Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Capacity Overload

Real-life schedule crunches are overtaking me at the moment, and you may see some spotty updates here for a few weeks.  So as a quick post for today, I thought I'd just make a brief log of what I'm doing at the moment, gaming-wise.  None of this may be of general interest -- this is sort of a SAVE GAME on my part, so I can remember what I'm supposedly focusing on when I have time to do so!

-- Playing Batman: Arkham Asylum (finally!) on the PC, in short bursts.  Also working on Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter.  I'll have something to write about both of these after I finish them.

-- Working through Pendulo Studios' Runaway: A Road Adventure with my wife, as an eventual Adventure of the Week.

-- Preparing to start a new cover-to-cover series based on a 1981 product catalog.  Scanning is done, so I should be able to get these posts together without too much trouble.

-- Trying to decide on my next vintage adventure game to tackle, driven largely by how much time I have to finish it and write about it before next Tuesday.  I plan to keep the AotW series rolling, even if I have to take some breaks from other topics for a while.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Adventure G - Ground Zero (1984)

This week, we return to a vintage British adventure game series from Artic Computing Ltd., with the seventh game in the series, Adventure G - Ground Zero.  Published in 1984, and written by Colin Smith, this was the last "lettered" game in the tape-based series for the Sinclair Spectrum computers, and was created using The Quill, a commercial adventure game creation tool, unlike the others which ran on a unique engine.  Unlike the illustrated Adventure F - The Eye of Bain, this one returns to pure text mode following its title screen.

Unlike most early text adventures, Ground Zero is fairly serious in tone, an artifact of the end of the Cold War era when the threat of nuclear war was still very real.  It's also very naturalistic, with few "puzzles" in the traditional sense, although it has some technical oversights that make solving it almost impossible.  Thankfully, Mark Chester and others have provided hints and solutions at the CASA Solution Archive, with the help of the Unquill decompilation tool that reveals some critical secrets otherwise unavailable to the player.

As always, I urge interested adventurers to explore independently before proceeding here, though I would encourage guilt-free use of the online resources as this game is woefully unfair (due to QA sloppiness, I believe, not any evil design intent.)  Beyond this point, we will explore the game's world, storyline, and technical implementation, and there will no doubt be...

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

The Artic Adventures generally made good use of the Speccy's generous 48K of RAM, and this one features some nice, detailed descriptive text, despite its tape-based, single-load nature.  The Quill engine is not sophisticated -- the display scrolls, and doesn't maintain a frozen description window like the Scott Adams style, though it starts out looking that way.  Some objects are mentioned in the room descriptions, while others are listed specifically, and available navigation directions are highlighted which is handy.  Due to the scrolling, we must use R to redisplay, not the more traditional LOOK, which solves one problem (EXAMINE vs. LOOK) but creates another, really.  The game also has a 4-item inventory limit, which becomes almost too tight for comfort toward the end of the story.

We start out in a living room, and while the parser is generally a two-word system, we can use exceptions like TURN ON TELEVISION to learn some important information about growing international tensions.  The broadcast informs us that we should try to "Build a shelter from a door and mattresses piled against a strong internal wall and provide food, water and toilet facilities."

Ground Zero features a fairly detailed house and grounds, and we will spend much of the game exploring the house and interacting with its contents to find various important items.  We can LOOK WARDROBE in the bedroom to find some banknotes; the bedroom window is jammed, so we cannot open it.  One room contains some tea chests, and we can LOOK TEA (not LOOK CHEST) to find a Radio.  Just for fun, we can USE WC in the bathroom (the parser filters out . characters, so W.C. becomes WC)  to yield, OK.  Ahhh! That's better!

USE TELEPHONE fails, unfortunately, as during the present emergency "Normal telephone services have been discontinued."  A sign outside our house says "Dun-Roamin", as a jokey estate name.  The kitchen cupboard contains ONE WEEK'S RATIONS, and there's a KITCHEN KNIFE about which could come in handy later.

The back door accessible from the utility room is locked, and so is the garage door.  Both are locked from the inside, which is odd, but it's an adventure game so we can guess we might need a key.  There's also a bicycle in the garage, which seems like it might be useful if we could just get the garage door open.

We can go out and explore the city, which is not nearly as detailed as the house, consisting of a few nondescript streets, a roadblock, a traffic light, and a grocery store.  Armed soldiers are maintaining order, so we should be careful not to get shot.  We do see some other civilians, queued outside a grocery shop, and keeping us from entering, as we repeatedly get kicked back to the end of the queue!  But if we THROW BANKNOTES we can get into the shop to find A SMALL LOAF, guarded by the man behind the counter, who is armed with a pick-axe handle.  These are tough times indeed.  We can't TALK MAN -- He ignored me!!!  KILL MAN is extreme, and also unsuccessful as we are unarmed.  But we can GIVE RADIO and then GET LOAF.  (Any other offering produces He just laughed in my face!!!)

The biggest dangers here seem to come from our fellow human beings, not the impending bomb itself.  To the west of the intersection is a motorway with a soldier-manned roadblock.  If we try to go further W, without so much as a warning we learn that Argggh! ... I've been shot... I'm dying...   The High Street runs some distance to the north, where we can observe a riot in progress; there is a riot going on, and soldiers with rifles are busy trying to quell the disturbance.  If we have left the front door open and unlocked during our trip into town, we find that our house has been stripped by looters when we return, and it's time to restart the game.   This isn't a desirable situation, obviously, but I was impressed by the extensive post-looting revisions of the room descriptions, with some evocative detail.

Eventually we are informed that I CAN HEAR A SIREN WAILING!!! by a message flashing onscreen, then the bomb drops a few turns later, and we are done.  So we have a fairly tight timeframe available to accomplish our goals.

So what do we need to be doing?  We need a door and a mattress, and possibly some other supplies.  Trading the radio away is okay, as it doesn't have a battery, and an attempt to LISTEN RADIO is taken as an INVENTORY command, probably interpreted as LIST.  We can LOOK SHELVES in the lounge to find a bunch of keys, and in the back garden, LOOK SHED to find AN OLD WOODEN DOOR.  (LOOK SHED, but not GO SHED, actually transports the player into the potting shed.)

In general, Ground Zero seems a lot easier than the preceding Artic Adventures -- perhaps the time limit necessitates simplicity, or the goal was to be detailed and realistic at the expense of traditional adventure game puzzles.  But unfortunately there are some critical details not given to the player, which makes the game difficult if not impossible to complete.

We can't LOCK the back DOOR once we have opened it, but we can CLOSE DOOR and hope that the high conifers and brick wall around the back garden will keep intruders out.  With the MATTRESS and DOOR, we can BUILD SHELTER to produce a HOME MADE SHELTER.  Without both items, the attempt returns I'm not Superman you know!, just like JUMP WALL does; with neither item in hand, it returns the helpful OK...I'm game! What with?  Fortunately we can BREAK SHELTER back into its component parts if we have built in the wrong location, as it can't be relocated once assembled.  During my playthrough, it seemed better to me to build it in the bathroom, though the garage, built into the hill, might also work well.  Or so I thought, anyway.

ONE WEEK'S RATIONS from the kitchen should count as food, along with the SMALL LOAF from the axe-handle-wielding grocer.  We could probably GET WATER in the bathroom, except that I've got nothing to put it in!  We can't move the potted plant or EMPTY POT, so we need to find some other sort of container.

We can CLIMB the apple TREE in the back garden and see our neighbor Mr. Hodges staring up at the sky, but that's not obviously helpful and we can't TALK HODGES.  Do we need the SMALL LOAF as additional food, over and above the rations?  One way to find out -- with the shelter built, we can WAIT for the siren... oh, and figure out that we have to USE SHELTER to get inside it, though it doesn't really change our location after telling us, I'm inside the shelter! Nice 'ere, innit!

Leaving the water problem alone for the moment, it seems that the shelter isn't quite enough to provide protection as the house collapses on top of it:

So it's back to the survival drawing board.  We can LOOK BICYCLE, apparently catching the designer offguard, as the game yields, Ummm...It's a nice blue one with handlebars, a frame, two wheels and a saddlebag.  But we can LOOK SADDLEBAG to get WIRE CUTTERS, though I doubt we'll be disarming any atomic bombs in this game.

These few new discoveries didn't seem to do much to help, so I resorted to Mark Chester's walkthrough at the CASA solution archive, and learned that, mysteriously, no cupboard apparently exists in the Entrance Hall, but if we LOOK in the invisible CUPBOARD there we find a TORCH (of the United Kingdom flashlight variety.)  And also learned that we can TAKE LADDER in the garage, though we won't know that's there either unless we EXAMINE GARAGE.  According to Mr. Chester's notes, he had to use the Unquill utility to find out about the cupboard, and without his invaluable walkthrough I would have been good and stuck here and you would be reading about some more compliant adventure game this week.

We can now return to the brick wall in our back garden and CLIMB LADDER - OK. Where to? - SOUTH.  Once we're on top of the wall, moving D responds similarly with a Where to? prompt.  We can actually just move in the desired direction as long as we have the ladder, and the game will assume we mean to climb the ladder to travel in that direction.  But we have to remember to GET LADDER on top of wall (even though we can't see it there) to come back the way we came!

We can't GO SHED in the neighbor's yard, but we can ENTER SHED to find a bucket in his Tool Shed; I think the Quill standard doesn't really have a GO command, so LOOK and ENTER tend to take its place.  We can also examine Mr. Hodges' woodworking detritus and LOOK SHAVINGS to find A SMALL AXE.

We can't TRIM CONIFERS or CUT CONIFERS until we have the axe, but once we do then we will also want to cut the wire fence beyond the trees with the wire cutters, to find a genuine, military-grade fall-out shelter that should presumably work better than our homemade version.  We need to avoid the guard hut to the west though, or we will be shot on sight, per the warning notice posted on the fence.

Outside the shelter is a box with a button, and we can PUSH BUTTON to receive the intercom query, "Who is it?" -- we're in the U.K. circa 1984, and QUEEN and PRINCE work as acceptable answers, but KING does not.  PRIME MINISTER is also acceptable, and as the Quill parser uses 4 characters to distinguish dictionary words, PRINCE must be an intentional alternative.  Purple rain, purple rain.

It's too dark to see downstairs in the shelter, of course, so we will need the torch, but as it turns out the fence has been repaired after we've gone through it, making it impossible to return and get what we now know we need.  So it's time to LOAD GAME and plan more carefully with our limited four-slot inventory.

We know we will need some drinking water, but we can't FILL BUCKET directly in the bathroom -- it won't fit under the tap, so we have to FILL BATH and then FILL BUCKET.  I considered entering the shelter with A BUCKET OF WATER, ONE WEEK'S RATIONS, A KITCHEN KNIFE and A SMALL LOAF, but that didn't leave room for the torch.  We actually have to SLICE BREAD into six slices and then drop the knife to free up one of the four inventory slots.

Now we should be set -- but LIGHT TORCH fails, while TURN ON TORCH works, confirming the British usage of the word.  Once we're inside the shelter, nothing seems to work.. we can PUSH BUTTON in the sleeping area, and PULL LEVER in what seems to be a utility room, but Nothing happens.  I tried to WAIT for the bomb to drop, to no apparent effect, and finally figured out that to move the climax along we need to CLOSE DOOR to the shelter, at which point an alarm goes off and we can hear someone banging on the door.  I tried to OPEN DOOR and got shot for my trouble, so altruism will apparently not be the order of the day.

With the door closed, now we can WAIT, and while the shelter gets jolted by the atomic bomb's impact, we find ourselves still alive.  We have to DRINK WATER and EAT BREAD or RATIONS, SLEEPing in between.  This is a long process, as A DAY PASSES each time we go to sleep and it takes a few weeks for the outside environment to improve.  And we have to PULL LEVER to recycle the air on occasion too.  There's a radio speaker in the bunker, and we can TURN ON RADIO, though there's nothing coming through.  Eventually ONE WEEK PASSES, and we keep going; we do need both the rations and the bread to survive the two-week period.  Fortunately the torch's light lasts for the entire period, apparently on very strong batteries.

The radio's operation confused me at first due to what seems like a bug -- while we can turn it on and off directly, there's also a button on the wall, and PUSH BUTTON turns the radio on briefly and then turns it off; TURN ON RADIO leaves it constantly on, with crackling static.  We have to PUSH BUTTON after two weeks to hear an announcement from the surviving remnants of the government; simply leaving the radio on doesn't work, and so I wasn't quite sure what to do when I ran out of supplies after two weeks.

Now we can leave the shelter, and we have survived.  But it doesn't feel like much of a victory -- things look pretty bleak:

There are some interesting political and game design concepts at work here -- the instructions on the television heard at the game's beginning are apparently just meant to pacify the populace, as hiding under an old door and a mattress just doesn't cut it.  We have to masquerade as a government leader or royalty to survive the attack, and even then we barely get through it.  And there are no magical puzzles or odd/comical item solutions -- the game has a resolutely real-world style, with strong attention to detail, and I like its rather unique approach.

Artic Computing published several additional adventures on the Spectrum platform, but stopped using the alphabetic lettering system after this seventh entry in the series.  So while we will almost certainly tackle the rest of the company's output as time goes on, the next one we see will definitely not be Adventure H.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On Unhappy Endings

I recently played through Ubisoft's 2008 Prince of Persia game, from the long-running series created by Jordan Mechner way back on the Apple II, and last week wrote about its unique approach to difficulty; the player is given immortality, but must still fight through short segments of the game unassisted, so progress must be earned.  I was still playing the game last week, but have since wrapped it up.

This next and final thought about the game comes with a warning, as there will be some...

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

Prince of Persia 2008 wraps up in the expected fashion -- we defeat the last of the four main bosses who dominate the combat sequences, take on an "ultimate" boss, and then take on the REAL boss in its native form to finish the game, with all manner of pyrotechnics and a satisfying degree of difficulty.


The game doesn't actually end there -- the battle won, our hero Prince (not necessarily a real prince) looks on helplessly as his female guide and companion, the (genuine) princess Elika, gives up her own life to seal the deal.  You see, she died once before, and her life was restored by a bargain made by her father, the King, with Ahriman, the Zoroastrian Big Bad; and so, having cleaned up the resultant mess, she must make a final sacrifice to put the world back into balance.

I like this ending -- it's heroic and sad at the same time, as the player has witnessed a growing degree of respect and affection between these two.  And it seems right -- melancholy, but completely right -- as the Prince slowly carries Elika's body out of the temple while the credits roll.


The Prince then puts her body on a slab, in the sunlight, and we see that four small trees have appeared on stone platforms in the desert surrounding the temple.  And control is returned to the player.

Now what?  Well, we can try to respect Elika's wishes and just ignore the trees, but the game won't actually let us go back the way we came -- there's an invisible barrier that keeps the Prince from leaving, or committing suicide in existential despair.  So there seems to be nothing to do but find a way to climb up to each of the trees, and then hack each one down with the Prince's sword.

Why are we doing this?  Well, when it's done, the temple doors open, and then the Prince can go inside and cut down the very Tree of Life Elika gave herself to preserve, and carry her recovered life force back to her body.  When she wakes up, she asks him, simply, "Why?"

And then he carries her off again, while the dark spirit Ahriman emerges from the temple and sweeps across the desert, leaving only darkness in its wake, and undermining everything Elika and the player have tried to accomplish during the past 15 hours or so.

It's a major storytelling misstep, in my opinion -- the player is forced into a course of action that seems selfish and anything but romantic, and whatever respect we have gained for the Prince is in the final analysis destroyed by his actions.  The only mitigating factor is a constant mystical whispering in the background, a chorus of voices that insist he has no choice -- and in truth he does not -- but because the player is in control, albeit limited to a single course of action, it feels like he SHOULD.  Why can't we show that he loves Elika by honoring her sacrifice, instead of bringing her back to life at the expense of her (and the player's) accomplishments?

In a movie, I could understand -- even appreciate -- this sort of an ending.  I have nothing against unhappy or mixed conclusions; the hero brought down by a tragic flaw can be a dramatically interesting figure.  But this is a game -- the player has come to identify with the Prince, and respect Elika's strength, and has invested quite a bit of time in getting to know these characters.  By imposing this climactic "plot twist" on the story, the game dispels much of its own magic.  If it were played out as a difficult choice, with more of a moral struggle involved -- if there were even the illusion of options available -- I would feel differently.  As it stands, it's a letdown -- neither happy nor unhappy, just ambiguous at the expense of interactivity.

I'm glad the 2010 Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands game did not try to continue this storyline -- I'm not sure I could play a game in which the hero must now try to undo his own evil, a well-intentioned but misguided deed, when he could have just walked away, if only the designers would have allowed it.

(A note: on consoles, there is a downloadable extra Epilogue chapter that reunites Elika and the Prince temporarily to fight the evil he has unleashed.  She is not happy with her resurrection, and at the end, she leaves him alone and goes off to fight her own battles.  The PC version does not include this epilogue material, but I am glad to know it exists and follows the main game's ending in a wholly appropriate way.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cover to Cover: SSI Summer 1986 Catalog (back cover)

We're through the bulk of the Summer 1986 SSI catalog, but a parting look at the back cover gives us a nostalgic glimpse at another aspect of early computing that's still part of the industry today -- power upgrades:

The Apple II debuted in 1977 and was getting seriously long in the tooth in 1986 -- it was a versatile and reasonably powerful machine that outlasted its main contemporary competition, the TRS-80 Model I, by a good half-decade at least.  But as game designs became more sophisticated and technically demanding, this pioneering machine's CPU was showing its age -- SSI's strategic, often turn-based games could still be played effectively, but were starting to feel sluggish. 

This also wasn't a time when one could just buy a faster, compatible machine; the Apple II was the Apple II, and game code was generally based around a specific CPU speed, which meant that releasing a faster machine would only make much of the existing entertainment software library comically unplayable.  So SSI devoted its back page to the SpeedDemon acceleration card, which allowed the venerable machine to optionally run up to 3.5 times its original speed, eliminating the "waiting and delaying" mentioned in the ad copy, without seriously impacting the actual gameplay of most SSI titles.  Nobody wanted to wait on the CPU, but if a game wasn't played in real time, the acceleration wouldn't have penalize the human player.

That wraps it up for SSI circa 1986.  Later on, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons titles would cement SSI's reputation but also come to dominate its software lineup in the early 1990s; in 1986, the company's roots were still showing.

Next week, we'll begin a look back at one of the earliest computer game publishers to put out a significant catalog.
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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Cover to Cover: SSI Summer 1986 Catalog (pp. 12-13)

We're paging through Strategic Simulations Inc.'s catalog circa Summer 1986, and coming down to the last few pages.

Pages 12 and 13 remind us how fragmented the computer gaming market was in the mid-1980s.  The Commodore 64 and Atari 400/800 (and newer 1200) computers were still going strong, the Atari ST, Amiga and original black-and-white Macintosh were available but not yet established as gaming platforms, the IBM PC and PCjr. were also new but already doing well, and the aging Apple II was still the most popular machine.  If a game was not available on the Apple II, serious sales potential was being overlooked.

Computer Baseball must have been tremendously popular, as it was among the first games ported to the new platforms, with Phantasie a close second.

SSI deserves credit for including the customer ratings in its catalog -- today, companies too often seem anxious to hide their products' shortcomings, but SSI solicited customer feedback and echoed it on these pages, with each game rated on Playability, Realism and Excitement.  As a means of comparative assessment for customers buying expensive games sight unseen, it was probably a useful marketing tool as well.

Tomorrow, the back cover and an ad for something not very SSI-related, but indicative of the state of the industry.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Of Import: CD Battle - Hikari no Yushatachi (1993)

Remember all the great times you had playing Barcode Battler, tracking down obscure brands in grocery stores to scan the UPC codes, power up your warriors and beat your friends' pathetic fighters into submission?

You don't?

Well, that's probably because that particular flavor of electronic entertainment never really took off in the US.  Which would certainly explain why CD Battle: Hikari no Yushatachi (in English, Heroes of Light) never reached our shores either.  Published in 1993 by King Records for the Japanese PC Engine, it's a similar concept that takes advantage of the console's CD-ROM drive, by reading some data from the player's music CDs and using it to create pseudo-random RPG characters.  Two players (or one very bored one) can pit their CD collections against each other in a traditional role-playing game battle of swords and sorcery, to see whose musical tastes will carry the day.

Technically, this is kind of interesting, because the design means the entire game has to be loaded into memory, relying exclusively on the system's sound chip for background music, in order to free up the CD drive for reading music discs.  Gameplay-wise, this is extremely limiting, because the program can really only handle a couple of screens -- a "team loading" screen, and a few types of battle arena.  There isn't much graphical variation among the warriors because there just isn't sufficient memory available to do more.  And we don't even get to hear any bits of music from the CDs we are sending into battle -- they might as well be packages of ramen, really.

Anyway, these were the results of my two hastily-organized battles, drawn from my not-recently-updated physical CD collection.  I wouldn't say I was extremely bored when I did this, but I did not hold out high hopes for the entertainment value on hand.

I started with Journey's Greatest Hits vs. Laurie Anderson's Strange Angels:

Note that two of my warriors on Journey's side are identical -- an almost certain guarantee of failure in any self-respecting RPG.  And yes, the battle develops accordingly:

Despite Journey's considerably greater experience in the videogame arena, Laurie Anderson's sardonic poetry and performance-art musical style takes the field handily, wiping out all three of the opposing warriors with two of her own surviving.

Next, I rummage around and came up with the little-known Too Much Joy's Son of Sam I Am vs. Stephen Sondheim's unsuccessful Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along:

At least there's a little visual variety here.  But the battle soon establishes that these teams are even more imbalanced than my first attempt:

Nary a scratch on the esteemed Mr. Sondheim, while the younger, hipper, almost as lyrically witty members of Too Much Joy are left dead on the pavement after just a few rounds of spell-casting and sword-whacking.

So that's about all there is to CD Battle: Hikari no Yushatachi.  There are additional arenas, according to the manual, which implies some sort of progression system.  But a couple of rounds turned out to be as much entertainment I was able to stand.

It's fun! ...

... in  a way.

But only very, very briefly.

The novelty wears off almost immediately, but if you must have product data-driven battle games in your collection, you might be able to find a copy of CD Battle: Hikari no Yushatachi here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The LoadDown - 08/25/2011

Looks like the pace of new downloadable releases is picking up a bit this week, after a quiet summer...

WiiWare -- Nothing new here this week, but there's a free demo version of Kyotokei, the cute 2-D scrolling shoot-'em-up that arrived two weeks earlier.

Wii Virtual Console -- Well, here's one I never thought we'd see, and it's exactly the kind of release I like to see on the Virtual Console -- Jaleco's The Ignition Factor for the SNES, an intense little firefighting game that never got the attention it deserved back in the day.

DSiWare -- Three new titles this week, though only one is a game per seLet's Create! Pottery is a creative e-toy that uses the DS stylus with a virtual pottery wheel -- the sculpting appears to work really nicely, though the decoration features are a lot less flexible.  Magical Whip: Wizards of the Phantasmal Forest is an old-school arcade game that would have been right at home on the NES/SNES and owes a gameplay debt to Doki Doki Panic with its capture-and-toss-the-enemies mechanic.  And then there's Calculator, which is actually a fairly full-featured calculator utility -- its listing amusingly brings up a warning at Nintendo's official site, as it has not been rated by the ESRB and who knows, someone could type 58008 on it and then turn the DS upside down.

Nintendo 3DS eShop -- All of the DSiWare titles listed above, plus Capcom's Game Boy classic Gargoyle's Quest, a side-scrolling RPG/action title featuring the little demon Firebrand (a.k.a. Red Arremer) from the Ghosts'n'Goblins series that inspired the 16-bit Demon's Crest later on.

XBox Live Arcade -- Three new titles, and it's been a while since we've seen this many.  Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition brings one of Capcom's classic arcade titles to XBLA for online play.  Hole in the Wall is a great Kinect-only idea, based on the popular TV show where the contestant must conform his or her shape to an approaching opening.  Crazy Machines Elements is a puzzle game where the player must assemble Rube Goldberg-like chain-reaction devices, with an attractive plastic-toy look.

PS3 on PSN -- Three new titles here too, following a couple of quiet weeks.  Sega's Genesis classic Comix Zone gets ported in emulated form (with added trophies), along with Capcom's Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition (see above.)  And Hamilton's Great Adventure is also on tap, an Indiana Jones-inspired puzzle/platformer game that reminds me visually of Sega's Congo Bongo, though the gameplay is entirely different.

PSOne Classics -- Fallow yet again.  I'm starting to think I should stop listing this category, but I'll give it a while longer.  After all, I still check the Microsoft Game Room listings, dead since December 2010, just in case it suddenly springs back to life.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ultra Review Roundtable: Jet Force Gemini (1999)

Ed. -- Time for another Ultra Review Roundtable, featuring Rare's Jet Force Gemini for the Nintendo 64.


*Summarized from Wikipedia* - Jet Force Gemini is a third-person shooter developed and published by Rare. It was exclusively released for the Nintendo 64 in late 1999. Created by the same Rare team that developed Blast Corps, the title features elements that have never been seen on the Nintendo 64, such as a no split-screen co-operative mode and a control scheme that features two ways to play the game. Jet Force Gemini shares elements with platform games, action-adventure games, and run and gun games.

Players assume the role of three members of Jet Force Gemini, the last remaining group of the once proud and strong military organization Jet Force. The main story arc encompasses the trio's quest as they try to stop the advances of the dark insect tyrant Mizar and his near limitless army. Throughout the game, the player will also have to collect several spaceship parts and save a large number of Tribals, a group of survivors who have been enslaved and prisoned by Mizar.

Jet Force Gemini is a third-person shooter with classic shoot 'em up style gameplay. Players control the playable character from a third-person perspective in a free three dimensional environment. The game features erratic levels to explore, items to collect, power-ups that enhance characters health and weaponry, towering bosses to defeat, and most importantly, it features devastation on a massive scale. Unlike other Rare shooters such as GoldenEye 007 or Perfect Dark, the weapons in Jet Force Gemini feature no magazines and cannot be reloaded after a certain number of shots.

Players fight on foot and have the ability to jump. Much of the game is spent in battle, but some parts feature platform mechanics, as the player can hang from most ledges, swim, and fly using Jet packs when needed. The control scheme introduced unique techniques that have never been seen since in a 3D shooter. In combat, the player is free to set a manual aiming system with the targeting camera fixed behind the character’s head. When using this technique, a reticle appears on screen and the playable character becomes translucent so that players can aim and shoot with finesse. In contrast, when walking around, the game plays much like a typical 3D platformer.

Exploration is the most important aspect of gameplay. The campaign features a galaxy that is composed of 15 nonlinear worlds, with areas connected by different types of doors. Most of the doors open automatically, but some need a special action to be unlocked. For example, some doors require the player to kill all the enemies in the area to be unlocked, and some can require a specific key, among others. On the other hand, players can take control of any and all three characters as they progress though the game, using their individual and unshared strengths where required; Juno can walk through magma safely, Vela can swim underwater indefinitely, and Lupus can hover for a short period of time. These abilities allow the characters to uncover new areas which the other characters cannot reach. Therefore, choosing the right character for the right stage is critical in order to complete the game. Initially, the game does not allow the player to tackle the different worlds with a desired character, and forces the player to use the three characters individually until they reach a meeting point. Once they get to the meeting point, all of the worlds can be tackled with any character in any order. The overall objective of the game is to explore all the areas in order to save all the Tribals and collect several spaceship pieces that allow the player to get to the final stage.

The game also features a multiplayer mode, where up to four player can battle out in traditional deathmatch and survival matches. Like GoldenEye 007, options such as weapon schemes, time limit, number of kills, or number of lives can be altered to match player preference. Additionally, some multiplayer aspects, such as levels and characters, can be unlocked by finding the corresponding secret in the game's campaign. Players can also unlock some racing mini-games, where players race from an overhead perspective, as well as a firing range mode, which is similar to a rail shooter like Virtua Cop. In this mode, players are limited to moving a crosshair around the screen while the game automatically follows a specific route. On the other hand, Jet Force Gemini also has a no split-screen co-operative mode that has not been seen in any N64 game to date. In co-operative, the second player takes control of Floyd, a floating robot that automatically follows the main playable character, and can assist him by shooting.

<Tag Lines>

"Jet Force Gemini is a profoundly powerful gaming artifact forged in the fiery intersection of Enjoyment and Immersion, cooling to form something simply Awesome." -

“I love the fact that if I don't want to rescue the Tribals, I can kill them all and often I did when it took me frustratingly long to find them.” -

“The graphics in Jet Force Gemini are still pretty crisp and have aged very well.” -

“Jet Force Gemini also has challenging and varied gameplay, if you can get past the
game’s control, design and camera limitations.” -

Mr.Armitage from octanetoys.comGame You Like That No One Would Expect: An old RPG called Transylvania.  I hate RPG's :)

The N64 is one of those systems I never really got into, one of the last of the cartridge based consoles. Sure I owned it and had a heap of games, but I never really played a ton of it. So what a shock I got when I played Jet Force Gemini! For some reason I kept on thinking it was a StarFox clone which is something I could never get into. This is a good game, actually it's an exceptional game for the N64. Probably one of my new favorites for the the system. The 3D graphics are probably some of the best on the system I have ever seen, so smooth which is a testament to how Rareware understood the N64 system like no one else. Game play is varied to say the least. Sound is good. Enemies actually have some good AI, with them working together, running around, and hiding behind stuff. Plus these is no shortage of them, so they will keep you on your toes. The controls are fairly responsive, yet sometimes confusing. It's probably one of the last Rareware games for Nintendo and they are not into making sucky games for Nintendo.

Now the game is not without some faults. The third-person view camera angles can sometimes be annoying. While the openness of the worlds is great, there where times I was truly lost on trying to find those Ewok clones the Tribals. I could spend an hour or so walking around thinking what the hell am I going to do in this level? I love the fact that if I don't want to rescue the Tribals, I can kill them all and often I did when it took me frustratingly long to find them. The control change between 3rd person and 1st person is a bit of a nightmare to remember. I constantly had to stop and look at my cheat sheet and see what did what. No Jump in First person, WTF.

Even with those faults it still a good game easily in my top 25. If some of the faults were fixed it would be in top 10 territory!

4 Shots Into the Wild out of 5

NintendoLegend from
Game You Like That No One Would Expect: Rec Room Games on the Nintendo Wii

Anything made by Rare back in the day was a big deal. Its biggest headliners on the N64 were legendary titles such as FPS titles Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, along with Donkey Kong 64, Conker's Bad Fur Day, and the Banjo-Kazooie series. However, one special experience that should not be ignored or overlooked in Rare's gaming repertoire is the sci-fi bug-blasting action masterpiece Jet Force Gemini.

With its galaxy-sized setting, multiple character/weapon/power-up combinations, remarkably innovative third-person/first-person view toggle system, engaging storyline garnering sympathy for the Tribals, gorgeous graphics, in-your-face epic soundtrack, perfectly scaling challenge, puzzle-solving, humor, atmospheric varied environments, fun co-op feature, hidden mini-games, other unlockables, enormous bosses, satisfying splatter, explosions, inventive guns, great inventory system, odd items, bugs, NPCs, jet packs, lava, shuriken decapitations, and a general philosophy of "if you just want to spend hours blasting the crap out of everything, go right ahead," Jet Force Gemini is a profoundly powerful gaming artifact forged in the fiery intersection of Enjoyment and Immersion, cooling to form something simply Awesome.

Amidst all the unimaginative sips of tasteless gaming drinks, Jet Force Gemini is a fine vintage wine. Anyone who does not like Jet Force Gemini is a big stinky doodoo head; or, at least, a Nintendo hater without a rational basis for their views.

5 Shots Into the Wild out of 5

Game You Like That No One Would Expect: D the Survival Horror Game

"I remember The Gem and I! With Yul Brynner, right? Now that he's gone, I tell you, don't smoke! He was a character, all right. Hee hee. With his gimp leg and his fondness for opium. No, wait, that was me. What were we talking about? Oh, right. Jet Force Gemini was a big fella who used to wrestle professionally. Or maybe he was a porn star. He owes me ten dollars!"

Jet Force Gemini is one of those almost-great games from the first-generation polygon console era. It's got colorful scenery, looking almost as good as Rare’s later StarFox Adventures for the Gamecube, and an interesting storyline introduced with a stirring opening cut scene. It also benefits from Rare's offbeat U.K. sense of humor: the Tribals are ruled by a King Jeff, who sounds very laid back, and "astonishingly" the red key opens the red lock! The sound design is evocative and crisp, with plenty of background atmosphere and a pleasant British voice introducing key gameplay elements, and the Nintendo 64’s limited texture memory is applied where it will do the most good.

Rare – We Do Ewoks Right!

Jet Force Gemini also has challenging and varied gameplay, if you can get past the game’s control, design and camera limitations. The platforming elements are tricky because the characters jump high, but not very far, and when running they don't exactly stop on a dime. While this looseness makes the animation more natural, it’s also easy to fall or slip into danger. The two-step aim-and-fire mechanism takes a little getting used to; it’s accurate enough. But the blend with a third-person perspective doesn't work well. It's hard to move around and fire with any sort of consistency or rhythm, and ends up feeling like a platformer and an FPS uncomfortably mashed into one game. The designs biggest problem is the camera and associated constraints on player movement. It's tolerable when we're exploring the game world, even when we really would like to take a look at something offscreen that the camera steadfastly ignores. But during intense bouts of combat against Mizar's ant warriors, the viewpoint sometimes hovers in just the wrong spot. We too often have to rely on the auto-fire to take out a foe we can barely glimpse at hiding behind a rock or stand out in the open taking hits, while we try to get a bead on a sniper. With limited ammo on hand, this just seems unfair.

I really like Jet Force Gemini's world and characters, however retro heresy though it may be, I'd probably be more interested in a contemporary remake than playing through the original. It’s a quality effort, but it hasn’t aged well. A great idea, still visibly on the edge of feasibility in 1999.

3 Shots Into the Wild out of 5

HagenDragmire from
Game You Like That No One Would Expect: Picross 3D on the Nintendo DS

Unlike some of the other members of the Ultra Review Roundtable, I was an avid Nintendo 64 player. I got the system the day it came out, and I frequently searched high and low to get my hands on the next game that was coming out on release day. That being said, I never got my hands on Jet Force Gemini until many years after I had moved on to the next generation. I always remember seeing the N64 VHS tape that had a preview of Jet Force Gemini on it. While this got me interested initially, for some reason or another I never picked the game up. Playing this game again after many years, I forgot how fun this game can be! Going back through games for the URR, I don’t go after them from a completest standpoint or an over-analyst point of view, but I go for the experience that it gives me during this newest play through combined with my nostalgia of the game.

Outstanding and fun!

Surprisingly, the graphics in Jet Force Gemini are still pretty crisp and have aged very well. Too many times have I went back to a game from the N64/PS1 era only to be disappointed from the blocky polygons and jumpy movements; I’m looking at you Final Fantasy VII. One thing that never bothered me back when I originally played the game was the controls. I guess I just took crazy controls for what they were and adapted. Nowadays, I’m a bit more unforgiving when a game brings me unnatural camera swaps and some floating jumping mechanics. The thing is, the action scenes are so fun to me that it doesn’t change my overall opinion of this outstanding game.

4 Shots Into the Wild out of 5

Ultra Review Roundtable
Overall Rating

4 Shots Into the Wild out of 5

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Treasure Island Adventure (1981)

This week, we're looking at another of the monthly SoftSide Publications, which after a random start I'm trying to cover in release order.  And we're up to #3 - Treasure Island Adventure, circa 1981.  No author is credited on the title and intro screens, but an in-game parchment scroll includes a thanks from one Pete Tyjewski, likely the program's creator, with a different style from SoftSide adventures #1 and #2.

This one is, as the title implies, a treasure hunt adventure.  The opening text sums up the minimal plot:  You came across a map giving the exact coordinates to Treasure Island and have traced it to be in Long John's writing.  So you spent your savings for passage to the island, where you hope to find his treasure.  There's also some Scott Adams-style intro text explaining the basic concept of adventure gaming.

As always, I encourage interested readers to try Treasure Island Adventure before continuing here, but I'll warn you that even my walkthrough (at the bottom of this post) is not quite complete.  The primary objective is challenging but feasible and fun to solve for a score around 200 points; earning the maximum score of 258 is a tougher task that I was not really motivated to complete.  I had to examine the code to learn that the maximum score requires visiting every location and collecting everything that can be carried (not just the treasures) in under 350 moves, which I'm sure can be done, but doesn't seem like fun.  So while I will be able to tell you most of what you'll need to know, if you want to max this one out you'll have to find all the shortcuts and draw a proper map.  With that said, be warned that beyond this point we will plunge into a plethora of...

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

Treasure Island Adventure's BASIC code is quite slow compared to earlier SoftSide adventures, so there was apparently not a house "engine" that all the authors were encouraged to use.  There's no word-wrapping control, leading to some awkward displays, and the parser is also on the primitive side, with a limited vocabulary and some unusual verb/noun handling.  One time-consuming annoyance is that the game repeats the room description (rather slowly) whenever it doesn't understand a command we've typed in.  I and INVENTORY work, but not INV; we can carry a generous 12 items, except for a few particularly heavy objects.  We are actually allowed to pick up as many items as we like, but the game won't let us move anywhere until we're under the encumbrance limit, which is a novel and intelligent implementation by 1981 standards.

The game starts on the north beach.  We can wander off the path into the woods, which is a maze of sorts but can be easily avoided by sticking to the delineated available directions.  (Unfortunately, this habit will prove troublesome later in the game, where several rooms do not list all available exits, much to the player's frustration.)  While mapping, I found a slightly quicker way to get to the North Beach - we can enter the forest at any point and then head N.

One gets the impression that the author has played the classic Crowther/Woods Adventure, as several elements from that game are "borrowed" here.  We find a narrow crack in a sheer rock wall, a maze of twisty little passages, a priceless but delicate vase, and a pirate who hides his treasure chest deep within the maze.  Scott Adams' Pirate Adventure and Infocom's ZORK and Enchanter may also have influenced the design to some degree.

Beyond the crack in the wall, it's too dark to see to the south.  But there's a tiny box in a nearby cave, and READ BOX indicates that these are *Diamond* Safety Matches.  We can't use them directly in the dark area, though, and the parser isn't happy with our attempts to do so; BURN MATCH and LIGHT MATCH both yield accusations of Arsonist!

An old vault in the building on the north beach proves to be the traditional SCORE room -- the posted notice is not kidding when it says, "Bring all your findings here --- to increase your score."  There's also the traditional brass oil lamp here, but it's empty.

Fortunately, a wooden keg at the top of a volcano on the south beach contains First Class Whale Oil.  We can't GO LAKE or GO CRATER up here, despite the scenic description, but we can FILL LAMP.  It doesn't last long, and can't be turned off once it's lit, but fortunately we can also GET KEG and carry it with us.  This is worth the inventory slot, as refilling the lamp while it's lit doesn't seem to reset the timer, so we have to wait for it to go out (with no warning) before we can fill it and light it again.

Inside the mountain, the Evil Wizard's Recreation Room is not exactly scary, but is certainly disturbing.  A sign on the wall reads, "De Sade was a sissy", and there are lots of props here - an iron cage, a table with shackles, a forge, a red hot poker, asbestos gloves and boots, a large hammer, and a black anvil.

The Evil Wizard's throne room is also nearby, which calls classic ZORK and Adventure to mind with a gold ring, a black rod, a pillow, a pointy wizard's hat, and a wizard's robe.  A curtain leads to an alcove, and a short distance away we find a priceless fragile ming vase in a small cell -- of course, we need the pillow to claim it successfully, as it fragments into worthless shards of china if we simply DROP VASE if we did not previously DROP PILLOW.  We can't get through the bars of the cell or another hole in the floor with the vase, but we can take the long way back around through the throne room to get outside and to our treasure store.

In the Room of the Ancient Mariner (LOL) we find a gold coin, and a coil of rope.  The coin is actually useful, but the rope is not needed.  We can READ COIN, yielding runes:

This doesn't look like a cryptography puzzle -- the words look too much like 1950s alien-speak -- so we will probably need a translator of some sort.

We can enter the hanging cage in the Wizard's rec room to find a Golden crown and a locked door.  But we're eternally trapped inside if we don't have some way to unlock the door, it seems -- GET OUT yields the entertaining but unhelpful I can't get a OUT.  Unfortunately, the idiosyncratic parser interprets a preemptive attempt to UNLOCK CAGE before we enter to mean that we wanted to GO CAGE.  And it's too dark in the cage to see anything if our lamp has gone out, even though the cage is hanging in the wizard's forge-lit room.  I tried to CUT CAGE but that was also interpreted as GO CAGE.  So I decided to leave the cage alone until I could find some sort of key.

As this is a treasure hunt game, it pays to EXAMINE ANVIL and learn that Some of the black paint has chipped away, showing gold underneath.  It's solid gold!  It seems that such a soft metal wouldn't work very well as an anvil, but that's adventuring for you.

The game's scoring mechanism is puzzling -- early on I thought I was losing a point every time I invoked the SCORE command, which didn't seem fair.  I saw my score drop from 73 to 71 with no apparent reason, then I thought that perhaps each hundred moves lowered it by a point.  I had to look at the code toward the end of the game to figure out just what it wanted from me -- there's a 350-move limit, after which the player's score is prorated against that as "par."  My initial explorations for mapping and examining had used up 400-odd moves, which is why my score was dropping with every step.

Back in the Wizard's rec room, it develops that we don't need the asbestos gloves or boots to handle the red hot poker -- and we don't need the gloves at all, but the boots come in handy later on.  It's not wise to GO TABLE -- the shackles snap, leaving us spread eagle on the table with all four limbs chained.  There's no way out of this, either -- it's just an unforeseeable dead-end trap, though it does establish again that the parser's vocabulary is very limited.  We can't BREAK CHAIN or HAMMER CHAIN or UNLOCK SHACKLES because I don't know those words.  Carrying the wizard's outfit doesn't seem to stop the table or cage traps, but we can't WEAR anything, so that's not an option either.

There are not many rooms in the map, but some puzzles are not obvious either.  The biggest problem I ran into is that some rooms do not actually list all available exits -- so I thought I had mapped everything and was trying to make sense of the game with an incomplete picture of the world.  A random attempt to go E opened up sturnning vistas, fascinating possibilities, and... well, mostly... annoying mapping requirements.

There's a large maze to map out, but at least the room names are somewhat unique -- tiny little room as distinct from little teeny room, at least.  There are lots of DEAD ENDs where we can only go back the way we came, and one room has an exit U to the Cross Chamber near the Evil Wizard's area for a quick escape.  Beyond the initial section of the maze lies a more difficult maze of twisty little passages, some of which are one-way but none of the rooms are easy to distinguish without dropping a lot of "bread crumb" items.

The guillotine room has a giant rock balanced on the ledge above you, but this rock of Damocles is never more than an idle threat as far as I could determine.  Above this area is the Bridge over hell, a red hot iron crossing which accounts for the asbestos boots.  Without them, GO BRIDGE only establishes that Your shoed [sic] burned off and you fell in a pool of molten lava.

Nearby is the lair of the ancient scholar, with graffiti, a treasure map, a mouldy book, and a parchment scroll. 

READ SCROLL yields, "Scroll are useful / thanks for playing / signed / Pete Tyjewski"READ BOOK tells us, "If you have me with you you can read elvin [sic] runes."  Now READ COIN indicates, "If you have me with you, and say valoor, I will reveal, A secret door."  Good!

READ MAP produces some ASCII art showing the Pirate's Treasure Room concealed behind a Secret Door on the Ledge with the Giant Rock.  So I guess we don't have to wander around saying valoor indiscriminately!  Checking in person discovers the secret door, as advertised, but we can't OPEN DOOR or GO DOOR.  Hmmmm.

With the asbestos boots (the gloves are not needed), we can GO BRIDGE to reach a wide ledge and the Quad Chamber which is much like the Cross Chamber, with exits in multiple directions.

Near an arch is a sign reading, Archie's Place - Magicians only / full formal dress required.  If we don't have the wizard's outfit in hand, then an ugly house trained troll ejects you saying 'You ain't got fittin clothes you ain't a comin in.'   Nice to see that Ma and Pa Kettle have apparently started a home for wayward trolls, though they haven't taught him a thing about punctuation.

To the east of the quad chamber there's a Green Room, which seems to exist only to deliver an in-joke, personal dig, or industry warning:  Scratched on the wall are the words: Beware Long John Lindy -- the software pirate. 

A small chamber has a one-way hole that takes us back to the Low Chamber; it's probably intended to help us escape if we forgot to bring the keg of whale oil along to keep the lamp going.

With the Evil Wizard's hat, robe and rod in hand, we can get into Archie's place where we find a door to the Bucaneer [sic] Lounge.  We can't GO LOUNGE at all, and can't GO DOOR without satisfying certain vague prerequisites -- You must have known a pirate and have a treasure to enter.

I navigated the entire twisty little maze in hopes of satisfying one or both of these requirements, but mapped the whole complex zone without finding either a pirate or a treasure.  So I resorted to taking a peek at the code to learn that we need a magic sword first.  It is found in room 68, the armory, which turns out to be U off of the Cross Chamber; it's not kidding when it says there are passages in all directions, and I had completely missed this location, which also contains a golden shield and a golden dagger.  READ SWORD reveals more elven runes indicating that with the sword in hand, we can SAY VARGAY to open doors magically.  This works to open the Evil Wizard's iron cage so we can claim the golden crown.

We can also use the sword to get into the Pirate's Treasure Chamber; it initially looks empty, but unannounced to the north lies a little nitch [sic] containing a very large treasure chestEXAMINE CHEST establishes, finally, that The whole idea of this game is to bring this chest (INTACT!) back to the vault.  So THAT's what we're doing on Treasure Island!

We can't, however, get through the cross chamber's hole in the floor, or past the cell bars, or even the downward sloping hole with the treasure chest.  And if we're carrying it, the Evil Wizard inconveniently returns to block the way out via the throne room.  So we have four exits, none of them workable.

And while we're wandering around trying to find a solution, Suddenly Long John the pirate leaps out of the gloom and takes the treasure.  And he runs off to hide it deep in the maze, a la the original Adventure.  Sigh.  We really have to map out the maze -- the chest lies near its furthest reaches, and while READ SCROLL attempts to give us a clue, I wasn't able to make sense of it: Noon, Sunset, Sunrise, Midnite, Noon, Sunset.  I translated this to U, W, E, D, U, W, as well as N, W, E, N, N, W, with no resemblance to my own route.

Once we've found and reclaimed the chest, it's off to Archie's place again.  Archie apparently can't spell Buccaneer Lounge, mangling it variously as the bucanner lounge and the bucaneer lounge.  With the reclaimed treasure chest, we can enter the lounge, and access a labyrinth.  Oh, joy, another maze!  But it's a one-way trip with just a couple of locations to deal with.

Emerging from the labyrinth, we find ourselves in a cavern we haven't visited before.  Going D from here into a whirlpool leads us back to the original cavern we visited early in our explorations, and we can finally escape the cave with the treasure chest in hand.

However, taking the treasure chest back to the vault, ostensibly satisfying the whole idea of this game, doesn't get us very close to the theoretical 258-point maximum score.  I had to dissect the BASIC code to discover that the critical items we must bring to the vault include the treasure chest (50 points), the fragile ming vase, the disguised golden anvil and the golden crown (20 points each).   We also earn 30 points for encountering Long John the pirate.  So victory should be ours, right?  Except, still, we are shy of the maximum score...

So at this point we sonly have 209 points, in 202 moves of efficient play.  I examined the code further to learn that we also earn points for visiting each location on the map (1 per room) and storing all movable objects (2 per item).  So I made a trip back into the caves to verify, bringing a bunch of random stuff back to find my score slightly improved:

At this point, my curiosity about the scoring was sufficiently sated, and I decided it was not really worth trying to earn all of the points -- to do so, we have to accomplish all these objectives in less than 350 moves, and instead of a vault full of glittering treasure, we end up with a room full of random junk.  It's no doubt doable, but at this point we've done all the interesting exploration and puzzle solving, and conquered the game's self-declared primary objective, so I didn't have the urge to be completionist about it. 

My 209-point walkthrough is below the fold; earning the maximum score by making a clean sweep of the map is left as an exercise for the reader, as I'm ready to move on to another adventure!  Maybe another SoftSide game, maybe something else...