davidn: (Default)
When we were snowed in a couple of weeks ago I asked my mum for her treacle scone recipe so we could have a fireside snack. I used to record my rare successes in the kitchen for future reference and wanted to revive doing so for this one, especially because I had to convert it all to America's stupid measurement system and wanted a place to write the altered recipe down.

Granny Bun's Treacle Scones

2 cups plain flour
Pinch of salt
4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 tbsp butter
1/2 cup milk (to start with - might need an extra 1/4 cup or so)
1 tbsp molasses

  1. Whisk or sift the flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and pumpkin pie spice into a bowl and mix it all together. (Originally the recipe calls for mixed spice, but pumpkin pie spice seems to be more readily available here and is almost identical)

  2. Chop the butter into pieces and rub it into the mixture with your hands until you have a uniformly crumbly mix.

  3. Pour the milk into a separate bowl and then mix the tablespoon of molasses into it so you have a concoction of... brown semi-sweet milk.

  4. Pour that into the dry ingredients and mix it together to get a soft cohesive but not sticky dough - add more milk if needed to stick it all together.

  5. Slap that on to a baking sheet, roll it out to half an inch thick, cut it up and bake for 12 to 15 minutes. You can roll it out and use a biscuit-cutter on it if you want, but I just use a pizza wheel to separate it into wedges.

  6. I did some icing with icing sugar, milk and more molasses, but it didn't work out very well. You can try if you like.

davidn: Albion band logo (albion)

Kill or be killed! I made this video a while ago but just realized tonight that I hadn't got around to posting it anywhere that I usually put my music. Exciting things are underway, because this week I received and shipped out a bulk order from SA Music, a specialty metal music shop in Osaka - my music is going to be physically sold in a store for the first time!

This must be the most straightforwardly heavy song I've ever written - after the choirs and excess of the opening song I tried to keep this as purely guitar-led as possible, and it doesn't even use the string-like keyboard chord background instrument that's a staple of my music. I accidentally made up for it by just having a million choir vocals going at the same time instead. Celine makes a return here as the voice of Flowey, after lending her voice to Girard on The Poison Skies, and I love how the growls punctuate Flowey's mantra during the chorus. Apart from the Once Upon a Time introduction, it's also probably the song that follows the music of the game the most closely, as the verses are a minor version of Flowey's famous demented theme.

My daughter Penny influenced my music for the first time here! I was playing an early draft of the song playing on my phone, and as she'd just started to crawl, she decided to make her way over and curiously attempt to fit the entire thing in her mouth. The result was a filtered, phased guitar sound just as the first chorus ended - and it sounded so good that I recreated it immediately.


Dec. 25th, 2018 09:10 pm
davidn: (prince)
I should begin recording my finished projects here again as well! Here's one of them. It's something that started as a side project and then consumed my life for two and a half months.

This is my own reworking of the ZDoom mod "Brutal Doom", which was released a few years ago and added a ton of new more violent and spectacular material to the base Doom game. Unfortunately its complexity (not to mention the way that it was made from a ton of different other mods jammed together in a big ball of duct tape) makes it extremely difficult to comprehend and work with. This more lightweight edition that I've christened "BDLite" completely reworks the monsters, weapons and effects so that the faster and more aggressive take on Doom is still intact, but jettisons the extraneous things and makes the code easier to build on. I wrote it specifically as a base for my own project "Vulkan" (which I'll re-release soon) but I'm hoping it will also be useful to other ZDoomers - and it's fun to play with on its own as well.

This is the thread on the ZDoom forums about the mod's development - the people in the community are great! Oddly for such a famously hellish and violent game, it's one of the most friendly and helpful communities I've been in online - perhaps due to a higher age and level of maturity than the Internet on average. Elsewhere, I saw some other fan of the original Brutal Doom describing my own mod as "a spiteful attempt to "clean up" Brutal Doom by tearing out about half the stuff and tossing themselves off over how much better they think they are" and I was ready to get all offended about it but then realized that that description is 100% accurate and put it at the top of the site as a ringing endorsement.

If you'd like to try playing Doom with this, you can download it from its own page here, including a boatload of tools that assist in ZDoom mod making that I might clean up and release separately. You'll need GZDoom and one or more of the Doom or FreeDoom WADs.
davidn: (skull)
If you know me, you'll know how obsessive a fan I am of the 80s and early 90s programme Knightmare. And if you know how much of a fan of that I am, you'll be extremely surprised to learn that I haven't ever actually seen the whole thing. It used to be pretty much unobtainable for people who didn't have recordings from the time - in the first year of university I remember compiling my own videos of the later series by running two VCRs simultaneously and copying individual episodes from my parents' video archive - but it's only relatively recently that the entire collection has been uploaded to Youtube.

Knightmare was a Dungeons and Dragons computer game come to life - a blindfolded player known as a "dungeoneer" was put into a virtual dungeon with the aid of a bluescreen, and was guided through by three friends as they dodged superimposed creatures and obstacles and interacted with the strange inhabitants. As cheesy as it might look today, it's hard to remember that this technology was revolutionary at the time - it had unusually high production values for a children's programme, and was incredible to watch.

I went through the entire first series of eight episodes this week, with six quests of very little success. Looking at it as an adult, I can now appreciate that a lot of the feeling is due to the performance of Hugo Myatt, who had had only one television appearance before despite his sheer brilliance at playing the role of the dungeon master Treguard - he was working as a news producer in the mid-eighties, and creator Tim Child thought he looked and sounded sufficiently mediaeval to be perfect for the role. It's impossible not to smile as he gets so into it, really selling the flowery fantasy speech, rolling his Rs as well as any Bishop Brennan (who needs to be in Rrrrrrrrome tomorrow) and ad libbing perfectly along with the seasoned actors around him.

In these early episodes, the dungeon backgrounds were constructed out of really very beautiful painted backgrounds by artist David Rowe, which gives them even more of an eighties charm today - they really evoke the feeling of early gamebox or rulebook artwork. Some of the animations and superimposed monsters - all orchestrated by Tim Child upstairs on an Amiga as the games progressed - looks a bit less authentic, but overall I honestly think the scenery has aged pretty well.

The other thing I noticed is that - even though I'll have to wait until I get to the 90s episodes I know to confirm this - it seems a lot faster than later series were, with the player going from avoiding a snake to facing a wall monster to running from a bomb very rapidly. Later episodes tried to expand beyond the scope of the dungeon and had longer periods of walking around forests and talking to other characters, so it's interesting having none of that and going back to much tighter quests.

Despite being only eight episodes long (which, yes, is very long for a British series, but game shows typically had 13 to 16), the first series suffers a bit from repetition. It might not have been as bad when watching it with a gap of a week between episodes, but the majority of the quests went through the same few rooms with a couple of them appearing every single time. Again, I might have misremembered the variety of rooms in later series - I'll have to see when I get there.

In the meantime, I took down some notes on the order of rooms that each teams went through, and completely overdid things as usual - here is a map of every team's route through the game in the first series. To be fair, 23 full-screen paintings isn't a bad collection, but quests were short as players didn't really know what they were doing at this stage, so the early rooms are seen a lot and only half the teams made it beyond the first level. The brown room with the four square doors leading from it is also interesting, with the same artwork appearing at least four times in different contexts to make new obstacles. I'll have to see if artwork gets further reuse as the series go on!

Robo Recall

Dec. 4th, 2018 10:15 pm
davidn: (Default)
On Black Friday, I walked into a surprisingly calm and non-apocalyptic Best Buy (if we ignore the fact it was 7:30am) and got the last Oculus Rift off the shelf. I'd wanted to try out games and development for VR for a long time, and the experience didn't disappoint - once you've got your room set up, they have you go through an introductory scenario with a friendly little Wall-E type robot and summoning things by picking up and inserting disks, and the feeling of actually being there is truly uncanny.

I had been interested in building environments in VR through GZDoom, but the VR version of that isn't quite in a playable place yet. I had a look around for official first-person shooters for it instead and saw one by the name of Robo Recall that I could download for free because I had the Oculus Touch package. Thinking that it would be a simple sort of demo game due to its title and free status, I gave it a try. I couldn't have been more wrong about it.

To describe the feeling of playing this game is really very difficult - now that I attempt it, I don't think I can adequately convey the feeling of 2018-era VR and how different it makes things from anything I'd played before. The game opens with you standing in a scene on a futuristic city street opposite an electronics shop window, with shiny faceless servant robots milling around on various errands. A group of robots begins to gather around you as the news on the big television in the window reports gradually escalating violence among the robots and eventually the announcement of a recall. It's suddenly interrupted by a burst of images and QR codes that make the robots twitch and stutter in obvious distress, slump for a moment, and then SWIVEL TO STARE RIGHT AT YOU! It's impossible to describe the moment adequately - it sounds like such a little movement, but having it happen in 3D is so stunningly more intense than seeing it on a screen, and it got a massive scream out of me.

You're then put into the shoes of a Robo-Ready recaller hired to fix the situation and introduced to your state-of-the-art office, which is a damp basement - the game has a bit of a Portal/Five Nights at Freddy's/The IT Crowd feel to it as you wander around and go through the tutorial on how to move around. The Oculus Rift is really pretty good at tracking you if you walk around in your physical space, but for covering large distances, you teleport around with a flick of the analogue stick. You're shown how to use weapons, by grabbing a pair of pistols from your hips then pointing and shooting at some targets - and then you're teleported to a tutorial level.

This is where the game really started to defy expectations for me. You're put into the city and have to shoot waves of robots that run or fly in in a Time Crisis-style arrangement, then teleport yourself over to their location to scavenge the microchips from them. But other facets of the controls start to emerge quickly, almost by accident - during the tutorial, it's mentioned that you can also grab things. I hadn't given this much thought until by instinct I put a hand up to defend myself against a spider robot that had thrown itself at my face, and I caught it at arm's length. Then another one leapt at me as the first wriggled in protest, and I whirled it around like a shield to make them both explode in front of my face. A robot jumps down from a tall building, and you hit it with a pistol shot before it lands, juggling it in midair. Maybe you'll see another one approach out of the corner of your eye and swing your left hand around to aim at it instead, keeping them both stunned as you shoot at two of them simultaneously. After a couple of streets the game asks you to reach over your shoulders, and you grab and come back holding a pair of shotguns.

From then on, you get to star in your own futuristic remake of Devil May Cry. Your duty as a "recaller" is to blast the malfunctioning robots to pieces in as creative ways as you can imagine - you can use the pistols to take them out at a distance, shotguns if they get too close, or grab robots by their chest, head or limbs and tear them apart with your bare hands. Maybe you want to try a combination - reach out for a robot that's come up behind you, fling it in the air, pull out a shotgun and juggle it while drawing another pistol from your hip and finishing off a flying drone that has a laser pointed at you. With your ammunition for the shotgun exhausted, the recently earthbound robot makes a crunching noise as it returns to the pavement and in desperation you throw the weapon at the other assailant, hitting it and making it spin out of control, bursting in an explosion as you catch the gun on the rebound (now fully reloaded, as a bonus for scoring a hit) and whirl around to blast another wave of spider droids. Behind those, there's a pair of robots with their pistols pointed at you - as they aim, you lunge forwards towards one, grab it, tear its arm off, discard it and whack the other across the face with the stray component. And that entire paragraph has taken about two seconds in real-time. I have never felt as awesome as this while playing a game, or indeed in my entire life - the incredible stylized approach to combat makes even people of limited agility like me feel like they're Neo in The Matrix. As you might imagine, it's also absolutely exhausting, and is probably doing wonders in terms of how much exercise I'm getting.

It's made by Epic Games and the soundtrack is also fantastic - I'm not sure it's deliberate, but the electronic/metal sound is definitely evocative of their other famous robot-based title One Must Fall.

I haven't been genuinely excited about playing a game like I am with this in about three decades - the jump to VR over a game played with a mouse and keyboard is finally equal to the exciting leaps in technology that games made between the NES and SNES and then to the Playstation. It's so hugely different from anything that I've ever experienced in games before, and has brought my expectations of VR as a platform to a new level.


Nov. 15th, 2018 05:42 pm
davidn: (Default)
Coming in the front door after work.

Penny: "Daddy!"
She runs to the table.
Penny: (Struggling into her chair): "Daddy, want plate."
David: "A plate for what?"
Penny (pointing at the large covered cake in the middle of the table): "Birthday to you."
Whitney: "You have to have something healthy first."
Penny: "I'll have healthy cake."

(Edit: She sang to me with everyone, she loved the cake, she shared forkfuls with us and ate every scrap out of her bowl.)

Penny: "I need more cake."
davidn: Stumbling Tours (stumblingtours)


Finally reaching the end of my almost realtime coverage of Epic Megagames' releases in 1993! This video covers three games from a group of developers in Poland that were later packaged together as the Epic Puzzle Pack. These are Robbo and Heartlight, which are puzzle games, and Electro Man, which isn't.

During the video, I release the first game-related thing I've done in a very long time - a rudimentary editor for Heartlight, which is downloadable here.
davidn: (Default)
I never used to get ill for very long, but now that Penny is bringing all kinds of exotic diseases back from the daycare I've had to stay off work for longer than I ever have before. I passed some of the time by resolving to finally complete Diablo 2 - during my sixth year of school I think that I got about halfway through the game twice before realizing I was just clicking on monsters and gave up. Having now got to the end, I think I was correct in my earlier assessment.

It's a strangely addictive game despite my underlying problem, which is that I can't name any point in the game at which I made a real decision. The gameplay seems entirely algorithmic - you venture out into the wilderness and bash a tidal wave of monsters as they come at you, you use a potion when your health gets a bit low. Monsters will often drop loot or new weapons, and you compare those weapons to your current ones and toss the old ones aside if the new one is obviously better in speed or attack power or special properties. It might be a bit better if you could keep interesting-looking items in reserve so that you could bring them out when you needed them, but the opportunity for this is very limited - a typical weapon will take up 4-6 inventory slots, and you have just 24 squares of "stash" (which is smaller than your personal inventory!) to reserve items for later. Realistically, with everything else you have in there, you can afford to keep maybe just one or two weapons in reserve - everything else is picked up and then instantly either adopted or discarded.

The nature of this sort of gameplay came to the forefront when I hit a speed bump in the difficulty where I started encountering enemies that gave off uncontrollable bolts of lightning when they were hit. In Etrian Odyssey, for example (a game which I'll always hold up as an example of taking a genre I previously hated and then fixing everything about it), I would have gone back to the town, researched the materials I needed to make items that were resistant to lightning, go out and collect those, then use them to gain the advantage back. Here, there's no opportunity to do that and the best you can do is just hope that a lightning-proof hat or pair of socks or something turns up fairly soon. You have a limited opportunity to customize better items by collecting gems and inserting them into weapon sockets, but you can't remove gems once you've used them, so you have to wait until the exact right randomly-generated weapon comes along and irreversibly take a chance with your also-rare gems.

The whole thing is forced to be very linear from start to finish - especially with the Barbarian I was playing as, you can't really switch gears and decide to do something radically different with your character, because you have to dedicate skill points to improving your skills with a specific weapon class. Actually I was pleasantly surprised to find one character in the early game offered the option to reset skill and stat points, which I didn't remember from before (it was added in a patch 16 years after the release of the game) - but then found out you could only do it once, and I used that opportunity to pour all my points into blunt weaponry to give me an advantage against undead enemies so there was no point in trying anything else from then on.

At the end of the game you face off with Diablo himself, who has elemental attacks that will melt you instantly - having pretty much got everything from the game I was going to get at this point, I cheated up a magic-resistant fully automatic crossbow using a save editor and finished him off with that. You're then invited to continue the game from the start again with vastly more difficult monsters in Nightmare and then Hell difficulty, building up on the stats and weapons you had the first time around (and by virtue of spending longer in the game, finding more randomly dropped items that might be good). In this way, the game really seems geared to reward people who are obsessives, or who at the very least have more time than me to spend on it - towards the end I started having the thought "Why am I wasting my life with this when I could be writing more music?", which I took as a sure sign that I was recovering.
davidn: Stumbling Tours (stumblingtours)


I'm honestly not sure how I'm keeping up this schedule while taking care of a rapidly developing toddler, but here is another Epic video! I'm still covering 1993, during which Epic somehow managed to release about five years' worth of games. This video covers their brief experiment with publishing games for Windows 3.1!

Featured here are Castle of the Winds by Rick Saada and Dare to Dream by a developer you may have heard of called Cliff Bleszinski. It also shows Xargon, which was Allen Pilgrim's second game that took a lot from Kiloblaster and Jill of the Jungle.
davidn: Stumbling Tours (stumblingtours)


Somehow I finished this one a week early compared to my usual three-week timeline!

Continuing coverage of Epic's improbably gigantic year in 1993 - I'm now two videos into it and have covered about half the games they released during that year. Once again, the genres that Epic published are all over the place, and the games covered are:

The justifiably famous Epic Pinball
The completely obscure Epic Baseball
Top-down shooter Zone 66 by Renaissance
One of the very few shareware CRPGs, Ancients by Farr-Ware
davidn: Stumbling Tours (stumblingtours)


1993 was a ridiculously large year for Epic where they released about twelve games. This video covers Solar Winds and Silverball by James Schmalz (now of Digital Extremes) and Ken's Labyrinth by Ken Silverman. It also includes footage of a quasi-official followup, Ken's Labyrinth II!
davidn: Stumbling Tours (stumblingtours)


Continuing my look through the back catalogue of the great Epic Megagames, covering their history from ZZT to Unreal Tournament! This episode is about the first four graphical games that Epic released in 1992 - it’s called Ventures in VGA even though one of them isn’t.

Features Jill of the Jungle, Kiloblaster, Brix and Overkill.
davidn: Stumbling Tours (stumblingtours)
I'm opening up a new video project (and the thing that I really came up with the Stumbling Tours rebranding for) - it's the history of Epic MegaGames! This will be an occasional video series, because I don't get nearly the amount of time that I used to to work on these things - but I'll take it from their very beginning to the release of Unreal Tournament in 1999.

This first video covers ZZT and its successors. Originally I'd meant to do more, but I talked about them for twenty minutes and felt that that was long enough for a first part already.


I'm trying to make a conscious effort to speak more slowly, as I've had a few people say my rapid Scottish accent makes it difficult to keep up with me - it's a struggle and I still find myself slipping!
davidn: Stumbling Tours (stumblingtours)
I'm opening up a new video series that's a lot like my old video series - the Stumbling Through name had meant to be for blind playthroughs of games, but I'd drifted into using the same title for more documentary-type videos as well. So from now on, the videos where I talk in-depth about games, compare ports, and so on will be under the new name, Stumbling Tours!

This one came into being because I was trying to look up a playthrough video for Le Fetiche Maya, a Silmarils DOS game from 1989 that I could never work out at all. Finding there wasn't one, I decided to make one myself, with the aid of a guide from Abandonia.

The aim of the game, as much as you're given one at all, is to venture into the ruins of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, etc. and recover a strange fetish (probably one of [personal profile] kjorteo's). Along the way, I found the writers of the game had done more research than I'd anticipated, but honestly it didn't help the game make any more sense.
davidn: (Default)


It's been absolutely ages since I played anything in arcades - they used to be so impressive compared to what home game systems could do at the time, but even though they tried to evolve by including physical accessories (like Silent Scope's sniper rifle and an entire genre of dance games), they just don't draw me in the same way that they used to. So it was a great surprise to find an absolutely fantastic one in Deadstorm Pirates, a Time Crisis-like gun game by Namco that we found at a nearby outdoor activity place at an outing with my last job - I just found this half-finished post rotting at the bottom of my notes file.

What really stands out about the game is the delightful incongruity between the physical controls and your on-screen avatars. The character design people made a game starring two rather improbably-dressed pirates who wield small (if apparently potent) pistols. They did not, however, communicate this to the people who put together the arcade cabinet, which seems to have been designed by Judas Priest. You both sit in an enclosure that focuses your attention on the big screen behind a gun turret with two triggers that you would normally expect to see as the first line of defence on the Death Star. You use this to rapid-fire your way through waves of up to about twelve million skeleton pirates as they charge into your line of fire, resulting in bones and stray headscarves and cutlasses flying out in all directions while the turret does a decent impression of a pneumatic drill in your hands. As if that wasn't enough, during certain sections it gets replaced with a cannon.

A lot of the time you'll be hitting things separately, but the bosses require cooperation between the two players as some of their obvious weak points can only be damaged by both of you shooting at the same target simultaneously, making sure you need to communicate with each other to stay alive. There's also a third control between you, a wheel to steer your ship, which as you would expect has the handling response of an MBTA bus and requires you to madly spin the wheel for up to ten seconds in order to wrench yourself away from a collision course. This is also used in quicktime events, which everybody loves, with you having to spin left or right within about half a second to avoid oncoming projectiles.

It's great fun, though, and has the added bonus of that pitch-perfect faltering voice acting that features in all the best arcade games. It's not quite Typing of the Dead because nothing is, but I can't help laughing whenever it announces a "TrrrRRRRREASURE HUNT!" or laughs "Yo-ho-ho!" for a near miss. The first time we played it we went through $10 in continues on our prepaid card, and only got through about two levels - after a couple more occasional tries, we resolved to finish it and probably spent an embarrassing amount to see the ending sequence. But it was hilarious, it's well worth it.
davidn: (Default)
People have been a bit surprised in the past when I mention my love of Doom, but having grown up with shareware on the PC, it was really the flagship game that PCs could do that consoles couldn't (thinking of the 16-bit ports as evidence here). Recently I've got heavily back into its modding community, with source ports like GZDoom adding much more extensive scripting and external asset support to transform it into a ZZT-like base for creating entirely new games from the engine - from transformations like Brutal Doom to recreations of The Crystal Maze. The 2016 remake passed me by at the time, but since I poured some cash into upgrading my bought-in-2003 PC of Theseus to a state where it's capable of playing games made this decade, I wanted to give it a try.

I enjoyed it a lot in the end, but apart from the game's Martian setting and the story (which has been adapted to trying to harness power from Hell instead of accidentally reaching it through a teleportation experiment) it didn't really gel with me as a direct sequel to the original Doom games. Instead, it's more like Samus Goes to Mars (and Forgets her Valium) - you explore, shoot and find or earn upgrades for your base stats, abilities, weapons and so on. The hopelessly generic box art depicts your main character, who is a mute not-quite-human who ascended from Hell and who clearly hasn't masturbated in about a hundred years. All of his actions are done with a comical degree of aggression, from picking up a weapon upgrade from a Ratchet and Clank-style floating service droid then punching it in the face, to "disabling" a delicate piece of power equipment by kicking it repeatedly. His Sim City transport advisor-style fury is of course central to the gameplay, which is about surviving wave after wave of large hordes of demons with a variety of big guns or by tearing them to pieces.

After a few levels where I was tentatively unsure about the game, I found myself getting into it at around the first time that you're pulled into Hell - I attribute this mostly to beginning to understand how the game's secrets were hidden, and exploration beginning to feel like it was rewarded like in the original Doom games. Until this point I'd also felt the melee-fighting Glory Kill system was too over the top and grisly and pulled the action away from the hands of the player, but I definitely appreciated the one where you slap the Pinky across the face with its own pelvis and it just dies of embarrassment. It's a strange comparison, but instead of the pure first-person shooting of the original game, the idea of terminating demons in ridiculous flashy ways and then earning points from them to unlock more stylish slaughter methods is very much like Devil May Cry.

It's around this point that I also began to notice small callbacks to 1993 games - just like in E3M1 Hell Keep, you enter Hell by pushing on a skull to open an inverted door. The post-fight music for the level also recreates the wailing guitar part of E1M8 Phobos Anomaly's music with a haunting choir, right at the very end. And there's a moment during the credits where the Doom marine is fighting off a chaotic mound of demons in hell, and the camera swings round as the action progresses to momentarily capture a perfect echo of the original Doom box art. I also appreciated the option to place your weapon unnaturally in the lower centre of the screen like it's mounted to your chest like a Dalek - these subtle references to the original game are fantastic.

The more blatant references to the original game, however, are not - every level has a secret lever that will open a hatch to a strange out-of-place area from the 90s Doom games in it, and then you get the chance to play through the classic level from the game menu. These are realized completely terribly - I remember being worried about them when they were first previewed, and I was absolutely right to be, because if the rest of the game were like these it would be terrible. All lighting has been removed, making the levels look much worse than they used to (which I sort of understand, as harsh sector lighting would look weird in the modern engine), textures are on backwards, switches flicker for no reason when they're pressed, and doors don't interact with players or enemies correctly - if you stand under one when it's closing you'll get trapped inside it. Not to mention they've had to put up invisible walls in certain areas to avoid the player abusing the non-1993 ability to jump. It's cobbled-together fanservice and it doesn't work at all - thankfully the rest of the game is much better.

I'd like to have played multiplayer as well, but the population seems to have all but dried up - I waited around in the Beginner lobby for ages and I only ever saw one other person there, and you need a minimum of four to get a game going. Perhaps other people on my Steam list might be interested? Much has also been made of the Snapmap feature, which is a reasonable compromise to allow players to create their own missions while not expecting or allowing them to create the ludicrous level of detail that would be required to completely customize a modern map, but as far as I can tell it does much the same as Timesplitters 2 did many years ago on the PS2.
davidn: (Default)

When you finish a game and your mood is "Thank god that's over", it probably isn't a good sign. I finally decided to go through Tomb Raider 3, long after playing the second one when it was released and then catching up with the first several years later - the games had scored a record-breaking three 10/10s in a row from the Official UK Playstation Magazine, which I'd thought of as a major accomplishment before I realized that game journalists handed out top scores not necessarily according to the quality of the game but according to how much cash the publisher had poured into the magazine's advert space. (Honestly, though, OPM was usually pretty good for avoiding this, until they gave the rubbish Star Wars Episode 1 game a cover feature and a 9/10 which was a dead giveaway).

The Prince of Persia-alike gameplay that I enjoyed in Tomb Raider 2 is still completely intact, but this time around there's just a bit too much of it in every respect. There are twenty levels and every one of them is absolutely gigantic, which on paper sounds great for the longevity of a game but in reality means that each of the drags on for far longer than you think they will, and that the moments of feeling you're getting a reward for your progress are few and far between.

Even though I'd previously said that I enjoyed the precision and heaviness of the controls compared to the modern Tomb Raider games, as you have to precisely line your jumps up in a world made out of predictable Lego bricks, I found myself getting irritated with the slowness of it all this time around. A lot of it is due to the new crawling ability, a stance in which you're completely vulnerable and the time taken to turn around to react to anything could be measured on a calendar. The other new mechanics are all just irritating as well - poisonous attacks that cause your health bar to drain over time until you use a precious medikit, an exposure meter that limits your swimming in cold water to a few seconds, and new vehicles that are very good at getting caught on corners.

The levels are also arranged completely incomprehensibly - it's rare for a switch to show you what it's done, and usually it'll be to open a door or change the water level on the other side of the map somewhere. They're also set up so that small slips can send you back an extremely long way (the third level River Ganges is particularly bad for this, having to climb a long route above a river and waterfall, and if you fall in, the current will take you all the way back to the start). Towards the end, they even manage to make a minecart ride boring - it's set up like a roller coaster, but you have to watch your speed very carefully and put the brakes on to get around corners, but not too much so that you can't get over gaps. There's no way to react correctly the first time around because you require future knowledge of the route.

Thankfully, you can save at any time... on the PC, at least. Save crystals are dotted throughout the levels, mostly in secret areas, and on the PC they just refill your health but on the Playstation they act as tokens that allow you to save. I would estimate that there are about eighty of them in the game if you find every single secret - I used 714 saves. I can only imagine how frustrating this game would have been on its home platform - but maybe everyone was a bit more willing to take a punishment in those days.

I've been rather negative about this despite having spent twenty hours on it - I still enjoyed traversing the Indiana Jones-style obstacles, as awkward as many of them were. The penultimate level is much more along the lines of a classic Tomb Raider environment with a set of four satisfying element-based challenges, which leaves a good impression right at the very end if you can make it there.

Finally, it's also worth mentioning a truly astonishing bug that you can trigger by loading a game while still on an interstitial screen, causing the game to use the wrong texture set (and apparently random bits of video memory as well, because the FRAPS counter makes it into this one). It plunges you into a terrifying otherworld make up of letters, wrong textures, and bits of your own face.

davidn: (Default)
I was expecting the piano background to remain simple and not add lyrics! It's nice.

The shifting sketch style reminds me of Holidaystar.

A raven-man with a crystal or rock in a birdcage - is this lady bringing him flowers?

Yes, and now we're walking around and collecting more of them... they grow as people talk? Or is that just an effect to show they're talking about the plants?

Pinwheel... and we're going backwards! To the rock?

Everyone's turned to rock... our raven is getting sadder.



I can offer no more intelligent commentary.
davidn: (prince)
Inspired by [personal profile] kjorteo, I decided to try rescuing my old ZZT folder by reviving my laptop from 1997!

The Slimnote VX is an optimistically-named machine at best, being about as slim and streamlined as a square bleeping rhinoceros - but this is what passed for portable in the late 90s. Even towards the end of the time I actively used it, it was not the most reliable computer in the world - sometimes the monitor would just display stripes when you turned it on due to some sort of loose connection inside, but you could usually cure this by turning it off, raising it a couple of inches off the desk and allowing it to drop, then trying again.

I'd left it to rot in a drawer, but I couldn't find the lost files I was looking for on my current computer, so I suspected they must have been stranded on there - so I dug it out again and rifled through the drawer of power cables. The actual original cable had a UK plug on the end and I have no idea where it went anyway, but eventually I found a transformer that fit the socket and allowed enough volts through it to power the machine up.

Last time I tried a few years ago, I couldn't get the monitor working no matter what I did, so I found a VGA cable and connected it up to one of my desktop monitors. After skipping a CMOS failure message, I got this anachronistic spectacle!

Miraculously there seemed to be absolutely nothing wrong with the memory, processor or hard drive despite the computer's long life - it booted up with no issues and presented me with the login screen. I racked my brain for passwords I might have used at the time, but none of them did the trick - the process wasn't helped by the fact that I'd customized the keyboard in an abandoned attempt to learn Dvorak some years before.

In the end I hit the Cancel button, and, er... the computer decided it just didn't care? The environment was fully functional, even looking at the user folder and Program Files, so I'm not sure what the password was meant to do.

The startup sound was still set to Zeus from Altered Beast shouting an approximation of "Rise from your grave!", a sound effect that has never been more appropriate. Even the actual laptop's monitor had miraculously come back to life at this stage, even if it occasionally displayed snow if I leaned on the trackpad too hard. After looking around a bit, I discovered the ZZT folder with the files I wanted still preserved there.

The puzzle now was in how to get anything off the computer - it's sort of incredible how inconvenient this was in general was in the late 90s, and somehow we just didn't notice how we got to where we are today because the change was so gradual. The Slimnote's entire onboard networking capabilities are a telephone port for a modem, and an infrared bulb on the right hand side that presumably could be used to transmit files by flickering it really fast at a similar machine. It has no wireless capability and no ethernet port (I had a PCMCIA expansion card for it when it was my main university computer in 2002 but I have no idea what happened to it). It has a CD drive, but it's non-writable. It has a floppy drive, which was looking like the most viable option at this stage, but I would have had to first find out how to acquire a diskette and then either get a USB floppy drive or drag the files through a second, slightly less old computer.

Just when it was looking like the easiest option was to open up the files in Notepad and spend a month or two dictating them to the other computer, I saw the USB port on the back. This is another thing that disappeared without me noticing - having a 256MB USB drive was nothing short of incredible when I first bought one for £50, and they kept on increasing in capacity for about ten years before they suddenly all vanished because everything's now networked to everything else. I happened to have two lying around, but my fears about using them were proved right - Windows 98's collection of drivers is not fantastic, and I remembered having to install them from a mini-CD even for a device as simple as a flash drive. Without the drivers, they weren't recognized as drives - so I needed to find something that had been connected to this computer before. Then I suddenly remembered...

My first MP3 player! This is a Creative Labs Nomad Muvo, and is a Flash drive with a couple of buttons on it that you can connect to a battery pack to form a portable music player. It holds a whopping 128MB, and was almost full when I put it in the drive, so I had to tarnish the time capsule and delete a few things that I knew I had elsewhere in order to fit my refugee files on. For posterity, these were its contents, frozen in time at the moment I was given an iPod for Christmas.

Then came an obstacle that I hadn't anticipated - getting a modern computer to read the thing. Though I was under the impression that a USB drive was just a USB drive in today's world, it seems that support and drivers for the Muvo ended with Windows XP. Therefore, I dragged my slightly newer but equally decrepit Lenovo Thinkpad out from the drawer - this was my work computer for my first job in Boston, a tiny content management system company that I'd left when we sort of ran out of money. It had survived four years with multiple repairs, including a stack of Post-It notes wedged between the inner case and the graphics card to cure a known issue with the series where the graphics card would come unstuck from the motherboard. On my last day at that job I remembered out loud to the boss that I'd better clear the laptop off and give it back, and he replied that I should probably just keep it.

I turned out not to need it at the last minute, though, because even though my Windows 7 computer and my wife's Mac couldn't recognize it at all, my current laptop with Windows 10 did it on the second attempt with no additional drivers needed! So it's a useful operating system for something other than randomly shutting down to update and losing your work. With that last connection made, I was able to get the files off the lifeboat and submit them to the Museum.

Therefore! Please feel free to take a look at the introduction boards for a hastily abandoned sequel to The Mercenary, and a room I put together for a community project that never got off the ground. I'll talk more about them later on.

davidn: (prince)
Three games (sort of) into the Westwood RTS series, Red Alert is now out the way! This was a... sort of sequel to Command and Conquer, or was it more of a scenario pack? I'm not really sure. Whichever way, it used the same engine as C&C but set the conflict in an alternative history where Hitler was removed from time by Albert Einstein. The plan had obviously been to prevent World War 2, but instead the change to the timeline resulted in a much worse alternative World War 2 where Stalin's Soviet Union was unhindered by Germany and he chose to act on his ambitions of conquering Europe.

This time I used the CNCNet source port of the game instead of the original DOS version, which is not too far removed from the Windows 95 versions of C&C/Red Alert. The fans have done an incredible job bringing the games forward to Windows with support for higher resolutions and a couple of other niceties like fixing some sprite work, but otherwise the game remains unchanged - Red Alert has the same build-defend-attack gameplay that made Command and Conquer the success it was, but with many new units and buildings (including the iconic Tesla Coil) and it adds snow-capped mountain environments to the grassy and deserty scenarios of the first game.

Many of the base C&C units are still around, but there have been some adjustments to rebalance them. Most notably, engineers have absolutely been nerfed to hell - but in a way that they totally deserved! My confusion in the original game must have come from here - this time around, the engineer can only commandeer a building if its health bar is in the red. This affects the engineer tactics in two ways - it makes it much more difficult to take over buildings rapidly, and means that once you do it successfully you inherit an absolute wreck that you have to repair quickly before an enemy gets to it and finishes it off. All of this makes it much more difficult to repaint an enemy base with a small group of engineers than it used to be - nevertheless, I kept playing a quite engineer-heavy set of tactics because in this game it's even more advantageous to take over buildings and get access to the full set of technologies that are usually only available to one side.

As I went through the scenarios I found myself feeling that despite the adjustments, Red Alert's new units were balanced a bit less well than the original - this is mostly due to the new addition of the Medium Tank, which has a good balance between strength and speed and you can pretty much predict who the winner of a conflict's going to be based on how many of them you build. The Soviet side has blatantly superior ground units and defences available to it, and the balance isn't quite redressed by the Allies' access to powerful naval units due to their use being limited depending on the map. The pathfinding also feels a bit worse than in the first C&C, specifically because it tries to be more intelligent - in the first game, when you told a massive group of vehicles to move through a narrow area, they'd stumble a bit, wait behind others before moving and sometimes get stuck. In Red Alert, they notice that they're blocked and try to rectify the situation by finding another way around, and this can often lead to tanks going on a massive tour of the map and running straight into enemy defences unless you're watching them carefully.

The AI is a bit more eager to tear down your defences this time, but not by a whole lot and it still seemed to prefer trying to drive around my walls and straight into ambushes rather than just demolishing them and walking in. It also seems much more aggressive than in C&C, and it's often very difficult to keep track of what's going on if you're dealing with more than one conflict at a time - the announcer man who sounds like Jarvis from Iron Man will politely say "Our base is under attack" or "Unit lost" a couple of times but you won't get any indication of where on the large maps you're being attacked from. In these cases I was glad to be playing at a high resolution where I could see much more than the restrictive VGA view of the DOS version.

However, a quirk of the AI is that even in missions that start off horrendously difficult, once you're over a hump it just sort of gives up and becomes very passive and easy. The place I felt this the most was in the final Soviet mission which bombards you with a ridiculous number of artillery units, boats and helicopters from all sides while you're trying to build your base up (mostly arriving from off the map so you can't even proactively stem them), but once I had finally struggled my way to taking the first small Allied base and capturing its construction yard so I could build my own navy, the whole rest of the map could be dealt with quite easily by trundling casually around and flattening buildings with my leftover tanks. Meanwhile, the non-base-building missions are even more interesting than before, with a lot of set-piece based ones where you have to make it past patrolling guards and defences in a more puzzle-like way.

Once again, the FMVs are the star attraction of this game for how absolutely bloody hilarious they are - they're much more elaborate than the original game's mission briefings where you mostly just had one actor talking to you directly. This time they're complete scenes with a whole cast of characters in a bluescreened futuristic base, dressed up as European military brass and putting on their bravest attempts at German and Russian accents, making it easy to forget that you're not watching Allo Allo. Despite the camp tone of the later series, the makers of the game hadn't realized how preposterous they were at this point and they're all done straight-faced, even at times when an actor has to 'die' from poisoned tea and crawls unconvincingly on to the table in a desperate attempt to remain in the shot. General Kukov then comes in and doesn't even bother clearing him off the table, just accepting this new centrepiece as the briefing goes on without him.

Tiberian Sun next!

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