Sunday, July 31, 2011

Are You Hot Enough To Play With Journey?

When Data Age anted up a little licensing cash for the rights to create the Atari 2600 game Journey Escape, it apparently included a photo opportunity with the popular 1980s band featured in the game for use in this full-color, two-page magazine ad spread (click to enlarge):

I like that none of the band's members could be convinced to be seen holding or playing the game, although it's possible that this was an existing shot borrowed for the ad, or that the game didn't exist in any visible form when the photo was taken.  I also like the blank, vaguely positive looks sported by most of the band, with a "seriously, are they kidding?" take from the guy on the right.

Beyond the game's licensed trappings, including the Scarab ship seen on the Escape album cover and treated here as the band's "escape vehicle", the ad copy does its best to tie the game into the band's pop hits, even implying that the lyric "Some will win, some will lose" refers to this game.

Unfortunately, according to the rumors page in an old issue of Electronic Fun magazine, Data Age went under still owing Journey over a million dollars in royalty payments.

Some are born to sing the blues.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cover to Cover: Aardvark Ltd. 1983 Catalog (order form, back cover)

Our current Cover-to-Cover survey of a vintage game catalog wraps up today, with the last few pages of the Aardvark Ltd. catalog for February/March 1983.

Page "15" is the Order Form, a relic of the pre-email, pre-laser printer, pre-Web era:

From a 2011 perspective, this page serves to inform or remind us that:
  • The MasterCard used to be known as MasterCharge
  • There were 4 different configurations of the Ohio Scientific Instruments (OSI) computer on the market
  • Software could still be purchased on cassettes and loaded into memory via audio signals, at sub-modem speeds
  • There were 2 different floppy disk formats in use (neither of which was the 3.5" hard-case format)
  • The TRS-80 Color Computer had two versions of BASIC, and Extended BASIC was not necessarily fully backward-compatible with the simpler version
  • Ads for computer games were more likely to be seen in print magazines than anywhere else, and games were often purchased sight unseen
  • A mail order business could operate Monday through Friday, 8 AM to 4 PM, instead of 24 x 7
  • Aardvark's word processor used to "typeset this entire catalog" was not capable of handling tables with labeled columns, so those are supplied the old fashioned way, with a typewriter
And then we're at the back cover, with one of those vaguely evocative adventure game-themed drawings used to decorate this sort of publication back in the day.  I must have received this catalog with something I bought from Aardvark, as there's no mailing address label.  I never physically visited the company until I found myself living in the area years later, and discovered a chiropractor's office at Aardvark's former location.

And that wraps up another old computer/video game catalog!  I have a lot of these in the archives, so after a brief random ad intermission tomorrow, I'll most likely start sharing another one with you.

Friday, July 29, 2011

East vs. West: Blodia / Timeball (1989/1990)

Hudson Soft carefully numbered its HuCard-format releases for the Japanese PC Engine, and the obsessive-compulsive gamer in me has a vague desire to "collect them all!", or at least the ones that are affordable and likely to be playable.  Qualifying on both counts is Volume 25 in this venerable series -- Blodia, released in 1989.

Blodia is based on a 1983 home computer game created by Manuel Constantinidis and published by Broderbund under the anagrammatic title Diablo.  I wasn't previously aware of this game -- 1983 was a bad year for the American video game industry -- but versions later appeared on the Nintendo Game Boy and NES.  This PC Engine edition also came to the American TurboGrafx-16 under a third and more descriptive title, Timeball; the only differences are a newer Hudson Soft copyright date (1990 vs. 1989) and a modified title screen (with a narrower font to fit in the same space, so the B, L, I and A from the Blodia logo are not directly reused):

Blodia is an early puzzle game with a mechanic inspired by sliding-tile puzzles and video games like Loco-Motion and Happy Trails; it's clearly nothing that a 1983 computer couldn't have handled, but its sheer simplicity and variety still hold up well today.  At the start of each level, a ball appears on a track stretching across a series of slideable gray tiles; the player's task is to move one tile at a time, making sure that the ball traverses every piece of track without running into a gap or a dead-end.  Each level is cleared when all track sections have been covered.  We can speed up the ball's movement with the PC Engine controller's II button, and there is a speed bonus awarded for finishing a level quickly.

In the early levels, playing Blodia is just a matter of making sure the track is more-or-less contiguous;  we can slide a tile while the ball is on it to bridge any obvious gaps in the layout, but we don't necessarily need to do so as there is plenty of time and space available to plan the route:

Each level successfully completed yields a brief reward and statistics screen, assessing our speed and the number of moves we made to clear it; additional bonus points are awarded for beating "par":

And it isn't long before the levels start getting trickier, requiring us to move more tiles to make the layout work, or move tiles more precisely to keep the moving ball safely in play:

We more often have to move the tile that the ball is on to get it to a safe connection; eventually we get off track, and so does the ball:

Blodia is one of those minor classics -- a simple concept executed well.  It's nothing fancy and doesn't come close to stretching the PC Engine's capabilities, but it works and puts up quite a challenge.  I'm glad it came to the US, even though it seems to have been overlooked here as well.  Quality still counts for something.

The original Japanese version of Blodia may be available for purchase here.

Or if the North American TurboGrafx-16 version appeals, it's not usually too hard to find here:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The LoadDown - 07/28/2011

Another week brings another new batch of downloadable content...
WiiWare -- One new game, Burn the Rope, a kinetic puzzle game with an upward-burning flame, challenging players to rotate the image to ensure that every last strand of rope gets burned.

Wii Virtual Console --  Jaleco's Brawl Brothers for the SNES arrives; it's another side-scrolling beat-'em-up, with a cartoonish sensibility, for 1 or 2 simultaneous players.

DSiWare -- The DSi is still going strong, with three new titles this week:  GO Series: Portable Shrine Wars, a comical racing game with a very Japanese parade theme; Oscar's World Tour, another in the popular platformer series; and My Australian Farm, wherein players try to breed emus and other animals Down Under.

Nintendo 3DS eShop --  In addition to the DSiWare titles described above, the 3DS gets one exclusive: Let's Golf 3D, with eight golfing characters and a variety of exotic locales, all in true 3-D.  And with Nintendo's substantial (~30%) 3DS price drop announced today, effective August 12th in the US, this platform might become a little more viable after its slow start this spring.

XBox Live Arcade -- The Summer of Arcade continues, with a new title from Eric Chahi (Out of this World): From Dust, a Populous-inspired god game with realistic physics and environments.

PS3 on PSN -- A couple of new titles arrive: Sega's Golden Axe, in its original classic coin-op arcade version, with trophies added, and Deadliest Warrior: Legends, second in the so-far-mediocre series featuring the historically-inspired martial artists from the TV show.

PSOne Classics -- No activity here this week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bill Willingham Makes New Fables Game Canon

I'm surprised this hasn't been getting more press -- in Telltale Games' Day 1 video from the San Diego ComiCon, Fables comic book creator Bill Willingham states that the upcoming Fables game storylines will be "in canon"; that is, part of the series' official continuity.

This is a pretty rare thing for game adaptations -- Telltale Games historically has become very good at creating stories that fit into existing universes without impacting them in any significant way, but it always makes the games feel like second-class citizens.  To have Willingham onboard and treating this story/these stories as canon may allow for some more interesting and/or significant developments.

The closest example I can think of in adventure/comic book game terms would be the Scott Adams QuestProbe series done with Marvel in the mid-80s -- but even there the Chief Examiner seemed to get revised a bit as the series went on, morphing from (I maintain) Scott Adams himself in the first game to a more generic character by the third.  The fourth game was never published, but the tie-in story did appear in an X-Men comic book later on, so I think the whole Chief Examiner storyline counts as Marvel canon (to the degree anything can in the ever-mutable world of superhero comics.)  But the storytelling in those games was pretty simplistic -- navigating Spider-Man around inside an office building for the entire duration of the game and forcing the Hulk to solve puzzles never quite felt right; even if the related comic book stories are official, the games themselves don't necessarily deserve that status.

So this is potentially something new under the sun.  Perhaps the Fables universe, with its myriad characters, just has so many story possibilities that Mr. Willingham feels comfortable calling the game canon without feeling like it will limit future developments.  But I'd like to think his statement expresses sincere confidence and trust in Telltale's ability to treat his world and characters with integrity, respect and honesty, something the company has been able to do very consistently with their licensed games in the past.

Time and results will tell the full story.  But I look forward to seeing how this one turns out.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge (1988)

This week, we're playing the second entry in a popular Sierra 3-D adventure series -- Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge.  This was the last Space Quest game developed using the original Sierra AGI system, with low-resolution 160x200 graphics and a text parser for commands, and the only AGI game included in the most recent compilation, Universal Vivendi's Space Quest Collection.  I never played this one back in the day, having joined the series in progress with Space Quest III on the Atari ST, so I was looking forward to this new/old experience.  The Two Guys from Andromeda, Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy, are again handling the design, which continues the spacefaring saga of Roger Wilco.

The prologue text briefly recaps the story of Space Quest I, then recounts the sad story of Roger's fading post-victory celebrity.  As this tale commences, he's a janitor again, transferred to Orbital Station 4, and, as the opening text informs, Life Sucks.......Again.  Presumably the story will involve the vengeance of someone named Vohaul, perhaps a relative of the scientist Slash Vohaul alluded to in the first game, but as the curtain rises Roger's just trying to scrape by, plying his custodial trade.

Interested readers are encouraged to play Space Quest II before continuing here -- in the interest of documenting the game and its place in the series and the genre's development, I will be high-handed and careless about the multitudinous...


The game opens with a shot of the station in its orbit above the planet Xenon, as a ship arrives and the player logs in for duty.  It seems odd that we can give our character a name and NOT play as Roger Wilco; this doesn't seem right somehow, and the game doesn't make much use of this information, so I decided to call him Roger anyway.

It doesn't take long for Roger, working in one of the station's external bays, to clumsily lose his broom, apparently the third one this week, and now... what?  We can explore the bay, and learn that Roger can walk up walls and across ceilings in zero gravity.  But he can still fall "off of" the ship and drift to his death, following the Sierra tradition of warningless demise.  There's nothing useful in Roger's inventory, it appears; is there some way to carefully walk out and get the broom?  No, it appears that trying to be responsible with Roger's tools is also fatal.

We can LOOK WATCH to play with the controls of Roger's timepiece -- there's an H button for horoscope, T for Time/Temperature, and C for communication.  Pushing the C button informs Roger that he has to get inside and clean up a mess from a passenger who was space-sick on the recently arrived ship.

Now we can use the bay's entrance portal, get decontaminated, and put on Roger's normal gray-and-purple outfit with WEAR UNIFORM.  We can open Roger's locker to find a cubix rube puzzle (har har) and Roger's athletic supporter.  Putting on the uniform also discovers a translator, presumably left over from SQ I, and a magazine order form for a Labion Terror Beast Mating Whistle, which sounds just oddly specific enough that we will probably want to have it in inventory later on.  Once he's properly suited up, Roger must go to the shuttle bay and nowhere else until his work is done.  But upon entering the shuttle, he is knocked unconscious by a couple of space thugs, and wakes to find himself held captive by one Sludge Vohaul, who holds a grudge.

In a bit of retroactive continuity, we learn that this being was behind the Sarien operation to destroy Xenon in the first Space Quest game.  His new plan is (by game standards) more subtle, as he now plans to invade Xenon with an army of clones -- all life-insurance salesmen.  (This could have been a funny idea, but it never really gets developed during the rest of the game.)

With the villain's obligatory here-is-my-evil-plan-and-don't-you-dare-stop-me speech out of the way, Roger is drugged and sent to Labion to work in Vohaul's mines.  This world is patrolled by refugees from the Planet of the Apes, but their transport craft suffers engine failure while carrying Roger to his destination.  There's some nice parallax scrolling in this cutscene, and a "Gorf breath" insult in the dialogue that calls the classic Midway arcade game to mind, whether it was meant to or not.

The hovercraft crashes; Roger's fall is broken by one of the guards, now rather smushed and dead, but we can find a keycard in his remains.  We can also see some kind of creature peeking out of the surrounding foliage.  We can also hear that the crashed hovercraft is beeping, and we can PUSH BUTTON to make it stop, though it's not immediately clear whether this is wise (it is.)  Roger can't climb the trees, and the rocks are not notable.  He can wander nearby and fall into a concealed pit -- another unpredictable death, unless we happen to notice the faint outline of the trap in the grass; at least the designers give the player a chance this time around.

This game's AGI graphics are sometimes a bit odd, probably because the artists were trying to keep him from looking too much like King Graham or Leisure Suit Larry -- as presented here, Roger has no visible nose when seen in profile, and his head is wide seen face-on.  And some of the backgrounds are very nicely drawn, with attractive use of the limited 16-color palette despite the low resolution and vector-and-fill rendering technique:

The plant life here is quite dangerous.  A nearby location features giant mushrooms, which, of course, prove carnivorous if Roger gets too close, but at least it's a pleasantly psychedelic death.  There's nothing we can do about the mushrooms, though I did try a few random acts of adventuring, uncovering this parser gag:  SMELL SUPPORTER yields, I'll act like I didn't hear that.

We can navigate through the bushes at the "top" of the crash site screen, and shortly we hear a TWANG followed by a high pitched shriek.  To the east, Roger finds the little pink creature seen peeking out of the bushes has been caught in a snare, and if we UNTIE CREATURE, it runs away, giving Roger a long glance before heading east through the impassable undergrowth.

There's a sci-fi-ish mailbox in the forest, which we can use to send in Roger's order form for instant delivery of the mating whistle, an homage of sorts to the classic Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons.  In the same location, some pods are on the ground beneath a tree; if we get too close to them, Roger accidentally kicks one and a paralyzing gas emerges.  Roger can't do anything while he's paralyzed, but eventually the effect wears off.  It seems that these pods could prove useful, and we can TAKE SPORE after Roger recovers (but he can only carry one.)

Another area has a root system controlled by a movable brain/digestion entity.  The little pink creature (or one of its kind) shows up here, picking berries from a bush.  We can navigate through the roots by stepping very carefully around using the arrow keys, in one of those maddening early Sierra physical puzzles; SAVE and RESTORE come in very handy here.  The bushes contain odoriferous red berries, and we should PICK BERRIES.  Next, we realize that there are no other exits from this location, so we have to navigate back out the way we came in, through the dangerous root maze.  The return trip is frustrating and tedious, given that we've already demonstrated an ability to navigate successfully and this seems like a needless playtime stretcher.

Some more hovercraft-riding ape guards appear near a chasm, and Roger's best strategy is to hide until they go away.  Most of the abundant trees cannot be climbed; Roger can try to climb the less-slick trees on one screen, but they turn out to be adhesive and Roger shortly gets devoured by insects.

I also tried to WAIT at one point, only to be told (somewhat disingenuously) that This isn't a text adventure!  But the point is taken -- while the Sierra AGI games do use a text parser, events that require waiting do take place in something like real time.

Roger soon encounters another of the small pink creatures, and it seems like a good idea to follow it through a nearby swamp, if only because there's nowhere else obvious to go.  Roger has to slog through the muck, slowly, and he shortly gets attacked and killed by an underwater monster that follows him, bubbling ominously.  But if we pay attention, we can see the little creature rubbing something on its body before entering the swamp, and we can RUB BERRIES ON BODY to use them as a monster repellent.  The monster still attacks, but Roger now survives.  (It's useful to turn the game speed up while crossing the swamp -- it doesn't make any difference regarding these events, but it shortens the uneventful portions of the journey considerably.)

On the other side of the swamp, Roger arrives at a fissure, yet another classic adventure game challenge adapted to Roger's 3-D animated world.  We can't JUMP FISSURE (Sorry. This game is in a NO JUMPING zone -- is this a reference to Atari's coin-op I, ROBOT?)  We can't PUSH TREE or KICK TREE to knock a prominent and appropriately positioned trunk across the chasm, but trying to CLIMB the old dead TREE does the trick.  We can't really move much once we're straddling the chasm on the dead log, however; we just move to the right until Roger gets safely off the tree.

A clearing past the fissure has a death at its back "wall," denoted subtly by a black line at the edge over which Roger can fall.  Along the correct route, Roger gets caught in a snare and passes out, dreaming of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards in a little quick cross-promotion, and then wakes up in a cage, held captive by an alien creature, apparently a hunter judging from his equipment.  Roger can use the spore to knock him out, but he's still stuck in a cage.  We can SEARCH HUNTER from the cage and find the key on the hunter's unconscious body, which is odd as he looks too far away to allow that; but we can't GET KEY, as the hunter is in fact too far away.  And when the hunter wakes up, Roger is done for.  Hmmmm... well, we can YELL, which attracts the hunter's attention and brings him closer to the cage. Then we can hit him with the spore, get the key, escape the cage, grab the rope and head north.

We see a ship taking off in the distance, and can get Roger killed by Vohaul's guards here too if we try to continue north, but that's fatal anyway, as there's no time to hide or escape when their hovercraft shows up.  So another path would seem to be in order.

We have rope, and can slog back through the swamp, where nothing seems to have changed.  Roger can then tie the rope to the stump at the edge of the fissure, and CLIMB ROPE to encounter a nasty monster lurking below.

We can try to SWING ROPE to get to the safe side of the gap here, but we need to climb lower to do so, and then the stump the rope is tied to gives way, so that's no good.  This approach works better if we TIE ROPE TO LOG instead.  Now Roger can swing on the rope, avoiding the monster and jumping to safety on the other side once the rope is swinging widely enough.  When the creature grabs at Roger for the first time, it's wise to hit F6 and release the rope.

Roger can now enter a cave that is very dark; we can navigate to some degree by trial and error, before getting felled by a killer Cave Beaver!  So we probably need a light source.  The hunter's fire has gone out (and the hunter has disappeared) if we return to his campsite, so that won't help us.  The parser recognizes the word STICK, but the hunter doesn't seem to have had one at his campsite, even though he comes up with one to shishkebab poor Roger if we don't manage to escape.

At this point, I had to consult a walkthrough -- dang, I was doing okay up to this point! -- which indicated that there's a glowing gem in the swamp in the deep spot.  I had noticed that spot earlier, but thought it was just a stumbling block to slow Roger down for the swamp monster's attack.  Roger is forced to swim in this small area, and with no monster to harass us, we can DIVE to swim down, though we need to HOLD BREATH first or die early.  Roger swims through the underwater cavern, finding a glowing gem, and now we can get back on track.  (If this sounds familiar, as it did to me, note that King Graham has to do something similar in King's Quest I.)

Now we can HOLD GEM in the cave to see where we are going, though not too clearly, as shortly Roger tumbles downward through a minor pitfall.  A couple of the little pink creatures show up here, and Roger's translator (which has not been useful earlier) intones, "Follow us, beanpole!"  The nearby canyon is ruled by these creatures; they promise to help Roger on his way when he is ready, but it will be a one-way passage.  Roger dropped his gem on the way in, so we will want to reclaim it; that's about all we can do here, as there's no way to climb back up the way we came.  The text parser allows for a puzzle in this area that simply wouldn't work in the point-and-click world of Sierra's later games -- we have to literally SAY THE WORD (per the creatures' instructions) to get them to reveal the exit.

So what was Roger supposed to do here?  Not much, so we'll have him climb down the exit.  It's pitch-black in this second cave, and Roger can't climb and hold the gem at the same time, especially with the scary guttural sounds echoing through the area.  We need the light source to be active for safety's sake, but we can't DROP GEM to the bottom of the ladder; we can't PUT GEM IN SUPPORTER or WEAR SUPPORTER; we can't THROW GEM INTO HOLE.  But aha!  This is a parser-based game at heart, so we can HOLD GEM IN TEETH -- this casts a little bit of light around Roger so he can climb down and crawl through several screens of tunnels.  There's quite a maze to navigate, filled with passages and ladders, not to mention fatal attacks by the dreaded Cave Squid.  But with a little luck Roger soon emerges in an underwater cavern.

Roger can enter the water and explore, but there's a fork in the path -- one choice is instantly fatal, as Roger gets out of his depth and the current picks up, sweeping him over a waterfall.  The other choice seems equally dangerous, as it sucks Roger into a whirlpool, but it ultimately dumps him safe and sound in a pond outside, near the landing platform seen earlier from a distance. 

There's no apparent exit from this area, but we can BLOW WHISTLE here to summon (of course) a male Labion Terror Beast, who in a second Warner Brothers homage enters a la the Tasmanian Devil, carving his way through the surrounding rock.  He's rather dangerous, but Roger can just duck out into the water the next screen over to be left alone; the Terror Beast has gone its merry way by the time Roger returns.

We can reach the landing platform now, which is being closely guarded by one of the apelike creatures.  Roger can stealthily move nearer, using the bushes for cover and avoiding the guard's searching eyes.  We have to be patient to get him close enough to the elevator to open it with the keycard -- INSERT KEYCARD INTO SLOT -- and then ride the platform up.  A shuttle is available here, with no guards on the actual platform.  The instrument panel has a POWER button, an Attitude dial, and an Ascent Thruster button.  We can set the dial to VAC or HAC, that is, Vertical or Horizontal control, and use the ascent/vertical mode until the shuttle's computer tells us that "adequate altitude has been achieved."  

Then we switch over to HAC, and we're off!  But (of course) Roger's journey is shortly interrupted by the appearance of Sludge Vohaul on the display screen -- he takes over the ship and brings Roger to his asteroid base, then fortunately misplaces him, leaving our hero free to wander the ship looking for useful items.  We do have to watch our step in here, as there are hazards aplenty; Roger lands on floor 1, and the elevators have buttons for four circular wraparound levels, 1, 3, 4 and 5; floor 2 is accessible only on foot.

On floor 5 (my explorations began at the bottom of the ship) we find a surveillance camera and a dead end on the "eastern" end.  Roger can get fatally bopped on the head by a large creature held in a cell, if we step too close, so we need to hug the far wall to reach a dark janitor's closet.  We should take the wastebasket her; we're not allowed to take the uniform, as it's too small, but something falls to the floor when we try -- a lighter, which will also probably come in handy later on.  Roger can also get french-kissed by a H.R. Giger-esque alien that escapes from a cell on this level; he survives, but is there any risk here?  Yes indeed, but we won't find that out for an hour or so, at which point there's no choice but to hope we still have a saved game prior to this event.  The alien, once released, will eventually chase Roger down and have its way with him, so we really need to avoid its cell altogether; it won't open unless Roger enters that room, but there's no way to undo the situation once it's been triggered.  It's an old-school Sierra puzzle, otherwise known as live-and-learn-and-restore.

On Floor 4, a closet contains a glass cutter, restrooms for males and females sporting a wide range of physical genotypes, and there's a clever, subtle xenobiology joke here -- the male and female doors lead to the same space!  The only empty stall has a giant space herpe sitting on the seat; it flees when Roger shows up, and I didn't find any way or reason to interact with it, it's just a gag.  Roger can use the toilet, to no apparent purpose, and peruse the graffiti, with such gems as, "You're right, R.D.!  Sierra is an alien outpost!"; "Sir Graham Cross Dresses!"; and "Vohaul plays text adventures!"  (I rather like text adventures myself, but the newfangled 3-D animated generation was feeling young and cocky at the time.)

Floor 3 has small windows revealing billions and billions of stars (yes, I know Carl Sagan never actually said it exactly that way), and its closet contains a plunger, which will also likely prove useful later on.

Walking down to floor 2, the door closes behind Roger -- it's a trap!  Barriers spring up, and an acid bath under the sliding floorboard ensures Roger's swift demise.  We can STICK PLUNGER ON BARRIER to enable Roger to stick safely to the smooth curved wall; still, his grip eventually weakens and he falls into the acid.  I tried a couple of ideas here, to no avail, before I realized I was simply using the plunger too early.  If we wait until the last minute, the floor returns to cover the acid bath, Roger can CLIMB DOWN, and the trap is disarmed (and the plunger mysteriously vanishes).

Beyond the trap, at either end of floor 2, dangerous wallbots emerge from the walls (naturally) to attack Roger with jolts of electricity that reduce him to dust.  So we should probably avoid this.  If Roger ducks into the doorway, they do not see him, but thus thwarted they just return to their posts to attack again later.  I had to consult the walkthrough to learn that I completely missed the sprinklers on the ceiling here.  But I was still stuck -- we can't LIGHT LIGHTER or HOLD LIGHTER TO SPRINKLER.

Further help from the walkthrough indicates that we need some paper from the restroom on level 4.  I ran into a dangerous waxing machine on the way to the bathroom, but it can be avoided by ducking out of its way.  I still couldn't LIGHT PAPER WITH LIGHTER or BURN PAPER.  What Roger is supposed to do here is PUT PAPER IN WASTEBASKET, DROP WASTEBASKET and LIGHT PAPER.  This may not be a text adventure in the strictest sense, but the parser is a little too obstinate on this puzzle.  At least we don't have to hit each robot specifically -- burning the paper sets off the sprinklers, and shorts all of them out.

Now, at last, Roger can reach the villain's secret chamber!  If we try to confront Sludge Vohaul directly, Roger gets miniaturized and put in a jar.  But we do have a glass cutter... we can escape the jar and jog across the shelf to ENTER VENT nearby.  If we ignore the vent and head west from this area to a location with a keyboard,  Roger gets smashed by Vohaul's fist, so the vent is probably where we want to focus our efforts.  Inside, conveniently, we find the control center for Vohaul's life support system.  Turning it off kills Vohaul in short and rather anticlimactic order, but in a final act of defiance he does something... but what?

There's no time to waste now.  We have to get Roger back to normal size using the keyboard and a nearby switch.  We LOWER SWITCH to turn the system on, TYPE ENLARGE (the tiny Roger jumps on the keys) and soon restore our hero to normal size.  But Vohaul's life-insurance peddling clones have already preparing to invade Xenon!  What to do?  Well, READ SCREEN doesn't work, but EXAMINE SCREEN does -- when I played, I could see that the launch was due in less than 8 minutes, and that we need to enter a code to abort the launch.  But what is the code???  Examining Vohaul's corpse reveals the letters SHSR written on the back of his hand (this might be randomized).  And, thanks to evil absent-mindedness, that is indeed the code.

The launch is now aborted, but Roger is informed we have only "40 MINUTES UNTIL MELTDOWN."  So it's time to escape Vohaul's ship. 

Getting up the diagonal staircase is the first challenge -- these are never easy to navigate in the Sierra AGI games, and the potential for fatal falls means we really need to lock in the diagonal direction as best we can.  We also need to get the oxygen mask from a box at the walkway entrance, and wear it at one point near a breach in the walkway walls to keep Roger from suffocating.  This dangerous little trip gets Roger to the otherwise unreachable walkway in the landing bay.

There are escape pods here, guarded by a robot called The Vohaul Marrow-Matic.  It won't follow Roger into the walkway, but -- ACK!  When I first played, THIS is when I learned that french-kissing the alien earlier did indeed plant a fatal parasite in Roger's body.  I had to restore to an earlier save, and replay a good chunk of the game; as noted above, I had to avoid even letting the creature out of its cell, as once released it will eventually catch up with Roger and plant this annoying time bomb.

Okay, now that that hazard has been sidestepped, let's see what we can do here.  The Marrow-Matic attack robot won't follow Roger out into the landing bay -- we can get past it by ducking out of its way and letting it go past, although we don't have a lot of time before it comes back again.  We need to get Roger into an escape pod, after which the robot will assume he's supposed to be there.  I don't know if there's any difference between the pods, but I may have lucked out by using the rightmost pod, which is flashing red when Roger arrives.

Almost there.  We PUSH LAUNCH BUTTON, blast off, and learn that... there's not enough oxygen in the pod to get Roger to safety?  Did I take the wrong pod?  No, we just need to use the sleep pod onboard.  We've destroyed Vohaul and his plot, escaped safely, and it's THE END - FOR NOW.  Victory is ours!

But... I finished with only 218 of the 250 points, so I had to do a little followup research.  As it turned out,  I missed throwing the cubix rube to the Labion Terror Beast, and just avoided him.  Similarly, I didn't use Roger's athletic supporter to sling rock at the landing platform guard; I just avoided him too.  So that accounts for 30 of the missing points, and the remaining 2 were missed because I never picked up a rock to sling at the guard.  So I didn't miss any story points -- I just chose to solve a few puzzles by alternate, non-confrontational (and apparently worthless!) means.

I enjoyed playing Space Quest II, and sometime soon we'll tackle Space Quest III, the first of the SCI generation Space Quest games, with higher-resolution graphics and a full-blown MIDI music score.

Monday, July 25, 2011

At Random: Smithereens! (1982)

Toward the end of its life, the Odyssey^2 started getting some more sophisticated titles from Magnavox and parent company North American Philips.  Smithereens! -- this week's random pick -- is one of those later, more polished titles; in other words, it's a 4K cartridge instead of a 2K cartridge, and has a few surprising touches.

I remember this game primarily because it was one of the prototype Odyssey^3's featured titles in early magazine coverage of that machine -- and unfortunately, that coverage made it clear that many of the games on the "new" console were the same old games with the same old little Odyssey^2 men, with higher-resolution background graphics added for show.  But I'd never played Smithereens!, so I'm pulling it out of the collection and trying it out this week.

Smithereens! is a rendition of a classic head-to-head video game scenario -- two players separated by a pond have catapults and boulders, and aim to knock each other's towers to rubble.  It's set in the medieval era, according to the manual, and was known in the UK as Stone Sling, a more descriptive title that unfortunately also brings certain men's athletic garments to mind.

Here's something subtle and kind of cool -- usually Odyssey^2 games had a single-color border, which on a TV without massive overscan (and on modern emulators) always made the action look a little bit boxed in.  In this game, an interrupt timing scan line technique is used to make the black and green areas of the background "bleed" properly into the margins. It's a small but welcome sign of a little more technical care on the part of Magnavox.

Missiles are lobbed by pulling the spring-centering Odyssey^2 joystick away from center, holding it for a while, then letting it go back to center; it's a "flick-firing" mechanism that feels nice and tactile on the original hardware.  The action button is not used, and there's no way to aim except by developing a sense of joystick direction and timing.  There's also some strategy involved here, as the player has to hold the catapult back for a fairly long time in order to approach the target; it may pay to knock the top off of one's own tower first, so that more lower-angled shots can be fired more quickly later.

The goal is to take out the towers, but doing other kinds of damage earns points as well.  If a player hits the opponent directly, a new opponent walks onscreen and the game continues.  The manual tells us that the injured combatant is seeking medical attention, but as a boulder to the head is not generally a treatable condition, and the injured party simply vanishes, and another figure walks onscreen after a brief delay, I trust the visuals more than the documentation.  If a player hits the opponent's catapult, the opponent saunters offscreen with the damaged one and brings back a new one, a charming little bit of animation by Odyssey^2 standards.  This brief interruption in the defenses also gives the opposing player a chance to do a little extra damage; the manual is correct when it says, "You can wreak unmolested devastation until he returns."

There's some "dynamic damage" going on here too, long before that term was coined -- the two towers that provide each player with some measure of defense can be seen deforming and crumbling, gradually and semi-randomly.  It's not a true physics simulation, but the "noise" involved does keep the visuals a little bit fresh.

If one player manages to completely destroy the other player's tower, there's a brief, beepy trumpet fanfare played by a suddenly fourfold enlarged version of the victorious player:

And then the game continues, with the highest-scoring player after three battles declared the ultimate winner.  Like many two-player Odyssey^2 games, Smithereens! actually requires two human players -- it cannot be played solo against the CPU, except as a way to practice one's aiming technique.  But the extra ROM space was devoted to a little extra polish instead of simplistic AI, and given the scarcity of cute little graphical touches in the Magnavox library, the effort is appreciated.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cover to Cover: Aardvark Ltd. 1983 Catalog (pp. 11-12)

Aardvark's spring 1983 catalog continues, with page 11 featuring yet more classic game concepts for a variety of early home computer platforms:

Blackjack / Acy Ducey [sic] is a pair of gambling games, for the TRS-80 Color and Commodore VIC-20 computers (though the VIC-20 version, oddly, is missing the split-a-pair option.)  Space Zapper is a version of Midway's early coin-op Space Zap, a simple but fun reflex game engineered by Nutting Associates.  Timetrek is another Trek game, with graphics and more real-time feel, which makes we wonder why Aardvark was still pushing Starship Hercules back on page 9.

Starfighter is puzzling -- it sounds more like a simulation of close-quarters space combat than a game of Space Invaders, but it's hard to imagine just what this one might have played like based on the catalog description.  This source code listing for the OSI version (no longer being marketed in this catalog) comes from Jerry Travis' OSI archive site and makes this a little bit clearer -- it's a turn-based war game with random elements, and the available difficulty levels alter the player's odds of success.

And, finally, Games Disk #1 compiles several of Aardvark's older TRS-80 Color games onto one disk, with Quest, Killerbot, Mars and Battlefleet covered elsewhere in this catalog; only Slashball had fallen out of print, it was apparently another CoCo port of an OSI game from Aardvark's early days.

Page 12 features a fairly broad-ranging customer guarantee, though one wonders how "as advertised" was interpreted -- apparently the key was to return the product within 15 days if it was found unsatisfactory.  But it's pretty rare today to see a software product with guaranteed, money-back functionality -- those install-time agreements we all skim and click are usually dominated by disclaimers of any responsibility whatsoever should the software fail to perform.

I seem to remember buying a handful of Aardvark's "used and bungled" cassettes once upon a time, an attractive offer on my paper route income.  This page also features the traditional solicitation of software authors with interesting products that Aardvark might want to publish -- most small software companies were dependent on outside developers, though Aardvark founder Rodger Olsen created many products himself.  There's also a mention of a separate OSI-specific catalog.

Almost done -- we'll wrap this catalog up next weekend!

Cover to Cover: Aardvark Ltd. 1983 Catalog (pp. 9-10)

Our weekend journey through the pages of the February/March 1983 Aardvark Ltd. software catalog continues, with pages 9 and 10.  (We're out of the Dave Edson pages now, though not all of these games are credited to an author.)

Page 9 focuses on TRS-80 Color Computer games, with a few that are also compatible with the Ohio Scientific Instruments kit computers that gave Aardvark its start.  Like a lot of early home computer games, most of these are simple renditions of tried-and-true game ideas, written in BASIC in somebody's den:

Starship Hercules is yet another version of the classic, unlicensed Star Trek games that appeared on mainframes and just about any other system with an addressable text display back in the day; my own introduction to this once-thriving genre came via Radio Shack's Space Warp for the TRS-80 Model I.  This CoCo version required a whopping 32K of memory, unusual for a game with no real graphics, but as it's written in BASIC there was probably some resource wastage afoot.

Breakaway is yet another Breakout clone, also written in BASIC.  Biorhythm is a very 1970s concept, based on the then-popular pseudoscientific idea that people function on precisely timed cycles of various types that intersect in propitious or negative ways, and can predict compatibility via comparison.

Killerbot sounds like a version of the arcade gamer Berzerk, but it's actually an older, simpler idea that inspired the Stern coin-op -- the player moves, the enemy robots move toward the player in turn, and the player tries to get them to run into obstacles or each other.  Calling this "real time" is a bit of an exaggeration, but the concept is a classic; I played a Dr. Who-inspired version called Daleks on the Atari ST in the late 80s.  It was originally available for the OSI platform and was ported to the TRS-80 Color later on.  The same goes for Battlefleet, which sounds a lot like Battleship but appears to have a little bit of Mastermind thrown in, as feedback scores the player's 6-shot volleys in terms of how many squares were hit.

Page 10 continues the trend, with more CoCo renditions of established game concepts:

Space Wall sounds about as exciting as its title -- two players duke it out through a wall... in space!  For some unspecified reason, the (I assume) more playable machine code version is accompanied by a BASIC version.  But in the early home computer hobbyist days, when third-party software was scarce and everybody needed to learn how to program to some degree, this wasn't too unusual.

Golf purports to provide a "very accurate simulation" of the sport, but like a lot of early golf games, it plays more like pool, with an overhead 2-D perspective.  But it looks like it was a decent attempt at the sport -- some details are available here at L. Curtis Boyle's excellent TRS-80 Color Computer Games List site.

Crosswords (aka Parizek's Crossword Game) wasn't really a crossword puzzle game -- that is, there wasn't enough storage available to provide clues for word-guessing.  Instead, players took turns placing words into a computer-generated crossword grid, making the game more like Scrabble.

And Space Shuttle is nothing like Activision's sophisticated simulation for the Atari 2600 -- from the description, this sounds more like Atari's coin-op Lunar Lander in reverse, as the player tries to fly up to dock with an orbiting space station but may have to land back on the planet's surface for refueling.

We're nearing the end of this vintage catalog -- next time, pages 11 and 12!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Vanilla Syndrome

Okay, it's time to clear another one of these off the shelf by writing about it so I don't necessarily ever have to play it again.  Nichibutsu's Vanilla Syndrome is yet another racy mahjong title for the Japanese PC Engine Super CD-ROM platform -- it started life as an arcade game, and brought its busty bunny girls to the home platform in 1991.  Nichibutsu (aka Nihon Bussan Co.) was best known in the USA as a purveyor of classic arcade games like Crazy Climber and Moon Shuttle -- but in Japan, it made a lot of its money from these kinds of titles.

The production values are high -- the opening cartoon shows a young man, magically warped into a field of flowers, with smooth animation and good voice acting.  Then we get to this shot, which stays onscreen for a very long time with only a bit of lip-synch to break up the static picture, and is apparently meant to convey the game's primary intent:

After we start the game and sign in (in my non-Japanese-speaking case, with a random assortment of characters), we are at least given some justification for the young ladies' wardrobe, as this elderly, James Randi-esque bunny sets out our mission:

We are given the opportunity to purchase a few advantages before the match starts, while our hostess' wardrobe does its best to contain her, erm, enthusiasm:

Then the match is underway -- apparently we are playing for carrots, in keeping with the lagomorphic themes.  This is standard mahjong with standard tiles, standard rules, all the same as we've seen in countless other PC Engine games:

If we are no good at mahjong, we can still see the victory sequences and the end credits via an option hidden on the main menu -- if we select the main mode of the game, hold the D-pad left, and hit button II, we are given all the dialogue and imagery as our hero meets and defeats each of the available opponents -- this one reminds me of 80s doll/cartoon star Jem, for some reason, though she seems to be more genuinely truly outrageous:

There are also tournament and one-on-one modes, where we can pick a specific opponent rather than playing through the storyline.

And so it goes; nice production values, and I am pleased to report that in the final analysis, Vanilla Syndrome is cutesy, not really ecchi and certainly not hentai.  But it's still just another game of mahjong.  My PC Engine import collection overfloweth with these, for no real reason beyond the fact that they're generally inexpensive.  Don't follow my example!

You really don't want this game, but it might be up for sale here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The LoadDown - 07/21/2011

More downloadable fun arrives this week, with a number of platforms shaking off the summer doldrums at last...

WiiWare -- One new title, Bobby Carrot Forever, a puzzle/adventure game with pretty 2-D artwork, which presumably took less time to develop than Duke Nukem Forever and even sight unseen is almost certainly more fun to play.

Wii Virtual Console -- Nothing here this week, though with Chrono Trigger arriving not long ago most retro gamers are satisfied for the moment.

DSiWare -- Three games this week: Antipole is a gravity-based puzzle game starring a robot in space.  Kung Fu Dragon sounds like a martial arts game but focuses on... waterfall climbing?  Trollboarder is a snowboarding-style game starring a troll.

Nintendo eShop -- The three DSi games above are also available on the 3DS, and finally we get a second 3D Classics title, Namco's Xevious with the visuals reworked to feature true 3-D, a nice idea for this high-altitude arcade shooter.  I was never a big fan of the original game, but the NES conversion was released as part of the old GBA NES Classics series so it must have been fairly popular.

XBox Live Arcade -- The XBLA Summer of Arcade begins with one major new title: Bastion is an anime-styled action/RPG with a solid combat system, beautiful and detailed artwork, and an interesting "dynamic narration" system that attempts to describe the action as if it were a story, without (I hope) repeating the narrator's phrasings too often as is historically the case with these things.

PS3 on PSN -- Quite a bit of activity here, with 5 new titles available this week.  SNK's Baseball Stars 2 and King of Fighters '95 bring the Neo-Geo arcade classics to the PS3, Dead Block is a third-person zombie-fighting action/strategy game, Fast Draw Showdown is an old laserdisc Western quick-draw contest courtesy of Digital Leisure, and Playdead Studios' Limbo is the same great, gory puzzle game seen on XBLA last year, with an evocative black-and-white, silhouetted art style.

PSOne Classics -- Hey!  After a few no-release months, there's a sign of life here with Kyuiin, a cute-'em-up 2-D shooter starring a kid (or two) on a vacuum cleaner, previously only released in Japan.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My PC Upgrade Adventures, Continued

My quest to get a reasonable framerate out of my contemporary PC gaming continues, after more than a decade of not really tweaking my PC hardware for modern gaming purposes.  The last desktop I bought was more than 7 years ago, and was fairly expensive, so I was happy to pick up an HP Pavilion desktop machine with a healthy 8 GB of RAM, 2.9 GHz quad-core AMD processors, and a 1.5 TB hard drive for less than half that amount.

The price was reasonable, but the integrated (I am starting to understand that that's a key word meaning "limited performance") ATI Radeon HD 4200 graphics hardware was... unsatisfying.  If anything, my initial testing gave me new respect for my laptop's Intel graphics hardware; even though the new desktop machine was manufactured a couple of years later, it only managed to beat my trusty laptop by about 20%.  And that's not an impressive result -- it was actually SLOWER on the simple 3-D graphics test, managing 130 frames per second compared to 180 on the laptop, and only a little bit faster on the medium complexity test -- 60 fps compared to 50.  On the complex graphics test, it managed only about 11 fps, compared to 9 on the laptop, and while it could run the highest complexity test that my laptop could not run, it was very chuggy at less than a frame per second.  Granted, I've done some tweaking to the laptop's graphics optimization in an attempt to balance performance and power consumption, but it's now clear to me from experience that integrated graphics hardware just isn't generally up to gaming performance.

So I went back to the store, to find a PCI Express (x16 bus) graphics card of some kind.  I ended up with a VisionTek card using an ATI Radeon 5760, with 1 GB of onboard DDR5 RAM.  It's not a top-of-the-line card, but I figured it had to be an improvement, and if it proved inadequate I could always take it back and buy something heftier.  And it was on clearance sale at 40% off, so the price was right, under $100, though that did make me wonder if my selection was not a popular card for some reason that would reveal itself in all its horror at some future date.

When I got the box home, opened up the PC, and took the graphics card out of the box, it became apparent why a dedicated graphics card is really important for gaming.  This thing has an onboard fan of its own to draw heat away from the hardworking ATI chip, promising some degree of graphical prowess.  And I had no trouble slotting it into the PC, where it slid in a lot more easily than I remember old PC cards doing, and happily assumed responsibility for the system's video output with no coercion on my part.

And, even better, my initial benchmark tests and informal application testing left me more than satisfied.  The new card turns in over 2000 fps on the simple 3-D test, 300 fps on the medium, and a respectable 59.5 on the high complexity test.  The real push on the highest-level test yielded only 10 fps, so it won't run Crysis 2 with any degree of aplomb, but at least you could tell that there was animation on display, and not just a sequence of still frames.

Then I fired up Tales of Monkey Island, Chapter 1, because the storm effects, long-range/close-up camera usage, and depth-of-field effects in the intro sequence tend to give anything I've tried it on quite a bit of trouble.  With full detail on at 1400 x 900 (my old widescreen monitor's rather odd 16:10 aspect ratio resolution), everything ran cleanly, smoothly and beautifully.  Anti-aliasing is working, all the wind/rain and glow effects look the way they should, and all the textures are rendered at full detail.  Back to the Future: The Game looks good too, and even Puzzle Agent 2 looks cleaner and smoother, probably because the game's hand-drawn textures were being scaled down for my laptop's limited graphics memory.

Just to make sure something more demanding would work, I also ran the Duke Nukem Forever demo, with full detail on, and everything worked well except the gameplay itself.

So this little project was worth the effort, with less actual work than I expected, and I am sure I can convince myself it was worth the expense; the Steam library and occasional sale prices will do a lot on that front, I'm sure.  And I'm sure that someday I will start to notice a few little glitches or performance issues, and the cycle will begin again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Curse of the Sasquatch (1980)

Here's another one of the young and prolific Greg Hassett's text adventures for the TRS-80 Model I computer -- on a reader's recommendation, we're playing Curse of the Sasquatch, published in 1980.  There's no publisher cited on the title screen, but the address given is the same Chelmsford, Massachusetts P.O. box used by previous Hassett publishers Mad Hatter Software and Adventure-World, so presumably this one was handled by the same entity.

The game begins in a small shack in Alaska, strewn with traditional adventuring items, and our objective isn't initially clear, which is kind of refreshing.  As always, I urge interested readers to try to dispel the Curse of the Sasquatch independently before proceeding here, although I will warn you that I was not able to get the SAVE and RESTORE to work using the TRS32 emulator, so I just had to restart any time I died, and was glad this game is written in speedy machine language.  For history's sake, I will be documenting the game's nooks and crannies as thoroughly as I can, which means there will doubtless be...


I like this title screen's nod to the "puppet" metaphor often used to explain the adventure game concept in the genre's early years, as the player prepares to RISK YOUR (AND MY) LIFE.  The game is dedicated to Dan, Dick, and Frank, presumably friends or relatives of Mr. Hassett.

The shack where the player wakes up contains a BEARSKIN RUG, PAINTING, FIREPLACE, and a MOOSEHAEAD [sic] -- yes, Greg Hassett's spelling remains unconventional.  We learn that we were carried to this shack by someone or something..., but no further details are provided.

There's an old-school first-move death possible here -- if we go W, we learn that I DIE OF THE SUBZERO COLD immediately.  We can see that the shack is numbered 419 before we go, though I never found any other shacks or in-game significance to this number; it's the inverse of the publisher's P.O. box, but I don't think that really means anything either.

Inside the cabin, if we LOOK RUG, the game yields WOW! SOMETHIN' FELL OUT OF THE BEAR'S MOUTH! IT LOOKS REAL WARM!  Don't worry, it's not a fresh hairball or remains of the shack's former occupants -- these are apparently two different thoughts: a candle fell out of the bear's mouth, and the RUG looks warm.

Hmmmmm... the painting on the wall is of a Siamese cat named MIMI, reminiscent of a cat statue appearing in another Hassett game, The Devil's Palace!  Does RUB MIMI accomplish anything in this one?  Apparently not.  But GET PAINTING reveals a LOOSE BRICK; unfortunately, we can't GET, MOVE, or PULL it.  We can't GET MOOSEHEAD either, as IT BITES ME AS I REACH FOR IT! (?)  This made me wonder if the remainder of a live moose is standing outside the cabin, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

We can GO FIREPLACE, however, and discover that there's a keyhole in there.  Outside at the base of a mountain is a dead monk.  If we LOOK MONK, he disappears, leaving a ZIPPO brand lighter behind.  Do monks smoke?  Trying to CLIMB MOUNTAIN at this point is fatal - a snowstorm knocks us unconscious, and once again we die of exposure in the sub-zero temperatures.

Back inside the shack, if we PUSH BRICK, the animal regurgitation motif continues as THE MOOSE SAYS: IT'S KINDA CHILLY IN HERE... WHY NOT BUILD A FIRE? AND SPITS SOMETHING OUT.  This is a key, hidden right under our noses if we could have found the right verb to use on the loose brick.

Returning to the fireplace now, INSERT KEY does nothing obvious. But TURN KEY causes the fireplace to turn, depositing us on a ledge.  This is a one way passage, apparently, a bit of a funhouse pathway similar to the ones in Hassett's other games.  On the ledge, if we PULL LEVER, another one-way trip sends us down to a dark cavern where we find a GROWLING TAPE RECORDER and a FLUTE.  I spent some time while solving this game collecting various artifacts, like this tape recorder, that seem to point toward a Scooby Doo-style fake Bigfoot, but as it turns out these are just for our information and don't need to be taken or used for anything.

Heading E from this location takes us into yet another TWISTING MAZE OF UNDERGROUND TUNNELS, but fortunately it maps fairly logically, and we just need to find the single successful path through it.  "Wrong" moves either loop back to our current location or go back logically to the previous one.  Thanks, Mr. Hassett!

A dead end to the south of the previous location has a COIL OF ROPE.  But if we try to GET ROPE, we are surprised (or maybe not) to see that THE ROPE MOVES AWAY AS I GET NEAR!  Should we try to, I dunno, PLAY FLUTE?  Yep.  THE ROPE BECOMES STIFF AND CLIMBABLE.  So now we can CLIMB ROPE.

The rope takes us to a ledge, and what we really need to do here is obtain a LADDER.  But it's fun to climb the ladder first, and visit the ADVENTURE WORKROOM -- it's a nice little meta-joke, with cassettes, mounds of paper, and thousands of broken pencils. 

But if we try to GET anything here, a TALL WIZARD APPEARS and WITH A PASS OF HIS BONEY HANDS I VANISH INTO THIN AIR!  Game over.  No cheating allowed, apparently.

Backtracking to the ledge (we have to come back in from the outside if we've already pulled the lever), if we walk down instead of falling, we enter a dark area where we need to LIGHT CANDLE (and Curse the Sasquatch?)  Oddly, A LIFE-SIZE BIGFOOT DOLL is thrown at us for a quick scare; closer examination reveals that the doll is of a female bigfoot, so that will probably play into things somehow.  There's a ramp leading back up to the ledge; we can't go UP but we can CLIMB RAMP to go back up, and we can go S from here to a T intersection leading to the unimaginatively named PIT "A" and PIT "B", where a tiger guards an axe, and a cobra guards a tranquilizer gun, respectively.

We can't DROP RUG while mapping the maze or trying to free up inventory, as we instantly DIE OF THE SUBZERO COLD again, no matter where we happen to be.  At the end of the maze, a LARGE CAVE EXIT eventually gets us back to the BASE OF MOUNTAIN and the shack.  And if we forgot to GET KEY after using it in the fireplace, we are now stuck because we can't get back into the underground areas to finish the game.

How to deal with the TIGER and COBRA?  The flute does the expected double-duty; we PLAY FLUTE, and THE SNAKE GOES INTO A TRANCE AND SLITHERS AWAY.  Then we can SHOOT TIGER with the tranquilizer gun thus made available and GET AXE.  With the AXE, we can CHOP [things], but most yield only I CAN'T CHOP *THAT*!

So I guess we should go looking for something choppable, as it feels like we've explored the map pretty thoroughly.  We can't FOLLOW the HUGE FOOTPRINTS at the base of the mountain, but to the game's credit it recognizes the attempt, telling us that THEY ONLY GO FOR A FEW YARDS... THEN THEY STOP.

So now what?  We have the growling tape recorder and the female sasquatch doll.  Who threw the doll at us?  We can't INSERT RECORDER to make the doll more attractive, nor can we STOP or RECORD anything with the device.  If we go back to the shack and attempt to BUILD FIRE, we are informed that we need firewood, so we're on the right track there and should probably find some wood to chop.

Curse words (or verbs) produce the response, WATCH YOUR TONGUE, BUDDY.  If we PLAY FLUTE in the wrong places, we are usefully told that ABSOLUTELY *NOTHING* HAPPENED.

I was stuck, and with no published walkthrough available, I resorted to digging into the binary image and found this tantalizing phrase:  MOST ARE DEAD. WOULD MAKE GOOD FIREWOOD.  This led me to explore more thoroughly, and I discovered that on the SNOWY LEDGE at the end of the maze, we can use the ladder (DROP LADDER, then CLIMB LADDER) to reach a THICK FOREST.  Here, we can CHOP TREES to get FIREWOOD and a SLIP OF PAPER.  (But we can't GET FIREWOOD, we have to GET WOOD.)  The slip of paper reads, "THEIR [sic] IS A CURSE PUT ON ALL THOSE WHO SEEK THE SASQUATCH..."  But as far as I can tell this purported curse never really comes into play.

There's more territory to explore up here, however.  A building to the west has an oil dispenser, some huge wooden feet (more evidence), and a knob in the wall.  The THIN, BUDDING FOREST outside is nicely non-cliched, and contains a statue of a woodman holding an axe.  To the south is a COBBLESTONE PADIO [sic] with a mailbox.  The statue appears to say "ILL ME" -- do we need to oil him somehow, a la The Wizard of OzHELP indicates THE STATUE IS MADE OF TIN, which is surprisingly helpful, except for the fact that LOOK STATUE does not tell us this.  So yes, oil may be the trick here.

We can TURN KNOB in the building to access underground caverns and passages.  A low cave has a barrel of oil; the wine cellar has a bottle of wine; and a room with an elevator takes us to an immaculately kept bedroom with a closet and black marks on the carpet (which call the immaculate qualities of the room description into question.)  In the closet, we find a bigfoot costume and a shelf.  There doesn't seem to be any way to return from this location, though, so if we are not prepared for the endgame, we will be stuck here.

LOOK SHELF inside the closet establishes that IT LOOKS BIG ENOUGH TO HOLD ME!  If we GO SHELF, the game mentions that IT FEELS LIKE I AM BEING MONITORED.  WHEN I WHISTLE, THE SHELF SHAKES...  Why we are whistling without apparent motivation remains a mystery, but if we explicitly WHISTLE, the shelf vibrates and we fall off.  This is meant to be a hint that we should once again PLAY FLUTE, at which point THE SHELF FOLDS DOWN AT AN ANGLE AND I SLIDE OFF.

Now we find ourselves in a MASTER CONTROL ROOM.  It appears the "bigfoot" has something to do with oil wells in the area, and there are more black marks on the floor.  So a lot of things I initially thought I needed to use to catch a Sasquatch were just evidence of fakery, a cool little skeptical twist.

I wasn't able to figure out what to do here, so I delved into the code again; we can apparently open the roof of the shack by... building the fire, I think?  Interesting, but not of much help when we're stuck in the master control room.  We can get back to the bedroom, but the elevator we used to get here seems to have completely vanished, the flute and ladder are useless, and despite the feeling we are being watched, SHOW DOLL and SHOW COSTUME in the area don't seem to provoke any interesting responses.  HELP in the control room yields DID YOU READ THE NOTE?  Is that referring to the curse?  No, another peek at the code suggests that it's referring to a note that accompanies a trap.  So this is probably where our last stand is meant to be and we should come here last.

Okay - first things first, then.  We can go back to the shack and BUILD FIRE with the firewood, we don't need to solve everything in this part of the map right away, and we are free to do as long as we haven't gone to the bedroom yet.  With the fire roaring away, the shack's roof opens, and the snowstorm subsides a bit.  We can use the ladder to get to the roof, where we find a trap and a note reading:


We've already been told that the Sasquatch appears to frequent the Master Control Room, so that seems to make sense.  Should we use the female sasquatch doll as bait?  There must be some reason for its existence.

Of course, getting back there is now a challenge, as now there is a fire blazing away -- GO FIREPLACE yields, HAR HAR HAR. GO RIGHT INTO THE BLAZING FIRE. IT IS TO LAUGH.  We can try to EXTINGUISH FIRE, but I HAVE NO FIRE EXTINGUISHER.  Hmmmm.  As it turns out, now that the storm has subsided a bit, we can GO MOUNTAIN to reach the snowy ledge directly, without going through the maze again.  This is good, but the cave maze is a one-way trip, so if we left anything we need in there we are now stuck.  So I had to start over to test my theory that the bigfoot doll would be useful as bait.

Before doing that, I figured I should try to deal with the tin statue.  I tried to GET OIL, and was told I should TRY "FILL SOMETHING."  So we apparently need something to put it in, and the wine bottle seems appropriate -- but we needn't bother, as attempting to fill it reveals that it already has oil in it.  And I wasn't able to find a way to get back from the lower reaches of the map after retrieving the wine bottle -- I tried using the ladder in every possible location, to no avail.  Something seems a little unfinished here.

Back to the endgame, then.  We can't BAIT TRAP or INSERT DOLL; we just have to DROP TRAP and DROP DOLL, apparently, then leave the room briefly, and return to... abrupt victory!

While we were away for just a second, the trap was sprung, which is kind of anticlimactic.  The man masquerading as Bigfoot was selling the oil to the Russians, apparently, in a little bit of 1980 cold war paranoia. And we are never told why the man would have been the least bit interested in the female sasquatch doll, but maybe it gets really lonely in Alaska.

There are several elements here that don't quite resolve -- the tin statue, the oil, the wine bottle full of oil, but no reason to FILL it.  There's an oil can mentioned in the code, but I never ran across it.  And the code also indicates that the woodsman gives us a clue about using the flute three times, which is kind of unnecessary, as we are able to figure that out on our own with other hints and traditional adventure game behavior.  So I'll chalk those up to interesting ideas that never quite got implemented, perhaps due to memory or development time constraints.

There are more Greg Hassett adventures for us to explore -- the precocious young coder was pretty prolific during the three years or so he was active in the industry.  This game is listed in the CASA Solution Archive, but there was no published walkthrough available there when I started playing.  So here's mine, below the fold.

***** WALKTHROUGH *****

Monday, July 18, 2011

At Random: Pocket Billiards! (1982)

Once upon a time, in the early days of video gaming, before the days of free online Flash games, almost any sport or pastime could be converted to simplified electronic form and marketed as a full-priced ROM cartridge.  This week's random pick from my Odyssey^2 collection is Magnavox's Pocket Billiards, a game of this type that tackles the tabletop sport of pool.

The graphics are well within the system's capabilities, though it would be nice if the pool table and billiard balls had a little more definition (Imagic's Trick Shot for the Atari 2600 did a much nicer job in this regard.)  We have a choice of two rulesets -- 8 Ball, where players compete to be the first to sink one of two black balls, or Rotation, where players compete to sink the most balls.  The manual mentions a couple of possible variations -- players can only sink balls of a certain color, say, or balls must be sunk in alternating colors -- but there's no direct support in the game for these rules.

Players are identified as Player L (player using the left joystick) and Player R (right joystick) onscreen, with a rotating white cue controlled by the current player; shot strength is determined by the length of time the action button is held down.

The physics are... well, they're semi-predictable, and that's all about that can be said for them.  There's no visible conservation of momentum, and a collision of one ball with two at the same time appears to spontaneously double the kinetic energy in some instances, while at other times everything grinds to a dead stop almost immediately.  The balls are not allowed to touch, which causes them to fall into improbably neatly-aligned rows when they bunch up during play, resembling a carton of eggs.  Worse, ball movement seems to be restricted to a small set of angles, probably using simple table lookups to substitute for floating-point math.  This means that a glancing impact often sends a ball on an unlikely horizontal or vertical path, so any attempts to set up fancy cascading shots will be frustrated by the limited physics engine. 

I also note that the pockets seem to have some kind of gravitational pull -- consider this shot:

Somehow the result ends up sinking the black (dark gray) ball in the upper center pocket, producing a victory for Player L:

I'm sure Pocket Billiards! was perfectly suitable for whiling away a few hours back in the day, but it's another early effort that's obviously and painfully hampered by the era's video game technology.  I'm as big a fan of the good old days as anyone, and I celebrate the development of the art form over time -- but this is another historical curio that's aged pretty poorly three decades on.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cover to Cover: Aardvark Ltd. 1983 Catalog (pp. 7-8)

Pages 7 and 8 of the Aardvark Ltd. 1983 catalog feature the inimitable Dave Edson, who wrote a number of machine-language arcade-style games for the TRS-80 Color Computer, most "inspired by" popular coin-ops.  Mr. Edson's games have remained in legal circulation, as he has been gracious enough to release the copyright on several of his works; emulator disk images are available at this excellent CoCo resource page.

Page 7 is the first of two pages devoted to the prolific Mr. Edson's work:

Caterpillar is, clearly, an unlicensed version of Atari's Centipede; Tube Frenzy is an original game with resemblances to Targ and Ladybug, and is not an imitation of Tempest as the name might imply; and Venturer is one of the few home computer clones of Exidy's Venture.  I bought and played Venturer back in the day -- it didn't have the classic arcade game's music, zoom-in effect, or its variety of monsters, but it had varying treasures and was an acceptable version of one of my favorite old-school arcade games.

Page 8 continues the trend, with games that are apparently "Edson's Best," so presumably better than the ones on the previous page, in case we were thinking about wasting our money on those:

The catalog copy for Planet Raiders takes pains to point out that it is "not just another copy of Defender," which means that it basically is another copy of Defender, with ground bases and a few other new touches.  Catch 'Em is a version of Atari's early coin-op Avalanche (which also inspired Activision's Kaboom!); the artwork implies that it has a touch of Midway's Kickman thrown in for personality, but in reality the player just controls a series of horizontal bars that the player must maneuver to intercept falling objects.

Next time, more pages from the distant past...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Cover to Cover: Aardvark Ltd. 1983 Catalog (pp. 5-6)

Our review of Aardvark Ltd.'s 1983 computer software catalog continues, with a number of arcade-style action games.  Unlike Aardvark's text adventures, which could be ported to multiple machines fairly easily, these push the hardware more and are therefore more platform-specific.  But the home computer market was fragmented in 1983, with many players in the field, and so at least a token effort was made to get these games out on at least a couple of platforms.

Page 5 begins the lineup, with ripoffs of several established arcade games and one original game that was the closest thing to DOOM I encountered when I was a kid:

It's not always easy to tell what these games, many of them lost to the ages, actually were without screenshots.  But from the text descriptions, it's safe to speculate that Zart Invaders (are games art?) was Aardvark's de rigueur clone of Space Invaders, Seawolfe apes Midway's periscope-equipped coin-op Sea Wolf, and Concentration is the standard object-matching game of Concentration.  The odd one out is Labyrinth, which I actually bought and played on the TRS-80 Color Computer back in the day.  It was written in BASIC, so play was sluggish, but the game's randomly generated maze and the minimalistic slow, steady beeping as each monster gets nearer, while the player tries to hunt it down in 3-D, first-person perspective, was pretty engrossing and effective.  It didn't inspire the yelps of surprise and dismay that some of DOOM's more dastardly traps would a decade and a half later, but it's the first game I can recall playing that invoked the same basic fight-or-flight instinct that makes id's games so scary-fun to play.

Page 6 takes a break from the game lineup, with a couple of multiplatform utilities (written in BASIC) focusing on the TRS-80 Color, Commodore 64, VIC-20, and... OSI?  Ohio Scientific Instruments put out a series of kit computers in the late 1970s, and Aardvark got its start by supplying software and documentation for this true hobbyist machine.  Eventually Aardvark would drop OSI support from its catalog, but it was still supporting it circa 1983 -- that's impressive dedication to an aging platform.

The Tiny Compiler was a pre-compiler of the sort common in the days of interpreted BASIC -- BASIC was slow primarily because it was designed to be edited and executed on the fly, in memory, and so didn't require a disk drive.  The idea here was to translate the user's BASIC code into speedy machine language -- but the aptly-named Tiny Compiler doesn't handle anything close to the full BASIC language, was fairly memory-hungry, and was apparently so limited that Aardvark offered a money-back plus bonus offer to anyone who would enhance it!  The Tiny Compiler itself was written and sold in BASIC, which suggests that it was not capable of compiling itself; a good concept, hampered by poor technology.

Maxi Pros was "a great word processor" promoted with copy from the era of casual sexism, referencing the "new girl" who would presumably be the user of said software, because, apparently, real men don't type.  At least we have some evidence of the product's existence and workability, as it was reportedly "used to typeset this entire catalog."  That dot-matrix typesetting looks just fantastic, doesn't it?

Next time, we'll look at pages 7 and 8, with more games!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Of Import: Super Darius

This week, we're looking at one of several PC Engine games based on Taito's coin-op Darius series -- it's Super Darius, published in 1990 for the PC Engine CD-ROM (System Card 1.0) platform.  This scrolling shoot-'em-up series was very popular on the PC Engine, with Darius Twin, Darius Alpha (a boss rush version of Darius Twin) and Super Darius II also appearing on the machine.  The game was ported to the PC Engine by NEC Avenue under license from Taito, and is one of the rare PCE games to feature licensed Dolby Surround audio technology, creating an additional rear surround channel from a phased stereo signal.  The game's compact disc label is even printed in full-color.

The Darius games are beautiful to look at and convert well to the PC Engine, thanks to the console's bright color palette and efficient sprite handling.  But this one in particular is nails-hard, because there's almost no way the player can take on the later bosses without being highly powered-up, and any serious hit knocks the player's ship out of commission and back to square one.  The later bosses are tough, and if the battle goes on too long, swarms of spinning boxes arrive to harass and destroy the player; with my middling arcade skills, there's no way to fight them off without taking hits.

So, in the interest of documenting the game, I came up with a cheat code, using the Magic Engine emulator's handy code search function -- if you use this emulator, assign a frozen value of 3 to address F82BC8.  This will give you infinite lives, which is the only way someone like me has a chance of fighting through the whole game.

The original arcade game supports two players, but only one, the male pilot Proco, is actually available in this conversion.  The attract mode still gives us a look at his erstwhile partner, Tiat, also known as Ms. Not-Appearing-in-This-Game.

The action is brisk, but it does become repetitive, making the unforgiving difficulty curve a little easier to swallow if we have to give up the fight somewhere along the way.  Each level challenges the player to navigate the scrolling landscape, shooting and bombing flying enemies and gun emplacements while dodging a hail of bullets.  The PC Engine lacks true parallax scrolling hardware -- that is, it can't really handle multiple background layers -- but Super Darius does a fine job of simulating the effect using sprites in the foreground, and the game looks great in motion, smooth and fast-paced.

The background music sounds terrific too, but I couldn't put my finger on its unique quality at first.  It initially sounds like really sophisticated use of the PC Engine's sound chip, but then the audio gets more complex.  And it keeps playing when we pause the game, so we can conclude that it's probably not actually coming from the humble PCE's audio hardware.  But it's not an orchestral remix of the sort heard on other PC Engine CD-ROM conversions -- it's actually a recording of the original arcade game's music.  So what we're hearing is a CD quality recording of chip music, but very sophisticated chip music, and in well-separated stereo and Dolby Surround to boot.  It sounds great and motivates continued play, even when the difficulty curve becomes a slog.

After navigating the routine onslaught of enemies in each level, we face a giant robotic boss creature armed for battle -- each resembles some form of sea life, with a name based around its looks or attack style:

These bosses are not easy to take down if the player's ship isn't powered up -- even with the infinite lives code and the consequent devil-may-care attitude about taking damage, I spent several minutes battling each of these enemies, as swarming boxes and flying bullets destroyed my ship literally every few seconds.  I managed to beat the first boss without cheating, but after that point, I was completely lost, as the spinning boxes made short work of my remaining lives while I tried in vain to battle the big fish with minimal weaponry:

Super Darius' replay value, beyond its sheer difficulty, stems from its branching structure -- a full game consists of seven levels, but after each battle the player can opt to take an upper or lower path to a different, lettered Zone, encountering different enemies and bosses along each branch.

There are actually 26 different levels, Zone A through Zone Z, though to make the branching work out, Zones Z and V appear along two different paths in order to fill the tree's 28 slots.  In theory, one could play the game many different ways to see all the levels -- but because graphics, music and bosses get reused, the gameplay never really changes, and some of these elements appear in other PC Engine Darius titles, that's not quite as interesting as it sounds.

At least there's some variety in the backgrounds, all of which look very nice:

My own journey came to its conclusion in Zone X, where I fought this giant cephalopod -- and without cheating, if I could even have gotten here, I would surely have crashed and burned in frustration.  See the creatures rightmost lower tentacle?  It cannot be targeted with missiles from above, and it's really hard to maneuver below the octopus' main body to shoot it while dodging the creature and all of the other shrapnel flying around the screen.  I ended up just flying into it kamikaze-style, blowing up, and repeating, losing literally dozens of ships in my effort to destroy the tentacled beast.

And then, with the last boss defeated, the player's ship gets beamed aboard its mothership and the credits roll, with a technically geeky nod of thanks to Borland Software's EXCELENT [sic] TURBO C COMPILER:

Super Darius is beautiful to look at and listen to.  But it's repetitive.  And tough -- and I mean tough -- beyond the point where it's going to be fun for the average (or aging) gamer.  But if you're looking for a challenge, or an arcade conversion that makes impressive use of the PC Engine's hardware, Super Darius might be your game.

This one is pretty readily available, but as a classic shmup it tends to hold some collectible value pricing-wise -- you might be able to buy a copy here.