Monday, December 31, 2012

At Random: Solar Jetman (NES, 1990)

Another random pick, another Nintendo Entertainment System with a pointless and long-forgotten subtitle mentioned only on the packaging: Solar Jetman - Hunt for the Golden Warpship, developed by Rare and published by Tradewest in 1990.  And it's a really good game!

Unbeknownst to most US gamers, Solar Jetman was actually a sequel to Jetpac and Lunar Jetman, popular on the UK scene via the Sinclair Spectrum computer (and a few other platforms) but relatively unknown here until Rare's 2007 XBLA update, Jetpac Refuelled, which provided my own introduction to this classic 1980s series.

As a result, Solar Jetman is an unusual NES game -- it has the slower, more deliberate pacing of an 8-bit home computer title, sprites are small but smoothly animated, and the action depends heavily on simulated physics.  The player pilots a probe ship exploring a series of alien planets, seeking out fuel, upgrade parts, and parts of the fabled Golden Warpship, with tongue-in-cheek names:

There are bonus power crystals to pick up as well, and a variety of roaming enemies and fixed gun emplacements to take out with the probe's front-mounted guns.  Once we've collected all the key items on a planet, we're off to the next one.  But this is easier said than done; if the probe takes too much damage, it blows up.  Still, our Jetpac-wearing pilot ejects and has a chance to survive if we can make it back to our landing ship in one piece -- with the added bonus that human lives are the limit, not probes, so if we succeed we can continue with a new probe and no major setbacks.  Fortunately, any enemy turrets we have destroyed stay that way -- wandering aliens will regenerate, but we can actually clean out the caverns before we tackle the tough stuff.

Solar Jetman's challenge lies in the navigation and collecting mechanic -- our probe is subject to gravity and physics, so we must use a tiny thruster rocket and frequent attitude adjustments to get where we're trying to go.  It's like playing the classic Lunar Lander game without the fuel limits, but with a bunch of enemies and landscapes making life difficult.  And once we pick up an item with the probe's tow cable, the additional weight and inertia make the going even trickier -- reaching any kind of vertical speed with a wildly swaying, heavy item attached is a true challenge.

Of course, the struggle is usually worth it -- returning the piece shown above to our mothership during the first level produces a very valuable upgrade:

The shields are very handy, but not as handy as they first appear -- we can't use the tow cable while the shields are up, so while it's easier to find our cargo with shields on, it's just as hard to make off with it.  Returning these FUEL icons to our landing ship makes the Jetpac lineage clear (my probe ship is within/behind the landing ship in this screenshot):

The rules change up a bit when we enter special chambers where gravity is not an issue, but we must master a new challenge, as the piece of the Golden Warpship we've discovered tends to float around wildly, attracted to the entry portal as well as the exit portal, forcing us to battle against conflicting vectors to deliver it to its destination.

Discovering a piece of the Warpship takes us into a brief challenge round, where we must try to collect crystals before time runs out.  I imagine this next screen's reference made absolutely no sense to American gamers -- see, the original Jetpac and Lunar Jetman inspired to a comic strip in the Spectrum-oriented gaming magazine Crash, drawn by John Richardson and called Jetman.  Even though it was officially sponsored by Rare, the strip was a freewheeling parody, with Richardson applying Wally Wood/Harvey Kurtzman-esque art to the adventures of "The Looney" (Looney Jetman, get it?)  Thus, our bonus round efforts are rewarded with this head-scratching reference to the Federation of Space Loonies:

On my first round I only just made it to the second planet, of a reported thirteen, and I didn't have much virtual cash to spend when the opportunity to purchase additional upgrades presented itself before we proceeded to the next location.  A substantial portion of cartridge memory must have been devoted to these between-level landing displays:

The going gets more difficult here on Mexomorf, and it wasn't long before I was facing the inevitable:

Solar Jetman was a very pleasant surprise -- it's a solid game that rewards practice and patience, and it's a breath of fresh air on a platform crowded with frantic scrolling shooters and platformers.  It's more complicated than Jetpac, perhaps unnecessarily so, and the controls take some time to master, but the effort is worth it -- nothing feels as good as swinging around a rock outcropping, bumping around a little while we take out a few nearby enemies, dropping the shields, grabbing the critical cargo and fighting gravity to get it back to the ship.  The set-your-own pacing and vector mechanics make Solar Jetman a different sort of challenge in the NES library, and I really enjoyed my brief time with it.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

At Random: Xevious (NES, 1988)

Another random grab comes up with a somewhat prescient NES cartridge -- toy company Bandai published this 8-bit console adaptation of video game developer Namco's 1982 coin-op, Xevious, nearly 25 years before the two companies merged to form today's Namco Bandai.  The North American packaging insisted on calling the game Xevious The Avenger, but the game itself has no truck with such hogwash:

Xevious' biggest innovation at the time of its release was its newfangled graphics hardware that allowed display of a detailed scrolling background independent of the sprites, on a separate plane that created a convincing illusion of above-the-ground depth.  This is something we take for granted today, and it could be taken for granted on the 8-bit Famicom, so this port didn't push the hardware too seriously.  But in 1982 arcades, it was quite an impressive sight to see roads and hills of the world below in a space shoot-'em-up, rather than the customary empty or sparsely star-speckled vacuum of space.

Xevious ports fairly smoothly to the Nintendo Entertainment System -- the music sounds fine, though the sound effects aren't as rich; whether it's a plus or not, the simple music cuts out when certain sound effects are playing, just like the coin-op original.  The background looks just a little bit chunkier than the coin-op, shoehorning the original graphic layouts into the NES' more limited tile palette.  The sprites come over with some loss of color but good detail and minimal flicker, and the two buttons on the controller satisfy the arcade game's need for separate shoot and bomb buttons.  Unlike some NES versions of arcade games, this is a straightforward replication of the coin-op, with no added storylines or features, and just like the coin-op there's really no end to it -- the landscape just recycles at a higher level of difficulty if we manage to make it all the way through.

I had no hope it making it all the way through, or anywhere close.  I've quite honestly never been very good at Xevious, or Dragon Spirit, or any other Namco shooter that involves bombing and shooting simultaneously -- I tend to ignore the ground based targets unless they're shooting at me, treating them as innocuous background imagery, and when I finally turn my attention to bombing ground targets I start running smack into airborne enemies.  So I tend not to get very far at all before I reach the inevitable:

Even with a Game Genie code granting infinite lives, the game remains challenging, as we don't pick up immediately where we left off with a new life -- we are set back to a checkpoint, and must successfully fight our way to the next invisible boundary to make progress.  I did manage to get to the first mothership with such a cheat, though I didn't fare particularly well -- I managed to bomb the mothership's central port, expecting the incoming missiles to cease, which they did not.  I include this screenshot of my imminent demise because the largeish (albeit immobile) enemy is one of Xevious' trademark images, and because the blocky road system near the bottom of the screen clearly depicts the tile-mapping challenge in fitting this onto the NES:

Xevious' advancements were largely audiovisual in 1982 -- the gameplay is challenging but not particularly adventurous, and as a result it doesn't hold up nearly as well as Galaga or even Space Invaders today.  Later games like the Raiden series presented similar ideas with more pizzazz, making Xevious feel like a necessary but dated technology step.

But it must have been popular in its time, as Nintendo released an emulated version for the Game Boy Advance as part of an NES Classics series, and has also made this NES port available on the Wii's Virtual Console.  It's a little odd when one considers the original arcade coin-op game would run just as well on these platforms, but nostalgia has its appeal, and it seems more people played Xevious on the NES than in the arcade.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

At Random: Robocop (NES, 1989)

Paul Verhoeven's 1987 movie Robocop remains a classic of its type -- low-budget production values boosted by sardonic dark humor, interesting sci-fi concepts and shamelessly over-the-top violence.  The UK home computer software company Ocean Software Limited snagged the game license early on, subletting the rights to Data East for a coin-op arcade game, which was then in turn hybridized with Ocean's home versions to produce Data East's cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989.

The arcade game was a straightforward late-80s shoot-'em-up -- as Robocop, the player generally had to walk from left to right, shooting various thugs and mechanical enemies including the famous ED-209 attack droid.  It was a short experience, about 20 minutes judging from available YouTube videos, designed to suck quarters with its detailed sprites and animation.

The home version took a different tack -- while it borrowed numerous visual elements from the coin-op, it spread them out across multiple levels and added a degree of exploration and treasure hunting.  It also sacrificed some elements beyond the capabilities of the NES, and made some odd design choices of its own.

The game is standard NES platforming action fare, aside from the 250 lb. cybernetic law enforcement officer's inability to jump.  And the controls are a little bit odd -- the arcade game equipped Robocop with a gun at all times, but the home version limits our access to firepower.  The very beginning of the game plays like a beat-'em-up, as Robocop strolls along the street facing various punching and kicking enemies, punching them in return; we can (awkwardly) use the Select button to block enemy attacks if our punches aren't doing the job.  The AI is also strange, as some enemies seem to be thrown into a situation they don't want to be in.  On occasion we see kicking thugs run in from the right side, leap over Robocop's metal-encased head, and run off on the left side, making no serious attempt to attack.

Eventually, at a point that's completely arbitratry except in the designer's vision, Robocop is able to stop and take out his sidearm from the holster built into his right leg.  I'd guess he's trying to avoid doing any damage with friendly fire, except that Robocop's prime directive #2,"Protect the Innocent," is almost immediately violated when the next batch of enemies we encounter include a number of dogs to shoot:

The arcade game's first level ends with a street confrontation with the famous ED-209 Enforcement Droid that ends in a standoff, but the NES version pits Officer Murphy against a bizarrely dressed tough in a warehouse.  Our bullets are apparently no good against his somewhat haphazardly applied erotic body armor, so we have to take a more humane approach to law enforcement, i.e., punching him in the face until he dies:

The second level feels more like a home video game, as we enter a mansion where we can explore offices and spare rooms to find additional weapons.  We also have to figure out how to climb stairs -- the controls aren't much help here, and I usually ended up wandering back and forth on the bottom landing, trying to hit an upward/diagonal combination on the D-pad until finally I got somewhere.  It can be done!

Unfortunately, it seems like most of the imagination and cartridge space invested in this design went into the first level -- it's colorful and arcade-like, with plenty of challenge.  As we get into the next section, we start seeing the same enemies again.  And the graphics become repetitive and dull-looking, with lots of grays and blues that we're already seeing a lot of in our hero.  And with the NES' spare horsepower running low, the challenge starts to depend on the clock more than the enemies -- I wrapped up this second or third attempt by exploring too many nooks and crannies and thus running out of time, though I had plenty of health left over:

Robocop falls pathetically to his knees, keeling halfway over as his systems apparently seize up, presumably to keep his hard drive intact, and the bad guys are free to run rampant in Old Detroit.

I'd had enough fun at this point, so while I was not seriously discouraged either, I opted not to challenge again.  Data East's Robocop is one of those 8-bit licensed platformers that we're not likely to see re-released, due to licensing considerations, but it's not a major loss either -- I wouldn't mind seeing its arcade progenitor show up on a compilation somewhere, but this version hasn't aged well.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Merry Christmas (1984)

As luck would have it, this week's Tuesday falls on Christmas Day, so it seems entirely appropriate to tackle a very brief illustrated adventure called Merry Christmas.  This was a promotional giveaway game put out by the Australian publisher Melbourne House for the Commodore 64 during the 1984 holiday season; it doesn't take long at all to play, as long as we can avoid getting lost in the snowy wastes surrounding Santa's workshop.  The player must assist Father Christmas in preparing for his physically improbable delivery rush; Grahame Willis did the programming, with graphics by 'Rusty' Rankin and animation by David Johnston.

As is often the case with these early games, we ironically have rampant C-64 piracy to thank for preserving this title in the online archives, though as this was not really a "for sale" title perhaps its illicit circulators can be forgiven:

Normally I suggest that readers play these games for themselves before reading my comments, but this one is extremely straightforward, with just a few locations and puzzles that scarcely deserve the name.  It may not be worth your while to get it up and running -- I had to try a couple of Commodore 64 emulators before I got it working, though I should have just remembered past lessons and stuck with VICE from the get-go.  There's not much to spoil here, but for the sake of formatting consistency I will pretend there are surprise-ruining...

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

We begin outside Santa's workshop at the north pole, as a charming (though endless and eventually tiresome) C64 rendition of "Jingle Bells" plays as an animated Santa walks out of his workshop.  A snowman stands near a sign that suggests digging in the snow is fun and rewarding; this doesn't look like it's going to be a particularly difficult adventure.  DIG SNOW yields a small key, which can be used to UNLOCK DOOR and enter the workshop.  The snowman is missing a nose, so we'll probably need to fix that before we're through here.

The snowy fields surrounding Santa's workshop are a maze; the game helpfully tells us if we've been to a location before, but it's hard to map until we've picked up a few more inventory items from inside the workshop.  We can DIG SNOW in one location to find the snowman's nose, though I forgot to do anything with it after I found it, and for some reason we can't simply walk back out of the workshop the way we came in, so we'll have to see if we can find our way back there later.

The workshop features a pile of elf-made toys.  Santa's sleigh is parked to the east, half-full of toys; a red jacket hangs nearby, and if we GET JACKET (TAKE is not recognized) and EXAMINE POCKET we find a silver whistle.  Like many early graphic adventures with text parsers, some objects are depicted by the artist but not recognized -- there are clearly some boots standing near the wall, but I don't know the word: BOOTS.  EXCLUSIVE JOKE FOR U.K. READERS:  I wonder if W.H. Smith's paid Melbourne House some sort of anti-product placement fee?

South of the workshop is another pile of toys and some letters to Santa, plus a book with a flashing star on the front that fulfills this game's primary purpose by promoting other Melbourne House titles, including holiday favorites like Castle of Terror and Grand Larceny:

We can READ LETTERS to find a boy's request for a cricket bat and ball.  Another letter requests a cricket bat and a dollhouse.  We don't actually have two cricket bats on hand -- Santa's inventory control systems seem to be rather haphazard -- so we'll assume the letters we are reading are from the same family and they can share one.  We can pick up a sack here and put the toys in it -- GET BAT, PUT BAT IN SACK, then GET DOLLHOUSE, PUT DOLLHOUSE IN SACK, then GET BALL and... ahem.  I didn't find a letter requesting the stuffed cat toy, but it disappeared after I filled the rest of the "orders" so there may be some randomness here.

We can return to the sleigh garage to PUT SACK IN SLEIGH, and everything is now ready for toy delivery

North of the workshop, we can look out the window (over a lazy elf's shoulder) to see Santa's reindeer flying around with his sleigh in tow, apparently in a holding pattern.  We can OPEN WINDOW and GO WINDOW, to find ourselves back in the snowy maze, through which we must navigate to find our way back to the entrance of the workshop.

While we're there, we can PUT NOSE ON SNOWMAN -- he puts it on and smiles, and then his nose falls off again, to be lost in the snow forever; DIG SNOW produces only cold hands at this point.  Rather a depressing Christmas tale, that!

BLOW WHISTLE out front calls the reindeer in for a landing -- we can't GO SLEIGH, but we can GET IN SLEIGH.  And we don't have to worry about actually delivering these toys -- FLY SLEIGH takes us to a quick victory!  (Apparently the reindeer are towing the sleigh with the toys in it, even if we saw them flying around outside before we put the sack in the parked sleigh indoors.) 

There's just time for one final promotional message from Melbourne House, looking forward to the company's 1985 lineup:

The parser stays awake afterwards, though we can't navigate anywhere.  I'm not sure where I picked it up, but my inventory contained an oordo felves at this point that could not be referenced in the dictionary; it looks like a bug with door and elves worked into the wrong places somehow, and didn't cause any real problems.

Merry Christmas was clearly a quick little promo effort, but its ephemeral nature is what makes it kind of special and it was just the right length for a quick holiday post. 

And I wish Happy Holidays to all of you, dear readers!

Monday, December 24, 2012

At Random: Tennis (NES, 1983)

I'm working my way randomly through my backlog of NES cartridges, and the process is going fairly smoothly because most of these games don't contain excessive amounts of bloggable content.  Today's pick, Nintendo's Tennis, bears a 1983 copyright -- it was one of the early Famicom titles, and it became a staple of the Nintendo Entertainment System's launch lineup in the US.  The title screen opens with the same sporting fanfare musical theme used for several of Nintendo's 8-bit sports games; there's no in-game music, just the sounds of running feet, bouncing tennis balls and swinging racquets.

There's not a lot to say about Tennis, but that doesn't mean it's a bad game.  It was one of the most playable sports titles on the NES, and despite some fancier, more "realistic" tennis games released later in the system's life, it did a fine job of holding its favor with players until the SNES' Super Tennis came along and did very much the same thing with better audiovisuals.

Activision's Alan Miller pioneered true (beyond Pong) videogame tennis on the Atari 2600, making the game playable in pseudo-3-D by adding a shadow to the ball, allowing the player to judge height and position in relation to the court.  Nintendo's take on the game retains this critical visual cue, augmenting it with ball sprites of different sizes to communicate distance and altitude as well.  The controls are tuned to be forgiving to a degree -- similar to Wii Sports' Tennis event, we don't have to have pixel-perfect placement and timing to return the ball, but we have to be pretty close; when we miss a return, we know we were standing in the wrong spot and/or swinging at the wrong time. 

While there's no real swing control beyond timing, all of the standard tennis strategies are effectively supported -- we can slam the ball just over the net, try to send it just within bounds from a more distant position, or send it high into the air to make it more difficult for our opponent to judge its location.

I've played the NES version a fair amount over the years, but my favorite memories of Nintendo's Tennis actually come from its VS. system coin-op incarnation, where two players could actually play against each other.  The NES version allows a singles or doubles game, but the computer always occupies the upper court, so humans can only play cooperatively.  This makes sense, as the game would be rather hard to play from the upper-court perspective; it's much easier to judge the ball when it's coming toward the player.  But I miss the one-on-one competition the VS. system allowed, with a separate display for each player.

And of course, Mario himself takes on the first of many cameo roles, playing referee for the match.  The best part is that we can step outside the court far enough to almost (but not quite) take a swing at him when we're unhappy with his calls, making for memorably hilarious freeze-frame moments:

Nintendo's Tennis was an early title that still holds up pretty well -- it has been superseded by more realistic and/or active games on modern consoles, but there's a lot to be said for well-tuned simplicity.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Of Import: Atlantis no Nazo (Famicom, 1986)

Since I've been playing a lot of NES games lately, I thought I should stick with the platform's Japanese cousin for this round of import gaming.  Sunsoft published global 8-bit Nintendo console hits like Blaster Master and Batman, but their early home system output included unassuming titles like Atlantis no Nazo, published in 1986 for the Famicom and never released in North America.  This title screen references Sunsoft's parent company, Sun Electronics Corporation:

Atlantis no Nazo ("Mystery of Atlantis") is a fast-paced, simple but not overly easy platformer that sends a pith-helmeted man through a series of short, scrolling zones.  He can jump about three times his own height, and throw small bombs to take out enemies willing to sit still long enough to be knocked out that way.  Most of the challenge comes from the time pressure -- we have to get from each level's entry to an exit doorway before the rapidly ticking timer runs out.

The game's biggest weakness is a general blandness -- the music rarely changes and the color palette is similarly static.  The game occupies a relatively tiny 48K cartridge, and while the backgrounds and enemies are refreshed on occasion, many of the level layouts are repetitive and predictable.  The first zone sends our hero across a flat landscape -- all we have to do is dodge some incoming birds, and their, erm, air-to-surface missiles:

Note an early use of the standard Japanese video game iconography for animal droppings -- somehow this bird manages to repeatedly disgorge output nearly as large as itself.  Birds fly by at only two heights -- up high, indicating we must dodge the poo, and at face-height, where we can jump or duck.

The second zone is different in style but still straightforward -- we have to climb around some rocks, bombing shell-armored enemies who are only vulnerable while moving:

And zone 3 challenges us to make some tricky jumps while avoiding flying fish (a la Super Mario Bros.) and more of the molluscs from zone 2:

The design does make a few attempts to be more adventurous in its layout -- if we fall down certain gaps in Zone 3, we are taken to Zone 6, a spooky graveyard scene where we must dodge bat guano instead of bird poo:

Zone 6 leads, oddly enough, to Zone 8, where we must try to leap across jagged spires and avoid falling into gaps.  I had not figured out how to pick up the apparent boot power-up floating in the air on Zone 6, and thus found myself unable to make certain critical jumps in this level.  There's also no way to return to the previous level to remedy such an error, so my adventure ended here:

If we skip the first exit to Zone 1, and use a bomb to blow open the next door we see, we can jump straight to Zone 11... but it's a lot like Zone 8, as the limited cartridge capacity starts to reveal its weaknesses:

Note that there's not really much we can do here -- we can grab two treasure chests, and if we can get ourselves out of the deep pit associated with the leftmost chest, we can bomb the door open to return to Zone 1.

Atlantis no Nazo is not an easy game, despite its simplicity -- we start with a generous 7 lives, but we die if we make contact with an enemy, jump or slip into a fatal gap, allow the level timer to reach zero, or foolishly drop explosives at our explorer's feet.  When we're out of lives, the game is unceremoniously over, displaying the player's final score and number of treasure chests collected, with no continues, and no indication of whether we've made a good or bad showing:

Early games for any console are always interesting to evaluate -- the Famicom was around long enough to see considerable growth and improvement in its library, and Atlantis no Nazo is more of a curiosity than a classic.  Still, it's challenging and non-linear enough to make it a worthy challenge for platform game fans, and a forerunner of better titles from Sunsoft just a few years down the road.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

At Random: Bubble Bobble (NES, 1988)

My random pick today is an easy one to cover.  There isn't much I can add to the ongoing Internet discussion of Taito's platform/puzzle game, Bubble Bobble; it's an acknowledged mid-1980s classic that continues to sell well on modern consoles and phones.  Here, I'm playing Taito's own cartridge, published in 1988 for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.

Most people reading this will be familiar with the basic gameplay -- two dinosaurs, Bub and Bob, must capture roaming enemies in bubbles, then pop them to wipe them out.  There are what seemed at the time like an incredible number of progressively more difficult levels.  And the mechanics are more complex than they at first appear -- for example, it's easier for players to move up the screen than down, with wraparounds at the top and bottom of the screen.  Enemies become smarter and faster as the game continues.  Fruit and treasure pickups provide extra scoring opportunities.  And the game's charmingly awkward English translations from the Japanese remain memorable:

Bubble Bobble arrived in 1986, at just the right time to be a big hit on Nintendo's NES a few years later -- the coin-op's visuals were clean and colorful, the music simple, cheerful and bouncy.  It wasn't as audiovisually sophisticated as other arcade games of its day, like Irem's R-Type, and its simplicity worked in its favor for the home market.  The sprites were small and could be rendered and animated fairly accurately within the NES' more limited color palette, and the game made the transition to the dominant home console more-or-less intact.

It didn't hurt that, unlike most of the home conversions, the NES edition was developed by Taito itself -- in the late 80s there was something ineffably cool about seeing an arcade manufacturer bringing their own titles home, with more fidelity than was generally possible on the first wave of consoles.  The game was also pushing the NES a bit -- while Nintendo's little gray box often felt like an upgraded Colecovision, the earlier generation's standard-setter could not have handled this many sprites onscreen at once:

Bubble Bobble on the NES also retained the arcade version's crucial two-player support, a feature often left out when NES conversions of other arcade games were produced.  And the difficulty curve was intact -- I usually start to feel challenged around the arcade game's fifth level, and the NES version treats me just about the same.  The conversion wasn't 100% faithful -- sprites flickered a bit when on the same horizontal plane, and the music sounded slightly thin compared to the coin-op original; there are also noticeable lags in the audio when the next screen is coming into view.

But nobody with an NES felt disappointed when they brought Bubble Bobble home -- the lessons of Atari's Pac-Man had been taken to heart for the Nintendo generation.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

At Random: R.C. Pro-Am (NES, 1987)

As I pick random games from my ad-hoc collection, I frequently encounter the 8-bit works of Rare Ltd., produced before the company created its major hits like Donkey Kong Country and Goldeneye.  Published by Nintendo, Rare's R.C. Pro-Am was something a little different in the Nintendo Entertainment System library -- a racing game featuring radio-controlled vehicles.

A minor mystery worth noting -- the company billed itself as Rare Coin-It Inc. on some of its early NES games, like Slalom, but it appears this was an alternate corporate identity.  At any rate, the billing here assigns the copyright to Rare Ltd., but the licensing to Rare Coin-It Inc.:

The most unique thing about R.C. Pro-Am is the control scheme -- to simulate the feel of steering a radio-controlled vehicle, the player has to imagine the position of the steering wheel inside the car.  So we don't press up to direct the vehicle northward, we have to turn the internal steering wheel and get the car pointed in the right direction.  The display uses an isometric perspective, so north is up-and-to-the-right; a handy radar display shows the track layout, though it's hard to stay on the road if we focus too much on the map.

This control scheme feels all sorts of wrong, for about two minutes -- then, somehow, the brain adapts and we learn how to nudge the car gently, modifying its direction just as we hit the next curve.  It's part memorization, part instinct -- it's a hard feeling to describe, but somehow this awkward means of piloting starts to feel natural, and we have to start blaming our lack of skill rather than the D-pad when we find ourselves a little too far off course to recover and catch up.

It definitely gets easier once we can handle the vehicle well enough to stay with the pack -- there's no rubber-banding or other modern racing-game dishonesty here, and it helps when we can see the other cars adjusting their own attitudes to make the next bend.  The track layouts become more challenging as we go, and we can pick up new parts strewn about the track to improve our vehicle's basic characteristics:

Learning each track so that we can handle it at top speed presents the primary challenge -- the other racers get in the way on occasion, but they aren't particularly aggressive.  We need to improve our own lap times, claim the power-ups as they go whizzing past, and improvise as necessary to avoid puddles, oil slicks, and the other racers. We can also pick up and deploy forward-firing missiles and rear-dropping bombs, to make life more difficult for our competitors, though it's not an essential part of the gameplay -- sheer speed still counts for more than vehicular dogfighting skill.

With a little luck and practice, we can start claiming victories:

Each victorious race adds a trophy to the player's trophy room, each prize more elaborate than the last.  There aren't a lot of different tracks available in this smallish 64KB cartridge, but mastery of the game requires some old-school arcade-style dedication -- if we lose a race, we get one chance to continue with our progress and accumulated upgrades intact, and after that it's Game Over.  I managed to get to the fourth race without having to try too hard, but the complexity definitely ramps up as we go along.

R.C. Pro-Am sold fairly well in its day, enough to inspire a sequel and a number of spiritual successors.  It may be hard to believe in this day of annualized franchises, but R.C. Pro-Am II was not released until 1992, fairly late in the life of the 8-bit Nintendo console, possibly as a low-budget release requiring less investment than a brand-new title.  It was again developed by Rare, but published by Tradewest with appropriate licensing from Nintendo, owner of the title trademark.  It added some sophistication and depth to the track layout, as well as multiplayer support, but it played very much the same as the original, with slightly fancier renditions of the original game's music and sound effects, and more aggressive AI from the competing racers.  It also inspired a number of other isometric racing games during the 8- and 16-bit era.

Picking it up again after a long, long while, I have to say that there's not a lot of reason to revisit R.C. Pro-Am today -- it accomplished its goals handily in 1987, but the racing genre has moved forward in the decades since, with greater attention to physics and handling and better support for friendly competition.  This is an arcade-style, solo racer, fun for a quick, nostalgic round and deserving of its classic status, but without a multiplayer mode it's not as compelling as it once was.  Still, I enjoyed spending a little time with it for blogging purposes, until I had to face the inevitable:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Hoosegow (2010)

This week, I'm tackling a more recent work of interactive fiction -- Hoosegow, written by Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch for the Jay Is Games "Escape" competition in 2010, using the Infocom Z-machine-compatible Inform language.  (It was not a commercial release, and the authors have published a walkthrough, as well as providing in-game hints, so I'm making an exception to my usual five-year self-embargo.) 

Hoosegow is billed as a Wild-West Wreck and is intentionally tongue-in-cheek, but it still presents a richly detailed and imagined Western scenario within a very confined location.

I discovered this adventure using the iPhone Frotz app, but downloaded the .zblorb version from for this playthrough, using a Windows-based Frotz interpreter.  As an unsuccessful petty criminal in the Old West, the player's objective is to escape the town's one-cell prison, the titular Hoosegow, before the next morning's expected hanging.  As always, and especially because this adventure is readily and freely available, y'all are encouraged to try escaping the Hoosegow before proceeding here.  Sure as shootin' there's gonna be some...

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

The game opens as our hero, Rick, and his ne'er-do-well partner in crime Muddy Charlie are being picked up by the Sheriff after a silver dollar theft gone wrong.  We're left in the custody of the sloppy deputy, Jimbo, because the Sheriff is off to discuss his invention with some investors in Wichita.

A third occupant is in the cell, a sleeping pastor we will eventually come to know as Pastor Pete.  Searching him turns up a tin of tobacco and a religious pamphlet for "The Prairie Gospel Church of Uncanny Righteousness (copyrighteous 1871)."  Pete's pronouncements sound vaguely biblical, full of awkward metaphors and judgment-day imagery.  Our pal Muddy casually but accurately calculates the number of eyes on the traditional Beast -- 291,840 -- as we are reading the pastor's theologically unusual pamphlet aloud.  Searching the clergyman again finds nothing that he wasn't born with.

We're carrying a pocketwatch, reading 7:22 PM at the moment I first checked it and ticking away at one minute per move, so there is a time constraint here.  We also possess a scrap of paper detailing the ill-fated silver theft plan, and a detailed outfit with hat, pants, overcoat, left boot and right boot.

The default responses are charmingly Western-ized, for example, "You don't find nothing at all" and "You ain't able to see no such thing."  Tellingly, the left boot has spurs broken clear off; we can take the right boot's spur off, the game noting that we are being careful not to cut yourself in the process.  So we have a potential weapon in hand, it seems.

Muddy mentions that he has a plan, which in short form amounts to, "I'm a-going to tell you my plan.  Here it is: we got to break out of this jail before we get strunged up."  But he does mention his plan needs lots of ingredients -- if that means anything.

There's a food bowl on the floor a few feet from the cell, apparently nailed there.  (The iPhone Frotz version just says it "seems to be nailed to the office floor," while the current downloadable edition emphasizes it as "nailed (yes, nailed!) to the office floor."  So that's apparently a significant detail.)

A broken stool on the floor, with two legs where there should be three, bears a bronze plate indicating it was "Donated to the Crawdad's Gulch Municipal Hoosegow by the Gunslinger's Widows Association, Chapter Forty-One."  There are also some initials carved into the stool, prompting amusing anecdotes from Muddy.

Under the wooden bench where the Pastor is sleeping, we find some rancid meat, a can of beans, and a spoon.  OPEN CAN WITH SPOON doesn't work, but the spur does the trick, and we earn 5 of the possible 24 points for this so it must be important.  There's a minor bug here -- if we LOOK IN CAN it's treated as a container and we are told that The can of beans is empty, but if we EXAMINE CAN we are informed that The can is full of plump, glistening, little beans.

The Sheriff's invention is a primitive cappuccino coffee machine, basically a furnace standing in the office with a lever that can be made to point toward the front door or the rear of the office, currently in a neutral position.  It seems we might want to influence that, just because we're given such detail about it.

A window high up on the cell wall has the green tip of a vine poking in; the bars are thick and unmovable so it doesn't look like we'll be getting out that way, and while we can pull the tip of the vine, nothing really happens as a result.

If we GIVE BEANS TO MUDDY, he's hungry and asks for a spoon.  He eats the beans, and a few turns later starts complaining of indigestion, as the can's warning label suggests may occur, especially the "By opening this can, you agree to the terms of service posted in town" clause.  The silent-but-deadly results send the deputy out the door with his whiskey bottle, presumably to the saloon across the street he has been staring at all evening.  But he returns shortly, hooking his trusty (albeit fat and lazy) dog Flash up to the boiler -- if we try to escape, Flash will surely set off the rooftop steam whistle and summon the deputy.

We can open the tin and CHEW TOBACCO, spitting it at various things to no apparent affect. SPIT AT LEVER misses the thin lever, sending the plug of chaw down the boiler pipe.  EXAMINE BARS reveals that one of the bars is as short as a table leg; this gray bar is loose, but still held in place by a large screw that connects it to the ceiling.  And the rusty screw is too high to reach.  MUDDY, REMOVE THE SCREW yields "(Muddy first taking the screw)," followed by "Muddy ain't having none of your balderdash," and he doesn't actually do so.

Muddy occasionally can be seen tapping a harmonica on his arm -- we can't see it if we EXAMINE MUDDY, but we can TAKE HARMONICA FROM MUDDY -- he doesn't actually know how to play it.  And if we PLAY HARMONICA, the screw starts to come loose with the rattling bars, making way for a Dr. Who "sonic screwdriver" joke on Muddy's part (yes, it's anachronistic, but fitting on that very point!)  Several rounds of mouthorgan noise are required to free the screw; it rolls out of sight under the deputy's desk, but a two-foot long metal tube falls from the ceiling, the gray bar we were trying to retrieve earlier.  We can't, however, ATTACH GRAY BAR TO STOOL to fix it... oh, wait, we have to PUT BAR IN SOCKET to do so, based on the stool's detailed description.

Now we can stand on the stool and look out the cell window -- the vine we could see the tip of before is more visible now, and it's covered with small red berries.  We can take one (trying to PICK BERRY results in a parser complaint about there being too many choices to select from), but examination indicates that it Don't look so edible.  If we try to EAT BERRY anyway, Muddy stops us, warning that it will put us to sleep for quite a while, too late to escape, which seems like a hint.  We also can't throw the berry at the lever or put it in the dog's bowl.

The metal stool leg/tube is apparently quite thin -- we can remove it from the stool, PUT BERRY IN TUBE and then BLOW BERRY AT things.  It doesn't move the lever, but the deputy left a dinner bell hanging on a hook by the doorway, in which direction Flash occasionally throws a longing look. BLOW BERRY AT BELL rings the bell, and Flash gets up, yanking the lever toward his food bowl instead of toward the exit, causing the machine to dispense a white cup and fill it with coffee.

We can't reach the coffee, but we can get another berry from the vine and blow it into the cup.  The berry splatters its juice into the coffee, so if the deputy returns we may be able to get him knocked out.

Now what?  It's 9:40 PM according to the pocketwatch, and we've done quite a bit with the available objects here.  What about the meat we found under the bunk?  It smells like it should be buried.  And if we EXAMINE SKY, we can see a wake of vultures wheeling through the air.

How to attract them?  Well, we can take off our boots, which results in an Are you sure? prompt; the resulting smell from removing the left boot makes Muddy's eyes water and Flash back off a ways, pulling the leash taut.   With the other boot removed, the odor overwhelms the poor dog -- Flash pulls the lever, setting off the steam whistle and summoning the deputy as Muddy urges us to put our boots back on.  It didn't help bring any vultures nearby, but this is an interesting result too.

The deputy staggers in shortly, drunkenly trying to put his pants back on, as Flash breaks the lever clear off the machine.  Before departing in a state of high, inebriated dudgeon, Deputy Jimbo drinks the coffee, and immediately collapses to the floor, outside the bars.  But he's just wearing his pants, with no gun belt or boots or keys.  Oddly, we can't quite reach him if we try to TAKE PANTS FROM DEPUTY, but we can SEARCH DEPUTY from within the cell and take a federal warrant and a small brass key.

The warrant calls for our arrest and hanging for various "iniquities, infringements, infractions and indeed immorality" -- Muddy is inspired with another plan, and asking him about it suggests that if we can come up with a pen and some ink, he could somehow alter the warrant in our favor.

Crushing berries should make for some ink, or tobacco maybe, but we can't seem to put the berries or the tobacco in the can, and the tin seems to contain an infinite supply of unchewed tobacco.  While I'm experimenting with this, a vulture lands outside the window to check out the deputy -- so that was the right idea, if not the expected path to get here -- and seems to be interested in the rotting meat.  We can't PUT MEAT IN WINDOW, as it's not a container, but if we stand on the stool again and LOOK OUT THE WINDOW, we can see a barrel just below, and we can PUT MEAT ON BARREL.  I tried to TAKE TAIL FEATHER FROM VULTURE, as its tail is waving near the window while it feasts, but the parser only recognizes TAIL as part of the vulture; I had to TAKE FEATHER FROM TAIL.

Muddy happily accepts the feather for use as a quill pen, but he still needs some ink.  Fortunately, it turns out that he doesn't actually need any help with the ink -- we can just GIVE BERRIES TO MUDDY and he's all set, as the most important section of the warrant is written in red ink.  Handing him the warrant as well yields a modified version, requiring that our heroes now be held only for "proper hanging of the Sheriff's portrait on the office wall."  Seems a bit contrived and transparent, but this is an adventure game.

The pastor never figures into things -- some of his vague pronouncements when we WAKE PASTOR sound hint-ish, but nothing really pans out as a useful suggestion.  If we GIVE PAMPHLET TO MUDDY, our pal will identify the drowsy minister as Pastor Pete, but he drops back off to sleep again after Muddy's enthusiastic greeting.

Anyway, we're now free to go based on the warrant, it seems. We can't UNLOCK GATE WITH KEY -- that would be too easy, and it doesn't even have a keyhole.  The padlock is a solid, arcane lump of metal.  But there is another lock in the room -- a small lock visible on the desk drawer, which we can't reach at the moment.

I tried to OPEN DEPUTY, just for fun, which woke him up -- presumably SHAKE or WAKE would also work. He's bleary and addled enough for Muddy to convince him that the warrant is legit and that we are not criminals, but truly the Sheriff's "guests," and we'd better get that portrait hung before we all get in trouble tomorrow.

Now we can GO GATE, into the office, and unlock the drawer.  It contains a folder with a telegram, a patent, a note, and a receipt.  The telegram suggests that the Sheriff is buying machine parts for his invention -- with 5000 dollars in silver coin, suspiciously similar to the "evidence" confiscated from our bungled robbery, which he is claiming he won in a lottery.  The patent details his coffee machine, clearly an expensive proposition to build and market.

There's also a repudiatory note from Ella, the Sheriff's former fiancee, who is disgusted with the scoundrel's recent behavior, and a receipt noting the Sheriff's account with his machine parts supplier is sorely in arrears. So now we have a little something on the Sheriff. 

And we'll probably need it, because as we try to leave, we are confronted by the Sheriff and Federal Marshal McLuhan (is the interactive fiction medium the message, then?), who believe we have murdered the fallen deputy.  WAKE DEPUTY readily disabuses them of that notion, and HANG PORTRAIT ON WALL discharges our official duties, as the Marshal criticizes the Sheriff for using suspects to do his office work.  Muddy notes that Marshal McLuhan seems a reasonable man, setting up the endgame if we play our evidential cards correctly.

Showing the Marshal all of the documentary evidence conveniently tucked away in the Sheriff's desk, piece by incriminating piece, does the job -- the Sheriff never mentioned the existence of the silver haul as evidence in the case, and clearly wants us both executed ASAP, raising the Marshal's suspicions.  Now he's in big trouble, and the newly-promoted Sheriff Jimbo is looking for a few good deputies.  We win, and we even get to look like the good guys!

I had missed two points, and had to check out the Inform source code to learn that these points are available by eating some beans and in the process overcoming a repressed childhood memory related to the musical fruit.  We must do this once, or three times, as we lose a point on the second mouthful but regain it on the third, before giving the can to Muddy.  The game can also end in a different way -- if we simply leave the sheriff's office without dilly-dallying looking for evidence, we can high-tail it out of town before we get caught, poor but free.  It can also, of course, end less happily if we try to shoot the Sheriff with an unloaded gun, or if we show the Marshal the warrant, as he's smart enough to see through Muddy's amateurish ruse.

I had a lot of fun in the Hoosegow -- it's a modern effort, using this older but entirely serviceable technology to provide lots of detail in a tightly focused interactive story.  This is the kind of thing the text adventure form is really good at -- plenty of incidental detail waiting to be discovered, puzzle solutions at macro and micro levels, and verbal and descriptive humor.  Very nice work from the authors!

Monday, December 17, 2012

At Random: Firehawk (NES, 1992)

It's been a while since I closed my eyes and rummaged around in the collection to find something to blog about, so when I found a small, forgotten box of NES games over the weekend, I grabbed the first thing that came to hand: Firehawk, a helicopter action game published in the US by Camerica and created by the technical experts at Codemasters.  Codemasters Software Co. Ltd. was a major developer on the British scene during the 8-bit era, and the opening logo screen features the company's veddy English slogan:

(I suppose I should have written "Codemasters were a major developer on the British scene" to accommodate the local grammatical treatment of companies as plural, but I digress.) 

Games like Firehawk were often overlooked in the States because Nintendo, and therefore Nintendo Power magazine, did not even acknowledge their existence -- Camerica was an unlicensed third-party publisher, and Codemasters an unlicensed developer at the time.  But unlike most of these under-the-radar companies, forced to distribute their titles directly outside of Nintendo's official channels, the resulting products were often of a high technical standard.  Here's the actual game title screen --it looks much better in motion, as it uses palette cycling to bring the title logo image to flaming life, and deep parallax scrolling on the ground below the helicopter, an effect rarely seen on the NES:

Codemasters brought their storied programming talents to bear on these projects, reverse-engineering the NES and pushing it beyond its standard capabilities.  The title screen benefits from music reminiscent of great old Commodore 64 loading screen tunes, with thumping percussion and strobing harmonies -- though it seems those old tricks use up quite a bit of the NES' horsepower, because once the game starts the audio goes silent aside from sound effects.

The plot concerns a fictional, developing foreign country overtaken by drug lords -- a theme not generally on the official Nintendo-approved list -- and the United States Congress' authorization of the military to help its third-world brethren out by deploying Green Beret spies to gather information.  Of course, these paratroopers must be retrieved after carrying out their reconnaisance, and this can only be done using the player's helicopter gunship.  So some collateral damage in search of excitement and power ups is only to be expected; here, our heroic pilot looks forward to the inevitable carnage:

"What kind of Helicopter Gunship, sir?  A DEVASTATING Helicopter Gunship, you say?  Hot diggity!"

The action is simple in concept, but the semi-realistic controls take some work to master.  The D-pad doesn't work in the traditional manner -- instead, as we're piloting a helicopter, we move forward by pressing up, and backward by pressing down (fortunately, altitude doesn't factor into it.)  Pressing left or right rotates the helicopter, with a helpful directional "sight" that also contains an arrow indicating the location of the nearest paratrooper.  We must avoid enemy fire and diagonal D-pad presses whenever possible. 

We can shoot and bomb enemy tanks and aircraft, as well as the local landscape; indiscriminately destroyed buildings often yield damage repair icons and power-ups like multi-fire capability.  Damage we've inflicted persists on the intentionally small, tight maps, so the game doesn't suffer from the NES' usual habit of resurrecting vanquished enemies if we return to an area.  The engine is capable of slinging quite a few sprites around, and the action can get fairly hairy even in the early going:

When we approach a waving paratrooper (they look a bit like Frogger from this height), the viewpoint shifts to a side-on pick-up sequence -- a line is dropped for the rescuee, while the player keeps busy hitting the A and B buttons to fire as enemy choppers line up with the floating, auto-aiming sights.  Missing too many opportunities to take these out results in additional damage inflicted to our own craft.

Our copter can't take very much damage, and if we're not careful, we're given a less-than-glowing performance review.  The official U.S. Armed Forces typewriter (No. 362) also provides some constructive criticism -- I hadn't realized I needed to return the soldier to the ship right away, and had wandered off in search of stuff to shoot at, so I had to do it over.  Not a big deal for me, but I feel bad for the poor Green Beret, especially if he heard about what happened to the last guy.

Returning the rescued paratrooper to the ship allows us to watch the American flag blowing in the breeze as our cargo disembarks and rushes off to the commissary without so much as a wave farewell, unlike those nice Choplifter boys.

With all the paratroopers in one region of Lafia rescued, we move on to another mission on another section of the map.  We continue to rescue our people in the field, facing stronger opposition, until we take too much damage and run out of expensive military helicopters:

Firehawk is a much better game than I was expecting -- the Codemasters pedigree serves it well, and the action is challenging from the get-go.  Like most NES-era games, the action becomes repetitive after a while.  But the player has a lot of freedom in determining how best to approach each situation, and as a result Firehawk's gameplay still holds up well two decades after its original release.