward Boss Fights

You spend much more time in the overworld than in each dungeon as most of the time you are just blindly searching for the next dungeon while deciphering the nonsense that the cave dwellers are spouting off or trying to randomly come across a key item. The dungeons are so easy and straightforward that they almost a joke. The bosses have patterns that are fairly easy to figure out and it really only takes a few minutes per dungeon max. How Neutopia counters this straightforward and easy difficulty is through continual respawning enemies and a very low enemy health item drop rate. If this balance wasn’t achieved, it would have made the game entirely too easy.

Where Neutopia really shines is in the graphics and music department. All the graphics have the classic Hudson quality to them, from each pixel to the backgrounds since in the overworld and look ominous in the dungeons. The music is one of the best scores in all of gaming. To say that is memorable is an understatement and each new area that you visit gives you another classic tune that will have you humming it days after.

Overall, while there are some portions of Neutopia that will having you blindly looking for the next key portion, the entire presentation makes this game an amazing alternative to the typical Hyrule Fantasy. If you aren’t fortunate to own a TurboGrafx-16 or a PC Engine, you can alternatively experience Neutopia on Nintendo’s Wii Virtual Console.

4 Hudson Bees out of 5

sunteam_paul from
Favorite NEC Memory: I have many fond memories of the PC Engine, from the first time I saw PC Genjin (Bonk's Adventure) to the first time I completed Ys Book I&II. But one of my fondest memories was a long time ago, when my collection was still small. I used to regularly go on a family holiday to the countryside, and after a couple of years I convinced my parents that I should be allowed to take my PC Engine with me. After all, it's pretty compact and there is always some downtime between trips out.

Given an opportunity,  I'd plug it into the TV at the holiday cottage that we stayed at and have a few quick goes of games like PC Genjin, Schbibin Man and Fantasy Zone. All this helped to pass the time between visits to the local arcades (after which I would list the games I played and draw little pictures representing the gameplay).

One morning I decided to stay in while everyone else popped out, and so I idly slotted in Atomic Robo-Kid Special for a relaxing bit of gaming time. I'd never beaten the game before as it was particularly challenging near the end, but this time fate smiled on me, and after a little sweat and a sore thumb I finally finished it.

To my delight I was greeted with a brilliant piece of music for the credits, so I grabbed my tape deck (which I had been using to sneakily record arcade music) and stuck it up to the TV speaker, as I never hoped to accomplish that feat again. Completing a game is not always a big deal, but the memories of the location and situation make this one I will never forget, and it's moments like that which made the PC Engine part of who I am today.

Developed by: Nihon Falcom

Published by: Nihon Falcom & Hudson Soft

Released: 1989

Genre: Role-Playing

Perspective: Overhead

Quote: “If Ys Book I & II was a woman, I’d marry it.

A tower stands ominously in the distance. Lightning begins to flicker, illuminating the blanket of cloud that hangs over the night sky. The storm builds up to a crescendo. Evil is coming.

But the land wasn’t always like this. Hundreds of years ago, Ys was a thriving, almost perfect community, cared for by six powerful priests under the guidance of their two goddesses. Its prosperity was down to a wondrous material called cleria, formed by the priests from a mystical ‘Black Pearl’. But things changed. Evil spread across the land and the priests, believing the cleria to be the cause, buried it deep in the earth. To protect the Black Pearl, they lifted Solomon Shrine (and a significant portion of the land around it) from the ground and raised it high into the sky to protect it.

Many years later, in the land of Esteria that lay below, evil began to return. And it is at this time that the young, red-headed adventurer Adol arrived at the port town of Minea. There he was greeted by a soothsayer, who told of the task before him - to collect the history of Ys, written in six magical books, and drive the evil from the land.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Arrow One (1982)

This week, we're playing another of the prolific Softside Publications' adventures for the Atari 400/800 computers -- it's Softside Adventure #13, Arrow One, from June of 1982.  The author is unfortunately uncredited, either onscreen or in the code, but we can discern from the comments that the final source code was completed on May 24, 1982.

Arrow One is a science-fiction adventure -- the player is cast as one Adam Trent, a trouble shooter for the Federation of Space:

We're not given any other details about the "horrifying discovery" or the "desperate and dangerous quest" ahead.  It's actually not particularly clear what we're supposed to be doing here, or what sort of trouble Mr. Trent is meant to be shooting; initially, mapping is the primary challenge, with few obvious puzzles to solve.

There are several further text screens of Scott Adams-style instructions presented, prior to loading the main game.  We learn that we've arrived upon "an unchartered planet," which may be true but seems rather more municipal than sci-fi scary.  The titular Arrow One, it develops, is our spaceship, where we will be spending no time whatsoever during our adventure, and the alien planet has a human-breathable atmosphere for convenience, with a jungle and a couple of cities visible as the story gets underway.  To set the plot in motion, we watch as a strange vehicle descends and disappears into the treetops, accompanied by some suitable Atari sound effects.

As always, I urge interested readers to track down and play Arrow One before proceeding here; in the interest of historical context and documentation for the many Internet denizens not so inclined, there will be copious...


Text adventure parsers were not very consistent or flexible during this early industry era -- we must use I, not INVENTORY or INV, to take stock of our possessions.  As we come down from the hill where we start (we can't re-enter the Arrow One), we find ourselves in a jungle, carrying a laser.  The jungle is not a maze, fortunately, but it behaves oddly -- going E appears to return to the first jungle room, but going S from there actually takes us to a different location.  Several routes will lead to the middle of the jungle, and very often don't make geographical sense, but it isn't usually hard to find our way back to where we intended to go.

To the north of our starting point, the entrance to the domed City of Renn is guarded by two burly aliens.  If we try to enter the city, they kill you with a quick burst of laser fire,  and despite this maltreatment we are not allowed to shoot them pre-emptively with our own laser (No effect).

From the beach to the west, we can glimpse the City of Pfitt, which apparently does not translate well into our native tongue; it will change name when we visit it later on.  There's also LOTS OF SAND here, but it's impossible to carry any of it.

A BABY GOOBA appears as we further explore the jungle, but LOOK GOOBA yields only Don't ask me... I don't know what it is either.  Nearby is a crashed alien shuttle -- the dead astronaut lies on the ground, wearing a uniform with the name PING stitched into the pocket.  We can't refer to him as PING though, and we can't GET ALIEN, but we can GET UNIFORM.  After we do so, LOOK ALIEN now yields the slightly disturbing response He's naked.

Fortunately, the dead pilot's body plan matches our own well, and with Ping's uniform on, we can enter the city of Renn.  (Apparently we also resemble the aliens fairly closely, so no one shoots us on sight if we're wearing a uniform.)  Navigation in Arrow One is slightly odd, as some rooms don't list all of the available exits in the Some exits are section of the screen, and we have to derive them from the room description.  Mapping is also unnecessarily complicated by ordinary-looking exits in the city that somehow manage to loop all the way back to the middle of the jungle.

In town, we can discover that the Hen House contains a XIPPI BIRD (apparently the aliens know what hens are.)  The library has a set of encyclopedias, something called FROTTI and an ALIEN LIBRARIAN.  We can try to gain some credibility with the locals, or learn more about this alien world, but Arrow One uses a 3-character parser, and SHOW is therefore equivalent to the much less sociable SHOOT.  So our interactions with other characters are limited.

There's a Transporter Room in the city, a common and generally useful feature of sci-fi adventure games, which contains a red button, a hole, and a sign: INSERT CYLINDER.  A small room nearby contains a Truth Mirror, which eventually helps us decode the alien language, indirectly, if we can figure out how to use it.  This isn't immediately easy to do, as the label reads: TO USE - VUMJ BHFOYVL.  Interesting.

The desert appears to contain a XENON CYLINDER, which should work in the Transporter, but GET CYLINDER reveals it as a frustrating mirage.  A NASTY ALIEN also turns up in various locations from time to time; I wasn't immediately sure what to do with him, but we can SHOOT ALIEN to turn him into a DEAD NASTY ALIEN and steal his sunglasses.  There's also a NICE ALIEN wandering around the map, but shooting him brings the ALIEN POLICE to summarily end our game, so we should leave him alone.  Apparently law enforcement is highly discretionary in the City of Renn.

The ETERNAL TRIANGLE ROOM seems to be an infinite loop, and it is; we'd best not even enter, as this is an old-school game and there is no possible escape from this room.  In the WEIGHTLESS ROOM, the engine notes that Something's too heavy as we enter; we have to reduce our inventory by dropping items, each of which floats upward, until we are light enough to do the same, arriving at a long catwalk where we can reclaim our belongings.  A piece of torn paper at the west end of the catwalk reads... well, it Doesn't make sense.  At least not until we learn to translate the alien language.

A garden accessible from the catwalk contains a HELKI (again, untranslated) and a SNARLING ALIEN DOG.  It remains unclear why Adam Trent clearly interprets some things approximately in Earthling terms, like hens and dogs, yet knows the precise alien word for any items he doesn't recognize.  Trying to go W leads to a fatal dog (or dog-like creature) attack, so that's a dead end for the moment.

Wearing the nasty alien's sunglasses in the LIGHT ROOM reveals a crystal rod we can't otherwise see, thereby, apparently, justifying his murder in cold blood.  He was pretty nasty, after all, and we will later use this rod to help save the world, or this world at any rate.

Before finding out how to deal with the alien language properly, I did some experimentation.  The alien code does not at first appear to be a simple cipher -- at least it's not an inverse alphabet or letter-shifted code.  But a little experimentation starts to break down the barriers once we find a phrase we can make sense of.  In my case, the "aha!" moment came when the alien librarian asked DVPL RUMBAT?, and I discovered that if we answer with a letter we are allowed to peruse that volume of the encyclopedia.  We can also just take any volume, e.g. GET C, for shorthand.  Apparently the alien alphabet contains the same 26 letters ours does!

Some alien terms are in fact new nouns that don't directly decode.  From the encyclopedia's Volume F, we learn that FROTTI = POWERFUL MAGNET; we also learn that the GOOBA loves to eat Xippi eggs, and as an adult is capable of supporting a human in flight.  (How do the aliens know anything about its capabilities vis-a-vis humans?)  It's painful, but it pays to go through all 26 volumes, though volumes I and W are missing.  Volume X tells us that the Xippi bird loves potatoes, and the HELKI in the garden turns out to be a potato; that is, now that we've encountered it, Volume H of the encyclopedia confirms this as fact.  We have to know what we're looking for, it seems, though if we've played before, we need not even bother with the encyclopedias.  There's some interesting parser behavior here -- once we know a word's translation, the original alien word becomes unavailable, so while we could GET HELKI when we had no idea what it was, we must now GET POTATO.

Feeding the Xippi bird a potato yields a Xippi egg, and feeding the egg in turn to the baby Gooba results in a TEENAGED GOOBA.  We need to repeat this action once more to make him an ADULT GOOBA, and can find no more potatoes in the garden afterwards. 

Returning to the beach, we stumble (with a KLING) onto an Alien Coin if we're carrying the frotti powerful magnet.  Giving the coin to the ALIEN BEGGAR in town yields a translator, which would have been handy if we'd found it earlier -- except its battery compartment is empty, so it's not quite useful until we LOOK POCKET (of the uniform we stole from PING) to discover a TINY BATTERY

With the translator, much about this world becomes clearer.  The piece of paper on the catwalk says UPRIGHT, which doesn't help us much out of context.  We can confirm the translation of the librarian's DVPL RUMBAT? as WHAT VOLUME?, and deduce that the alien language (aside from the specific nouns identified by the encyclopedia) is in fact a letter substitution cipher -- we just needed some confirmed translations to crack the code.  VUMJ BHOYFVL is HOLD UPRIGHT, which allows us to use the Truth Mirror to disrupt any troublesome illusions and obtain the XENON CYLINDER at last (it often looks like a VICIOUS HOUND if we aren't making appropriate use of the mirror.)

Off to the teleporter we go, but it isn't immediately ready for use after we INSERT CYLINDER -- it's being recharged.  So we need to explore some other possibilities while we wait.

I had to battle the parser to figure out what to do with the Adult Gooba, even after reading up on it.  We can't GET GOOBA even when it's a baby, and neither can we USE, RIDE, SHOOT, or CLIMB the poor creature... but we can GO GOOBA.  Once so imposed upon, the bird carries us to the far off city of PHTTT on the other side of the sea, earlier referred to as PFITT.  But Istanbul was Constantinople, so this is not a uniquely alien issue.

No guns are allowed in the City of Phttt, so we have to leave our laser pistol behind.  This seems odd, because the crime rate is high here -- a CROOKED ALIEN lurks in the area, and will steal our possessions at random, though fortunately he always leaves them in the same place so we can gather them up again as needed.  There's an Air Car parked in an open field on the other side of town, and we meet A DYING PROFESSOR in a CRAMPED BEDROOM behind a TINY OPEN DOOR, who in the grandly minimalist BASIC text adventure tradition says "find my daughter," and gives us an IGNITION KEY.  The key works in the air car... which immediately takes us back to the city of Renn.  Hmmmm.

Now we can find a freeze gun in the desert, which seems an unlikely place for it, and again HOLD the truth mirror UPRIGHT so we can GET GUN.  We can now SHOOT DOG in the garden to turn him into a FROZEN DOG, GET DOG, and DROP DOG into the bottomless pit nearby before the poor creature wakes up, just in case there was any doubt remaining about Adam Trent's feelings concerning the sanctity of alien life.  We can enter the GREENHOUSE now, where the PROF'S DAUGHTER has been trapped.  The game informs us that Girl says she'll go with you, which is flattering if a bit disturbing, considering we've just met, and then She gives you something, which turns out to be the DOOR KEY if we have managed to get our minds out of the gutter long enough to check inventory.

Now, of course, the teleporter has recharged, so we can use it to take the Prof's Daughter back home to Pfttt.  As a reward, the dying academic gives us a code to enter into the nearby computer, so that we may avert a terrible but unspecified tragedy.  The professor instructs us, "Please hurry and come back when done," the terseness understandable because he is dying and the designer is running out of text space.  In the COMPUTER ROOM, we need to INSERT ROD (ahem -- the crystal rod, into the WALL-TO-WALL COMPUTER) and enter the code the professor gave us.  In my playthrough, the code was 697; in fact, it is always 697.  But we have to PUSH 697, rather than entering one digit at a time.

Having turned off the computer, which dies in a cloud of electronic stench, we have apparently done something good for this world.  We return to the professor, who dies, conveniently giving his daughter's hand to us in marriage or some semblance thereof before he goes.  And yes, it's an old-fashioned pulp sci-fi twist ending:

The player is Adam Trent; the Professor's daughter's name is Eve, and This adventure is just beginning, instead of the usual This adventure is over; it's a fresh little coda that made me smile.  Hooray for the Federation of Space!  Hooray for saving the planet!  If it weren't for my nagging doubts about the troublesome lack of genetic diversity that will most likely doom this couple's progeny to a variety of fatal heritable defects after a few generations, this would be a happy ending indeed.

I enjoyed playing Arrow One -- the unassuming Softside games are usually simple and not terribly difficult, but are diverse enough to be fun every now and then.  I would not easily have solved this one (at least not without examining the code) without SDon78's set of hints, now joined by my detailed walkthrough at the CASA Solution Archive.  My solution is included below the fold here.

***** WALKTHROUGH *****

Monday, June 27, 2011

At Random: Alien Invaders - Plus! (Odyssey^2, 1980)

It was an unwritten rule back in the day that every console and home computer had to have at least one ripoff of Taito's classic arcade game Space Invaders in its library.  Video game copyright law was still in its formative stages when this simple and addictive game made its debut; in Japan there were numerous bootlegs and imitators in the arcades, and in the US at least one home computer version blatantly used Taito's name without official licensing.  So the only surprise about my latest random pick for the Odyssey^2 is that it took so long for Alien Invaders - Plus! to turn up.

Magnavox published this game in 1980, a few years after the console's debut, and to the company's credit this cartridge does several new and innovative things with the venerable alien armada formula.  But it still takes a single screenshot to depict all the basic, familiar elements of gameplay:

Here are the key differences from Taito's original space invasion game -- some make this game quite a bit more intense and playable than its inspiration:

  • The aliens are protected by a shield -- the green spheres at the bottom of the formation block the player's shots quite effectively, and cannot be destroyed.

  • The aliens are armed with mushroom shaped weapons treated as separate sprites -- if the player can take out the gun and/or the alien manning it, that column will cease firing for the remainder of the battle.
  • The alien overlord, the Merciless Monstroth, is a Lovecraftian tentacled beast with a single huge eye -- and it participates in the action much more than Space Invaders' mothership, moving back and forth to take potshots at the player, and occasionally diving down below the formation to fire at close range.

  • The aliens do not advance down the screen, but just move left and right; their aggressive attacks and the player's dwindling reserves provide the time pressure here. 
  • The player's base can be destroyed, but the pilot will survive, running around naked until he parks under one of the defensive shields and hits the fire button to turn it into a new base.
  • Magnavox's aliens fire much, MUCH faster than Taito's, and it's quite difficult to see their shots coming in time to evade them.  So it's wise to take out as many guns or aliens as possible, and stretch the pilot's life out by using all 4 available bases, although once the defenses start to disappear it's even harder to avoid taking hits.

Once again, Magnavox is officially squeamish about violence -- the manual takes pains to indicate that the human-like figures visible onscreen are actually robots, and claims that when the player's last pilot is "stunned by enemy laser fire, it will be captured by the aliens."  But it's so much more dramatic to see the last surviving human running around shieldless, dodging alien lasers in an attempt to prolong his pathetic life for a few more precious seconds.

What makes Alien Invaders - Plus! more fun than Space Invaders, especially with practice, is the change in the strategic elements -- once we grasp that we can disarm each column individually, buying some safe room to maneuver, we can finesse our way through each wave, conserving our shots and placing them precisely to achieve the most benefit.  It's still difficult to win, and to beat the aliens for good we must win 10 battles before they do.  But the grueling, pitched-conflict feel of the game is a lot more intense than Space Invaders, and the sight of the human robot pilot running for his life against overwhelming odds is briefly, surprisingly poignant.

I was prepared for a generic Space Invaders clone, so maybe I went in with low expectations, but having spent some time with this cartridge, I think Magnavox did a genuinely nice job with Alien Invaders - Plus!  It's a pleasant surprise, the rare console alien invasion game unwilling to be a simple approximation of the classic original.  And I'd say it's one of the better arcade-style games in the O^2 library.  Good stuff!  (Even the exclamation point in the unwieldy title seems justified in this case!)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cover to Cover: Intellivision Spring 1986 Catalog (pp. 12-13)

Pages 12 and 13 of the Triton Products Intellivision catalog for spring 1986 bring us more Intellivision titles at clearance prices, plus some miscellaneous electronics Triton apparently got a good deal on.

Page 12 has absolutely nothing to do with the Intellivision, but I'll include it here for completeness' sake:

I like the degree of detail the description goes into about Sing-Sing The Original Talking Panda's measly five voice-recognition questions and answers -- the fact that this stuffed toy possesses "random access memory" gets a lot of play here (and that's probably inaccurate, as the questions and answers would most likely have been stored in Read-Only Memory.)  And Sing-Sing can tell any story or sing any song -- as long as you supply the audio cassette containing the material.  I'm sure The Original Talking Panda was educational, in that even pre-verbal infants would have been motivated to learn how to say "Stop!" and turn him off.

The Emerson Portable Audio/Video Entertainment Center would have been more generally useful, though it's not clear whether it has an antenna terminal for connecting the Intellivision's UHF switch, so it's a little out of place here too.

Page 13 brings back an old friend at incredibly low prices:

The Intellivoice was not really a speech synthesizer in the traditional phoneme-based sense -- it was an audio chip capable of playing back compressed audio samples contained in Intellivision game cartridges.  Some members of the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe were reportedly engaged to provide the character voices, which may explain why the system's phrasing of "Beeeee-SEV-en-TEEEEN BOOOOOOOOOOMBer!" is so chock-full of cornpone pleasure.  You could pick up the Intellivoice module and all four of the published games for $39.95, and there must have been a lot of these in the warehouse because the individual games were priced at $6.95.

Almost through this one... just a few more pages to go, next weekend.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cover to Cover: Intellivision Spring 1986 Catalog (pp. 10-11)

We are leafing through the Triton Products Intellivision catalog for the spring of 1986, after the mid-80s industry crash -- there was still a lot of old Mattel stock in the liquidator's warehouse, and enough interest to spur development of a few new games.  Today, we're up to pages 10 and 11.

Page 10 features more of the old Mattel titles, ready to go out the door at discounted prices:

Math Fun used to be Electric Company Math Fun, now bereft of its Children's Television Workshop license but exactly the same game.  Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack was the original Intellivision pack-in game, but boxed copies were sold separately after the Intellivision II was released.  Utopia was a classic early resource management and strategy game, making good use of the console's 16-bit CPU as the player tried to develop and manage an island nation.  And Space Battle was a simple space shooter; a modified version was seen on 1980s television, with a fixed sight and a voice-activated firing feature allowing viewers to call in and play for prizes.  In my childhood neck of the woods, it was featured on a program known as Barney's Clubhouse POWWW!

Page 11 brings us a number of accessories, including one that made the Intellivision II a must-have for any hardcore gamer:

The Cassette 'n' Game File appears to have been a generic cartridge and audio cassette case; the Protective Cover was just that, and while the description only mentions the Intellivision II, there is a separate item number for the Intellivision I and III.  The Cartridge/Contact Cleaners look like generic computer edge card swabs, but I'm sure they worked fine on the Intellivision cartridges.

And last but not least, the Intellivision II's best feature -- detachable, therefore replaceable, hand controllers.  Of course, the flat keys were not as easy to feel out as the original console's raised buttons, and a few games didn't run well or at all on the second-generation machine -- but for the long term, moving away from hardwired controllers was a very good idea.  The ad copy also mentions support for 4 players, but as far as I know the Intellivision II only had two controller ports -- Mattel's add-on Entertainment Computer System provided additional controller ports, so this description is probably cobbled together from old marketing materials.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Of Import: Golden Axe (PC Engine)

This week, we're looking at another one of those unexpected licenses -- Sega was apparently feeling generous in the early 1990s, or greedy, as it allowed a number of its arcade and Mega Drive hits to appear on competing platforms.  In 1990, with the Mega Drive in full swing, Golden Axe appeared on the PC Engine CD-ROM format in Japan, courtesy of Renovation Soft.  It never came to the US, but the text is in English and it's perfectly playable on a TurboGrafx-CD system.

Unfortunately, there are good reasons this release never saw the light of day in the more punishing North American market; it looks pretty much like Sega's Golden Axe, but it's not as much fun to play.  The conversion effort makes a lot of odd and apparently pointless compromises.  For some reason, there was sufficient production budget to add an animated intro, and character-specific opening segments (with some reused artwork.)

But it was too much trouble, apparently, to render the arcade game's spooky, death-shadowed character selection screen properly -- instead, we just select from three big, static portraits:

And while the game is recognizable as Golden Axe, it's not particularly attractive.  The background graphics are flat and colorless, and the character sprites all look like they've been converted over from a Commodore 64 original, with wide pixels and smeared coloration obscuring anything that might look like detail.  The level designs are faithful to the original game, from what I can tell, but they feel shorter -- battles are quick and clumsy, and enemy behavior is fairly predictable.  Most of the challenge comes from trying to line up an attack properly.

Jumps are even harder to line up -- I lost Gilius' steed, and the rest of Gilius' lives, trying to make it across what should be a very manageable gap, shown below.   Most annoying, sometimes he would pause on the other side, then fall, making it seem like his toe caught hold and yet the game decided to send him plummeting to his death.

As is often the case with Japanese arcade games, the text is completely in English, if sometimes not quite right -- Death Adder is apparently "OUR SWOWN ENEMY":

The sound effects are dismal, with all three characters' attacks accompanied by the same flatulent-sounding noise.  The game's only real audiovisual attraction is the CD-Audio arrangements of the familiar Golden Axe themes -- these were remixes before there were such things in video game land, and fun to listen to if you're familiar with the strangled version rendered by the Genesis' limited sound capabilities.

Tyris Flare threatens the locals.

At least I learned where the jaunty closing theme from the PC Engine City podcast comes from -- it's the Game Over music for Golden Axe:

I could continue, but I think that's more PC Engine Golden Axe than anyone should have to endure.

There are superior and cheaper domestic versions of Golden Axe available, but if you simply must have the PC Engine CD edition, you might be able to find it here.