Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Diary Entry #41: Cryo's Odyssey, or How French People Never Realized that Adventure Games Weren't Cool Anymore

             Thousands of years ago, people verbally recited all of the travails of Greek heroes like Achilles and Odysseus. Now, I need only play a PC game thanks to some French people.

             At the turn of the millennium, PC adventure gaming was in a dreadful spot. 3D was in, so companies were forced to develop fancy 3D engines if they hoped to compete with the Quake 2s and Half-Lifes. In 1998, LucasArts released Grim Fandango, a 3D adventure that played like Resident Evil with more lateral thinking and less action. The game sold below expectations, although the similarly designed Escape from Monkey Island fared better in 2000. Still, these two games were the final adventure titles in the LucasArts library, leading the company to release tons of Star Wars titles.

             Sierra, the other juggernaut of adventure gaming, fared even worse. King's Quest 8 plays like a better version of Ocarina of Time, although this is purely coincidence; both games were developed at the same time, released within a month of each other. Their final adventure title, Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, was plagued by various delays, the biggest being a switch to 3D in mid-development. The game has one of the longest and most detailed puzzle in adventure gaming history, but it's buttressed by a variety of idiotic puzzles. Check this article to see what I mean. It hit store shelves in 1999 and sold below expectations. Now that action games could tell just as good of stories as your favorite point-and-click game, the adventure genre was no longer mainstream.

             Thankfully, Europeans never got the memo. The French company Cryo Interactive made some great adventure games throughout the '90s, with Commander Blood and Dune being bonafide classics. Both are quite innovative, reshuffling traditional elements of adventure games into something wholly different, whether it be wonky puppetry or bizarre grand strategy. Unfortunately, it was much more common for Cryo to release hackneyed clones of whatever was popular. Their long-running Atlantis and Egypt games managed to ape Myst to the breaking point.

             In 1999, Cryo opted to copy the 3D LucasArts titles instead. Evidently there's a trilogy of Grim Fandango clones: the original Arthur's Knights, Arthur's Knights 2, and Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses.

             Odyssey looked to be the most competent of all three, so I quickly snatched it up. As Heriseus, a representative of Ulysses's wife, Penelope, you are tasked with searching for the big U himself. For those of you without a high school education, Ulysses got lost after the Trojan war, being cast back and forth across the sea by various demented gods and lusty goddesses.

             Naturally, the search begins in Troy. On the streets, you'll find prostitutes, gamblers, and soldiers, all of whom might steal your money or kill you. One of the features I like is that Ulysses can kill anybody, although doing so will typically end in him getting killed by a soldier. A slave in the opening section is fair game though.

             Unfortunately, the only murder that gets you into jail isn't actually your fault. Early on, a rogue named Mikis offers to take Heriseus straight to Ulysses, but it's actually a plot! Regardless, Heriseus blacks out, and upon awakening finds the dead body of Mikis. Getting imprisoned for the game leads to one of the games sillier puzzles.

             Step one: get on roof of jail.

             Step two: pick up rock on roof.

             Step three: drop rock on guard.

             Honestly, I wish all of the puzzles were that simple. The next puzzle is far more complicated. Over a dozen tiles are placed into the walls and only four are needed to be placed arbitrarily into this door. This is the kind of obtuse logic I'd expect from Myst, not Grim Fandango. 

             The door leads to a teleporter, which sends you to the infamous city of the Lotus Eaters. This dude seems to be having a particularly bad lotus trip. The city shows off the game's excellent use of perspective, which often pans about as the player moves rather than cutting to different angles a la Resident Evil. It's a great touch, especially for the 2000s.

             Heriseus has to make this psychedelic potion in order to follow a specific Lotus Eater that transports him to the Medusa's forest. This is actually one of the worst parts of the game, forcing the player to go through a maze of sorts. While it's not actually a maze as birds often pop out and guides you, it frequently disappears, so you'll be clambering to find the starting point over and over again.

             The actual battle with Medusa is incredibly frustrating. It's terribly dark, and Medusa never gives up. Sneaking up is impossible, not to mention the whole turning you into stone gimmick.

             Constant reloading is the only real technique. I finally beheaded Medusa on my eleventh try, grabbing her head and quickly pressing onward. There's a rather strange puzzle involving a deep, dark pit that looks like a puddle. I stepped on it and instantly died, requiring me to reload and beat Medusa again. Many curses were spit out.

             Next up is the island of the Cyclops. In the original story, Ulysses tricks some Cyclops who is the son of Poseidon. Your prisonmate from the beginning of the game is found in a small shack here, although he quickly admits that he's trying to lure you into a trap. A hungry Cyclops appears outside, and your flesh is as good as any. Heriseus needs to find a way out of here quick.

             There are several solutions to the Cyclops problem, giving the player options that most adventure games skimp on. First off, you have to determine a way to get rid of your comrade. You can let him run out of the cabin and get eaten by the cyclops, slay him with your sword, or flash Medusa's head at him. Next, the Cyclops can also be stabbed or have Medusa's head flashed at him. I personally prefer turning everything to stone.

             Unfortunately, while Ulysses blinded Poseidon's son, you murdered him! Poseidon's pissed and wants you to go through his challenge palace, promising to be ever so magnanimous if you pass his challenges.

             The trials are really some statues that ask very obscure questions regarding Greek mythology. One will make a statement regarding a myth. Your task is to push three buttons on the floor reflecting three people or things related to it, which becomes rather difficult considering a few of the answers are INCORRECT.

             Consulting a walkthrough is mandatory to press on, but the next section is definitely the most interesting. Heriseus must pose as a slave to gain access to a castle inhabited by giants. There's a brief stealth portion, a usually groan inducing affair in early 2000s games, that honestly doesn't ruin the experience. 

             Even with expert stealth skills, the entire plan fails miserably. The giants intend on eating you, and give you instructions. For five days, you will be their servants. The first, third, and fifth days you will cook in the kitchen, while the second and fourth days will be spent chilling in some random room.

             If Heriseus doesn't escape after five days, the giants feast on him in a fabulously graphic cinematic. This game over is so detailed, it might as well be considered an official ending! The actual escape route is appropriately ridiculous, requiring you to smooth out a cliff bottom in order to gracefully escape through the kitchen's garbage chute.

             Back on the boat, Heriseus's dead wife tells him to guide his airship over to Circe's island. Sorry I forgot to mention the airship, but so much ridiculous stuff is crammed into this game that the flying boat feels a little inconsequential.

             And Circe turns you into a pig. 

             The following section is rather silly, requiring piggy Heriseus to drop pillows and vials into specific spots. Still, it's better than putting stuff into doors at random.

             Poseidon's henchmen comes and stabs straight through Circe. Despite her earlier malevolence, Heriseus gets her a curative potion and Circe restores his human form.

              The next stop is Hades itself, where Heriseus gets to cut in line.

              There's a strange and lengthy portion that follows where three giant statues analyze the various deeds of Heriseus. I thought that I had played the game conservatively, not killing anyone or anything needlessly, but the statues act like I'm a total dick. 

              Even weirder, it's immediately followed by a section where you're Mikis, the guy Heriseus allegedly killed in the beginning of the game. The premise is simple: Heriseus kills Mikis, and if you don't figure out a way to save the poor fellow, the scene simply replays to give you another opportunity. This leads to Mikis getting killed over and over and over again until you determine the rather obvious solution.

              Hell is not a cool place. There's fire, brimstone, lava, the works.

              Not only that, but the actual denizens of Hades are pretty big a-holes. Sysiphus can trick you into taking his job of pushing that boulder up the hill, which sounds pretty contradictory to the original myths. I guess it's good that I don't care at all.

              Cryo's artists did a great job on some of the locales. I love the mixture of photo, video, and 3D effects mixed together, even if the results are more bizarre than aesthetically appealing.

              The final battle with Poseidon eventually unfurls, although it's pretty awful. You have to select three randomly determined weapons from a list of seven and attack Poseidon with each in a specified order. If the correct weapon is used in the right sequence, Poseidon falls to one knee. If it's the right weapon in the wrong slot, he gets slightly stunned. 

              In the end, Poseidon dies...

              ...the whole thing ends up being a story reiterated by Homer (imagine how many reloads he'd have to describe in his tale)...and then it ends. Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses is a fascinating snapshot of where people thought adventure gaming was going circa 2000. It's the exact same stuff you do when playing a 2D point-and-click adventure: use item A to further story, get item B, use item B to further story, etc. There are some interesting choices that recall Dynamix's excellent adventures, Heart of China, Rise of the Dragon, and Willy Beamish, but they really don't matter in the end and hardly effect the game's outcome: you find Ulysses.

              Original reviews for Odyssey: Search for Ulysses don't really know what to make of it. They lambaste the interface, although I didn't have any real trouble with it. Puzzles themselves polarize reviewers, with some claiming they're overly simplistic while others think they are too complex. You'd think it couldn't be both, but at times it truly is, although the word "complex" might as well be exchanged for a phrase like "totally random".

              Despite all this, I'd probably rather play this than Grim Fandango or Gabriel Knight 3. It does a lot right, and what it does wrong is still better than the bulk of adventure games. The reason the adventure genre disappeared: 3D brought absolutely nothing new to the table except weird polygonal figures.

              I've played more graphic adventures recently, but I've spent so much time describing Odyssey that it's best left for another post. One of the others is also based on a classic story: Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. While many of the game's elements recall The Colonel's Bequest, that probably has more to do with Roberta Williams's Agatha Christie boner than vice versa. I might blog about that next, but then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Diary Entry #40: Famicom-to-NES Pin Converter = Instant New Game Collection

             Years ago, I bought a cheap, nondescript Famicom to NES pin converter. For some reason, the actual unit doesn't have enough space between the plastic casing and the pins to fit into a front loading NES. I'm not even sure if it's compatible with a NTSC NES, but with my recent acquisition of a top-loading Nintendo, which both fits the converter and has no lockout chip, I now have access to the massive Famicom library. This post will cover my great albeit small Famicom collection.

             Before I even got the converter, I bought a nice boxed copy of Takeshi no Chosenjou for a little under ten dollars. While the game's impossible to play without a walkthrough, I still adore it's aesthetic: forcing the player to intentionally lose in Pachinko, divorce their wife, quit their job, beat up the elderly, get drunk, and so on all in one action-adventure. Forget claims of Suda51 being punk and Hideo Kojima being post-modern, Beat Takeshi and Taito's 1986 classic is more punk and post-modern than you'll ever be.

             Click to enlarge the cute character designs from the manual. I'm a big fan of whatever that ape man thing is next to the skeleton. 

             I'm a huge fan of the original Fist of the North Star anime, so when I discovered Hokuto no Ken 3 was a Dragon Quest clone that re-tells the the entire series, I quickly snatched it up. For years I was unable to figure out how to proceed due to the language barrier until I discovered a Thai gaming site posted a walkthrough on Facebook. Despite having to put the entire text through a translator, it was more than enough for me to get through the entire game. 

My final rating: B+

Final objective rating: F-

It's an awful game with absolutely no effort put into its design, yet fans of the series will definitely get a kick out of it.

             Paris-Dakar Rally Special is an incredibly dumb game that quickly grows on you. It's got adventure, platforming, shooting, swimming, and rafting, something that few racing titles will ever have. The game's not particularly well made, but who cares? For a stupid good time, grab it.

             I heard that Youkai Club was a Castlevania clone, and with the under five dollar eBay price, who can say no? It's got some booty hit detection and jump mechanics that surprisingly don't ruin the game. I'm inclined to say it's hard to hate any horror-themed NES game, although I'm not a fan of Werewolf: The Last Warrior or Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. Perhaps I'll play Werewolf tomorrow.

             Dragon Buster II is a straight-up clone of the AD&D Intellivision game. Like in that title, you wander around dungeons with corridors that only become visible as you explore them, enemies can be heard before you get to the rooms, and arrows are a limited commodity that must be collected. The world map even borrows the graphic designs of the original. Regardless, Dragon Buster II is almost as great as its inspiration. My friend Justin played this for nearly two hours before we cut him off.


             A game that's always piqued my interest, Famicom Jump is an earlyish action-RPG that remixes the traditional JRPG elements into something fresh and fun. Various anime characters can be added to your "party", which disappears whenever you get into battle. Whichever party member you select as your leader goes into battle alone against two or three enemies, although there are frequent one-on-one boss battles. Need to play more of this for sure.


             Oops! Evidently the back of this cartridge is far more interesting than the front. One of Jaleco's sumo wrestling games. It's a button-masher to the bone, and while there's not too much depth, it's got a lot of spunk. I'm always looking for spunk in my Famicom games.

             This game rules! Jaleco Wrestling Game I Haven't Looked Up The Title For is a classic, outclassing every 2D NES/Game Boy/Super NES wrestling title I've ever played. Fire Pro Wrestling X or whatever for SNES is probably better, but it doesn't have an adorable chibi Abdullah the Butcher elbow-dropping fools all over the place. Accept no imitators, get this game!

             I've come across Challenger before on a bootleg plug-and-play. I didn't really know the full history though: it was initially intended to be a port of Hudson's ZX Spectrum classic Stop the Express and quickly turned into a whole other beast. The initial level is faithful to the Spectrum original, but then the game goes into a large Zelda-esque map. You go into caves and jump on geysers to collect keys before being booted back to the overworld. Pretty basic for a REAL-TIME ACTION ADVENTURE as the game's opening screen boasts, but it's a ton of fun.

             My last Famicom game is probably my worst. A weird platformer where you have to control two characters at once, it's as strange and cumbersome as it sounds. To make matters worse, there's no clear objectives, with random items popping out of nowhere and most trails leading to dead ends. It's probably one of the hardest games I now own for all the wrong reasons, which is still pretty awesome. 

             In addition to these, I've been on a huge PC gaming kick. I've played the original Pajama Sam trilogy, which I might discuss on my next post. Another great game is Orion Burger, made by some strange German people who managed to get some top-tier voice actors. Most importantly, I played through Shingen the Ruler, perhaps Hot B's finest hour. Right now, I'm going to head back to Sherlock Holmes vs. some guy named Lupin. All will be revealed in due time!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Diary Entry #39: Guitar Hero Hi-jinx and Reflections on Metal

             Lately I've been considering starting a music blog to upload some of the strange (and wonderfully non-copyrighted) music in my collection. Most of it's avant-garde/exprimental stuff or obscure metal demos, the latter being some of my favorite recordings of all time.

             Strangely, my love of underground metal hasn't translated into much love for the mainstream stuff. I hate a lot of hair metal, I loathe nu metal, and grunge is absolutely awful. Ever hear of thrash metal's big four? They all suck except for Megadeth. Even so, half of their output still sucks because they were always ripping off Mustaine's former occupation, Metallica.

             With this in mind, I laid down the cold hard cash for Guitar Hero: Metallica for PS2. After playing Guitar Hero: Aerosmith with friends recently, I needed to pick up that big plastic controller once again, and the only way was with some real metal. Which Metallica isn't, but it's the closest I'm going to get, right?

             The game supports the full band controller set, allowing for four friends to get together and play awful songs like "Fuel" and "Frantic". I don't know that many Metallica fans, so I played alone. The songs are all pretty meticulous, as Metallica focused more on guitar compositions than any kind of actual songcraft.

             At least, that's the impression I came in with. After playing four a few hours and unlocking all of the tracks after only eleven songs, I continued to play. A few things got me thinking, not only about Metallica, but also about popular conceptions of metal and how the tastes of a few can alter conceptions of the many.

             Thing I thought about #1: at some points in time, Metallica actually wrote music that combined actual songs with technical wizardry. Their early work is searing, but it's largely derivative of NWOBHM acts. Not so incidentally, Michael Schenker Group and Judas Priest are both in the game, hinting at these rather obvious connections. One thing I noticed while playing Hell Bent for Leather is how complex the actual guitar riff is. It's great, and only astute guitar heads would even notice.

             Just a few years after their inception, Metallica found their niche: progressive metal. Over four years, they churned out some greats. One, Dyer's Eve, Fade to Black, Battery and some others are real songs that play with structure and craft in ways that keep the listener engaged. Who else can make a nine minute classic that remains searing and actually continues to build to the very end? It puts the King Crimsons and Pink Floyds to shame. 

             Stuff I pondered #2: Metallica themselves or the developers would have you believe no one else is as complex as them. Of the non-Metallica songs featured, most of them are power chord-fests without any thought. Some Foo Fighters song I never heard of, a crappy Alice in Chains with three chords used throughout, Thin Lizzy's "Boys are Back in Town". Since Metallica's complicated arrangements tapered off in the '90s, no other band is allowed to do anything cool. Also, thrash metal never really existed either.

             Track selection fact #3: Load, Re-Load, and St. Anger never really existed. Represented by at most two songs from one of these albums, the majority focuses on either stuff from the '80s or the Black Album. Metallica probably feels they proved themselves already, so they can keep making shitty albums and no one will really notice.

             Noteworthy brain waves #4: popular conceptions about metal are reinforced by music games. Guitar Hero 2 probably taught more kids about classic rock than anything else, exposing them to "Smoke on the Water" and "War Pigs". If some kid bought this, they might think Samhain or Kyuss actually matter when they don't at all. Too much power in the hands of greedy corporate game companies interested in getting cheap rights to stupid crap.

             Thankfully, the music game craze died. Maybe it was a good thing, getting little kids to buy Buckethead CDs and the like. Unfortunately, these band-centric Guitar Hero titles seem more like egocentric head trips. Yuck. We'll see how Guitar Hero: Van Halen goes.

             Along with this game, I recently splurged on a variety of games at a buy two get one free sale. I'll elaborate on these over the coming week.