Sunday, April 27, 2014

Diary Entry #28: Chaos in ZX Land and Recent Acquisitions

             Long before his critically acclaimed X-Com series, Julian Gollop was an already revered ZX Spectrum developer. The little 8-bit computer received a half dozen strategy titles that predict the style that the more well-known X-Com games brought to the mainstream. Although I haven't spent tons of time with any of the X-Com games, I am a huge fan of Magic and Mayhem, a Gollop-designed real-time strategy game in which you play a summoner who creates monsters to duke it out with other wizards. Fourteen years earlier, Gollop created a turn-based game with a similar concept: as a wizard, summon monsters to defeat other wizards with comparable powers. The game, titled Chaos, was followed by the more complex Lords of Chaos, and another sequel was Kickstarter funded only a week ago.

               Evidently Chaos was initially conceived as a card game and it definitely feels like it. To start, your character is always given a random set of magic spells, akin to drawing them from a pool of cards, that can only be used once. The battlefield could easily be replicated on a small mat, and one of the menu options is even labelled "examine board". It was even published by Games Workshop, recognized for their popular Warhammer series of strategy board games.

               The rules aren't particularly complicated. You select between 2-8 players, determine who will be player or computer-controlled, and get dropped into the action. There are four options: to examine spells, select a spell, examine the board, and continue the game. You get more cards/spells based on how many wizards start on the field. After a spell cast, you get to move your characters around and attack. The only complicated aspect of the entire game is the concept of law and chaos.

               Certain creatures are lawful and others are chaotic. If more of a certain kind are on the board, it becomes easier to cast any spell of that type. Basically, if everything on the board is a lawful snake, you're only going to have a 10% chance to conjure a vampire bat. This can greatly alter your approach to battle, and if you're stuck with mostly chaotic spells while everyone else has lawful, you're largely screwed.

               My first time through, I opted to keep things simple with two wizards. We face off on a very large map. There are eight separate avatar icons that you can make a variety of colors, but my personal favorite is the raising-the-roof pink guy on the left.

               I cast a skeleton, a snake, and a slime, while my opponent sends out an ogre. Slimes slowly spread to surroundings spaces and are meant to be used near an opponent that they will attack, but not knowing this early on, I wind up placing it way too far away. It never comes close to my opponent, but in a big eight man brawl, it can be vital.

               Eventually, I conjure a vampire that beats the wizard to a pulp. Undead characters cannot be hit with physical attacks, which is all the wizard has left at this juncture. The wizard manages to conjure a monster to aid him after a turn or so, but he also only has physical offense. My vampire quickly and unceremoniously wins the bout.

               Four to eight wizard battles quickly become complicated. Gorillas, eagles, horses, and unicorns flood the screen, and enough monsters can get summoned that every player will have enough representatives to literally attack everyone all at once. It's easily one of the most enjoyable tactical strategy games I've ever played, although I want to check out X-Com Apocalypse and Gollop's other Spectrum games before making any brash "best game ever" statements.

               I tried another ZX Spectrum game called Skool Daze, which wound up being far less intuitive. I'm in a three story building that has some classrooms, and if I use the jump button too much, someone tells me that I'm not a kangaroo and the "lines" number on the bottom rihgt goes up. When I find out some more information, I'll let you know.

               Yesterday, I wound up going not just to one game store, but two. The first is Game Headz, where I found a dozen unpriced games that I wanted. Interestingly enough, the two labelled games I wanted were actually mispriced, thankfully lower than the tag. Of the fourteen games, I wound up buying two: Tombs and Treasures and Totally Rad on NES. The guy told me Kung Fu Kid for Master System wasn't even in the computer, so he gave it to me for free. I usually don't frequent this store because of it's higher prices, but if they make freebies a habit, I'm definitely going back.

               At Flipside Records, I found Crypt Killer on PS1 for three bucks, which I quickly snatched. I also grabbed three handheld games, Chicago Syndicate for Game Gear, Roswell Conspiracies for Game Boy Color, and Shaman King for Game Boy Advance. My girlfriend instantly wanted Roswell Conspiracies due to her interest in conspiracies in general, but I was surprised by how enjoyable it was. I intend on going back to it, but right now, I'm off to play my NES acquisitions. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Diary Entry #27: Batman and Robin > Arkham Asylum and Budget Nancy Drew

               I recently bought my girlfriend a copy of Arkham Asylum. It sort of looks fun, but I can't quite figure out what's so compelling about the gameplay. Obviously people love all things Batman, but the game mechanics are pretty simplistic. Aside from beating people up and running to the next story point, there's little that makes Arkham Asylum better than classics like Die Hard Arcade.

Batman sprays one of his many, many, many tools at a
Golum in Batman and Robin for the PS1.

               Batman and Robin for PS1 had more depth. The large, open-world Gotham city is a treat to explore despite the game's wonky play controls. While combat and driving take some getting used to, the game's strength is how it borrows concepts from classic NES titles. Batman can visit most areas from the start of the game, but you have to find clues around Gotham to find out where to go next. If you miss or misinterpret these clues, you can end up wandering around forever with little direction. Even when you reach the next area, there are no cutscenes, the only real sign you're supposed to be there being that Mr. Freeze or other bosses are there. This obfuscated design reflects games like Metroid, Rygar, and Castlevania 2, thrusting the player into a large game world with little direction. Even by 1998 standards, obscured design was largely foregone for cinematic storytelling. Batman and Robin: A+. Arkham Asylum: rental material written all over it.

               Actually, I don't know why I feel that way about so many things. Batman and Robin PS1 is better than Arkham Asylum, Dio Sabbath is better than Ozzy Sabbath, etc. Such heretical comments might have me burned at the stake one day, but until then, I'm just going to give A+'s to games that deserve them. 

               Rather than playing important things like all of those ZX Spectrum games or X-Com on PS3, I got hooked on some crappy Nancy Drew game I picked up at the thrift store. Subtitled the Haunting of Castle Malloy, it's the nineteenth Her Interactive's Nancy Drew series, which come May 20th will have reached it's thirtieth entry. I was expecting it to be total garbage shovelware, but it's surprisingly decent.

               After learning that her friend Kyler is being married, Nancy Drew hops on a plane Indiana Jones style to Ireland for the ceremony. I figured that this was going to be a hidden object snoozefest, but instead, I'm greeted with a lengthy intro and some nice point-and-clickery. Very cool. En route to the castle, Nancy is driven off course by what appears to be a ghost!

               The game is split up into two perspectives: an overhead view of a large castle area that acts as a hub for first-person Myst-like zones. 

               The first real puzzle is hardly a puzzle at a all, more of an introduction to the game's play with convention than anything else. After finding Kyler's home, an austere if decrepit Irish castle, the groundskeeper won't let me in. To get in, I have to throw some rocks at the window... get Kyler's attention. She fills Nancy in on some troubling news: her fiance, Matt, is nowhere to be found. Evidently he's quite a prankster, so Kyler's shrugging it off, expecting him to randomly return.

               The puzzles range from pretty clever to mundane fun. Latter puzzles like the one pictured are pretty obvious, probably featured in countless video and computer games since the dawn of the adventure genre, but at least they yield some form of pleasure. 

               This gnome puzzle's solution can be ascertained from reading a book, which is how you end up solving over half of the game. Some book or letter gives you a few clues and you use those to find the answer.

               Interestingly, some puzzles don't really give you an obvious sense of progression. There's a drink mixing game in which you have to make the right drinks and send them off. You have to do this at least once, but after that, you can play the game continuously in order to buy coins. Coins are used to play arcade games or to use the mostly pointless fortune telling machine. 

               At several points throughout the game, this ghost appears and spooks Nancy. It looks good by 1999 standards, but keep in mind this was developed and published in 2008.

               Some sections of the game are downright dreadful, forcing you to collect herbs and play drums. This tells me two things: collecting the stuff is rarely fun and 2008 was the perfect year for semi-casual adventure games to get their DDR on. 

               One portion of the game barely requires any thinking at all. When shearing sheep, you need to add together a number associated with the "family", color, and demeanor of sheep. The game literally tells you the family and color, and all you have to do is determined if the sheep looks mad or not. The result: punk rock sheeps and other puffy things.

               Eventually, Nancy Drew finds a jetpack that allows her to fly over the castle entirely and out into the ocean. I had way too much fun with this. It doesn't take a Nancy Drew buff to realize this is absolutely ridiculous, awful, lame, awesome, unnecessary, and utterly essential. 

               The ghost winds up being a really old woman with a jetpack. She pushes Nancy into a hole, where she finds...

...Matt, who looks like a total tool. Matt tells me I'm in an underground bunker filled with rockets. This small room features four puzzles on a paltry nine screens, a tightly designed finale for the game.

               This chemistry puzzle is easily the most obnoxious. With a little grappling claw, the player has to move around various elements into different little repositories. If the chemical is accidentally touched, grabbed wrong, or dropped before the receptacle, Nancy instantly blows up. The game allows you to immediately continue where you last left off, which makes the entire explosion thing feel gratuitous.

               I don't intend to discuss the game's story or ending at length, but I was amazed at how terrible the ending stills looked. Matt has some serious problems.

               I'm about ninety-nine percent sure the character on the right is CG and the left one is taken from a photo. Before this moment, I never thought about how disturbing a human and Pixar character relationship would actually look. I will never be the same again.

               Two posts back, I really wanted to play Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, Knights Contract, and Cross Edge. I'm glad I didn't buy them, because I've already lost interest in all three. There's something funny about post-fifth generation console games that makes them seem like mandatory acquisitions one minute and a piece of garbage the next. A perfect example is Virtua Quest, a game I felt like I absolutely needed to play. I bought it, played it for an hour, then threw it to the side. Three years later, no progress. Darksiders, Rage, Bioshock 2, all of these games have collected more dust than gameplay hours. 

               Yet for some reason, I've been really interested in picking up Record of Agarest War 2. The limited edition version featured on eBay, for the same price as it costs at GameStop, features an inflatable doll, an art book, and a towel. The towel is labeled "a wonderful towel experience". Frankly, I'm excited about it. It'll be the first non-stolen towel I've acquired since moving out on my own. I plan on dedicating a post to this whenever I get the set.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Diary Entry #26: Peeking at the Spectrum and Altered Destiny

               I bought a buttload of PS1 and PS2 games yesterday, several of which I tried in rapid succession. Some quick notes on my time with the games:
  1. Dynasty Warriors 2 is really, really fun. I recall playing through the third entry with my friend Dave back in high school and it being utterly abysmal. Now, I absolutely loved slicing through all hundreds of enemies who sort of just stand around waiting for you to kill them.

  2. Although I hated the show, the Weakest Link for PS1 is a surprisingly decent video game. With four players, it's an absolute blast. During the voting procedure, deciding whether to eliminate your closest human rival or annoying computer characters who never flub a question is always a treat.

  3. Apocalypse starring Bruce Willis is one of the PS1's best kept secrets. It's like One meets Robotron, an adrenaline-fueled romp that takes everything great about run-and-gun classics like Contra and smoothly transitions them into 3D. Writing that made me recall that I recently bought Contra: Legacy of War, which I still haven't tried.

  4. Back in 2003, I remember being really excited about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3D beat-em-up after my mom bought the family a Gamecube. I picked up the PS2 version at a thrift store and was pleasantly surprised. It's overall a pretty shallow experience, but it's narrow corridors and bevy of repetitive enemies recall the classic TMNT arcade games.

  5. The TMNT film-tie in for PS2 is absolutely dreadful, reminding me of Prince of Persia or Crash Bandicoot 1 more than anything. When you are thrown into slapdash fighting sequences, the four enemies at a time approach poses no real threat. At least in Dynasty Warriors, there's twenty guys standing around waiting for you to kill them, which occasionally leads to one of them hitting you.

  6. I totally forgot about the Hunter: The Reckoning games. I got Wayward for a dollar and it's not nearly as enjoyable as I remember the original being ten years back. That game had droves of enemies coming after you akin to Gauntlet, while this game just has four or five appear randomly. I need to play it with another person.

               While I've been acquiring random PS2 games, the ZX Spectrum is currently piquing my interest. I find it fascinating that 8-bit computers like the C64 and the Apple IIe were still in production long after the introduction of 16-bit computers, and with the lowest graphical and processing capabilities, the Spectrum probably has the highest quotient of forgotten classics. I have played a handful of Spectrum games before like the Beast of Torrack Moor, but now I'm ready to sit down and familiarize myself with some of the computer's great exclusives.

               My Name is Uncle Groucho, You Win a Fat Cigar is a strange game, opening with this street screen:

               Eventually, Groucho Marx walks across the screen, apparently unaware of the fact that he's walking in the middle of the road.

               Eventually, the game prompts me to do something. When I enter an option, this screen appears:

               Unfortunately for me, I'm at some sort of disadvantage because I haven't played Pimania. Although the game assures me it won't be too long, it never gets past this screen. Perhaps I have a bad tape image. I'll try another later.

               Evidently made by the same designer, Mel Croucher, Deus Ex Machina is a multi-media game. I didn't know this when I started the game, so I was pretty bewildered by the whole thing. In the opening sequence, a mouse crawls up the screen, promptly dies, then some dots appear on the screen. Some mp3 files of the cassette tape that you're supposed to play along with the game in real time are easily found online, so I'm going to give the game another stab later this weekend. This has been ported to a few other computers, but I'm more interested in some four color goodness.

               The third game I tried was Ah Diddums, a game where you're a teddy bear that moves stuff around a room. I couldn't for the life of me comprehend what was going on, so I took my screenshot and walked away. The graphics have a horrible flickering problem, as you can see from the bear-less screenshot. Hint: his right paw and leg are floating near the top of the screen.

               The Mel Croucher games I played are pretty interesting. After reading about some of his other games, I'm pretty anxious to play through all of them and post my impressions.

               On an unrelated note, I also gave Altered Destiny a shot. A point-and-click adventure released by Accolade in 1990, it was released for the PC and Amiga using the same engine as Les Manley: In Search of the King. That game suffered from one fatal flaw: it wanted so bad to be like Leisure Suit Larry that it forgot to make sensible puzzles. Altered Destiny has some equally strange elements, but at least the bizarre other dimension setting calls for some oddball puzzles.

               The main character is PJ Barret, a dude in a suave pink shirt. I can really relate to this guy. His eye-shadowed girlfriend really wants to catch an all-night film festival on cable, but PJ has to go pick up his TV from the shop. While this might seem like a simple task, the owner gives him the wrong TV, which sends him hurtling into another dimension before he can check out his girlfriend's hot new lingerie. 

               The game is absolutely gorgeous, with crisp, bright colors that give the game a singular look. Nothing in Sierra or LucasArt's catalog looks quite like it, although the text parser and keyboard optional movement give it a very Kings Quest feel.

               There are some very creative plays on perspective, as you can see here with the giant NPC in the foreground and my little guy behind him. This blue person doesn't seem to mind if I take all the stuff around him, so I help myself.

               The items are incredibly strange, with this sphere telling me a story. Some gems on the table are also a secret party invitation that needs to be decoded using a tube. I wish more games flagrantly disregarded the player's conception of reality.

               More gorgeous imagery. The pixel-art might not exactly be top-notch, but it's imaginative enough to captivate.

               After flying over to this little space island, I accidentally walk off the side of the screen and instantly die. That's some Sierra crap right there. I stopped playing, but I fully intend on giving the game another shot in the near future.

               I'm sort of directionless right now, darting from game to game with little direction. I'm thinking I'll either go back to Altered Destiny or try those Spectrum games, but with all these games I've been grabbing, there's so many to try. I plan on my next post having much more focus.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Diary Entry #25: HOT・B Fan Mail and Japanese PC Games are Too Dirty

               Finally, I get to seek refuge in my tiny little blog. In the past week, I've traveled, recorded a full album, wrote an article for Hardcore Gaming 101, dug for fossils, sold art, played board games, and followed all sorts of other hedonistic ventures. No matter how frustrating teaching gets, it's always nice to get a break.

               One lazy day last week, I was perusing the May 1996 issue of P.S.X. magazine. It's actually not too interesting, lacking any sort of editorial charm and featuring a lot more strategies than anything else. It's weird to recall a time before the internet was big, forcing players to use gaming magazines for tips and passwords. Although I remember hating them as a kid, I actually get the biggest kick out of the reader letters. They feel like a snapshot of someone's wants, needs, and desires, a gaming time capsule. Just as historians enjoy digging through the letters of famous dead people, these letters provide a glimpse into a gaming culture long past.

               After writing my overview of HOT・B fishing games and RPGs, I was delighted to find this gem. This reader, obviously a fishing aficionado, has a few questions about HOT・B.

               One of the things that struck me as odd was that they start talking about Mark Davis Fishing as though anyone cares about anything but HOT・B. Gordon is probably one of a few dozen in the universe who've asked about HOT・B by name and P.S.X. has to go and ruin it, although obviously they start dishing out the goods.

               It's interesting that HOT・B USA managed to get the rights to all of those official products, which they already managed to do for some of the SNES Black Bass titles. I haven't really read about the PS1 entry, but it's probably developed by Starfish since it came out post-1993.

               I was on a visual novel kick a few weeks back, which led to me playing KiraKira, a visual novel about a mostly girl punk band. Evidently, they form in order to save the Second Literary Club, an extra-curricular group that's dying due to lack of enrollment. It's about as dull and bizarre as it sounds, although the latter creeps in enough to keep you playing/reading. Here's an example:

               Who cares? If the writer had spent nearly as much time making a compelling story as the artist spent on making the girl's sweater too tight in certain areas, I'm sure it would be a tale for the ages. I find any sort of game/film/text that overtly sexualizes children/adolescents distasteful, so automatically this is awful.

               Later on, the game runs into some discussion about rock and roll's racial roots:

               It's fine to say that rock and roll, R&B, and blues originate from black culture, but they make these distinctions between black and white music like they actually still exist. Speaking with literally hundreds of black people everyday, I can safely say that they are not all die hard blues listeners. In fact, I've probably seen more white blues musicians in my life than I have black. Check Mr. Bones's weird Irish blues musician to see what I mean.

               I don't get how people can like this garbage. My recent re-discovery of punk music led me to picking this game over every other visual novel, but when they actually get around to the songs, they play crappy J-pop music. I love Japanese hardcore bands like Stalin, not overproduced bubblegum garbage. This isn't even a game. If you have the choice to rent or buy it, burn it.

               I also tried out this game Rance, which focuses on the titular general working under an incredibly lazy Oda Nobunaga. It's a Koei-esque game where you have to conquer all of Japan through battling and improving your states. The battles, however, are more akin to Final Fantasy, simply requiring you to select your target in battle and going after them. There's even and front and back formation setup, although it doesn't change the tactics too much.

               Unfortunately, this game is also lewd in nature. I intend on playing it more someday, but it's hard to get into a game when it throws sex in so gratuitously. Check Golgo 13 for classy video game sex scenes.

               I recently acquired a copy of Brain Lord, which I intend to play bit by bit over the next few weeks. I also borrowed X-Com: Enemy Unknown for PS3, a remake that's received so many accolades I can't really pass it up. A few other PS3 games I'm itching to play: Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, Knights Contract, and Cross Edge. The last generation has to have a lot of unjustly ignored classics that I hope to dig up, although one of those is by Idea Factory. They must have made a good game at some point.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Diary Entry #24: Roaming the Streets of HOT・B's Psychic City

               I finally got a PC-88 emulator running today, which inspired me to try out In the Psychic City by HOT・B. After messing around with the configurations for a couple minutes, I got the game running.

               Whether this is the HOT・B logo or just the game's title, it looks pretty cool.

               The "demo" option on the main menu is actually a lengthy intro. There's a distinct sci-fi storyline, similar to Psychic City's alleged successor, Hoshi wo Miru Hito. Here, a fetus floats around as primordial men runs around with giant rocks, images ripped straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

               The next screen shows some Klansmen crucifying people. Oddly enough, they're actually harnessing everyone to the crosses rather than nailing them.

               This somehow leads us to the future, where guys with helmets point guns at our fleeing protagonist. The pixel art's not bad for 1984, but the graphics really go downhill from here.

               Tinkering with various options for over ten minutes, I manage to start the game. I evidently named myself 10. All of my stats are also 2, most likely a product of random entry.

               The titular psychic city looks horrible, even by 1984 standards. Everything is tile-based, with your avatar represented by a blue square. All of the buildings are ugly smatterings of color, with entryways denoted by very small rectangles on any edge. While it is one of Japan's earliest computer RPGs, Dragon Slayer, the Black Onyx, and Hydlide, all from the same year, put these graphics to shame. Thankfully, I'm not one to be swayed by paltry things like graphics, so I press onward.

               I slowly figure out that 1 moves left, 2 moves down, 3 moves right, and 5 moves up, not realizing that this is a very intuitive setup if I simply use the keypad. Movement takes a very, very long time, as you have to push the button twice for it to register followed by a one second delay.

               Every door requires an ID card. I only have card number 1, which doesn't work anywhere. After eight attempts, I decide this key has no purpose.

               This revelation is quickly interrupted by an attacking robot! I mash every key until I realize uppercase P, T, and J are my only combat options. What they stand for remains a mystery. The pink text explains enemy attacks, while light blue text shows my actions.

               Although P and T don't seem too effective, J teleports me to this random room filled with brick walls. They recall the brick blocks from the original Super Mario Bros released a year later. Moving slightly to the southeast...

               ...I encounter the white crocodile, an enemy straight out of Hoshi wo Miru Hito. The stats suggest the croc is twice as strong as the previous robot, so I quickly hit J again.

               I find myself in a room with several octagonal shapes. I search the area, yet there's little else of interest in the corridor. With no alternatives, I step on the octagons to the south.

               No idea what's going on here. The game didn't make any fuss when I magically flew away from the robot or the crocodile, but the teleporters deserve a ??!!

               This room has even larger octagons and is the first area that's bordered by a featureless void. Perhaps I've reached the end of the world or at least some sort of ocean. I notice a shape in the distance that looks sort of like a spaceship, a notion that fills me with excitement. 

               As I approach the ship, the game crashes. Disappointment reigns.

               In the Psychic City is probably super innovative for one reason: the overhead world map and static first person battle screens would be featured two years later in the original Dragon Quest, possibly the most influential JRPG of all time. I hope Yuji Horii drew some inspiration from this game.

               HOT・B had big ambitions, and while the language barrier will keep me from uncovering their full execution, I can say they really tried. The locales definitely have more variety than most JRPGs in general. A sewer, a teleporter, a military complex, and a weird hangar all in the first twenty minutes? The battle system seems fun, and the use of inventory items probably puts it one step ahead of the Black Onyx. If I ever find a translation guide for In the Psychic City, I'm going to boot it up right away.

               I picked up a copy of Brain Lord on SNES today, as well as several import Game Boy games: Master Karateka, Double Dragon, Mr. Driller, Maru's Mission, Cave Noir, and SD Gundam something G. The last is on my must play list, featuring gameplay remarkable similar to Zone of Enders: The Fist of Mars on Game Boy Advance.