Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Dragon's Keep (1984)

One of the reasons I write these posts (in addition to enjoying most of these experiences) is that I learn so much while doing the research -- I thought I had a passing knowledge of most major adventure game publishers' libraries, but I completely missed the existence of Dragon's Keep, a 1984 "Junior Adventure for ages 7 & up" published by none other than Sierra On-Line.  It was programmed by Dave Scruton, and written by Mike and Rae Lynn MacChesney, with graphics by Al and Margaret Lowe (yep, Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe -- he also did graphics for several Sierra Disney titles before becoming a designer in his own right.)

We're playing the Atari 400/800 version here; the game was also published for the Apple II and Commodore 64.  Emulation was a little bit tricky to get running -- I had to boot with BASIC disabled on an XL system and turn on artifacted colors, unusual for an Atari title though common on the Apple II.  At startup, the game prompts us to report back on the displayed color, as artifacted colors can vary, and as artifacting also varies among four different Atari 8-bit graphics chipsets, I have no idea if the colors in my screenshots here are even close to what was intended.

Dragon's Keep
does not appear to use any of Sierra's standard engines, and the graphics were created with Penguin Software's Graphics Magician tool.  It's not a parser-based game, but more of a choose-your-own-adventure title, which may explain why it's not well-known.

Feel free to check this one out before reading my playthrough notes, but this isn't a particularly challenging game so you won't really miss out on much if you skip ahead.  There isn't really much to spoil here, as the puzzles are simple and the map is straightforward, but I'll include the usual disclaimer that there will definitely be...

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

Before the game proper begins, we're presented with a little interactive exercise that can be skipped if we've played before.  The onscreen instructions tell us to press the space bar to select the 1, 2, and 3 options to change the screen colors and See a surprise!, an option that plays some music and draws a moire pattern in the Atari computer's high-res mode.  I opted to skip the option for more practice at this point, but this odd interface design is important and kind of awkward even for junior computer users -- we don't type the number of the numbered option we want, we have to hit space bar to iterate through the options and then hit RETURN.

In the intro text we learn that some Animals are trapped in the house and in other places by the Magic Dragon.  Darn that Magic Dragon!  Sounds like we'll be doing a Putt-Putt to rescue the trapped animals.  The next screen reads, "You should let all of the animals go," which makes it sound like the player is somehow to blame, and then we learn that "You can't let an animal go if the Dragon is in the same picture as the animal."  Seems straightforward enough.

We can press the F key at any time to see a list of all the freed animals -- the target list is remarkably non-specific (in the classical sense) and classifies the animals simply as Dog, Bird, Fish, Bear, Rabbit, Turtle, Monkey, Cow, Puppy, Calf, Hen, Squirrel, Cat, Raccoon, Frog, and Pig.

We begin in front of the house, with three simple choices -- Go in the house, Climb the ladder, or Go around to the back yard.  My habit in these situations is to case the exterior before barging in, so I chose the third option.

The dragon always appears visually onscreen just as he does on the title screen, and he's here, harassing the fish in the pond in the backyard, so we can't let the fish go just yet -- we have to go to the downstairs hall or the field on the right instead.  (Because the same dragon image is used regardless of the player's perspective, the dragon seems to change its size rather dramatically at will -- later on, looking behind a trunk, he appears to be about the size of a wall socket, while outdoors he can be as big as a cow or several times the size of a train.)

Heading into the field, we find a bear sleeping here, tied up with a rope, so we have to untie it before we can wake the bear.  Actually, trying to wake the bear produces a bit of nannying -- That is not a good idea! Bears can hurt you.  Maybe you can help him without waking him.  Untying the rope instead allows us to earn some hyperbolic praise: The bear woke up and went to the zoo.  You are really good at this game.  So there are no death scenarios in this game, most likely.

From the field, we can go to the field with the tree or to the zoo, or back to the back yard. Climbing the tree, we discover a monkey, and as the dragon is not around we can simply Let the monkey go.  The text here might have been more carefully considered, as we learn that The monkey went down and ran away.  He was very happy.  Um.  Now we can Jump down or Be careful and climb down -- of course, we can really only climb carefully down, as if we try to jump, we get more ill-considered advice:

Let's keep making our way around the property and head to the barn to the right of the tree.  For the sake of maintaining interactivity, we have a new option to Eat an apple from the tree while we're here: MMMMMM! That tasted good. What do we do now?

At the barn, we can enter, return to the field, or dig a hole under the barn.  Digging produces a huge worm that was in his tunnel.  The light frightens him.  Put him back gently.  Apparently the worm is not one of the captive animals, though it's not clear how we can discern this beyond the fact he isn't on our official list.  Inside the barn is a cow, whom we can feed or let go -- well, we can't actually feed her, because There is not any food here.  Maybe the cow can find her own food.  It seems unlikely that this highly domesticated large mammal, totally dependent on human assistance to relieve her artificially-selected hyperactive milk production system, can actually thrive or survive in the wild, but our only real option is to let her go.  The cow says MOOOOO! Then she goes outside.  Keep going.  We can defy the author's voice for a moment by opting to Lie down and take a nap -- there's no time element here so it's just something to do.

The dragon is not actively guarding the animals, it seems; he just wanders randomly around the map whether there's a resident critter in any location or not.  We're free to make our way back to the field and visit the zoo... where we find... a calf in the bear's cage?  We'd better let the calf out -- which is encouraged as the bear could come back any time -- as we kick ourselves for assuming that a wild bear would just go to the zoo and get himself locked in a cage, without negotiating for travel privileges when he feels like it.  Four animals down, twelve to go!

From the zoo we can travel to to a river, which contains no animals about but leads to a mountain with a train at its base.  we can take the train to the train station and go out to the bus stop... where we find a puppy tied to the bus sign!  Fortunately He finds his owner immediately after we untie him, and doesn't go running wildly around amongst the speeding buses and trains, seeing as we've not made any effort to see if he's supervised.  One imagines the owner is not too pleased with our "help."

Having done our questionable deed for the day, we can now take the bus to the school, where we find ourselves in your classroom.  We can Ask the teacher for help, but The teacher does not know about dragons and can't help you.  It is now lunch time.  We can opt to take our lunch out of our desk, and lo and behold, there's a frog in there!  One wonders how the dragon is keeping all of these creatures under its thrall, and his own existence a secret, hiding them in such public places.  We can easily Save the frog -- The frog hops away.  You eat lunch and fall asleep.

Maybe the dragon has been hiding in plain sight; the teacher is obviously not paying much attention to anything, as when we finally wake up, You are looking at your desk and the only option is to Look to see if anyone is still here -- and of course, it's now an empty classroom, with one lone child sleeping at a desk after everyone else has packed up and gone home.  We can either go back to the bus stop or directly back to the house at this point, which is convenient, but I'll take the long way back, just to confirm that it's possible.

The dragon is no longer lurking about near the back yard pond, so we can let the fish go in the river.  Now it's time to enter the house and look for the remaining animals.  In the downstairs hall, we can look behind the trunk and the picture, or go upstairs.  There's nothing behind the trunk, but behind the picture is a caged bird.  We have no food to feed him, so that option is useless, but we can open the cage and let him go.  Only 8 animals left to rescue / find!

Going upstairs and then down the elevator, we are in a secret room with a pig.  Ah, that crafty dragon with his secret pig room!  We don't have an option to let the pig go, but we can Shout BOO!  and The pig grunts and runs out.  He must be afraid of the dragon.  Smart pig.  Apparently dragons go BOO!

Venturing further into the dark surrounding the secret room, we can travel upward through a hole where... we can Put the magic basket on the table???  This somehow reveals that we are in the front room of the house, and we can go back below by removing the basket again.  Anyway, here we can look behind a picture or a chair.

Behind the chair is a dog that's tied up.  He appears to be a cartoon dog, so we'll presume he's friendly, and that that the knife conveniently sitting nearby is only for purposes of cutting his rope (the game has no inventory system.)  Once we've done this, we can no longer look behind the picture in the room, as that option has vanished, so I hope there was nothing there we were meant to see.

The library to the right contains books, of course, and leads to the kitchen and another room to the right.  We can read a book which suggests that THE HEN IS AT THE TRAIN STATION.  Hmmmm.  The room to the right contains a computer -- underneath it is a turtle, probably one of those turtle graphics we heard so much about at the time.  We can turn the turtle around, which sends him walking slowly towards the door, and apparently counts as a rescue, though it seems like he's got a longer road to travel than most of his co-prisoners.

Nearby is an office, which suspiciously contains a magician's hat, inside of which is a rabbit we can free (we can also opt to Close our eyes briefly while looking at the hat, to no apparent end.)  We can also put the hat on after freeing the rabbit -- I'm not sure whether this was meant to sound sarcastic, but the response is: The hat falls over your eyes, it is way too big. Good job!! 

Four animals left!  The kitchen contains Nothing here!, right up front -- it's just a junction between the office, library and downstairs hall.  Back upstairs we go, to visit the playroom and the boy's bedroom (apparently the dragon has plans to kidnap a human at some point also.)  There's a cat in the boy's toy box, though the dragon showed up there in my playthrough so I couldn't free him until I left the room and came back.  The dragon appears to wander the map in a logical, connected fashion, though I couldn't really tell if his movement is random or programmed.

Now that the cat is freed, we can go from the boy's bedroom down a ladder or onto the roof, so let's see what's out there.  There's a squirrel on the roof, who doesn't look particularly captive, but we can Let the squirrel go anyway.  Now we'll go back inside and visit the playroom and the adjoining bathroom (rather an inconvenient location, though I don't imagine the dragon cares).  There's a raccoon hiding out in the playhouse, and he's easy enough to free as long as the dragon isn't putting in a random appearance.

We have only one animal left to rescue -- presumably the hen at the train station --  but we should check out the bathroom just for fun.  By coincidence, a sign on the bathroom ceiling reads, TAKE THE ELEVATOR FOR FUN!  So apparently the dragon was running some sort of porcine adult enterprise in his secret room, which suddenly makes some of the dialogue in Deliverance a lot more sensible.

Time to go back to the train station and see how we missed the hen on our first visit.  Ah, we have to choose from our limited options to Lie down and take a nap there -- I hadn't bothered to try that before -- and somehow, from wherever we're lying down, we can see the hen.  We can indulge in a round of Old MacDonald Had Some Issues by opting to Watch the hen lay eggs, though fortunately She won't do it because she is afraid of the dragon.  We just have to pick her up, and victory is ours!  The only problem I had is that the victory message blinks by so quickly that it took me two tries (after considerable replaying) to get a good screenshot -- it's kind of a ripoff for young early readers who have invested the time to finish the game if they can't read the entire message in time!

My experience with Dragon's Keep was entertaining for all the wrong reasons, but it's an interesting historical attempt at making adventure gaming more accessible for younger gamers, from a major publisher with a vested interest in growing that market.  And in some ways, the design of Dragon's Keep predates the likes of The Manhole -- there's not much challenge here, but there is some value in exploring the game's world.  And as there are victory conditions, there is an actual end to the game, something that other exploratory games for kids often lack.  I enjoyed taking a gander at it and seeing what it was all about.  Onward!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Stranded (Atari 8-bit, 1984)

This week, we're playing through an illustrated adventure game called Stranded, but first I need to try to avoid any potential confusion by noting that this isn't the only adventure game by this name.  In fact, I think it's the third independent use of the title I've encountered -- clearly, multiple designers found Stranded to be a good, succinct name for a very common concept in the early development of the text adventure. 

In this instance of Stranded, written by D. Woodhouse and C. Hughes, published by English Software in 1984 for the 8-bit Atari 400/800 computers, we're once again cast as a starship pilot stuck on an alien planet, looking for a way to escape and return home.

The game was published in the U.K., and, in keeping with the market in that part of the world, it's designed to load and run completely in memory, allowing publication on cassette as well as disk.  The text is brief but evocative, and the illustrations are schematic but with better composition than some contemporary games of this type, though objects tend to be tiny and static.  Stranded apparently sold well enough to make it into English Software's Atari Smash Hits Volume 2 compilation, although it's possible the company just tossed anything it had available into the mix.

Interested readers are always encourage to get (and un-get) Stranded firsthand before proceeding with my comments below.  The game isn't difficult at all, given sufficient patience for maze-mapping, and it's refreshingly free of unresolvable dead ends and parser struggles.  That said, some will doubtless find it too easy, so I can't blame anyone who wants to save an hour or two and venture directly into the...

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

We begin on a barren plateau, devoid of any vegetation, with nothing in inventory.  To the south is the edge of a steep cliff; east is a rocky mountain path with a view of trees below and a desert horizon out in the distance; west is another path, with a FUEL CAPSULE lying about.  The parser expects us to GET FUEL CAPSULE, GET CAPSULE doesn't work (though this convention will not hold true elsewhere in the game.)

Somehow, the westward path manages to wrap around to a point partway down the eastward path, and going in either direction from our starting point we can eventually find our way down to the base of the cliff, where we can see that a small ledge is visible halfway up the cliff face.  We can't CLIMB LEDGE or GO LEDGE or even EXAMINE LEDGE from here (actually, the parser doesn't support an EXAMINE or an object-level LOOK verb, so we have to take everything at face value.)

South of the cliff base is a spaceship, though access is blocked by a robot who looks like the offspring of Artoo-Detoo and the Berzerk robots.  East of this location is a small lost in the desert maze, where we can pick up a LOCKPICK.

There is also a lost in the forest maze west of the cliff base, where we can hear ominous rustlings in the undergrowth that never seem to amount to anything.  There are only two "rooms" to the forest maze, and in one of them we can CLIMB TREE to discover A PARACHUTE.  (Now that we have a third object, we can confirm that the desert consists of only three locations, with the lockpick the only item of note.)

We don't have anything to unlock with the lockpick at the moment, but maybe we can jump down to that cliffside ledge with the parachute.  We can't WEAR PARACHUTE, but we don't have to; as long as it's in inventory, we can simply JUMP from the top of the cliff to safely reach the ledge, where we can acquire a LASER RIFLE before jumping down again, back to the base of the cliff.

Now we can SHOOT ROBOT -- the explosion blows you to the south, perhaps for design convenience, and now we can see the spaceship's airlock entrance.  We GO AIRLOCK and find ourselves standing in a [sic] airlock with a locked inner door.  We PICK LOCK and find ourselves in the main control room, where we conveniently find a slot for a fuel capsule and a lever.

Is this all there's going to be to this story?  Well, we can't INSERT CAPSULE -- or INSERT FUEL CAPSULE -- but if we PULL LEVER we notice that the fuel gauge shows zero, so it's clear we need to fuel the ship somehow.  Ah -- we can just DROP FUEL and then pull the lever; the ship takes off on automatic pilot.  But victory is not yet at hand -- After a while you hear the engines cut out.  The plot thickens!

We can go north from the control room to enter a long twisty corridor -- this isn't a maze per se, just a large section of the map devoted to hallways with a few more interesting rooms.  We can make our way to the ship's engine room, roughly to the north of our entry point, where we note a warm glow to the south which we'll avoid checking out for now, on the assumption that it might be radioactive.

To the west is an outbound airlock, with an outer door leading west.  North of this airlock we find what the game tell us is a familiar time machine, with a locked door, but we can pick this lock too.  (Incidentally, it appears the player character is some sort of space cop, as our time machine bears a POLICE label.)

East of the time machine's entryway is an empty boot room with what appears to be an empty pair of boots on the floor; we can't interact with these, though, so this seems to be a floppy disk joke of some sort.  There are exits from this location in all directions -- one exit leads to the control room, which apparently needs a time crystal to fill its empty slot, and contains a console with red, black and white buttons.  More interesting at the moment is the suit locker room, which contains a SPACE SUIT.

Assuming that, as with the parachute, we don't need to bother with WEARing the space suit, we go through the western airlock... and are blown out into space, fatally!  So we are missing something, it seems.  The boots still aren't retrievable, so they're not going to help us magnetically cling to the ship or anything.  Ahhh!  The so-called space suit is actually more useful for protecting us from the radiation in the reactor room south of the engine room, where the required time crystal is available for the taking.  (And we can GET CRYSTAL but not GET TIME CRYSTAL, just to keep our parser wrestling skills in fighting trim!)

Now can we figure out how to drive the Time Machine's console?  We DROP CRYSTAL, and now things happen when we push the buttons.  PUSH RED seems to send us into hyperspace... and so does pushing BLACK and WHITE.  So these buttons must be taking us to different locations; this doesn't seem to be a time machine, really, but a teleporter (unless, I suppose, we're staying in one place and different worlds are rotating into position at different points in time.  But the storyline isn't impacted at all by any apparent time-shifting effects, so we can probably treat this simply as transportation.)

Going south after pressing the red button dumps us out at a cave entrance, adjoining yet another maze; the only interesting location is a large cave with a strange glow to the south.  The glow comes from the walls of a ravine, where a DOOR KEY is available.  Presumably we will be encountering a door of some sort which is impervious to the lockpick.

The black button just brings us back to the ship.  The white button delivers us to a field, and we can see a lone house to the south.  We can enter a maze of grassy hills by navigating to the east or west, but there's no real reason to explore it.  Waling directly to the south of the time machine puts us at what is suddenly revealed as the front porch of your house.  But the door is locked, and the lockpick won't do the job!  Whatever shall we do?  Well, we can use the mysterious door key we must mysteriously have dropped in the mysterious glowing cave to UNLOCK our own front DOOR, and now we're safe at home!  Victory is ours!  If only our sofa was larger, we could kick our feet up and relax!

Stranded is a very straightforward adventure, with simple, obvious puzzles and almost no red herrings or surprises; there isn't much of a story, either, but at least it doesn't end immediately after we take off in the commandeered spaceship, a refreshing difference from the typical escape-the-planet adventure.  It didn't take long to play through, and I only had to restore a few times, but I enjoyed the trip -- at least the simplicity of the puzzles meant I didn't have to struggle too much with the parser.  The authors aren't credited with any other adventure games that I can discover, but the English Software Stranded is a perfectly reasonable effort for its time, and a quick, fun play.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Arcade Weekend: Hyper Dyne Sidearms (1986)

I had a little coin-op style gaming time available this weekend, so once again we're taking a look at a classic-era Capcom arcade game: Hyper Dyne Sidearms, released in 1986.  I had played a few levels of the console port to the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16, under the simpler and more natural title Sidearms, but never got any farther than that with the home version's limited continues. 

This game was actually part of a trilogy -- the earlier Section Z was ported to the Famicom/NES, and the later Forgotten Worlds turned up on the Mega Drive/Genesis and TG-16/PC Engine.  Sidearms also appeared on  a number of European home computers, and has been included in a couple of Capcom collections in emulated form.  I'm playing the emulated version included with Hanaho Games' 1999 Capcom Coin-Op Classics collection.

The plot here is nothing new -- we're piloting a flying mech, shooting at jumping and flying enemies, trying to save the universe from a massive threat.  Occasionally we get to power up with additional weaponry or speed increase/decrease tokens, though as our craft responds instantly to joystick input with no real sense of momentum, the speed changes tend to be more of a burden than a help.

Sidearms is one of those quarter-sucking old arcade games -- it's a bullet-hell-style shooter in some ways, but with a greater degree of chaos and speed that makes navigating through the hail of enemy fire more or less impossible without a good deal of practice and memorization.  Fortunately for this post, in the modern era of emulation we can simply insert another virtual quarter into the machine to see what lies ahead -- and, if the system's bookkeeping info on coin slot 1 is to be believed, it took me about 140 tokens to get through this game.

Unfortunately, the experience isn't particularly exciting -- the action is repetitive, with the same handful of mechanical bosses turning up again and again; only the first and final boss are unique.  And the basic mechanics never change up -- we move up and down and around, doing our best to fire left and right (with two separate fire buttons) at the never-ending onslaught of enemies and missiles. There's plenty of challenge, but it's not always a fair fight -- after death, we're thrown back into the maelstrom and it's easy to die a few times in a row.  These screenshots aren't capturing the chaos very well, as many of the multiple-bullet clusters are represented by a few sprites rapidly flickering from one position to another to fit the limitations of the hardware.

From an audiovisual perspective, this 1986 arcade game hasn't aged well -- there's a bit of an R-Type influence visible, with lots of 16-bit shading and depth, but the animation is limited and clunky.  Even the bosses don't do much but spit beams and missiles while moving around the screen; only the final, serpentine enemy looks very interesting, and like the other bosses it never changes its tactics, firing clusters of bullets from its head and tail and simply trying to consume as many of the player's quarters as possible before succumbing to accumulated damage.  The music is stirring but simply orchestrated, without the sampled waveforms and other nuances that would turn up in coin-op games a few years later.

Oh, and in the days before much attention was paid to localization, we get a bit of old-fashioned Janglish at the end of the game:

And also, from the days when Capcom's "credits" were pseudonyms in an attempt to prevent labor poaching by other videogame studios:

I was glad to finally get through Hyper Dyne Sidearms, but the journey wasn't particularly memorable.  Sometimes that's the best thing about these coin-op collections -- paying a few bucks per game to see what it was all about often beats spending the time to get genuinely good at it.  (Practice does help, though -- my second playthrough after I discovered I didn't have my screen capturing set up correctly only took 110 tokens!)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Darkpit (2013)

Regular readers may be aware that, in general, I avoid covering "new" games here -- the spoiler-heavy nature of my "Adventure of the Week" posts, meant to document these experiences for history's sake, makes covering brand-new, commercially available games something I try to avoid.  But I'm going to break my self-imposed five-year embargo this week, to cover a game whose development started in the TRS-80's heyday but finished several decades later. 

Darkpit began its life circa 1980, written by Robert A. Wilcox, but was only brought to playable form in 2013 by the author's son, Roger M. Wilcox, whose own adventure games have consumed many virtual column inches here over the past year.  The game's now available in Windows format, free to download at Roger's site.

The storyline goes a bit meta right away, as we've apparently fallen into this deep pit while playing another adventure game, whose designer assumed we were dead, as one does.  We have nothing in inventory, and the room is dark -- even the game's color scheme is white on black.  Presumably, our goal is to get out of the Darkpit.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to tackle Darkpit before reading my remaining commentary.  It's an old-school adventure with a unique emphasis on the player as a character existing physically in its world, and it's not too hard to solve if you're willing to experiment a bit.  Beyond this point, there are certain to be...

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

The game launches with an unusual set of challenges, and it took me a while to get the story moving. 
LOOK yields only That's stupid, perhaps because it's so dark down here, and we can't SEARCH or EXAMINE anything, nor does the parser recognize the scattered debris as a noun with which we can interact.  So we're going to have to navigate around a little bit and see what we can find... except the traditional N/W/E/S commands are also not available, nor is the more verbose GO NORTH style palatable to the parser.

Can we DIG?  Yes, though responding to dig what? with DIG FLOOR is unproductive -- Don't be silly.  We can WALK FLOOR to end up lying on the floorCLIMB WALL yields only, No magic allowed here (these "negative" responses are randomized from a collection of possibilities that don't always fit.)  FEEL WALL is unhelpful -- You don't feel any wall here, which seems unlikely.  FEEL FLOOR points out what we already know about the floor from the initial description that starts the game.

YELL produces an answering growl from somewhere out in the darknessFEEL AIR notes a very light breeze, suggesting there is at least a way out of here.  I finally realize that while we can't navigate using the traditional compass points, we can TURN RIGHT, TURN LEFT, WALK FORWARD, and so forth.  But I still can't seem to get out of this starting room -- it seems like I've turned in a circle and every time I try to walk forward I end up lying on the floor. 

Ahhhh!  I was still lying on the floor, so every time I tried to walk, I was just staying right where I was!  It's important to STAND UP after falling; now, when we WALK RIGHT, we turn right and then walk forward.  (I didn't realize that when we are lying on the floor we can't walk anywhere -- I thought I was bumping into walls and ending up on the floor!)

Now here's what's interesting -- in an old-school attempt at replayability, the game's map is very straightforward, but object locations are randomized each time we start the game!  Fortunately, the junior Mr. Wilcox has thoughtfully provided a Debug Mode which displays a 5 x 5 map of the dungeon, including the player's position and current facing direction, which makes things much easier to handle.  Now we can focus on the story and its challenges -- since your mileage will almost certainly vary, I'm just going to describe the objects and puzzles found in the maze from here on in and leave out any navigational detail.

We can't see anything, but we can FEEL OBJECT when we stumble across one.  Object number 9 (per the Debug map) turns out to be a large wooden chest with metal reinforcing and a rusty but intact lock.  It's too heavy to carry, as it turns out -- if we pick it up, we find ourselves lying under a very heavy wooden chest.  Fortunately, object 12 (a brass key) happened to be in the adjacent room, in my playthrough, and something round falls out of the chest after it's unlocked -- a stick of something wrapped in heavy paper.  We can only carry one object at a time, so we'll have to leave the brass key behind to take the stick, which I am guessing might be dynamite.

Object 8 is a shovel, always handy in these games, and given the tight inventory limit I decide to accumulate items in this room, the southwest corner of the map, for ease in finding them later on.  We can use the shovel to try to dig at Object 3, a large mound of loose dirt, but the rocks are wedged too tightly and won't budge.  Perhaps we need another sort of tool?

Object 13 is a pile of bones; 11 is a moldy putrid dead body, partly eaten.  It glurgs when you push on it, which may make the player glurg a bit as well.  Object 10 is a case of bandaids, and we can take a box of them along for emergencies.  Object 7 is a packet of safety matches, so we seem to be gathering a decent assortment of traditional adventuring equipment, if only we could carry more of it with us.

Object 16 appears to be an icy lake -- upon entering the room, we plunge underwater and must drop any item in inventory, as even a packet of matches is enough to weigh us down, fatally.  But I couldn't figure out how to get out of the water after swimming to the surface, and discovered that eventually You freeze and die, rotting bones found by another adventurer.  So we should try to avoid this location!

Object 1 is -- yay! -- a serviceable and roomy backpack.  And now when we pick something up, it gets put in the backpack.  Much more convenient, and a reassuring indication that the inventory limit was intentional design, not a coding limitation.

Object 6 is -- dang it, scattered shards of broken glass, possibly an old lamp.  And now we're cut and bleeding profusely!  Where are those bandaids again?  We can't WEAR BANDAID or REPAIR CUT or FIX CUT, but we can BANDAGE CUT to solve that little issue.  After giving ourselves medical attention, we seem to be immune from further damage, and while we can't GET SHARD, we can GET GLASS to acquire a sharp tool of sorts.

Now that we've found all the objects (I think), the likely path seems to be to blast our way through the cave-in suggested by the mound of dirt and the breeze.  We'll stop to DIG BONES first -- Wow! Terrific bones, man! is the comic payoff, a 1970s computing gag that hasn't resurfaced much in recent years.

So let's try to use the stick to blast through the mound.  It appears it's lacking a fuse?  TIE ROPE -- Say again, but specify what you want to tie the rope to suggests that we can TIE ROPE TO STICK, but I don't know what "rope to stick" is.  Ah -- TIE SHOVEL results in The length of rope is now tied to the large shovel.  Okay.  This doesn't help with the fuse situation, but now we can walk into the watery pit room without falling in -- The shovel clatters loudly as it jams across the opening.  You grab the rope just in time!  And we can CLIMB ROPE to escape the pit, avoiding the watery death I encountered earlier.

We can LIGHT MATCH -- but the glare is blinding, and we don't see much before we have to drop the match as it burns down (and, when I played, after we're returned to darkness, under some circumstance I couldn't nail down, the game seems to hang.)  We can't CUT ROPE, either, though that seems like a way to make a fuse.  SMELL STICK reveals that It reeks of nitroglycerin, so we're probably on the right track here.

What else haven't we tried?  Well, with the rope/shovel spanning the pit, we can DROP ROPE to let go and fall into the water, SWIM DOWN, and DIG FLOOR (by hand) to find a bit of cord in the muck before we hurriedly climb back up and out of the pit.  It works better if we leave other belongings elsewhere, as it's tricky to pick things up in the pit room -- at least GET ALL seemed to get me into a state where I couldn't carry anything else.

The cord we picked up has a waterlogged end, which is likely to make it hard to light, so we can CUT CORD to remove the unburnable part.  But we still can't LIGHT CORD or BURN CORDLIGHT MATCH causes it to fall directly onto the stick, igniting it and ending the game.  Hmmm...

Aha!  (Actually, I had to peek at the source code to verify that I was on the right track and finally figure this out.)  We have to get the waterlogged cord out of the way by leaving it in another location, and now the match falls as intended on the cord we're trying to use as a fuse... and then The flame races down its length toward the paper-wrapped stick... and then the game seems to hang?  Restarting and restoring my saved game allowed me to sidestep this issue, and we now have one move available to get a safe distance away (one room away is enough.)

Now we can feel a tunnel in the floor, opened by a recent explosion.  In keeping with the game's approach to physical navigation, we have to specifically LIE DOWN before we can CRAWL TUNNEL -- to victory!

I never encountered the source of the answering growl my early yell provoked -- a bear, apparently, looking at the source code -- and that's fine by me! 

What I like most about Darkpit is its willingness to avoid the conventions of the genre -- the stand-up, lie-down, turn-and-walk navigation and the randomized map make it something of a hybrid of a dungeon crawl and a traditional adventure game.  The puzzles are straightforward, but it's always historically interesting to see different takes on the format from the days when the "rules" were still being formulated, and another direction in which the industry might have gone.  The only other turn-and-move adventures I can recall are Roger Schrag's graphic adventures like Spook House, which came along a few years later.

Nice work by the Wilcox family, and special thanks are due to Roger for finishing Robert's work so we can all enjoy it!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Arcade Weekend: SonSon (1984)

One of the things I love about coin-op compilations is the opportunity to play games I missed during their original arcade runs.  Hanaho Games' 1999 Capcom collection includes a 1984 coin-op title called SonSon.  It appears to be based on the Monkey King legend of Chinese folklore, but was produced in Japan where the story is known as Son-Goku, or Journey to the West

I never ran into this game in a U.S. arcade, though its 1984 vintage means it would have come out during the "crash era" when arcades were closing and home systems went into hibernation.  According to Wikipedia, it was released in US arcades through Romstar, and converted to the Nintendo Famicom, but never came to the NES, though the coin-op version arrived on the Wii Virtual Console in 2010.  At any rate, this was my first opportunity to play SonSon.

The storyline is conventional -- our heroes Sonson the monkey and Tonton the pig (lead characters in the Chinese story) are out to rescue their friends, who have been swept up and kidnapped by a cloud-riding warrior villain character; there are definite echoes of this opening sequence in Capcom's slightly later Ghosts'n'Goblins.

Gameplay consists of running along a forced-scrolling set of six layers, hopping up or down and firing left or right to take out enemy creatures while collecting vegetables and other treasures, as we try to fight past 20 milestones to reach the end of the adventure.  There are gaps in the layers which aren't fatal but force the player to drop down a level, and there's no way to stop the scrolling.  Most enemies approach on the horizontal levels, some walking and some flying, while other enemies jump out of the waters below.  The jumping and flying enemies can usually be avoided altogether by limiting movement to the upper tiers, but the ground-based enemies have to be dealt with more directly.

The game features a two-player co-op mode; I couldn't detect any differences between the two characters in terms of control or abilities.  Both can fire shots to the left or right, and hop up or down one level of the scrolling screen.  When we're out of lives it's Game Over; the marketing trick of allowing players to continue with additional credits hadn't yet been introduced.

I got this far before dying in my best go -- nowhere near the end of the game, only about 25% in, but far enough to feel like I'd experienced a good portion of the action:

What strikes me most about Son Son is the way it mixes up the action without interruption -- ROM chips were becoming less expensive, and the additional storage allows for visual variety from one zone to another.  The gameplay remains largely the same, with different visual styles and hazards in each zone, but the relentless pace keeps the pressure on, as there are no pauses or breaks in the action -- we just scroll from one numbered zone into the next, and we have to keep running, shooting and avoiding enemies (there are brief stoppages when we encounter a fortress, but even these events are timed -- if we don't finish destroying all the enemies, the screen starts scrolling and we're back in action.)

The most annoying thing about Son Son is that there's not much of a "time out" when the player character dies -- we get thrown immediately back into the action, riding in from the left side of the screen on a cloud, and if we happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when we take control again, it's not hard to die instantly as the screen has become overrun with enemies in the meantime.  We have to do well with our first life, because (in my experience) we're likely to lose one or two after we lose the first one.

Bottom line, SonSon seems like a typical early-to-mid-1980s arcade game -- cute, colorful, simple graphics on a black background, with a fair amount of challenge and a graded difficulty curve.  The basic mechanics aren't hard to master, but memorization becomes important as the levels progress and enemies enter with little warning or time to react.  The visual changes keep the game interesting, but the gameplay becomes repetitive after a while, and the side-scrolling genre would evolve far beyond SonSon within a few years after its debut.  Entertaining, but not addictive or unique enough to feel like a "lost classic."  I enjoyed spending a few hours with it, but it's not a cabinet I'd be eager to have in the house.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Cloak of Death (1984)

This week, as a bit of a Halloween season hangover, we're playing Cloak of Death by David Cockram, published in 1984 by Bug-Byte for the Atari 8-bit home computers.  The game originated in the UK, published by Mind Games, where it also appeared on the Sinclair Spectrum ZX, and that probably explains why this illustrated text adventure was released on cassette instead of disk as was common in the US.

Is Cloak of Death a spooky old house adventure?  A treasure hunt?  It's hard to tell at first, and the vector-and-fill graphic illustrations are necessarily sparse and schematic due to memory limitations (though the game does utilize a textured-fill technique to make the visuals a bit more interesting.)   The house is also rather empty, with several unfurnished rooms.  Mr. Cockram uses a standard two-word parser, though its tone is humorously sarcastic, replying "Is that the best you can come up with?" or "Why do that?" when it can't understand the player's intent.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to encounter the Cloak of Death before proceeding with my playthrough notes below, though in this case I strongly suggest having a walkthrough handy -- I used Anthony Deakin's at CASA -- as several of the puzzle solutions are maddeningly obtuse and it's easy to get oneself stuck by leaving the wrong item in the wrong place.  Beyond this point, be advised that there are almost certain to be...

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

We begin in a dark hall with nothing whatsoever in inventory; there's a Hungry looking rat lurking about, and in the great adventure game tradition, it looks as if we've just come into the house through the front door but there's no obvious way back out.

To the east is a large sitting room where You can hear someone walking around upstairs.  The Grandfather clock here can be OPENed, or at least the parser doesn't object, but we can't seem to discern any new details after doing so.  Examination of the fireplace yields some Lumps of coal.

The oak paneled study to the north of the sitting room contains a writing desk, suspiciously devoid of any other accessories; examination reveals a Leather bound BIBLE on the desk.  There's also a letter, cryptically reading, "3 CEMETARY WAY,GOOLE....One free through heaven....."  Again, OPENing the desk doesn't seem to do anything, though we're not told that we can't do that.

A conservatory in the northwest part of the first floor contains an old wooden chest; OPEN CHEST yields only Tell me how, so it appears we will need to figure this out.

The Cloak of Death map is a little wonky by normal indoor-adventure standards, with some inconsistent navigation between adjacent rooms, though everything makes reasonable geographic sense.  Graphics can be toggled on and off by entering a blank command, and gameplay speeds up quite a bit without the illustrations.

Heading upstairs, we find a hallway with exits leading north, east, and west.  North takes us into an icy corridor, and further north it is too dark to see.  We can't go E from the icy corridor, as That's the haunted bedroom!  W is the master bedroom, though it's devoid of anything interesting.

Returning back to the T-shaped hallway, we find a guest bedroom to the west and a dressing room to the east.  Oddly, there seems to be no furniture in either room, and we can't OPEN CLOSET or OPEN WARDROBE despite the illustrations' suggestions that such might be available.

We've mapped out the basics of the house that we can reach at this point, so let's see what we might be missing.  The hungry rat Looks pretty nasty! and apparently blocks passage into a Dark corridorLOOK BIBLE calls it to fall open at the first page, and READ BIBLE yields the expected "In the beginning..." material.  The lumps of coal don't seem unusual, though we can RUB COAL -- and nothing happens.

Ah -- the map is wonkier than I thought, I had missed a large dining room on the first floor, accessible by going west from the starting point (instead of coming around through the conservatory.)  It contains a wicker chair, which proves to be portable.  There's also a kitchen with a carving knife, a half eaten loaf of bread, and a sink containing water.  We can't GET WATER yet, probably because we have nothing to put it in.

Now, can we KILL RAT with the knife?  Nope, the rat attacks and the game is over.  We can't GIVE BREAD -- the parser doesn't recognize that -- or DROP BREAD -- it just sits there -- but we can FEED RAT, and now we can GO CORRIDOR.  (Actually, I misunderstood this whole puzzle -- the rat lets us pass if we are carrying the carving knife, in semi-keeping with the classic nursery rhyme, but I didn't figure this out until much later!)

The dark corridor leads further west, to a pantry where we can acquire a candle.  There's also a cellar door here, though we can't open it yet.  Coming back out of the corridor, we see that the hungry rat has returned, and our bread is all gone (or so I thought), so we may have missed out on something while we were in there.  Going back to the kitchen and LOOKing, we can see a cupboard containing matches.  Though for some reason, when we try to GET MATCHES, You can't do that just yet -- and it doesn't seem to be an inventory limit issue.

Having learned that we can LOOK in a room and (sometimes) learn more about its furnishings, it's worth another tour of the house.  We didn't miss much, but there's a creepy Silk cord hanging from the ceiling in the guest bedroom.  If we PULL CORD, there's a strange rumbling noise, but I didn't see anything different anywhere in the house as a result.

Random thoughts at this point -- (another impression corrected later) the rat doesn't actually block our progress after he's been fed, he just likes to hang out by the stairwell, looking hungry and playing on the sympathies of wandering adventurers.  "One free through heaven" on the letter might be a misheard number, 1327, should we find a phone or a combination lock.

I still can't do that just yet when I try to GET MATCHES or GET MATCH, but why?  Ah -- while the parser won't tell us this directly, the handy CASA walkthrough suggests that we have to CLIMB CHAIR to reach them.  I never like these kinds of puzzles, but, okay, it's described as a Tall cupboard, which I should have taken as a hint.  Now we have the matches and the candle, and we can venture into the dark room upstairs.  In doing this, I inadvertently discover that we're not allowed to go upstairs without the Bible in hand -- it looks too creepy! otherwise.  I didn't run into this puzzle earlier because I opted to explore the ground floor before trying to go upstairs, acquiring the holy book in the process.

The dark room turns out to be a library with shelves full of books, but we have to LOOK to spot a specific book -- THE EXORCIST?  This must be a hint of some kind, but we still can't get into the haunted bedroom.

My efforts to BREAK CHEST were unsuccessful earlier, but it turns out that we can KICK CHEST and the lid flies open to reveal a small key, with which we can unlock the cellar door.  Down here is a Huge lump of iron, and additional areas to explore as well.

An old garage holds a claw hammer and rusty saw.  A tunnel further east is blocked by a Ferocious dog guarding Heavy iron gates, which may be an escape route should we need one later.  A dirty workshop south of the garage holds a SILVER BAR (it appears treasures are capitalized?) and an oil soaked rag.  And a wine cellar at the west end of the cellar contains a bottle of wine.

We can LIGHT RAG to burn it up, but after it Burns away nicely! we don't have anything to show for it, so that was probably not the intended use, and it's time to restore the game.  The heavy lump of iron can only be carried if we drop almost everything else, so we'll leave it alone until we come up with a use for it.

What next?  The dog guarding the gate has eyes like red embers... a hell hound?  He's apparently not much of one, as if we DROP RAG and DROP COAL and BURN COAL, the dog runs away in fright at the glowing coals, apparently mistaking them for another dog.

And aha -- we can PUSH BOOK in the library (even if we've pulled it out to look at it, DROPping it restores this capability) to open a secret passageway leading to a creaky attic.  From this spot, we can hear footsteps below, so we must be above the haunted bedroom.

There's also a sewing room up here, containing nothing of apparent interest, and a large pool room with a pool table and a nailed-up hatch.  There is a pool ball on the pool table, a red herring it seems, and the claw hammer comes in handy here, though we can't PULL NAILS or GET NAILS, we have to REMOVE NAILS.  Inside the hatch is a store room containing some SILVER WIRE.  Maybe these aren't treasures, but significant exorcism equipment.

I needed a walkthrough to escape this area -- we have to PUSH the pool TABLE to open up an exit out of the secret passageway back into the library.  We still can't enter the haunted bedroom, so what else can we do?  Well, with more walkthrough help, it seems we can CUT the silver BAR with the saw to make two pieces of it, then use the wire to MAKE CRUCIFIX -- not something I would have thought of immediately, and that's a pretty impressive rusty saw!

Another aha! -- we don't have to give the bread to the rat, he actually reacts to the carving knife... and if we drop it later we can't get past him again, which is how I figured this out.  Dang.  Restore time again.

I have to admit that, without a walkthrough, you would not be reading this post -- I don't know how I would have figured out that carrying the huge lump of iron to the guest bedroom would cause the silk cord to be "held tight" after it's been pulled once, forcing open a Small annexe in the master bedroom, allowing us to acquire a SILVER GOBLET.

Now we can get into the haunted bedroom, but of course it's too dark to see in there.  Probably a good thing, too, as once we have candle light we can see an Oil painting and a Bloodstained cloak moving slowly towards you!! ... and within another move, before we can actually react, cold, bony fingers grip your throat, and you slip into eternal darkness... or at least eternal restores.

So what are we missing?  Well, we don't have time to even EXAMINE PAINTING in the haunted bedroom, because I wasted a turn by entering the room without a lit candle.  Trying again, we see that upon our initial entry, the cloak is just standing upright, and we have one move to act before it starts closing in.  We can examine the painting to see that it's a painting of two horses, which isn't particularly useful; we can't MOVE PAINTING, either -- and even unparseable commands eat up a move, allowing the cloak to close in.  GET PAINTING reveals a wall safe, but again there isn't time to do anything about it before we die at the hands of the Cloak of Death.  Can we SHOW CRUCIFIX to scare the phantom away?  No... we can try to EXORCISE CLOAK, which seems more promising even though You can't do that just yet.

A complete restart lets me keep the bread handy instead of feeding it to the rat, on the theory that maybe the wine and bread as well as all the silver equipment... but wait, there are inventory juggling issues to solve before we can get upstairs with everything we think we need... and it wasn't a good idea to DRINK WINE, as now the bottle is gone completely and WOW! MY HEAD IS SPINNING!  FILL GOBLET prompts What with?, but neither WINE or WITH WINE seems to convince the parser.

We have to light the candle, then drop the matches so we can haul the bible, crucifix, goblet, bread and wine into the haunted bedroom.  And -- nope, I still can't seem to EXORCISE CLOAK!  Hmmmm.  Can we FILL GOBLET / WITH WATER in the kitchen?  No, but we can GET WATER, which is now seen to be HOLY WATER!!  This seems more useful, and yes, finally we can make the cloak just a plain old bloodstained cloak again. 

How an old cloak came to be possessed by a murderous entity, and why we're so intent on dealing with it instead of just staying out of the warning-protected haunted bedroom and going on with our lives, is left as an exercise for the reader.  There's certainly no motivation offered as we finally get to  OPEN the SAFE -- and yes, 1327 proves to be the combination -- as it contains no treasure, just a Skeleton key.  We can use this to unlock the gate formerly guarded by the hell hound, and escape to freedom, though complete victory is a few steps away, perhaps to allow for a sequel.  At any rate, victory is ours for the time being, and the final image is one of the best in the game:

Cloak of Death is definitely an old-school adventure -- the puzzles do make sense, but there isn't a lot of assistance or information provided to the player and a lot of trial and error is needed to figure out a few of the more complicated and non-intuitive puzzles.  Without a walkthrough I think I would have gotten stuck early on, but with the assistance available as needed I enjoyed this game's sparse but spooky atmosphere.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Arcade Weekend: Carrier Air Wing (1990)

Back when state-of-the-art video games were still something you had to go to an arcade to play, my brother and I and friends often visited the local amusement parlors on weekends.  I've been missing that lately, so consider this post a pilot for a new, potentially recurring feature here at Gaming After 40, in which I will fire up an old coin-op arcade game and spend a little time with it for discovery or nostalgia's sake.  (Excuse the aspect ratio of these screenshots, please, I'm playing on the living room TV and they're a bit stretched out.)

Carrier Air Wing was a sequel to Capcom's earlier scrolling shooter Area 88, a.k.a. U.N. Squadron, a more familiar name for most gamers thanks to an excellent port to Nintendo's 16-bit SNES console.  This very similar second game has remained fairly obscure -- even Capcom's Playstation 2 classics collections have ignored it, and the only reason I have a copy is because Hanaho Games published a Capcom collection for PCs back in 1999.  That package was supposed to include U.N. Squadron (the logo is still on the CD cover) but actually shipped with Carrier Air Wing, most likely due to lingering license issues with the original Japanese Area 88 manga -- the US release was renamed, but the licensed character designs were not reworked.

This infringement-free continuation gives us three new pilot heroes flying similar aircraft to those in the original game -- they have little in the way of personality, and only one unambiguous surname amongst them:

Carrier Air Wing isn't so much a sequel as more of the same, which may be why it never got a home release -- the SNES could certainly have handled the action,which ran on the same Capcom CPS-1 hardware as its predecessor, although (as with U.N. Squadron) the two-player mode would likely have been sacrificed.  But it's still fun, and fairly challenging if you can resist the urge to insert virtual coins, enabling anyone (like yours truly) to finish the game with a 500,000 point completion bonus, if nothing else.

Most levels feature simple but attractive background scenery -- the primary focus is on the incoming aircraft and ground forces, with some extended boss battles.  And the background music is generic, hard-driving action music, though it's a nice change from the moody atmospherics of modern, more cinematic games.  Something about jaunty, looping tunes still fits these kinds of games well, and I often lament the loss of this type of scoring in the more cinematic modern era.

What stands out most about this series two decades on is its relatively realistic approach, once you get past the overwrought storyline about a fictional war-mongering nation called Rabu which tries to conquer the world, starting by taking over the world-renowned manufacturing facilities of Japan.  The weaponry and bosses aren't exactly authentic military-issue hardware, and nothing in the real world maneuvers like these planes can, but the story stays grounded -- we don't discover an alien intelligence or fight any giant monsters, at least; all we're trying to do is take out Rabu's impressive array of hardware by going in with our nimble little planes (and infinite lives if we can stomach the token budget.)

Generally, we fly from left to right, with some larger multi-target bosses requiring passes back and forth until everything is destroyed.  Here are some random screenshots from several of the game's ten levels -- the common enemies don't change up much, and the boss battles tend to require similar tactics, so most of the visual variety comes from the backgrounds:

And when the battles are over, it seems we've run out of fuel in our zeal to save the world, so Mike/Roy/Ford/James/Mark/probably-not-Olson has to eject from his expensive fighter before it explodes, parachuting into the ocean to await rescue by what we presume are friendly helicopters:

Like most quarter-sucking arcade games of its time, Carrier Air Wing doesn't take long to finish, though one could certainly do it with more finesse and fewer inserted coins than I managed in a quick playthrough.  It's not a lesser game than U.N. Squadron, but it's not noticeably better either, and it ends up feeling like a poor substitute for the original from a nostalgia perspective -- in fact, I found myself missing the goofy licensing tie-ins like pilot portraits, even though none of that really affected the gameplay.  But it's certainly got the level of quality befitting its Capcom heritage, and it plays well enough to be worth a go.