BDLite

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.

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.
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 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2UAVI8IOVE


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)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4FlLmvcdx4

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.

Oh.

Hmm.

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!
davidn: (prince)
My exploration through Westwood's seminal RTS series continues with the original Command and Conquer, later renamed Tiberian Dawn!


Before, I hadn't realized just how closely related to Dune 2 this game was, but the premise and a lot of the mechanics are so close as to be essentially Dune fanfiction. Instead of a struggle for melange on a distant planet, they brought the same scenario back to Earth with the arrival of a mysterious substance called Tiberium, a miracle fuel with the unfortunate side effect of not really getting on with any carbon-based life. Just like Dune 2, your goal is (usually) to build up a base with a Construction Yard at its heart, sending out Harvesters to gather the dangerous economy-driving mineral of the day, keeping your base's power at sufficient levels, building barracks and so on and building units to destroy the opponents' base. Instead of sandworms lurking among the spice, your infantry units will lose health and eventually explode into flames just by being near it.

For the RTS that typified the genre, it's pretty incredible how many mechanics this got right and how familiar it feels. The controls have improved dramatically from Dune 2 - you can select multiple units now and even assign them to groups for quick selection, which is vital given the number of different units and the difference in their roles. Winning by sheer force of numbers is possible but you'll often find that if you build up an army of just one unit type you'll be frustrated at how quickly you can be minced - you really have to learn the units and what their strengths and weaknesses are. (This may also have been true of Dune 2 and I missed it, but I'm not sure.)

There are various attack types - bullets, grenades, shells and rockets - and each of them have different effectiveness on different units. For example, infantry are weak to bullets and being run over by heavy vehicles, but can just about defeat a large tank single-handedly if they're armed with a rocket launcher because they can duck and cover from shell fire. The two warring sides - GDI and NOD - only share a few buildings and units between them, so you have to adapt your play style to fit them (especially compared to something like Warcraft II where if I'm not mistaken, every unit was a direct equivalent of one of the other side's units).

I was also surprised that many of the missions weren't the standard "build a base and destroy the enemy" - often you'll be given more creative objectives like clearing out a mountain pass with a limited number of units, or being able to build no unit-generating buildings because of budget restrictions and having to use your starting units and a crumbling repair bay to see you through.

There is a major interface difference from more modern RTS games, though I remember that this didn't feel at all weird at the time - once again there are no worker units, and all your construction options are consolidated into two lists on the sidebar. You use this to construct new buildings, which pop up out of the ground with a delightful animation - just like Dune 2, you can only build next to existing buildings. Units are also on here, and because you don't have separate build queues for each structure, you can only build one of each type of unit at a time (infantry, vehicles, etc) no matter how many buildings you have - having multiple copies of a building will simply speed up your build rate for the units they produce.

I remember playing this when I was much younger, but never getting very far - the major thing that helped me through this time was realizing just how powerful the Engineer was. This is an expensive infantry unit with no means of defence but the incredible property of capturing a building and changing it over to your side instantly (I had somehow been convinced that you had to reduce the building's health into the red first but it works even on a pristine building)! This means that if you can get a fast APC full of them past the opponent's defences and into the heart of the base, you can wreak absolute mayhem by taking over their buildings, selling them off, building your own barracks and defences and eating the base from the inside. But the NOD doesn't have the APC, so if you've relied on that tactic too hard during the GDI campaign, you have to adapt dramatically when you switch sides.

The AI is... present and good enough to be annoying but it definitely has exploitable holes. It very obviously has no concept of how to construct a base beyond its starting layout in each mission, and will only ever replace buildings you've destroyed with new identical buildings in exactly the same place if it can. As far as attack goes, its most obvious deficiency is its severe allergy to sandbags. It doesn't really know how to handle any wall-like structures so it's quite possible to box yourself in and get on with building up an army while the enemy tanks have disagreements with each other about how to proceed.


And how can I write about this game without mentioning the FMVs? The game came out at the start of the era where developers were realizing what the storage capacity of CDs allowed them to do, and I'm so glad that they did because they're absolute gems - seeing actual actors give you your mission briefings was incredible at the time, and the videos have now become wonderfully, hilarously stylized looking back on them. NOD mission 8 is probably the highlight - and it's also really interesting how the game throws in some wordless storytelling in the couple of missions previous to this as well, with your commanding officer Seth giving you increasingly bad starting units and inaccurate mission briefings in an unacknowledged attempt to curtail your rise to his boss's favour.

It's still amazing today, honestly. It's been released as freeware and made available on archive.org.

Dune 2

Oct. 1st, 2017 03:03 pm
davidn: (Jam)
Inspired by DOS Game Club's foray into Command and Conquer, I'm having a try at running through Westwood's entire series of RTSes. I started with an attempt at Dune 2, which is curiously named because they never made a Dune 1 - the name came about because publisher Virgin Interactive somehow became confused about who was actually developing a game for them based on the Dune novels by Frank Herbert, and ended up with two of them. They chose to release Cryo Interactive's first and last interesting game as "Dune", and this unrelated Westwood strategy game as "Dune 2". To add to the confusion, this second game was subtitled "Battle for Arrakis" in Europe but in its native America was called "The Building of a Dynasty" with a long Y (where it was of course based on Doon, the novel by Frank Urbert).

I had this game, whatever it's called, installed from disks from my brother's friend in the 90s, and only vaguely remembered about it - I remembered it being a real time strategy but I hadn't realized at the time that it was the first one as we know them. I also remembered that I never got very far at all, but I was confident that this time around I could conquer it.



Turns out I couldn't because Dune 2 is legitimately completely bloody impossible. I mean, I've watched a playthrough of it that does seem to indicate that it is indeed possible to get beyond mission 3, but I just can't fathom how to do it. A large part of this is that the controls are... appalling, but I say that in the context of today when a lot of RTS niceties exist to compare it to. Most noticeably, you can't select units in a group and tell them to go somewhere - you have to laboriously click on each one, click on the Move command, then click on the destination. It's hard to synchronize your units in order to repel an attack, or to organize them to attack the enemy - I thought I was doing pretty well once after destroying the opponent's Windtrap power source, but then he just plonked a new one down on top of four of my units and erased them from reality.

On top of this, the sandworms of Dune make an appearance, mostly when you least want them to. There are three types of terrain - rock, sand and spice which acts as the game's gatherable currency - and you're only safe from them when you're standing on rock. When you get the status message "Wormsign!" and the music changes, you have to abandon whatever you're doing and jump straight to wherever the ground is quaking, hurrying to get any unit that's on sandy terrain nearby out of the way before the worm's three-lipped head pops up and devours your unit instantly. This is bad whenever it happens, but it's particularly aggravating when your precious Harvesters (which are the ones that will be on the sand most often) are gobbled up, leaving you without a way to obtain spice.

It's interesting that among the huge number of vital RTS concepts that this game invented, worker units were not among them. The closest thing are the Harvesters which you have to send out to gather melange filtered out of the sand, but these are large tough units that pick up tons of cash before transporting it back instead of small weak ones that you use in swarms. And there are no units that build things - instead, all buildings are made in the Construction Yard, the heart of your base, and once they're ready you can command them to pop up out of the ground anywhere on rocky ground adjacent to your existing buildings. Buildings deteriorate over time, but you can slow this process by laying down concrete slabs first (which takes bloody ages and the player above doesn't seem to bother).

It's hard to call Dune 2 a bad game seeing as it (and the game that they took inspiration from, Herzog Zwei - which coincidentally translates to "Duke 2") started off the entire RTS genre as we know it and everything. But it definitely hasn't aged very well due to lacking a lot of the RTS conveniences that we've come to expect, here in the future that it was responsible for.
davidn: (prince)
I just noticed that I had this near-complete writeup from whenever I played New Super Mario Bros 2 on the 3DS - probably somewhere on the order of five years ago. I'm not sure why I never got around to posting it, but here it is at last.

I hadn't played a Mario game until about the year 2000, and up until then I hadn't realized quite how distinctive their style was - platform games on the PC were usually very exploratory, with free four-directional movement, keys and doors, and I had assumed that that was what all platform games were like. Mario, however, always had a much simpler approach, with the goal generally being to get from left to right - and each level is made distinctive through a creative and unique use of the game elements.

What leaps out at you immediately on starting the game is how much the coins have been brought to the forefront. Platform games have always been about madly gathering collectibles, but they're usually sort of silent about it - they exist, you're guided through the level by following subtle little trails of them, and collecting a hundred might get you an extra life. This one amplifies the concept into some sort of abstract statement on the futility of capitalism - you're encouraged to keep madly gathering as fast as is humanly possible at every turn, with the total coins you've collected in the game always visible on-screen and continually being added to the global coin total through Nintendo's network - a figure that passed an absolutely economy-crashing fifty billion coins some months ago.

The new powerups are all means to this end, being heavily coin-based in one way or another - as well as the normal question mark blocks, there are now golden brick blocks which you'll get your head stuck in when you jump at them, and while wearing the block you get more coins the faster you run. And there's a very rare golden flower that turns you into what I call Midas Mario, in which mode you can fire hugely powerful gold projectiles and absolutely everything gives you coins instead of the comparatively useless score. Even with all these additions, the idea of giving you a 1-up for every hundred coins is still in place - consequently you'll very quickly obtain a preposterous number of lives, and I had a hundred and seventy-three of them by the time I finished the first run of the game. Practically, you have an infinite supply, and they're more like another trophy number rather than a serious countdown to Game Over.

Apart from those, it's another Super Mario game and does everything that you would expect from that - each level has its own miniature theme, but you know you're always going to be in a psychedelic dreamland of mushrooms and pipes, with hidden routes to find and ghost houses where things don't quite work as they seem. In fact, it's quite amazing thinking about the sheer number of iconic and recognizable characters and items that exist in the series, not just from one design team but mostly from one man. And it's full of charming touches, the best of which was when I realized that the enemies danced to the background music if you sit and watch them.

If I had a complaint, it was going to be once again that the Mario games have been recycling exactly the same bosses for the past twenty-five years - that still stands, but to its credit, the final castle suddenly whipped out a last challenge that showed off the 3D capabilities of the device rather satisfyingly. And... made me feel a bit strange, if I'm being honest.
davidn: (prince)

In the wake of Sonic Mania, I had a go at the 8-bit version of the original Sonic again, just to take a casual look at it out of curiosity. That was the plan, anyway - as it turns out, I have not had my bum kicked this hard by a game in living memory.

It's an odd little thing - it's recognizably a miniature simplified version of the Megadrive classic, mixed around a bit and with some things altered which can throw you off. Three zone styles are recognizable from the 16-bit version - Green Hill, Scrap Brain and (regrettably) Labyrinth and three are new, but all of them use completely different level layouts. As far as game mechanics go, you can't pick up any dropped rings when you're hurt (making you much, much more vulnerable at all times), and as a sadistic further addition to that, the ring counter rolls back to zero when you collect 100 of them. Enemies are pretty sparse, with just a few per level, and seem to be pulled from mostly random zones from the 16-bit version.

It's tempting to say that it has strange breaks from Sonic norms, but it's important to remember that this was 1991 and the norms didn't exist yet. Therefore it would have been totally unsurprising at the time to be faced with a forced scrolling level in Bridge 2, or the strange puzzle/maze-like layout of Scrap Brain 2 and 3 where you have to open up entrances remotely across multiple rooms and then make your way around to get through them. They're not even called "zones" by the game, though fans append the word anyway.

I think my first ever experience with anything Sega was when a school friend called Alex Paton came round with his Game Gear, and somehow I remember getting at least up to Labyrinth - how I did it I'll never know. The Jungle boss is an absolute bastard which took me about twelve lives before I eventually beat it, making you dance about on a slidey curved platform while Robotnik drops rolling bombs on to it and without any available rings to even protect you from one hit. While I'm on the subject, the waterfall level immediately before it will kill you if you fall off the bottom of the screen - even if there's a platform you just left two inches below the screen border!

Faced with all that I obviously haven't completed it, but I got to Sky Base, took screenshot evidence, and I think that's enough for me.

Sonic Mania

Sep. 3rd, 2017 04:14 pm
davidn: (Default)
Bloody hell, Sonic Mania is so good. As it's been ages since I wrote about a game, I wanted to try to put why into words, but I'm not doing a great job at it. Perhaps the best illustration would be to echo my fumbling write-up of Sonic 4 which teetered on "all right" but ended up being rubbish - the beginnings of both games evoke exactly the same feelings.


Therefore:

Games have now reached the age where nostalgia service is possible in them - from the start, when the chorus of "SE-GAAAA" booms out followed by the Megadrive-styled music accompanying the scrolling sea and wings logo on the title screen, this is taking great care to play in to memories of how amazing it was to see four-way scrolling levels speeding by on the Megadrive. Start it up and you're given a classic flying-text transition into Green Hill, populated with all the oddly rotating flowers, inexplicably chequered mountains and metallic enemies that you remember.

Then you start moving, and
it's absolutely fucking perfect. It's wonderfully responsive, momentum and physics work as you'd expect, it's just... so satisfying. Put alongside Sonic 4 and even the middling-to-okay Generations, it's just worlds apart, and seeing it in front of you, it's mystifying that Sega themselves couldn't get something as basic as this right over the last seven years. Indeed, the whole game feels like a bit of a middle finger to Sonic 4, not explicitly ever referencing it but in just existing as what a sequel to Sonic 3 should obviously have been (although people did notice that on the lift buttons that represent the games in the Mania trailer, the sequence goes 1, 2, 3, K, M and conspicuously misses out 4 entirely).

From that promising start, it's just what a Sonic game should be - you guide one of a trio of cutietums through a long run of rollercoaster/pinball worlds, you speed along tunnels and loops and tubes and smash robots. The real or imagined problem of Sonic games punishing the player for using their speed is something that I didn't see happening - if you bounce around with wild abandon all the time you're going to be wrecked, but the game does a great job of switching from the spectacle of the fast sections to places where more care is required. The levels keep being imaginative and varied despite the impressive length of the game - there are twelve zones and acts are typically huge (almost to a fault, as I found myself being Time Overed on a couple of them despite not feeling like I'd been dawdling). Nine of them by my count are enhanced remakes of zones from earlier games, but three are completely new.

I think that part of the game's ability to impress is in its caution to stay below what it can really do from the beginning. By starting you off in Green Hill with a stage that begins in a very familiar fashion, it gets you used to the idea that this is a lost game from the Megadrive era - though having said that, everything animates at a higher frame rate than it used to and it's an uncanny feeling the first time you see the whole thing moving. But as the game continues, it begins to pull out more and more tricks that break the Megadrive mould, one of the most notable being where you're punted into the background layer on one of the penultimate stages and continue the game from there until you find a way to launch yourself back.

Among Sonic 4's impressive array of mistakes was the way that it stuck so closely to the original games' levels and ideas, making it very obvious where they were being done much less well than they had been. Mania takes much the same approach - the remakes of the classic stages tend to stick close to the originals in the first act, but then introduce new elements and ideas for the second one - but avoids negative comparisons with the original games by just doing them right. Sonic 4 was immensely predictable - we'd seen all the bosses before, even before the game made us fight them all yet again in sequence at the end and then lazily faced you against that big egg robot from Sonic 2 with its number of hit points increased to about a million. In just one example of its collection of clever surprises, the same egg robot appears instead as Mania's very first end-of-zone boss instead, with familiar weaknesses but a completely different way of fighting it.

I don't know what else to say, other than to note the music's great as well (once again being close to the original game soundtracks for the first act and then venturing further for the second), and that there are a ton of secrets to find through the several types of bonus stage and minigames.

I'm going back to playing it now.
davidn: (prince)



It's been a long, long time since I just showed a game off - but I want to give some attention to a ZDoom game that's been criminally overlooked!

This is an amazing conversion of The Crystal Maze into first-person form by Stephen Clark, "The Ultimate DooMer". It's incredible to see the set transformed into Doom geometry, and there are 32 games of varying scope and complexity - some of which seem to also have taken inspiration from Knightmare. This is my chance to prove that I can do better than the protozoa we watched being led around by Richard O'Brien weekly.

If you want to try it yourself, get:
- A copy of Doom II from GoG or Steam or something
- GZDoom from here: http://zdoom.org
- The mod from here: https://www.doomworld.com/idgames/levels/doom2/Ports/a-c/cr-maze

Then look up a guide on how to set it up, I'm not explaining everything!
davidn: (prince)
I got back into playing Elasto Mania again after seeing it mentioned on a "shareware games we grew up with" thread on Twitter! Seventeen years after it was first released, I finally registered it (which you can still do on the slightly spartan original site) and gave author Balázs Rózsa some money at last.


The usual


Did anyone else here have this? It was called Action Supercross earlier in its life, and is labelled a "motorbike simulation", which doesn't really describe it at all (though I will concede it does have a bike in it). It's sort of an... action-puzzle platformer?, starring a man with nerves made of steel on a bike with suspension made of elastic. The aim is to propel yourself around the levels, collect all the apples and then get to the flower for some reason. You have to watch your rider's head, because if that contacts the scenery at any point, you're dead - and the same goes for letting your wheels touch any of the nasty spinny obstacles that start appearing in later levels.

What will probably happen the first time you try it is you'll line yourself up with an apple, hold down Accelerate, immediately flip over and die. Because this is a physics game - and one written from the ground up before we had Box2D and Havok to mess it all up for us, making it an impressive piece of programming indeed. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the author went on to establish a lab for 3D function network and dendritic imaging, whatever the hell those are.) Acceleration tips you backwards, so you have to go easy on the throttle and control your brake to keep yourself upright. You can also influence your rotation a bit by using the left and right arrow keys to throw yourself in that direction - and the last control is Space to "turn around", which somewhat bizarrely flips the chassis of the bike around so that the front wheel becomes the back and vice versa, without affecting the bike's acceleration or angle or anything.

It starts off simple enough, with flat surfaces and gentle slopes, with just your own overenthusiasm as the main obstacle. But things start becoming more involved very quickly, and you have to navigate the nightmare-skateboard-park levels by using all kinds of impossible tricks - only your head and wheels collide with the ground, so sometimes you'll have to cling on to a platform with your back wheel with the rest of your bike and rider dangling below it, desperately getting up the momentum to reach for an apple with your front tyre.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ywexteMZJ0


I was drawn back to the game by finding that there is, of course, a competitive community that has sprung up around it. Some of the recorded runs they've achieved are unbelievable, flinging themselves around levels at the speed of sound while I have to carefully teeter over mild hillocks to avoid crashing and burning. In fact, if I have a criticism of the game, it's that the later default levels tend towards ridiculously long and large, taking upwards of three minutes to complete with just one unrecoverable slip between you and the ground (and a subsequent restart). So now I'm working through the vast library of community-created ones!
davidn: (Default)
As [personal profile] xyzzysqrl mentioned it on Twitter yesterday, I had another go at Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure. I had been noticeably disparaging towards it in my overview of the entire 3D Realms Anthology among the other games, and wanted to give it another try to see if my impressions of it were justified.

Long story short, they were. I feel bad for it because it has so much variety and colour to it, but the game doesn't really work for reasons including but not necessarily limited to the following:

  • The Duke Nukem engine, specifically the way that everything moves on an 8x8 grid. This worked noticeably better for Duke, and I'm not totally sure why - part of it is that Duke had enemies that ignored the grid and moved smoothly, whereas Cosmo doesn't. Combined with this, Cosmo has to get a lot closer to enemies rather than shooting them at a distance - he has to jump on them (often multiple times) with his only distance attack being bombs that are fairly rare (and that have to be set close to the enemy anyway if it's stationary!) Perhaps it's also at odds with the console-style platformer presentation that Cosmo is going for - it's noticeably janktastic compared to its counterparts.

  • No vertical visibility. 200 pixels isn't much in the first place, but the status bar takes up a quarter of that - on the ground you can look up and down, but during even quite short jumps there's no way to see what you're landing on. The game tries to remedy this by placing pickups in arcs to guide your jump, but trusting them is a mistake - look at the cluster of red fruit near the right hand side of the map. You can't see the bottom of the level from the ledge, and so it's easy to assume there's ground under there and walk off to instant death. I did it twice.

  • Combined with that, there are too many bottomless pits - the levels might not look long in the maps, but they encourage exploration so progress can be slow through them, and it's very easy to lose all of it with one slip.

  • And the lack of health in general! You get four hit points by default, and that number can be extended, but health upgrades are few and far between. When you switch levels, fall off the bottom of the screen or otherwise die, it doesn't even restore your motherwanking hit points - if you entered a level by the skin of your teeth, you'll start in that state again if you die at any point during it.


And while not a flaw, I want to repeat that it's strange that the game is called "Forbidden Planet" on all three of the episode title screens, and that the name "Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure" is only mentioned on a startup card before it along with the Apogee logo. Perhaps there were intended to be more cosmic adventures at some point?

I only played through the first episode and the second two are reputedly much harder... I'll see how long it is before I give up.

[personal profile] xyzzysqrl offers a second opinion here, which is quite similar to this opinion because it's correct.
davidn: (Default)
So, The Colonel's Bequest, then. Since completing the game I've read around it a bit more, mostly starting from this dedicated Colonel's Bequest fansite, and I think that despite its flaws - and the sense I had at the start of being completely clueless - I think I grew to appreciate what it was doing. There are also some interesting notes laid out in this recovered design document with some complimentary tea-stains - I love seeing how games of this era came together.

It's certainly an interesting game, particularly when you consider the time it was released - it's still hard to believe it was 1989, a time when most PC games I knew about resembled Jason Jupiter. In terms of graphics, obviously, it was very advanced, and it was an unusually early attempt at making a game that was more about observation than fiddling with things (something much more prominent in the modern era with 'adventures' like Gone Home and Rapture). If you look in "About" under the menu, you get a glimpse from the authors themselves of what Sierra was trying to do here:




They acknowledge that the inventory-based puzzles of their previous games are pushed to the background here in favour of being an interactive story, and - rather pompously, if you ask me - tell the player that if they don't get it then they're not putting enough effort in. Looking at some magazine reviews from the time, it seemed the setting and new idea was appreciated but that some reviewers found the game extremely dull (the linked reviewer's experience being exacerbated by being on the Amiga and therefore having to swap disks every two minutes). I would agree with this, as without a walkthrough there really is very little in the way of the player being given purpose in the game. From first principles, a new player would have to lap the house many times trying to discover the largely random-seeming events that they needed to witness to move the game forward, and there isn't really a thread of clues to follow - your role is to wander around observing things and there isn't any guidance as to what important things are about to happen, not even that you can dig up somewhere to hint as to where to go next.

For that reason, I wonder if this would work better as a visual novel with a limited decision tree instead - in a way, it already is, just with a ton of wandering in between important scenes while you try to find something else worth seeing. Though it's understandable that Sierra kept to the familar adventure-like appearance, as games as non-interactive as that were a long way off in the West when this was released. And it's hard to imagine how they could have balanced that while preserving the sense of mystery as you creep around the increasingly empty house.

One of the most significant things the game has going for it is just how sharply it improves towards the end, leaving me with a good impression! Including an entire alternative ending was something I didn't expect (I thought I'd just done something else wrong earlier because surely they wouldn't have put in an entire ending-like scene for making a bad decision when their usual go-to was just to kill you for the most minor infraction). The game seems very bland at first, but starting very late on once you reach act 7 (if you take the correct route), there is suddenly a sense of danger that's been lacking from the game until that point.

I went back and looked at just how little it's possible to discover - you can blaze through the game in about 20 minutes if you know exactly what you're doing, but you miss out on all of the story and get the Barely Conscious rating if you do so. The only actions that are actually required to reach the end of the game are detailed here - each action that advances time is fixed although the order in which you do them within an act doesn't always matter, so it's up to the player to notice when the clock moves and when to move to the next act. But as for the number of actions that are possible, that seems to be stratospheric - every time this walkthrough says "perform full conversation" it's asking you to run through the whole spiel that I did in addition to trying various combinations to see how their responses change. I'm not totally sure how many of these will produce more than brief generic responses, but... in theory, there's a lot there.

The trouble is that the important actions are so hopelessly arbitrary - the fourth act does the best job at illustrating this even when you have a walkthrough, because you're relying on random chance to prevent you from advancing until you've seen everything. From looking at [personal profile] kjorteo's playthrough, the sequel The Dagger of Amon Ra improved on this in some ways and absolutely fell flat in others - a lot of information you can gather in the sequel leads you to know that you have to be in certain places at certain times, so that you can then eavesdrop and discover further information. However, time seems to advance in a much less controllable way than in this game, meaning that your chances of actually getting anywhere on time are slim even if you do everything correctly.

The final complaint that I have is that even bearing in mind that the game improves the tension at the end, there really isn't any danger - in a game that should have been ripe for danger in every corner, you can't die except in incredibly stupid Sierra ways that aren't related to the ongoing mystery. Yes, you can get grabbed by the mysterious man who lives in the toilet roll cupboard, but most of the time you'll die from falling down the stairs or be pointlessly squashed by a falling chandelier. But I'll definitely give them extra points for the bell.

So that's about where I am - I'm still not quite prepared to call this or Amon Ra good games, because they're immeasurably more enjoyable with a walkthrough on hand that helps you to avoid what the authors considered the actual "game" part, but they're... interesting. And this one in particular was ahead of its time.

The Colonel's Bequest is available on GOG.com!

One last thing I want to note is an oddity with how the graphics in the SCI0 engine are stored - one of the secrets to how good the game looks for EGA is that the graphics weren't actually drawn with regard to limits of the EGA standard - the artists used many in-between colours in their background vector artwork and the engine was written to rasterize the graphics using dithering when a colour wasn't actually available. As the extra colour data still exists in the files, a source port like ScummVM can ignore the need to dither pixels and can produce the backgrounds as they were drawn - and this is what some of them look like.

Undithered artwork )

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