Saturday, June 30, 2012

Airwave Adventures!

I had forgotten completely about Tiger Media's Airwave Adventures series -- in fact, I had forgotten it was a series until I ran across this old ad in MPC World magazine:

The company only ever produced these two games, using CD-ROM technology to provide digitized, non-animated comic-book artwork and radio drama-style voice tracks.  Their products originally ran on the Japanese FM-TOWNS computer and Commodore's ill-fated CDTV system, but came to DOS PCs later on as the technology became available.

Neither of the Airwave Adventures seems to have sold particularly well -- while the visuals and voice acting are nicely done for the era, the gameplay wasn't great even then, and the retro 1930s style may not have been appreciated by the core video game market in those pre-Bioshock days.  I own a copy of The Case of the Cautious Condor -- we have to solve the case within a 30-minute time limit, but if we don't visit the right locations and talk to the right people to discover all the right details, then we have to start over.  And it's not really an adventure game -- it's more like The Manhole, with limited opportunities for exploration and interaction.  This rigid structure quickly becomes repetitive, and I never finished the case.  From what I can find online, Murder Makes Strange Deadfellows is similar in style -- it came out later, and apparently escaped my notice (or at least my memory) completely.

What I do remember about Tiger Media is that I was very impressed by their customer service department.  My original copy of Condor was bought at a Radio Shack, in the early days of CD-ROM when very few games took advantage of the medium.  Much to my chagrin when I got home, this edition was designed strictly for use with the Tandy 1000/2000 computers' audio hardware, so I was unable to play it on a system with a Soundblaster-compatible card.  I messed around with the raw audio data a bit and was able to listen to some of it after correctly guessing the sample rate, but it wasn't the same as hearing the audio in synch with the game.

I filed the disc away and forgot about it until a few years later, at which time I phoned Tiger Media to see if they had ever released a Soundblaster version.  They had, and when I explained the situation and asked if there was an upgrade price, they just sent me a new disc, free of charge, without asking for so much as a proof of purchase.  I appreciated that -- the company took its products seriously, and while they didn't make a big splash in the game marketplace, they did contribute to the development of the art form.  One of their staff members even published an AES (Audio Engineering Society) paper discussing the use of low-bandwidth audio on CD-ROM, an abstract of which can be read here.

Maybe that's why they're still around today, as Iacta, developing interactive TV software for set-top boxes.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Of Import: Mad Stalker (1994)

Sometimes I can't resist picking up a Japanese game based solely on the way its name plays in English.  And that's certainly the case with Mad Stalker: Full Metal Force, a 1994 scrolling mecha beat-'em-up created by KOGADO STUDIO and Fill in Cafe Co. Ltd., published by NEC on the PC Engine's most powerful iteration, the System 3.0 Arcade CD-ROM format:

It's not actually a game about a mad stalker -- the title seems to refer to a class of mechanical exoskeletons driven by human pilots, in the standard mech mold.  The production values are high, as was usually the case with these late-in-the-life-cycle PC Engine games.  The CD-Audio soundtrack is typical of the era, with synthesized horns, bass guitars and percussion driving the action forward.  And even though the game's voice-acted dialogue is in Japanese, all of the onscreen text is in English, so it's not a difficult game to get one's Western head around.  The game opens with a lengthy animated sequence, apparently pitting two CEOs against each other -- this grumbling, angular older gentleman:

And this attractive female executive and her attractive executive assistant:

The introduction also introduces us to three playable mech pilot characters -- Chico Rodriges, Richard Winston and Eve Lurdia, with the traditional stats and blood type:

Each stage is preceded by another lengthy intro, though the animation is simpler, limited to lip-synced portraits and illustrations that pop up over the player's radar:

And then, we select our pilot of choice, and the action begins... or ought to.  First, there's a lengthy loading screen -- something of a rarity on the PC Engine, or at least it's usually better disguised.  (This is the same image displayed if we try to boot the game with a System 1.0 or 2.0 card, along with a Japanese message indicating we need to use the 3.0 version.)

Once we get into the action, we discover that this is basically a scrolling beat-'em-up in the vein of Final Fight or Golden Axe.  Our mech runs from left to right, knocking various robot enemies out of commission with punches, kicks, grabs and throws.  Some of the one-on-one fights are a little more challenging, feeling more like a Street Fighter clone based on duration and the quality of the enemy AI.

I'm running this on the Magic Engine emulator for ease in capturing screenshots, and it appears that the official System 3.0 card is NOT the best way to run the game -- the graphics tend to get rather garbled, though it does provide an interesting look at how the sprites are laid out and the matrix of occupied "squares" modified from frame to frame:

Running correctly (using the Magic System 3.0 card in this case), the game looks much more like the mid-80s coin-op standard many PC Engine games successfully mimicked:

This flying mech is an interesting enemy to deal with -- we have to jump up while he's preparing to fire to knock him down, and then attack steadily and rapidly to keep him grounded.  I spent quite a bit of time ducking his attacks while the clock counted down before I realized patience was not going to win the day.  He's initially presented as if he's a mid-level boss, but then more of them show up and we realize we're just going to have to deal with his like on a regular basis:

The game's engine does have its limitations -- while the animation is very smooth and flicker-free, it can only handle so many moving objects at once.  This battle near the end of the level features clinging robots that push the player's mech around; they're meant to attack as a swarm, but only four are ever seen at the same time.  When one is disposed of, another one flies in until the supply is exhausted and we can move on:

The game is fairly difficult -- we have a limited number of credits, arcade-style, and I had burned through my second token by the time I did much damage to the first stage's boss:

Continuing, I used up at least another credit before I finally managed to dispose of this charging, hopping robot:

The next mission takes place in an industrial building of some kind, and we see pretty much the same assortment of enemies we've already met, just toughened up.  The boss at the end of stage 2 proved to be my undoing; the mechs occasionally suffer equipment malfunctions after taking damage, making it impossible to do anything for a few seconds, but this is a proud boss, who stands by patiently until his opponent recovers.  I was unable to get past this guy, even after starting over with the difficulty turned down to easy:

Mad Stalker: Full Metal Force is remarkable primarily for its system requirements -- most of the Arcade CD-ROM games for the PC Engine were ports of SNK coin-ops, and while this game takes advantage of the extra memory, it seems like it could have been squeezed onto a lower-spec configuration.  But the game clearly had its fans -- an enhanced version made it to the Sony Playstation in 1997, upgrading the audiovisuals but retaining the basic gameplay.  The action is competent and challenging in the classic arcade tradition, and sometimes that's enough.

This is a decent if unspectacular game that collectors and mech fans might want to own.  Keep in mind that the American TurboDuo was only a System 2.0 console, so this is one of the rare Japanese PCE CD-ROM titles that will not work on a North American system.  If you're equipped with suitable hardware or emulation technology, you might be able to buy a copy here (and there's actually a copy in stock as I write this, which is often not the case!)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The LoadDown -- 06/28/2012

It's an unusually quiet week for consoles as the US Independence Day holiday approaches, though handhelds remain pretty active for gamers on the go...

WiiWare -- Nothing here this week, or on the Virtual Console.

DSiWare -- Two new games here... Flip the Core is a super-retro-styled 2D shooter, with a cube-flipping mechanic that thrusts the player's ship into different environments whenever it rotates.  Escape the Virus: Swarm Survival is kind of a cross between Robotron: 2084 and those early videogames where the player's snake gets longer the more the player eats.  Don't try that at home.

3DS eShop --  Two new games and two retail demos this week.  First up is Marvel Pinball 3D, which features a number of classic Marvel Comics characters and 4 distinct tables; it's a quality effort from Zen Studios that might keep us busy while we continue to hope that Pinball Arcade makes it to the 3DS at some point.  There's also Bomb Monkey, which looks like another match-three puzzle game but adds some fun new mechanics, primarily setting off the combos by dropping a bomb.  From a monkey!  And there are free downloadable demos of Rhythm Thief & The Emperor's Treasure, and Kingdom Hearts 3D.  Nintendo is also launching a "Game of the Weekend" sale series, similar to sales on other platforms, so keep an eye out for deals.

XBox Live Arcade -- Same titles here as on the PS3 (below), although The Walking Dead episode 2 arrived on Wednesday instead of Friday.  Lucky XBLAers!

PS3 on PSN --  One new title, Jeremy McGrath's Offroad, celebrates rough-and-tumble dirt track racing.  And the second episode of The Walking Dead will be out on Friday if all goes as planned.

PSOne Classics -- An unusual licensed title shows up here -- The Little Mermaid II, based on the Disney direct-to-video sequel.

Notable on Steam and Elsewhere --  The long-awaited second episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead also hits the PC this Friday, barring any technical glitches.  And the even-longer-awaited (if not necessarily as eagerly) Penny Arcade Adventures series finally sees episode 3 after a three-year hiatus, with a new pixel-art style and a new publisher.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kickstarter Adventure Game Updates

This isn't necessarily going to be a regular feature, but I've been keeping an eye on the various adventure game projects being launched and funded via Kickstarter, so a few updates now and then are easy to pass along.  With so many veteran designers re-emerging with the tempting prospect of fan funding, and some worthy new projects turning up, I remain enthusiastic about the possibilities for a renaissance in the genre.  (For a well-considered opposing view from someone who probably knows better than I do, check out Wadjet Eye Games founder and Blackwell series designer Dave Gilbert's thoughts, here.)  My personal biases are likely to be clear -- take this as a gossip column, with plenty of unsubstantiated speculation by yours truly!

First, there's an interesting new entry from Stacy Davidson, the filmmaker and creator behind the unofficial Lucasarts-style Han Solo Adventures fan game.  It's a retro-style sci-fi adventure called Jack Houston and the Necronauts, in the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers/John Carter vein.  He's trying to raise a reasonable $56,000 and seems likely to do it at this writing, with plenty of time to go.  The project is ambitious, with painted backgrounds merged with stop-motion animation for the characters, executed using physical puppets in the Ray Harryhausen tradition.  There's not much implementation done yet, but Davidson has shown he can produce a playable game as a labor of love, and I'm always a sucker for that pulp art-deco sci-fi look.

It looks like HeXit, another sci-fi point-and-click adventure with a sleek Heavy Metal-style visual look, is not faring so well, with only about 20% of its $75K goal raised with less than a week left.  I don't know if its funding struggles are due to xenophobia -- the game is being developed in Hungary by names most gamers may not be familiar with -- or just that while the graphics look very nice, it seems that most of the team is focused on the artwork, with a solitary coder listed who hasn't really developed an adventure game before.  It's probably just a (good) sign that the Kickstarter community is becoming a bit more discerning about which projects get funded.

Infamous Quests' Quest for Infamy has its backing well in hand, with $46K raised at this writing, well above its goal of $25K.   This project is led by Steven "Blackthorne" Alexander, who's had a hand in a couple of King's Quest and Space Quest fan remakes, and this one is clearly inspired by Sierra's Quest for Glory games.  From the look of the artwork and demo so far, that classic VGA-era Sierra vibe is being well preserved.

Reincarnation: The Root of All-Evil is more than halfway to its modest $15K goal with a couple of weeks left.  It's a cartoon adventure starring a little demon character; the animation shown to date is a little simplistic for my tastes, and the project's stated goals may be more ambitious than it can manage.  But the cartoonist behind it has put out a number of free point-and-click games in the past, so I'm pretty sure the project will get finished.   I'm just not sure about the management approach -- some of the bullet points for the budget include "Hiring people to help" and "Better sounds," neither of which is specific enough to inspire confidence.

The horror adventure The Verge looks like it's not going to make its modest $5K goal, for obvious reasons.  There just isn't enough on show to convince anyone that this will be a compelling experience, not with indie games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent targeting a similar style and doing it so much better, and it's a first-person game which means the "point-and-click" terminology is a bit misleading.  Some projects come to Kickstarter too early -- I hope that the people behind unsuccessful projects like this one will take a hard look at why they were not funded, and come back with better ideas or more concrete progress to try again.

And Lilly Looking Through, a personal favorite, is well over its initial $18K funding goal.  The demo is charming, with fun, well-designed puzzles.  And I'm thoroughly impressed by the animation -- young Lilly is really well-grounded in the environment, and she runs and stands naturally in context, without that sprite-pasted-over-background look that even the best vintage point-and-click games tend to have.

One surprise -- it appears that Sam Suede in Undercover Exposure is not going to make its goal, or even come close, with a mere $14K of its proposed $500K budget raised so far with time running out.  Despite the past involvement of Al Lowe (Leisure Suit Larry) and current involvement of Steve Ince (the Broken Sword trilogy), it's not getting much Kickstarter love.  This may be due to some controversy about the pitch, which implied that Al Lowe was currently actively engaged, while his design work on the project concluded back in 2006 when the project was abandoned, before much dialogue writing was done.  Age may not have done the design much good, and it may also be that the appeal of a certain style of "titillating" humor is weaker than it was in Larry's day.

I'm also trying to monitor some of the big projects that have been funded and are now hypothetically underway, but there's not much real news yet.  Jane Jensen's new Pinkerton Road studio was launched with Kickstarter, but doesn't have much to show beyond the early concept art already revealed.   The Two Guys from Andromeda have more progress on display, including updated demos and audio material, but it's a long way from a finished game, and I hope the team isn't being distracted by all the fan communication necessary to operate this way.  Both efforts are trying to raise some additional funding on top of their original Kickstarter targets, which makes me wonder if the balance sheets were realistic to begin with, or, more worryingly, whether the projects are being appropriately managed to budget.

But this is what's fun about Kickstarter -- anticipation, hype, speculation, fear, and hope, all mixed together with a genre I love.  It's a fun little horse race to watch, and with any luck we'll get some cracking new adventure games out of the process, even if there are a few noble failures too.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Space Quest IV - Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers (1992)

I've probably played the first section of Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers more than any other Sierra title -- on the original floppy disk release, on CD-ROM for DOS, and on Windows CD-ROM, to see how the new interpreter managed (it was pretty buggy at the time, with color issues and audio glitches.)  Technology aside, I can't say it was one of my favorite adventure games -- in fact, I don't really remember much of the plot, aside from the return of Sludge Vohaul from Space Quest II.  But The Two Guys from Andromeda (Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy) are usually good for a laugh and a challenge, so it's time to play this one again.

This was Sierra's third (counting Mixed-Up Mother Goose CD) adventure to feature 256-color VGA graphics, and some of the background paintings are beautiful, with a different feel from the King's Quest series.  And it was the first to feature professional voice talent, though one suspects most of the talent budget went to Gary Owen, of Laugh-In and radio fame, who must have spent quite a few hours in the studio reading all of the location and item descriptions in addition to the traditional narration duties.  The audio is a bit noisy and crackly, and the lip-synch rather approximate in places; some of the voice actors are still clearly in-house Sierra employees..  But the audio production is improved over King's Quest V.

As always, I encourage interested readers to play Space Quest IV before proceeding below.  It's still commercially available at a bargain price as part of the Space Quest Collection, available at Steam and other digital outlets.  It's not a difficult game, although there are a few hard-to-predict deaths and "gotcha" puzzles if we've missed something earlier, and it's still fun to play.  Feel free to go play and come back later if you like.  Beyond this point, there are bound to be...


The story begins as Roger Wilco tells exaggerated stories of his past adventures at the cantina on Magmetheus, making a pit stop on his way back to his home world of Xenon.  But when the cyborg Sequel Police arrive to deliver a threatening message from the formerly-departed Sludge Vohaul, Roger is in a panic.

Fortunately, the Time Rippers -- rebels with time-jump technology and mediocre voice-acting -- arrive to spirit him away.  Post-wormhole, Roger finds himself in a desolate post-apocalyptic version of Xenon, from the as-yet-unreleased Space Quest XII - Vohaul's Revenge II, where the only apparent life is the Energizer Bunny.  There's some unstable ordnance in a ship parked down an alley, introducing the first of this game's annoying "whoops, I did that!" fatal mistakes if we pick it up.  At least we can put it back in place after we learn about the danger, because if we do much moving around while carrying it, it tends to blow Roger up.  We are informed that is unstable, at least, so this isn't a totally unfair situation, though it is a bit of a red herring.

There's also a security droid that tends to show up and shoot Roger dead, no questions asked.  This seems to be random, but in some places we can earn a few points by hiding behind something so it leaves Roger alone.   The buildings are destroyed and uninteresting, but we can pick up a short, frayed length of rope in front of one to the southeast.  We can also obtain a PocketPal laptop from the glovebox of a destroyed landspeeder.  There's also a strange man wandering around, apparently the victim of some sort of cyber-surgery, and if we engage him he screams, summoning the security droid.

The laptop is a dumb terminal, and has no battery; clearly we will need to get one from the toy rabbit.  But he's not easy to catch -- he tends to walk in on the opposite side of the screen from Roger, and runs off before we can get close to him.  Mr. Owens suggests that being out in the open, barehanded, is not the best approach.  If we put the rope out on the ground, it takes the form of a snare; we just need to hide where the rabbit won't see us so we can snag it... and grab it when it's in the snare.. and avoid the everpresent droids.  The rope is destroyed by the "bunny snatching," so we cast it aside.  We can now put the power pellet in the laptop, but it's still not useful for anything.

This first part of the game is a bit frustrating, because there are so many dangers to avoid and the deaths Roger suffers are rather repetitive as we struggle to solve the few puzzles on hand.  I eventually realized that this game suffers the same technical problem as King's Quest VII -- while the animation is adjusted to the system's speed, internal countdown timers are not.  This tends to make security droids show up more often, and the sequel police fire more rapidly -- I had an easier go of it after I turned the DOSBox CPU speed down from the default 3000 cycle rate.

We can duck -- one way -- down a grate to reach a Sewer Maintenance office area beneath the street.  Roger can pick up a jar on the table, which we will need much, much later.  A button beneath a desk blotter summons a recorded holographic message from the past which explains much of the present circumstances.  A supercomputer was given control over Xenon, it seems, including its weather control and defense systems, and all was well until a copy of Leisure Suit Larry infected the system with a crippling virus.  "WILCO MUST PAY," the system announced, and began waging war on the inhabitants of Xenon, and assimilating them -- the wandering husk cyborgs are modified Xenonians.

From the office, Roger can enter the sewers -- though the door, of course, slams shut behind him, so we'd better hope we have anything we needed to grab earlier.  In the tunnel he is pursued by a green slime, which is of course capable of skeletonizing Roger if it touches him.  We can't seem to capture it in the jar at its points of origin from vents along the sewer tunnels, so we should just climb the ladder to the west.  This brings us... back up to the street.

From his safe observation point, Roger can see as a spaceship lands and police officers emerge.  Roger doesn't have time to just sprint for their ship, so perhaps we have to make use of the unstable ordnance?  There isn't time to get to it, and we can't hide from these officers as easily as we could the robots. Hmmmm.  If we duck back down the manhole before coming out, we seem to be able to avoid the first patrol.  We can approach the ship, but another officer arrives to shoot Roger before we can do anything with it.  (This is really only difficult if we haven't turned down the CPU speed, but this worked out okay in my case as it forced me to go back and check some other possibilities out more thoroughly.)

Can we grab the slime?  Gary Owens is helpful -- if we use the jar on it, he tells us we should wait until it stops moving.  That should be doable.  We can only scoop up a portion of the slime, so we need to get moving again pretty quickly after doing so.

Now that we have the slime, can we do something different with the police?  We still can't get to the ordnance -- if we go over there, Roger just pauses until he gets shot.  Turning down the DOSBox CPU speed really helped here -- I was finally able to get him into the ship, by stowing away in the landing gear compartment.  This lands Roger -- as is often the case in this series -- in a new facility, where he must explore and try to figure out what's going on. 

We can just get back into the ship, in which case we are taken back to the ruined city.  But we should probably do something different while we are here.  If we wander to the right, a guard picks Roger off.  But to the left, two guards converse after one returns from an investigation of Space Quest II.  Roger has just enough time to steal one of the time machines (which can also be seen making a cameo appearance in Sierra's VGA remake of Space Quest I.)  We have to punch in a code -- though for now, anything will do at random... oh, wait, no it won't!  But a second try seems to work.  And we should write down the SQ XII code on the display before entering any random tries of our own -- I forgot to do this, but fortunately retained a save game before trying any codes, so I was able to come back later and capture this critical information.

Roger ends up in Space Quest X - Latex Babes of Estros, an affectionate poke at Infocom's Leather Goddesses of Phobos, no doubt.  There's an odd rock formation down below, which (perhaps fortunately) Roger cannot touch, sniff, look inside or taste.

A pterodactyl-like creature passing overhead casts an ominous shadow on the rocky platform higher up, and a distinctly female silhouette ducks out of sight after spotting Roger exploring.  We reach a dead end down a flight of stony stairs, where water blocks our progress.  Is there nothing to do here?  Should we just get back into the machine?  Wandering back down near Roger's landing site yields progress, of a sort -- our hero is snatched up by an unseen flying, taloned beast, and dropped in a skull-strewn nest high atop a tower.  A Sequel Policeman shortly follows, and is neatly skewered on a branch.  A quick search of the body yields a paper-wrapped wad of chewing gum.

Roger should not wait around here -- he can drop out of the nest, landing semi-safely in the water below.  After swimming to shore, he soon meets a beautiful blonde in a skintight blue latex bodysuit, whom he has apparently abandoned in a previous game in the series.  He is summarily kidnapped by his ex and her henchwomen, taken to this apparently all-female tribe's headquarters, and cuffed into a chair, where lasers turn his space slacks into ragged cutoffs, to provide a little sexism for the ladies as well.

Torture mistress Thorine plans to shave Roger's legs as a form of torture, using the EpiRip 357, but her work is interrupted by the arrival of a sea slug.  The women run off, but the creature's tentacles inadvertently free Roger from his shackles before sucking him into its maw.  We can't apply the slime acid to it, but we can probably fire the chair's lasers to sting it a little and buy some time -- and maybe use the oxygen tanks stacked to the side somehow.   Yep -- stuffing one into its mouth destroys the creature, earning Roger his freedom and a shopping trip to the Galaxy Galleria with the girls, providing yet more sexism for the guys.

"Meanwhile, back in Space Quest XII," a cutscene informs us that the Sequel Police have captured one of the Time Rippers who helped Roger escape.  Sludge Vohaul clearly has a trap of some kind in store for our hero.

The game's second act takes place entirely within the mall, where there are quite a few sights to see and puzzles to solve.  A Skate-O-Rama hover-skating rink occupies the center of the layout, surrounded by moving conveyor belts and shops.  If Roger tries to exit the mall, Sequel Police cyborgs take him out.  There's an ATM card (Autobox Teller Machine) on the floor as we arrive, which may come in handy.  The walkways are annoying to deal with -- as intended, I'm sure -- because it's difficult to get Roger to walk in the opposite direction when we miss a store's narrow entryway.

A software store reminiscent of erstwhile game retailers Babbage's and Electronics Boutique plays beepy AGI-era themes from other Sierra games, but the crowd is initally so thick Roger can't really get inside.  An ATM machine stands near the shop, but Roger looks insufficiently like the card's real owner, a blonde woman.  So a little wardrobe shopping will likely be in order.

The electronics store, Hz. So Good (called Radio Shock in the original floppy disk release, before certain lawyers initiated certain communications), is run entirely by a sales robot through a menu screen.  There are specials -- the ReShrinkwrap 2000 (aimed at retail software chains) is the only one on offer, for 1033 buckazoids.  The rest of the store includes a Swiss Army MicroEntertainment center, a ridiculous surround-sound system, a CDGIROMTV system that plays CD-ROM, CG-G, CD-I, CDTV and "high-quality laserdisc movies, sure to become popular any century now."  The PocketPal Portable Terminal is also available, "with chiclet-style keyboard and dentyne-style mouse."  And we can buy something we didn't know we needed-- the PocketPal Connector, for 1999 buckazoids, which might actually be useful if we had any money.  Most of the items in the catalog are just for laughs, and are either sold out or not yet available.  And Roger can't buy anything without cash in hand, anyway.

There's a Monolith Burger on the premises, of course, but Roger can't enter without doing something about his attire -- he has no shoes, so no service, per the pig creature who seems to be the manager.  There is a men's clothing store nearby, run by a supercilious droid with a bad French accent.  And Roger has enough buckazoids from previous adventures to spare 20 for new boots and pants, restoring his standard outfit from the store's "generic space hero" line.

Entering Monolith Burger, Roger can converse with the manager.  They're out of everything, employees included; we can apply for a job, and opt to skip the ensuing arcade sequence if we want to chicken out, but it's worth a quick go.  We have to assemble burgers, assembly-line style, and the conveyor belt speeds up as we go; with my laptop mousepad I was only able to earn $5 before getting fired.  We can come back later if we need to earn more; the more pressing point of this exercise is to pick up the cigar butt the manager throws at Roger after kicking him out.

A women's clothing store is also open for business, offering wigs and dresses.  The female droid clerk sounds like Mae West, and fixes Roger up with a basic black dress and a blonde wig.  The tab comes to 60 buckazoids; with only 44 in hand, Roger gets thrown out of this fine establishment too, without the outfit he needs, so we'll have to come back later with sufficient funds.

The mall's arcade has yet another iteration of the Astro Chicken franchise -- Ms. Astro Chicken.  There's no apparent high score in need of beating, and a round costs a buckazoid, so we won't bother with it much right now.  I played enough to note that Cedric the Owl from KQ V makes a cameo appearance in Ms. Astro Chicken, just flying by at the top of the screen, and we also occasionally see a biplane towing an advertising banner for MediaVision, a now-defunct multimedia card manufacturer.  Pressed for cash and time, I skipped the arcade sequence at Monolith Burger on my return visit, walking quickly out with 71 buckazoids now in my pocket.

Now Roger can buy the dress and wig, fooling the Buckmaster 2000 into allowing him access to the funds belonging to the ATM card's owner.  There's $2001 available, and only one menu option - "Clean It Out."  So now Roger is flush enough to buy the PocketPal Connector at Hz. So Good.  This is good indeed... except we have to pick a specific plug to buy -- how do we know which one to get???  We'll probably have to come back with better information in hand.

The crowd has dispersed at the software store, which is now sold out of Sierra Software, but there are some vintage software parodies in the "box of slop" -- rather, bargain bin, which I can't resist sharing with fellow vintage gaming fans here.  BOOM is a LOOM parody by "Morrie Brianarty," and the description pokes fun at rival Lucasarts' approach to point-and-click adventuring. 

Sierra itself also comes in for a little ribbing with King's Quest XXXXVIII: Quest for Disk Space, which is "over 12 gigabytes in length," a joke that hasn't really held up in the age of DVD-ROM.  But who would have thought games would reach the GB range at all at the time?


There's also SimSim, the questionably ethnically-humorous Where In The World is Hymie Lipschitz?, It Came For Dessert, and Phil Phudge's Checkerboard Construction Set.  Also notable is Cluck Egger's Advanced Chicken Simulator, a parody of EA's Chuck Yeager Flight Simulator -- and a foreshadowing of Cluck Y'egger, a character in the Two Guys' new SpaceVenture project recently funded on Kickstarter. 

What we actually need here is the Space Quest IV Hint Book -- for 5 buckazoids, perfect.  After we've made our purchase, most of the stores close (except for the arcade and Hz. So Good, fortunately.)

The Hint Book works like the Infocom Invisiclues -- we can use a pen to reveal progressive hints in invisible ink, most of which are irrelevant to the actual game.  There's also a Twin Peaks joke, with a question saying, "I can't seem to find the one-armed man anywhere" and the first response: "Ask Bob."  The only real info in the book is the Time Machine code for Ulence Flats, and a code to be used in a "strange room inside the Super Computer" we haven't yet encountered.

I ran into an odd bug in the game engine somewhere, probably due to the memory management problems Sierra's SCI engine was sometimes prone to -- it's possible to get the display mode set to garbage instead of "Text" or "Speech," which seems to disable both and makes the game pretty much impossible to continue.  I'm not sure how this happened but it was associated with a particular save game in my case, so all I had to do was back up and replay a little bit from an earlier good save.

Roger can return to the dress shop to change back into his normal outfit, and in fact he needs to do this to trigger the next series of important events.  If we go back to the arcade, the Sequel Police eventually arrive -- now we must help Roger elude them and steal their time machine.  The best way to avoid them seems to be by entering the Skate-o-Rama hover rink, but even so it's hard to keep Roger alive; we have to keep him in almost constant motion, and then, once the police take to the rink in hot pursuit and run into recoil issues with their laser weapons, we can escape.  Turning the DOSBox CPU speed down also seems to help a lot here, as it slows down the enemy's rate of fire and seems to make the game logic more forgiving as we try to make sure Roger is a moving target. 

Once we manage to leave the Sequel Police behind, we can move on to Ulence Flats.  Now with the speech back on, I learn that only half of the Ulence Flats destination is visible in the hint book -- without that info, it just seems like a short code.  And the code already in the time machine's system is already in use, but this time I realized I should write it down so we can return to get the PocketPal connector later.  I was stumped for a moment, but an inventory review helped -- the rest of the code is written on the gum wrapper we snagged from the dead policeborg in the pterodactyl's nest earlier.

If we stop now to play Ms. Astro Chicken, after the game is over Roger is surrounded by Sequel Police.  So we'd better not do that.  Ulence Flats is, of course, the world of Space Quest I, rendered in an odd SCI/AGI hybrid style -- 320x200 resolution, 16 colors -- which ruins the effect a little.  The familiar DROIDS B US and Tiny's Used Spaceships retail establishments are closed, and a Wall-Mart force field keeps Roger in town.  The local bar is still open though, with music playing and some AGI-era sprites about, including the Blues Brothers-alikes from the earlier game.

The locals, stuck in black-and-white, aren't happy about Roger's fancy-pants VGA 256-color look, and keep him from taking the matchbook on the bar.  A frustrated Roger can kick their hoverbikes over outside, at which point they all rush off in a state of high dudgeon, and we note that they can pass through the force field.  Roger's still in danger, though, and when one of them zooms in from the east we have to time a mouse click correctly to roll him out of danger's way.  Now we can pick up the matches; there's nothing to read on the blank book, so these must have a practical purpose.  If we talk to the bartender, he recognizes Roger as the guy who broke his slot machine back in SQ I.

Where to now?  Space Quest XII again?  There are no sequel police hanging around by the timepods now, so we can check out the dispatch computer.  But there doesn't seem to be anything we can do with it.  A door at the other end of the docking bay doesn't respond to anything Roger can think to do with it.  And the PocketPal terminal doesn't seem to hook up to either one.  Hmmm.  We can use the slime acid on the door to open it, good.

Inside the tunnel is a keypad.  In my playthrough, the hint book suggests 69-65-84-76-69 as a code, but that code doesn't fit in this situation.  We need to disable some invisible barriers that kill Roger if we try to go deeper inside.  These are lethal laser beams, apparently -- we can see holes in the three rings lining the corridor, and use the stogie and matches to puff enough smoke out to see the beams.  Now can we figure out the controls? 000 makes no change; other values rotate the beams, but it's not a degree-based system.  Goofing around with values of 020 and 040 eventually got everything lined up for me. 

We enter a maze of layered corridors, but our immediate goal is to see what sort of connector the terminals dotting the area require.  Security droids show up, again on a CPU-speed-influenced basis, so we have to be careful and quick.  Back to the mall we go, to get the right connector for the PocketPal.

Now we can return and hook into the system.  Fortunately our cigar smoke from earlier is still hanging around. I was missing a battery for the PocketPal, but just had to get it from the toy rabbit.  We can't dawdle looking at the terminal display, as the security droids keep moving.  It looks like Roger needs to head west to reach something of interest there.

Navigating the maze, we are given hints about the droids' whereabouts -- "You can hear an electronic hum approaching from your left," for example, which is helpful for avoiding them if we're quick to respond.  Checking in at the last terminal on our way in to check out the supercomputer, Sludge Vohaul's electronic visage appears and shows Roger an image of some poor slob held in electronic cuffs -- and says that it's Roger's SON???

The computer itself is H.R. Giger-inspired, and there's a terminal behind the door once we enter the unlocking code from the hintbook.  This is one of my favorite paintings from the game, but I'm a big Giger fan:


The computer is a primitive Amiga-style windowing desktop.  We can see LSL4 is installed, and just drop it into the toilet -- I thought this might clear the virus, but it's just something to do.  We can also flush the Security Droid icon to turn those off, which should be very useful.  Most of the system's memory is consumed by a King's Quest sequel, following up on the earlier gag.  And putting SQ IV into the toilet ends the game immediately, dumping back to the DOS prompt -- a nice little meta-joke.

We need to put the system's brain icon into the toilet, starting a countdown to reformatting that starts at 5000 and moves fast, although this too is influenced by the CPU speed.  Dilly-dallying here can be fatal, as even though the onscreen count was still at 4000 I managed to die in the process.... ?  Ah -- this is because I panicked at the countdown and tried to leave the way I came in, forgetting all about rescuing Roger's hitherto-unknown son!  We have to circle around the (now thankfully droid-free) levels and take the elevator to the top floor. 

Here, on a suspiciously isolated platform, Roger finds his son -- who unfortunately is currently occupied by Sludge Vohaul, who also throws the disk containing the mental record of Roger's son off the platform.  After a brief, largely non-interactive scuffle which requires just a few mouse clicks in the general vicinity of the struggle between Roger and Sludge/Roger's son, we have an opportunity to climb down and retrieve the disk.  Then we can use the system's control panel to download Sludge, upload Roger's son to his own body again, and save the day.

Roger and Son have an awkward but touching reunion, and we learn that Xenon took peace for granted and put too much control into the hands of the computer management system, as was suggested earlier.  Roger Wilco was intentionally sought out because it was known he had defeated Sludge Vohaul in an earlier era, but there's no information available concerning what happened to Roger in between Space Quest IV and XII.  We see an image of Roger's wife, Beatrice, a Wagnerian beauty who is also no longer with us.  Roger is sent back through time to his own Space Quest IV era, and the game is over.

The end credits inform us that Jane Jensen (Gabriel Knight) voiced the Maebot robot from the Galaxy Galleria, and Josh Mandel (many projects at Sierra, and King Graham's speaking voice) played the Monolith Burger manager.  And now, before too much longer, I intend to tackle Space Quest V, which I have never played before.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Some News from Scott Adams

Just when I thought I had nothing newsworthy to post today, adventure gaming pioneer Scott Adams sent out a note to his mailing list.

If you don't know who I'm talking about, visit the Great Scott Project and catch up.  Mr. Adams' efficient, highly portable engine and innovative game designs brought the mainframe text adventure concept to the PC, and influenced almost every other adventure game produced in the late 1970s and early 80s.

The new adventure game he has had in the works for a while, a biblically-inspired work called The Inheritance, has enough reportable progress to merit a demo at the recent Midwest Gaming Expo.  And now he's established a Facebook page to track its road to completion:

(UPDATE 06/30/2012 -- new link!)

 The Inheritance - A Scott Adams Bible Adventure Game

Check it out!  And, per his request, pester the master if he doesn't report progress on a regular basis.  A new work is intriguing -- and he's doing it without raising umpteenhundredthousand Kickstarter dollars, to boot.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

True Crime in the TRS-80 Era

I've recently been playing Bill Miller's 1980 adventure game, House of Thirty Gables, published by Instant Software on the TRS-80; it's targeted for a future Adventure of the Week post if I ever manage to solve it.  In the middle of what's otherwise a fairly ordinary dungeon treasure hunt, I came across this cryptic reference:

For clarity if the screenshot is painful to read: a small room with yellow tile walls contains A MAN WITH A FRIENDLY SMILE OFFERING YOU A GOLD COIN.  If the player opts to TAKE COIN, a tempting choice as one of the game's goals is to collect a certain number of them, the man vanishes in the traditional puff of smoke.  And, much to the player's chagrin, any coins accumulated up to this point are replaced by:

This struck me as odd and intriguing -- usually these kinds of "gotcha" incidents are accompanied by puns, jabs at the player's misstep, or pop culture jokes with an obvious reference.  But this mention of WORLD POWER SYSTEMS was new to me.  I thought it might be an in-joke of some sort, and a little research established the fascinating story behind it.

Norman Hunt, an escaped convict and "bust out" con artist, started a mail-order home computer peripherals company called World Power Systems in the late 1970s.  Using a false name, he ran advertisements in Byte and Creative Computing magazines, took people's money, and of course never delivered the promised goods (if these "products" even existed beyond the photo mockup stage.)

I suspect that adventure author Bill Miller (who also wrote several non-adventure games for Adventure International) may have been among the defrauded.  In any case, this in-game reference stands as a contemporary record of the incident's impact on the computing community of the time -- "Jim Anderson" is now forever immortalized as the MAN WITH A FRIENDLY SMILE.

You can read the details of the scam at, documented by Matthew Reed.  This site has some additional scans of World Power Systems' fraudulent ads.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Standard That Time Forgot

Today, we take full-motion video and digitized audio on a variety of devices for granted, even on the Web.  But the transition to this level of capability on home computers was one of fits and starts.  Early CD-ROM drives were designed to read large quantities of data, like encyclopedias and mailing lists, and not necessarily for video playback; many could sustain only short bursts of full (single) speed reading, and access time to read a different section of the disc was often abysmal.  Raw CD Redbook audio was the only reliable standard, with the Soundblaster, AdLib Gold, Pro Audio Spectrum and other varied and incompatible sound cards competing for marketshare.

So an organization called the Multimedia PC Marketing Council was formed by the industry, and the official "MPC" label was introduced to help consumers identify machines and upgrade kits which met the defined specifications.  There was even a magazine dedicated to promoting the MPC standard:

If the cover seems like a parody of a computer magazine, you're not far off.  It's a bit odd, thin and generic in terms of content, and even advertisers seemed unsure about what they should be advertising; gaming was already driving PC improvements on the "multimedia" front, so most of what we see are ads for educational and reference titles taking advantage of the newfangled CD-ROM medium.  Most of the articles have a vaguely optimistic "The Future Is Now!" tone about all the great things that would happen now that we could access a whopping 650 MB of text, video and sound on our PCs, but they don't really say much about specifics; it wasn't clear at the time that the Internet was still the missing ingredient that would make PCs truly useful for most people.

The MPC label itself failed to catch on, primarily because the industry matured faster than anyone anticipated and these kinds of features became must-haves around the time The 7th Guest came out.  With the arrival of Windows 3.1, device drivers at the DOS level became less of an issue -- games could just rely on the operating system to provide the necessary services via a standard API.  And the MPC standard didn't really go far enough -- it said nothing about video resolution or color-depth, focusing only on minimal CD-ROM drive and sound specifications:

* CD-ROM drive capable of a sustained transfer rate of 150k per second (1x!)

* Maximum CD-ROM seek time of 1 second (no Dragon's Lair please!)

* Digitized audio support at an 11 Khz sample rate, 8-bit resolution for recording, 22 Khz, 8-bit for output (below CD standard, 44.1 KHz, 16-bit)

* Audio mixing capabilities to blend digital audio, MIDI music and CD-audio (using an external mixer if necessary)

Fortunately, most of this has been sorted out now; PCs are able to accommodate a range of devices, even in the graphics card arena where technical variation is still substantial.  MPC World magazine eventually morphed into Multimedia World magazine before disappearing entirely; even for an old gamer like me, this one fails to inspire the warm glow of nostalgia.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Of Import: Mine Sweeper (1992)

During the 8-bit and 16-bit console era, most of the software development was done in Japan.  But occasionally a Western computer game would appeal enough to Eastern sensibilities for a port to be developed.  Most of these ports were dungeon-crawl RPGs, but puzzle games were also in the running.  Sometimes this led to odd choices, like the PC Engine port of the game known by most people as the Windows freebie Mine Sweeper.  This is an unusual case in terms of licensing -- Minesweeper and variations on the theme go back to the mainframe days, so a generic variant could have been produced just as easily.  But here it is, and on the PC Engine's CD-ROM format, making ARC Co. and Pack-In-Video's version, if nothing else, probably the bulkiest edition ever produced.

The core game plays just like the Windows version with which most readers will be familiar, though without a mouse the interface is clunkier than the ideal.  Each tile contains either a mine, or a number indicating how many mines are detected in the surrounding tiles.  There's some guesswork involved, and some deductive strategy, making for a simple but compelling one-more-time play experience.  And the CD-Audio soundtrack of this version is rich and varied.

This version justifies its retail existence by adding a couple of extra modes -- there's an Edit Mode allowing players to construct new puzzles, and two additional game modes:

The Voyage moves the game to a more realistic environment, kicking off with a battleship sunk by enemy mines and adopting a different graphical style, replacing modern mines with old-fashioned explosive barrels and markers with skulls.  This mode is broken up into missions, with a password system for retaining progress; failure on any mission means the game is over, but the levels are not randomized so it's possible to win with patience and a good memory.

The Cook's Quest mode features some rather bizarre imagery that looks very strange indeed to Western eyes.  It stars a little cook, who appears to be trying to tunnel out of someplace, pursued by a slow-moving boulder.  Instead of safely marking all the mines on the screen, our goal is to find a safe path through the minefield to the exit and the next room, as quickly as possible.

What's strange is that the cook character resembles 1920's-vintage cartoon caricatures of African-Americans, right down to the "Wah!" sound he makes as the game begins and the boulder encroaches, except he's rendered in chalky whiteface:

And... erm... when a mine is discovered, it's portrayed as... a Star of David?!?  Perhaps this mode is meant as some kind of metaphor about flour and unleavened bread, but I hesitate to speculate further.   Japanese games of this era often featured insensitive racial and religious imagery, but usually the choices made sense from a certain perspective.  This one leaves me speechless.

That's all there really is to say about Mine Sweeper.  It's a competent version of a classic game, with some questionable visual choices that would certainly have been controversial if it had made it to North American shores.  Fortunately, I think NEC realized that TurboGrafx-16 owners were not about to spend significant money on a game included free with Windows 3.1, and in this case we're probably better off for it.

If you really must pay good money for a game whose most popular versions were free, you might be able to find a copy of this console port here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The LoadDown -- 06/21/2012

It's mid-June, traditionally a quiet time for new video game releases.  But there's still some online activity...

WiiWare -- Just as I'm about to start ignoring this category altogether, Save the Furries arrives; it's a Lemmings-style game challenging the player to guide odd little creatures to safety, ported over from the iPad/iPhone original.

Wii Virtual Console -- It appears this platform has emerged from a lengthy dormant period, as the NES actioner Double Dragon II turns up this week.

DSiWare -- Two new games for the DSi and 3DS: Lola's Fruit Shop Sudoku, aimed at younger players with cartoon animals and maximum 4 x 4 grids, and Jewel Legends: Tree of Life, a hybrid falling object/match-three puzzle game with a bit of a story tacked on for good measure.

3DS eShop --  Two new 3DS titles: Order Up!! is a time management cooking game with fun character design and a sense of humor, previously seen on WiiWare.  Slitherlink by Nikoli features 50 puzzles wherein the player must connect dots with lines according to rules influenced by the numbers in the grid... I can't make head or tail of the "rules" from the press release or from watching the short video here, but if you can, enjoy!

XBox Live Arcade --  One big new title for a certain audience this week, as Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 arrives.  This computer adaptation of the now-classic fantasy card game has been very successful in its own right.

PS3 on PSN --  Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 ; Eat at Joe's - This Space Intentionally Left Blank | Deluxe Edition!!! 2.0  shows up here as well.

PSOne Classics --  A good one this week -- Tomba!, a comical side-scroller with 2.5-D graphics and a legitimately wacky sense of humor.  It never saw the commercial success many feel it deserved, so it's nice to see it available again.

Notable on Steam and Elsewhere:  Multiplayer hex-based strategy title Fray arrives on the PC, along with that Gathering Magic game all the kids are playing nowadays.  Not on Steam yet, but available directly from publisher Wadjet Eye Games, is the new point-and-click adventure, Resonance.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

At Random: Attack of the Timelord! (1982)

Attack of the Timelord! is not a game about a rogue Dr. Who, though I wouldn't put it past that Peter Davison fellow, but according to the manual, one Spyrus the Deathless, Timelord of Chaos.  He stars in a game for the Magnavox Odyssey^2 that started development under the more descriptive title, Snake Ships from Sirius.  Arriving late in the system's life, Attack of the Timelord! supported "The Voice" voice-synthesis peripheral to bring a little coin-op flavor to the proceedings.

The Odyssey^2 was the also-ran in its day; at the time of release, its hardware seemed comparable to the Atari 2600, and more sophisticated in some ways, with its keyboard and built-in ROM set of alphanumeric characters and sprites.  But as programmers learned how to squeeze more and more out of the simple but incredibly flexible Atari machine, the O^2's rigid architecture, fixed palette and double-line resolution made it seem old and hidebound before its time.

I mention this because Attack of the Timelord! deserves special attention for its technical wizardry -- it pulls off a few things that almost no other game on the console ever managed.  It is fast and therefore a lot more exciting than most of the games in the Odyssey^2 library, and it crams a fair amount of variety into its scant 4K of ROM. 

The visuals are also nicely done, given the system's limitations; unfortunately, the still screenshots I've captured here can't demonstrate the neat "flickering" trick devised to create intermediate colors with a 60 Hz refresh rate.  This is the rare case where the packaging's "artist's renderings" actually provide a better approximation of the look than actual captures do.  Suffice it to say that explosions and the vortex from which the enemy ships emerge look really nice in motion, and the Timelord's appearances look a lot more impressive live, with a rainbow starburst of flickering lines surrounding his skull-like visage and reaching all the way to the screen borders:

With The Voice installed, our would-be alien overlord utters a few suitably despotic phrases, like "Seize the planet!", "Prepare for defeat!" and "Goodbye, Earthling," as well as the oddly empathetic "Comfort the world."  Perhaps Spyrus the Deathless plans to conquer our planet only so he can try to become the next Bob Geldof.

The invading alien ships (more like squat saucers, really) snake around the screen (hence the original moniker) quickly, and with minimal flickering.  I thought that the snaking movements might have been a clever trick to keep sprites on separate scanlines, but that's clearly not the case in this shot:

The enemy flight patterns are pre-programmed but not overly predictable, creating something like a bare-bones, more intense version of Galaga -- our targets never settle down into a convenient formation, they just keep flitting about until we shoot every one of them.  And the alien ordnance varies -- early waves feature clusters of three dagger-like bombs that fall straight down, but later waves add homing spheres, ground-hugging mines that move toward the player for a brief while after hitting the ground, and more aggressive homing diamonds.

Attack of the Timelord! presents a considerable challenge, especially as the player has but one life to give for his or her home planet; when one alien shot connects, our ship explodes and the score resets to zero, ready for another try at setting a high score.  There are no variations, just 256 levels of increasing difficulty; I can't speak to whether there's any sort of ending, as I never made it past level 3 while preparing this post.  It's no Demon Attack or Space Fury, to cite a couple of likely inspirations, but Attack of the Timelord! is still worth a few quick rounds, and belongs in any serious Odyssey^2 collection.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Adventure of the Week: World's Edge (1980)

It's been a while since I've played one of the early TRS-80 text adventure games written by the prolific and precocious young programmer, Greg Hassett.  So this week we're playing World's Edge, a sci-fi explore-the-planetoid-and-retrieve-the-mineral game from 1980.  This is one of Hassett's later efforts, written in machine language for speed; no publisher is cited, but several different company names including Adventure World and Mad Hatter Software were used to publish his works out of Chelmsford, Massachusetts back in the day.

I always encourage interested readers to try these games out independently before I get into the details, and World's Edge isn't too difficult to solve.  As always, beyond this point there lie...

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

We begin on a long path, where we hear the sound of owls hooting.  So this planet has owls on it?  We can't LISTEN to anything.  The path leads to a barnyard with a barn and silo; this story is not feeling very science-fictiony so far.

The barn contains a sickle, a ladder, and a letter... written on NASA letterhead.  We learn that smog is overtaking Earth, and we have to go to planet AW-8 near Alpha-Centauri to retrieve a mineral that can absorb it.  We're also warned that the mineral, APC-80, is central to the locals' RELIGEOUS [sic] BELIEFS, so we will presumably have some opposition to deal with when we get there.

We can't take the ladder with us, but we can CLIMB LADDER to find a haystack in the loft.  LOOK HAYSTACK reveals a NEEDLE -- rather more easily than conventional wisdom would have it.  We can use this to PICK LOCK and get into the silo.

The silo, of course, turns out to be A ROCKET-SHIP.  IT LOOKS MIGHTY COMPLICATED, but all we see is a LEVER.  All we have to do is PULL LEVER, and IT TAKES OFF, THEN LANDS.  And a voice over the loudspeaker informs us that when we exit, the ship will vanish into a time warp. That may prove inconvenient, and it doesn't make a lot of sense unless our transportation depends on some newfangled silo/wormhole effect currently unknown to physics.

Now we find ourselves in a SMALL FLAT ON THE PLANET.  An apartment?  With TALL GRASS?  We must just be standing in a small flat area, actually.  With the sickle we brought from home, we can CUT GRASS to discover a JETPAK and the remnant of a PAPER, which tells us to say START to start the jetpak. But the part telling us what to use for fuel has been cut off.  We can SAY START -- we go up a ways, then down a ways, before we fatally crash.  So it has some fuel, but we shouldn't try to do this just yet.

Next we come to a DARK SWAMP, a maze in the traditional vein.  We find a pointy knife, a chunk of plastic, and something referred to as a SPORK HORN.  The maze isn't too difficult -- most rooms just have some directions that cycle back and some that go to new locations, but it still requires some traditional drop-and-check mapping.  We need to come in here to find the various objects hidden in the swamp, but there's no exit as such.

To the south of our landing site, we find ourselves standing on a SMALL, BURNT-OUT PLANETOID near a building.  Apparently this PLANETOID has actually landed somewhere and is not hurtling through space, and it's not big enough for us to do anything interesting on it.

The building nearby is something called the HOLOFAME, where a voice repeats, "INSERT YOUR CREDIT DISC FOR THE NEXT SHOW!"  Fortunately, there's a square credit disc just lying here on the ground.  The parser insists that we refer to it as a SQUARE; apparently we will encounter other shapes later.  We can discover a minor bug if we try to READ SQUARE, as I SEE NO WRITING THERE! -- and then the game chugs right on into re-reading the NASA letter, even if we are no longer carrying it.

INSERT SQUARE whisks us into the Holofame on a moving speedwalk, where we find not so much a show as a puzzle.  Three buttons, round, square, and triangular are available; the round one won't press, and the square one presents an unlicensed image of FLASH GORDON, who says, "YOU SHOULD HAVE SAVED YOUR SQUARE DISC..."  I tell you, these showbiz people think they can get away with anything.  A step back is in order.

Inside the cave is a SEMI-DARK TALL CHAMBER with a glowstone, a vent in the ceiling, and a SPACE AMOEBA.  Funny how space amoebae are always visible to the naked eye, unlike their Earthly counterparts.  It guards the glowstone, which we will likely need to explore the darker recesses of the cave.  Can we KILL AMOEBA?  No, because this is a pacifist parser and I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO "KILL" SOMETHINGPOKE isn't recognized either, though STAB AMOEBA simply DOESN'T WORK.  So the pointy knife we found earlier isn't helping.  HIT AMOEBA finally puts us into a fight with the creature -- but then we die after throwing PUNCH AFTER PUNCH, presumably drowning in a miasma of space protoplasm.

Even without the glowstone, we can poke around in the dark a bit without dying -- we're told if we run into a wall, and there are no accidental trip-and-fall deaths.  We can discover that there's a TROLL on the lower level who won't let us go east.  But we're really going to need that glowstone.  BLOW HORN doesn't do anything interesting in the troll's room.  THROW KNIFE produces the interesting, "NAH... I THREW OUT MY ARM YESTERDAY WHILE GUIDING SOMEONE THROUGH 'MYSTERY MANSION ADVENTURE.' YOU MIGHT TRY 'DROP'."  I haven't been able to confirm that such a game exists; perhaps it's an unpublished or lost Hassett work, or it might have just sounded like a generic adventure name for the purpose.

We can KICK TROLL, apparently defeating it handily (or footily) even in the dark.  If we BLOW HORN in the dark room east of the space amoeba, an ANGRY SPORK shows up and eats it.  But (again even in darkness) we can see that SHE'S GOT A LITTLE EGG WITH HER that MIGHT BE VALUABLE TO THE INHABITANTS OF AW-80TAKE EGG isn't successful though -- THE MOTHER SPORK IS STARTLED, BUT SHE KILLS ME.  We can, however, STAB SPORK with the pointy knife; "PLEASE... PLEASE DON'T CRACK MY EGG...", she says, before IT KICKS THE BUCKET AND VANISHES.  The egg is listed as a LUMINOUS SPORK EGG in inventory, but it apparently doesn't throw off enough light for us to see any better in the dark areas.

Given our general disregard for the native flora and fauna, we may decide to CRACK EGG anyway -- a baby spork emerges and says, "GO BACK TO THE CAVE ENTRANCE" before running off.  We find a NOTE at that location now, reading DROP THE POWDER HERE, GO BACK TO THE HOLOFAME, AND YOU'LL FIND A CREDIT DISC.

This proves true -- the powder is a LUMINOUS POWDER left over after we crack the egg -- and the triangular holoshow features James T. Kirk, another unlicensed stalwart of 80s adventure games, who tells us, "FOR FUEL USE WATER..."  The AW-80ans must be desperate for entertainment if they enjoy these short, cryptic presentations.  We can't FILL JETPAK in the swamp, though; we must need a cleaner source of water.

What to do with the amoeba?  GIVE PLASTIC produces unexpected results -- IT EXPLODES AND DESTROYS ME.  So apparently it is a plastic explosive, and should be handled with care, but it doesn't do anything to the amoeba that it doesn't also do to us.

We can use the jetpak outside the cave to fly up to THE EDGE OF A CLIFF.   We're out of fuel now, it seems, but we can enter the cliffside to the east to find a depression in the rock, and the entrance to a gated city.  GO HOLE in the depression lands us on the amoeba, AND IT SWALLOWS ME ALIVE. I'M DEAD.  So this must be the way back down, if we have disposed of the amoeba.  LOOK HOLE reveals that it LOOKS LIKE I CAN SEE AMOEBA TRACKS DOWN THERE...   Ewww.

The city's gates require insertion of a DELOCKING CUBE, which we don't have, and the amoeba is starting to be a roadblock.  But the Troll room, dark though it may be, contains the CUBE we now know we seek if we just go there and TAKE CUBE, so we're not stumped yet.

Unlocking the city gates whisks us into the city, where a sign informs us we are in POLARIZON, LARGEST CITY ON AW-80.  But it's not very big.  There's a park, IMMACULATE, and a bookstore.

The guard at the police station can be heard muttering to himself, "I SURE WISH I HAD A DISC TO GO TO THE HOLOFAME, BUT UNTIL THEN, I'M GONNA BE REAL MEAN TO ALL MY PRISONERS."  He apparently considers us one of his prisoners, just because we've wandered into the police station, as if we try to go E we are told that THE MEAN POLICEMAN WON'T LET ME GO!  But giving him the square disc sends him running off, presumably to see Flash Gordon tell him he's wasted his entry fee.  Perhaps we should conclude our business here as quickly as possible.

Below the police station is a scene that prefigures both Space Quest and The Secret of Monkey Island, as we arrive at HONEST QUORON'S USED SPACECRAFT LOT, where a STARHAWK FIGHTER is on sale.  There's no fuel onboard, so we will need to FILL TANK before we can TURN KNOB.

The local FLOWER SHOP has a FLOWER POT; we can just take it, there's no clerk on duty who would force us to BUY it.  A GUN SHOP has a LASER PISTOL, which can be similarly lifted.  Further into town we find a manhole, a fuel station with a pump where we can FILL POT to obtain a flowerpot full of fuel, and the POLARIZON SAVINGS BANK with a locked iron safe.  It's too dark to see down the manhole, and if we try to DROP PLASTIC down the manhole, it doesn't work -- it still hits the ground and explodes.

Once we're inside the town, it appears we cannot exit through the gates. But we can use the fuel in the Starhawk fighter, and TURN KNOB -- at this point, though, we're too early:  I TAKE OFF AND LAND ON EARTH.... I HAVE FAILED. I DIDN'T GET THE CRYSTALS.

So now we have the general lay of the land mapped out.  But I still haven't dealt with the space amoeba, which seems to be key to finishing the game properly.  We can't reach the vent above the amoeba, or JUMP VENT; maybe it's just the exit from the hole above.  Can we drop the plastic down that hole?  Oh, yes!  That actually worked.  And now there's a SMALL POOL OF WATER conveniently left behind so we can refuel the jetpak for a second run.

I made a lucky guess that we can RUB GLOWSTONE to gain illumination.  Now we can see SPORK TRACKS in the room where mama spork shows up.  And we can see that the troll is in fact a SPACE-TROLL.  And that there's a ROUND CREDIT DISC in the room to the east of the troll.

At the Holofame, the round disc summons an image of Luke Skywalker who hints that, "THE SPACE ORC HAS A POINT."  If that's a hint that the SPORK is a SPACE ORC and that we can stab her with the pointy knife, we already figured that out, working blind to boot.  (The only credit disc the police guard wants is the square one, apparently, so he must already have seen this oddly specific message.)

The manhole takes us into another maze, of sewers.  There's an ENERGY CAPSULE down here, and apparently no other reason to explore it.  We can't INSERT CAPSULE or CHARGE PISTOL, but we can LOAD PISTOL to put the capsule in and push its energy meter to full.

Now we can go back to the bank, SHOOT SAFE, and POW! IT DEMATERIALIZES! LOOK WHAT WAS INSIDE...  Which turns out to be the APC-80 CRYSTALS we were sent to retrieve at great expense.  There's no sign of the religious ramifications of these sacred crystals, so far at least.  And no, as it turns out, there are none at all; we can just get in the Starhawk fighter, FILL TANK, TURN KNOB, and head back to Earth, victorious!

This game was easier and more logical than some of Hassett's games, with some sensible built-in clues, and aside from the amoeba puzzle I didn't really get stuck anywhere.  World's Edge was good fun, and a good quick play; I will likely return to this author's body of work before too long.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Portal Live In Concert

We had a chance to see Jonathan Coulton live in concert last Friday night when he made a stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan on his current Artificial Heart tour.  He's a lot of fun in concert -- engaging, improvisational and self-effacing, perfect for a medium-sized venue like The Ark, full to bursting with a youngish audience suited to a self-made, record-contract-free Internet performer.  He had great support from his opening act, John Roderick, and the Jonathan Coulton Orchestra, i.e. the skilled and funny Adam Bernstein on bass and a solid drummer whose name I can't remember (Coulton jokingly introduced him as Ringo Starr, and that initial bit of misinformation seems to be stuck in my head.)  He played a lot of great material, including a new song that hasn't been recorded yet, and old favorites like Code Monkey and Re: Your Brains, all sounding really fresh with a proper band after years of hearing Coulton's solo studio work.  And of course he was expected to play both of his songs from Valve's Portal games, which he did.

Coulton's voice is not GladOS' voice, of course -- Valve's monstrous, manipulative but clumsily charming AI creation owes much of her personality to actress Ellen McLain and a smidgen of digital processing.  But hearing the songs live and unadorned made it clear how much Coulton's voice as a songwriter has contributed to the success of this character.  GladOS' personality was established by the first Portal during the game, but our understanding of who "she" is was really nailed down by the closing song, Still Alive.  And the richer, more sympathetic version of GladOS encountered in Portal 2 might not have been possible without the motivations and semi-human emotions captured by Coulton's work on both games.  At the very least, Coulton's mix of witty lyrics, catchy pop music and knowing nerd appeal fits Valve's development ethos, and he was able to take what the writers had established about GladOS and create songs to match.

The net effect is that people who have never played Portal still have some idea about who GladOS is, and people who have played Portal now have some idea about who Jonathan Coulton is.  Seeing the man behind the music as a guy on a stage reminded me that video games are delivered and made possible by technology... but what we as gamers, as human beings, are really responding to is another human being, engaging with us across a distance.  Designers, artists, and now songwriters are doing what humans have always done -- telling us a story, showing us a picture, opening our perceptions to places we have never been, could never be.  What games do well is engage us more directly -- we are not passively watching something, but participating in it.  Coulton's songs are an integral part of the Portal experience, a reward for finishing the game, but also an expansion of the game's world and personality.

Here's the closest I can come to approximating the experience via YouTube...

Still Alive in-game:

Still Alive performed live:


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Giveaway -- Tomb Raider: Anniversary

UPDATE:  We have a winner!  Rowan Lipkovitz was the first to respond, and in response to my question about videogame characters in keychain form he says:

Any videogame character on a keychain would probably a space invader, since many others would lose something as a chromed fob but not these ones!  Also, something neat like Karnov would go unrecognized by most.
He also sends along a link to this image, rendering a recognizable Atari 2600 videogame character in tile form:

Enjoy Tomb Raider: Anniversary, sir!

Who wants a free copy of Tomb Raider: Anniversary for the PC, via Steam?  This is the 2007 remake (with some new content and changes) of the classic original Tomb Raider, with Lara Croft looking all nice and rounded in Eidos' updated engine.

The first person to email me (see the About Me page for contact info) and meet the following conditions will win the game:

* Title of email: SUNDAY GIVEAWAY
* Include your name as you'd like me to use it on the blog (handles and nicknames are perfectly acceptable)
* Include your Steam email address or account name if you have one (or let me know if you don't)

* Answer this question:  If you could have any videogame character on your keychain to show the world your gaming love, which one would it be?

Good luck!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Meet Lucy Sparrow and her Giant Cuddly Controllers

Lucy Sparrow is an enterprising young sculptor in the UK who is producing a series of retro game console controllers in outsized cushion form.  And she seems to be having a fabulous time kicking it '80s style:

You can visit her online shop at -- wait for it -- She also produces some nifty related items, like a giant Speak & Spell with hand-sewn letters, and other pop-art soft sculptures that are striking and fun.

I asked Ms. Sparrow if she would answer a few questions about her work, and she graciously obliged.

-- How long have you been producing your felt creations? 

I've been making things out of felt since I was about 9 years old, and I'm 25 now so that's quite a while.  And I've always had a fascination with things that reminded me of my childhood. I think I am a little too young to remember the ZX Spectrum, but I have an older sister and a cousin who had every games console that was ever brought out in the UK in his house, so we'd go over there to shoot the baddies. I was never allowed a proper console because my parents wouldn't let me have a telly in my bedroom, but I had a Game Boy pocket transparent (you know, the ones where you could see the wires) and my sister had the original grey one.

-- When and under what circumstances did you first encounter the NES/Famicom controller?

It was only very recently that I realised how much of a cult thing the NES is, and I think if any amazing object can be recreated into a giant cuddly form, it should be the NES.  It was the first controller I decided to make because of its iconic status.  It was only last month that I found out that it was called the Famicom in other countries, when I got asked to make a red one. I've learnt and read so much about retro gaming in the last two months that it's really got me back into it. Within a week of making the Game Boy, I was bidding on loads of games on eBay and have become transfixed with Tetris (not to be played in the car after lunch though because that's a recipe for disaster).

-- Have you taken your wares to any of the retro shows, or are you planning to?

I'd love to! I only just learnt that these existed a couple of weeks ago and they sound amazing fun, so I'm going to have to do a bit of research and get involved. It's lovely receiving emails from people saying they love the cushions but I'd love to see their faces when opening them because I get excited just chucking them around and cuddling them sometimes, and I see them day in, day out. Giant things are so much fun, they make you feel really small (but in a good way.)  It's like Christmas every morning!

-- Which is the most popular of your retro gaming-themed products to date?

The NES and the SNES are literally neck and neck. I've sold more NES [controllers] to America than anything else and the SNES are really popular in France.  I love posting to all different countries, it's so lovely knowing that you're reaching people that would never have seen these things in a shop.

-- Which mediums and techniques are your favorites?

Definitely stitching because you have so much freedom as to what you can do with it. I know it's a cliche but the limit literally is your imagination. I've made everything from red telephone boxes to roadkill. Knitting is great if you want something to look nice and textured.  I'd like to have a go at making a nice knitted Game Boy bedspread, maybe, but it would take FOREVER!

-- Do you see your art as being in any particular tradition? 

I guess it's sculpture? It's a really hard one to put in a box because most people think sculpture is stone or wood so I usually just say, "I make things out of felt" when people ask what I do for a job. It leads to much confusion!

-- Do you play videogames yourself? If so, what are you playing at the moment? 

Yes! But I'm quite a recent convert because I don't have a television so I treated myself to a pocket red Game Boy and The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, Warioland, Tetris, and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden CoinsZelda is and always has been my favourite.  I must have completed it about 18 times, dreamt about it and can sing all the music that goes with it, but it never gets boring.  I'd like to make some Zelda felt Ocarinas!

Ed.:  Thanks to Lawrence Oatway and Lucy Sparrow for the photos and permission to reproduce them here.