Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Diary Entry #32: MULE Incompetence and Alien Simulations

             One of the pride and joys of my NES collection is my Four Score. A four player game adapter, it turns your little grey console into an unstoppable party machine. Although there are only 23 games released using the peripheral, some are an absolute blast to play. Swords and Serpents condenses the '80s Interplay  CRPG into a button-mashing dungeon romp, Super Jeopardy allows for a much larger trivia battle, Spot re-writes the classic Othello board game to include two more players, and Nightmare on Elm Street is just crazy four player platforming action. The majority of Four Score games are sports and racing games, with classics like Kings of the Beach, Super Spike V'Ball, and RC Pro Am 2.

             I've always wanted to pick up the NES version of MULE, an Atari 8-bit classic revered as one of the greatest multi-player PC titles of the time. It goes for about 18 dollars on eBay, but I managed to get a copy from a local game store last week for much less. After a band practice on Sunday, my friends and I gave it a whirl.

             You have one year to build up a space colony. Whoever has the most money, land, and goods combined after twelves turns is the winner of the game.

             To start, the game randomly moves a square across the board. Any player can press their button at any time to claim the currently marked space, though the square moves pretty quick, making precision pretty difficult. If multiple players are all vying for the same space, reflexes are your only ally.

             After gaining some land, you need to designate whether you will grow outfit farms, electrical generators, or mining facilities on your spaces. While farms and generators obviously satisfy needs for energy and food across the colony, mining becomes incredibly important as it's the only way to get smithore, an element used to create MULEs. 

             MULEs are the only way you can outfit any of your land to harvest materials, and since you'll be needing food and energy every turn, MULEs quickly become essential. To start, there are only a finite number of MULEs. Once these are all gone, there's no other way to really expand. This is the roadblock my friends and I ran into, as we could not for the life of us determine how to make more MULEs. 

             Evidently, more MULEs are created by selling smithore. At the end of every turn, there's an auction portion, allowing every character to buy and sell one another's materials. It's actually sort of cute. The sellers are at the top of the screen, and the buyers are at the bottom. Players who wish to make a transaction must move towards each other; the higher up you are on the screen, the higher the price. 

             With smithore, you're going to want to sell to the shop, represented by the line at the bottom of the screen. For every two pieces of smithore sold, another MULE is created in the shop. One of the unique features of the games economy is that when there are no mules in the store, prices of smithore skyrocket. Buying MULEs and letting them go free to keep smithore prices up sounds like an okay idea.

             When you've got nothing left to do on you turn, the bar allows you to gamble for small monetary gain. You always seem to win at gambling, one of the stranger features of this foreign world. As my friends and I could not figure out how to make more MULEs, many of our turns ended with quick gambling sessions.

             Speaking of multiplayer games, I've recently grown very interested in the GameStorm catalogue. How awesome would it have been to play all sorts of ridiculous MMOs for only ten dollars a month? Aliens Online, Godzilla Online, Legends of Kesmai, Magestorm, Darkness Falls, and countless other action and RPG titles were all available for a minimal charge. Only in the '90s.

             Aliens Online sounds like one of the great lost classics of MMO history. It's premise is relatively straightforward: aliens versus marines, with some interesting gameplay decisions. Players gather experience in order to increase rank, which allows marines to gain greater endurance and aliens to eventually spawn as the Queen alien. I'm sure it had plenty of balance issues, but it's difficult to say since the game's been discontinued for fourteen years. Unfortunately, we'll probably never get to play this one ever again. This and the Matrix Online are my two biggest woulda-shoulda-couldas in MMO history.

             Reading about this Alien game also inspired me to try out Alien for the ZX Spectrum/C64/Amstrad. I opted to play the Spectrum version as any personal computer that uses more than three colors at a time is probably bad for your eyes and your imagination.

             As in the film, you are aboard the Nostromo, a ship invaded by one pissed off extra terrestrial nightmare. The spaceship is pretty large, with three decks and a smattering of rooms. In the short game, you control three characters who need to eradicate the alien, a task you can allegedly accomplish in a few different ways. The game plays out in real time, with options taking ten seconds to fully register. Occasionally, a cat runs across the screen. No idea what's going on with that. I like to think of it as an Alien simulator: a full ship, a full crew, tons of options, and one pissed off alien that needs to be eradicated.

             Lambert takes matters into his own hands. He boldly rushes out to attack the alien, a strange green creature with matching green pants. The beast makes quick work of Lambert, who actually forgot to grab a weapon before venturing further into the ship. Against insurmountable odds and on the brink of death, Lambert still remains stable.

             Ripley pulls off a grate in the first room and climbs into the ventilation system. It's pretty interesting that the ship's design is so detailed, but it takes a very long time to maneuver about the area. Other "grilles" need to be removed to proceed, which takes even more time. I imagine the alien will take advantage of this situation somehow.

             The duct system is absolutely huge! Although trying to find an exit, every path looks exactly the same, so Ripley winds up taking the scenic route of the air shafts. Ripley is uneasy about her current situation, but she presses on.

             Parker heads into the Cryo Valut, which has a hypersleep chamber. Tired of dealing with that punk ass alien, Parker decides he's tired of fighting. The sooner he goes into a long cryogenic sleep, the sooner he'll be able to go home, watch re-runs of Full House, and eat absurd amounts of ice cream.

             While Parker dreams of being able to laugh with Uncle Jessie and shovel down Superman ice cream once more, Ripley is being wounded by the pants-wearing alien. By the time I actually navigate the menu system to access her character, she's pretty much dead.

             In death, Ripley, Parker, and Lambert are given a 00%. Perhaps they should picked up the weapons in the first room. As it stands, the alien managed to kill almost everyone without even a scraped knee.

             I tried to think outside of the box for my next to plays. Parker, Ripley, and Lambert decide that none of them gave a crap about the alien in the first place. Let him frisk about the ship, all he's going to find are a few scanners, flamethrowers, and a very illusive kitty.

             Of course, sleeping on the job is a very incompetent practice as well. The alien still makes it to Earth, although since the creature doesn't have any eggs of its own, it can still be gunned down pretty easily by security back on terra firma.

             On the third try, Ripley and friends decide the alien threat is so great that they can spare their existence to prevent the xenomorph from reaching civilization. Ripley initiates the Nostromo's self-destruct sequence, which starts a real-time five minute countdown. Accepting the inevitable, Ripley, Lambert, and Parker chill in corridor #1.

             Five minutes later, the entire ship is incinerated. The screen flashes black and white for about fifteen seconds, followed by...

...a screen displaying the body count. Despite killing the entire crew, the alien still died. Suicidal sacrifice is 12% competent. 

             I absolutely have to come back to Alien.  The developers could have made it a stupid action game, but instead we get a very unique strategy/simulation. The plodding, methodical pace totally fits the nature of the film, making the game far more tense than it has any right to be. According to various reviews, playthroughs in long mode can last upwards of two hours, which I plan on setting aside time for this weekend.

             The question now is a complex one: what should I play next? I imported a copy of Siren: New Translation, acquired Ogre Battle 64 for less than two dollars, and intend on checking out that Deadpool PS3 game sometime soon. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Diary Entry #31: Jurassic Park: The Game Sucks

             All throughout 2012, Telltale Games popularity skyrocketed with every successive episode of the Walking Dead. Sales in the millions and countless game of the year accolades gave the company a whole new audience, one which its previous licensed titles failed to gather. Home Star Runner, Back to the Future, Bone, CSI, and Law & Order have all been turned into episodic adventure games with varying success. I've actually been waiting years to try out Jurassic Park: The Game, which I've heard is a veritable quick time extravaganza.

              What is up with the title? Despite being preceded by dozens of Jurassic Park titles going back to the NES, somebody had the gall to title it Jurassic Park: The Game. Am I supposed to imagine that all the previous Jurassic Park games weren't really games at all? If anything, Telltales product barely qualifies as a game.

              Little arrows constantly pop up on the screen. It's sort of like Heavy Rain, except there are no choices: you either run away from dinosaurs or get eaten real quick. It devolves into a Dragon's Lair rip off, but while Dragon's Lair had the benefit of short quick time sequences that randomized, Jurassic Park makes you sit through long and tedious cutscenes with little excitement. The story focuses on a park maintenance man who for some reason was allowed to bring his daughter to the park around the same time of the film, a pretty phenomenal feat considering the billionaire mogul who built the park just got around to inviting his grandkids that very same day.

              Hope you like the scenes where people wander around in the jungle, because that's all you're going to do. Sometimes raptors attack, sometimes you fall down cliffs, sometimes your faceless friends will get eaten, and all the time you'll be pushing one button at a time.

              Perhaps the most unique feature is the mind steadying feature, which requires me to move the mouse to a target. It occurs once in the first episode when a raptor runs past you really fast, somehow driving you to the brink of madness even after you almost got eaten by dozens of raptors a few minutes prior.

              In short, this game's garbage. I'd rather play with a T Rex turd than this game. 

              I've been buying way too many games, difficult to keep track. My next blog post will detail all of my recent acquisitions. I'm currently playing through Alien: Resurrection for PS1, a neat little Half-Life clone from 2000. All of the corridors are really dark, similar to Doom 3, except without any memorable scripted sequences. Enemies will often randomly generate behind you and have weird attacks that can almost instantly kill you, leading to some interesting and frustrating situations. It's pretty cool, definitely better than Alien Trilogy. My hope is to blaze through this over the next few days and start up Ogre Battle 64 over memorial day weekend at some point.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Diary Entry #30: TV Drools and J-Horror Rules (in Video Game Form)

             I hate television. Everybody watches it except me. Whenever people start talking about TV shows, I change the subject to how stupid television is. Generally people will nod and admit its all dull fodder, but I can always tell deep down they're super alienated by my sentiments. Their body language tells all: staring blankly at the floor, fidgeting with things around them, etc. They'd probably be more comfortable if I told them the color of my underwear.

             Still, I enjoy games based on popular television shows. If I could randomly grab a controller and start manipulating whatever was going on in Breaking Bad or Dexter, I'd probably watch TV all day long. The adventure genre is probably best suited for the TV drama game as it provides for an even narrative pace. Games like the X-Files and the LA Law DOS game managed to do this with some very interesting results.

             While this approach is an obvious match for TV licenses, many developers have always made and continue to make bad action games based on hot properties. For every Beavis and Butthead: Virtual Stupidity, there's always ten dumb games where you just run forward and shoot some people. This might make sense for shows like Star Trek or Batman: the Animated Series, but when I'm picking up an ALF game, I'm not expecting the core mechanic to be smacking around bats with a carrot.

             So when I read that Telltale Games made a handful of episodic adventure games based on crime dramas, I got a little excited. Although the majority of games are based on the various CSI shows, I gravitated towards Law & Order: Legacies. My mom was always an avid watcher of the show while I was growing up, so it has a bit of nostalgic value.

             The game starts with a maid discovering the body of her co-worker in a storage closet. Naturally, you begin with the law segment of Law & Order, searching for clues and interrogating witnesses. Much of the game proceeds through totally non-interactive cutscenes, which makes it more like watching a bad TV show than I really wanted. There are occasional investigation sequences in which you circle key items in an area to find clues, but they're infrequent and mundane.

             If you're not watching a cutscene, you're listening to random characters gab about stuff. You have to select various topics to discuss with occasional prompts. Usually, these simply ask if you can trust a character's statement.

              There's a ridiculous amount of fan service in the game. Familiar faces from across the series are all featured, though I'll be damned if I could remember their names without the subtitles.

             Eventually, you find your culprit. He's Baran, an ambassador from Russia who compares his reproductive organ to a cane. In a move ripped straight from Lethal Weapon 3, he has diplomatic immunity, which any pop culture lawyer can tell you allows ambassadors to kill everyone they please. 

             The order portion starts up soon after, though it's quickly disrupted.

             Baran gets shot to death while on the stand. It's surprisingly graphic, and definitely not typical for the actual show. It creates a new antagonist: the victim's father! The case now becomes an anti-vigilante justice crusade, which some guy named McCoy says must be won.

             The court room sequences play out in an interesting way, different from the acclaimed Phoenix Wright games in many ways. The balance of justice meter is located at the top of the screen. In order to get the maximum penalty on the defendant, this needs to be on your side. You gain points by objecting at the right time for the right reasons and avoiding questions that cause the jury to view the defendant in a sympathetic light. The defense tries to strike a plea bargain in the end. Depending on how the balance of justice tips, you can hit the defendant hard or soft with the final verdict.

             Overall, it's a goofy little game that lacks any of the meaning found in Telltale Games more acclaimed works. After playing the Walking Dead, I couldn't shake the feeling that all the choices I made in game were largely superficial, but here, choices don't exist. It's totally sucked of any life, relegating itself to strict Law & Order fan service with a couple of underdeveloped creative touches.

             I recently bought Ju-On: The Grudge: Haunted House Simulator for the Wii, a game with too many subtitles for it's own good It features neither puzzles nor NPCs. The controls are barely functional, forcing you to constantly reorient the Wii remote in order to walk straight. If you don't die, an easily avoidable fate, the game can be completed in less than an hour. Worse yet, I love visceral horror, the antithesis of all the J-Horror trash: the Rings, the Ju-Ons, the One Missed Calls. This should be the worst game ever, but it somehow adds up to one of the best horror games I've ever played.

             The game is broken up into five levels, each one unlocked after playing the last. This mirrors the Telltale Games episodic approach, although the game takes a very Japanese approach to puzzles. Much of the time, you're simply looking for a key to open a door or waiting for a cutscene to trigger, similar to games like JB Harold, Jake Hunter, or Snatcher, where just finding the right sequence of menu options will lead to progress. The only inventory items aside from keys are batteries, which are necessary to power your flashlight. It's dumb, but playing it late at night with all the lights off, the game's bag of cheap scares is more shock inducing than it has any right to be.

             While you walk around aimlessly, this generic Japanese ghost girl terrorizes you. On screen directional prompts will appear, requiring you to wiggle the Wiimote in a certain direction to get away. This can get pretty chaotic, and while this usually can be beaten by simply waving the Wiimote frantically in every direction, my friend and I did manage to die twice. Other times, bloody hands will magically appear on the walls, ghostly images will appear, and dolls will fall from three story buildings, making a splat noise upon impact.

             Something about the game's unique approach creates an experience equally ridiculous and captivating, never yielding any truly horrifying moments while introducing enough shallow jump scares to maintain the player's interest. I haven't unlocked the fifth episode yet, but I intend on doing so soon.

             I'm probably going to play Sweet Home tonight. If not, I'll probably play Rise to Honor, this amazing PS2 beat-em-up I got yesterday for two bucks. Either way, all is well.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Diary Entry #29: Lovecraftian Adventures in the Wanadoo Dominion

The Necronomicon itself, getting
ready to bite anyone who touches
it. By the great Crystal Mielcarek.
             After hours of trying to get Riven: The Sequel to Myst to stop crashing on Vista and scoffing at the dreadful load times of the PS1 port, I've resolved to play Riven on my Windows 95 computer at some point in time. The issue is that my older PC is in my mancave, a place that's become more of a storage unit than anything else. Instead, I tried out Necronomicon: The Dawning of Darkness, a Myst-alike by Wanadoo Edition. I recently acquired another Wanadoo PC game from around the same time called Chicago 1930, which looks like Fallout 1 with gangsters. Promising stuff.

             I once wrote a shortish essay about how Lovecraft treats traditional supernatural elements like ghost, which ultimately concluded that while Lovecraft's distinct rogue's gallery reflects many elements of conventional supernatural horror, the actual use of these stock creatures is so limited that any in depth analysis yields no real patterns of interest. Not exactly the most successful research ever, but it did allow me to read a ton of HP Lovecraft, an author I now deeply appreciate. Some of my favorite games are inspired by his works, including Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet and Eternal Darkness. Let's just hope Wanadoo can cut the mustard.

William tries to comfort Edgar, who has
a pretty great 3D hairline.

             You play as William H. Stanton, a guy who lives in Rhode Island. At the game's start, Stanton's friend Edgar comes running up to his house. He gives Willie a strange object, refusing to elaborate on its purpose. Edgar appears to have problems with his sanity due to his research into the occult, a common Lovecraftian trope. Necronomicon is obviously based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Lovecraft's only novel that takes much more time describing random buildings than it does building much suspense.

             Initially, you do not have a fast travel map. Motorcycle is your main method of transportation, and while its only used the first thirty minutes of the game, the little cutscene of you riding is pretty fabulous.

             When you try to visit Edgar's house early on in the game, a doorman continuously answers and tells you to leave, getting more and more threatening if you knock repeatedly. On around the eighth or ninth attempt, he decks you, leading to an automatic game over.

             The local market owner is pretty creepy looking. As a matter of fact... is the local newspaper writer. And even worse...

...this disgruntled local who manages to have the ugliest ear, nose, teeth, and left eye of any game character ever. While all of that was intentionally made to look ugly...

...the revolting hair on some characters is totally insane. With a wiry head of hair and cascades of strange 3D textures for a beard, this guy is pretty damn amusing.

I can't tell whether the trees are gorgeous
or absolutely putrid, but one things for sure:
only in 2001.

             The first hour of the game is all wandering back and forth through the same two areas, but you quickly gain access to a strange abandoned ranch. This leads to the first of the games two underground areas, where the bulk of Necronomicon's puzzles are located. 

             After an annoying torch puzzle, I quickly ran into this beastie. He appears for about three seconds, never to be seen again, but that sort of lends to its creepiness a lot more. Just like in Lovecraft's writings, withholding a full description of the unknown leads to a more jarring effect. If I had to stare at this thing for more than a brief moment, I'd probably wind up thinking it's really, really dumb like you do.

             I reach a strange laboratory, which leads to me making a strange mixture of various chemicals. I inject the chemicals in this syringe... order to bring this talking brain to life. He reveals quite a bit about the malevolent force below Providence, although it doesn't go into too much detail. 

             Eventually, you get a mummy to talk using magical alchemist powers. After speaking with him, there's a jarringly quick smattering of cutscenes, which leads to:

...Edgar's death by your hand. The scene is actually rather strange: Edgar reveals that he's been overtaken by an ancient consciousness and Stanton guns him down almost instantly. This is where Lovecraft's novel ends, but the game keeps on rolling.

             After committing cold-blooded murder, you meet the librarian. I wouldn't wish those eyebrows on my worst enemy.

             The librarian makes you read from the Necronomicon and other various esoteric tomes, a feat that drives most Lovecraftian "heroes" to madness. 

             Some investigative work reveals that some points in the slave trade and homes of occult sects make a giant Star of David across the Atlantic Ocean. This leads you to the second underground dungeon, a place filled with the game's most visually striking moments. Here's some images: 

             The last picture is the one I keep contemplating the most. As William dashes towards a giant underground pyramid, he runs past this nondescript man. Where did he come from?

             I don't really want to go into too much detail about the remainder of the game, but I can tell you there are two separate endings and a few goofy puzzles remaining. The puzzles are more creative as the game draws to an end: pushing buttons and running through corridors to beat a time limit, a gorgeous maze area with absolutely no gimmick other than that it's huge, and a timed button pushing section that determines the fate of the Earth.

             Necronomicon feels like a sleazy European adventure game because it's just that. Goofy voice-acting, bad 3D characters, and absolutely no sense of pacing are the norm. Compared to how brisk the investigation portions play out, the dungeon areas feel far more Myst-like, throwing puzzle after puzzle at you in rapid succession. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but honestly, I'd rather play a trashy game that's fun and unique than some million dollar game that brings little new to the gaming landscape.

             I've been investigating bad European budget titles for a while, ranging from Two Worlds II to Cursed Mountain on Wii. Perhaps someday I'll make a more in depth post about some of these, but for now, I'm thinking about playing Law & Order: Legacies or more Record of Agarest War 2.