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.


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.


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 )
davidn: (skull)
Now that Laura has escaped from a traditional family getaway where everybody tries to murder everybody else for various reasons and the guilty party was the one who happened to get there first, it's time to be judged on our performance. How did we do, Roberta?

Colonel's Bequest - Finale )
davidn: (savior)
Welcome back to the severely depopulated scAry iteMs estate (yes, that really is an anagram of it, but then so is Rim Ecstasy). This is going to be something of a mini-update becauase the act is extremely short - but finally, we're reaching the end of a very long night...

Colonel's Bequest - Act VIII )
davidn: (skull)
So, it's Doom House Act VII. It's late in the game, but things are finally starting to speed up now - brace yourselves, because this is a good one.

First of all, let me remind you of the state of the diagram.

With not too many targets or suspects left, there is finally a real sense of tension beginning to build, and anyone might be next to go. Why did the act switch over when I knocked on the door, anyway?

Colonel's Bequest - Act VII )
davidn: (Default)
Misery Aches has, so far, been the site of four murders tonight. Let's see if anyone else drops dead by the time Act VI is finished.

Colonel's Bequest - Act 6 )
davidn: (Jam)
All right, it's time once again for our daily visit to Murdery Acres. Last time, a clock had appeared out of nowhere.

Colonel's Bequest - Act V )
davidn: (skull)
Creepy Acres is looking less and less like a nice relaxing weekend by the hour, isn't it? And I'm not counting on Act IV to change that much.

Colonel's Bequest - Act IV )
davidn: (Default)
All right, welcome back to Misty Hollows or whatever it's called, where we've currently got another dead body to interfere with.

Colonel's Bequest - Act III Part 2 )
davidn: (skull)
Just like before, Act III starts largely by accident when you next happen to wander into the library after doing some unknown subset of the actions that I described in the last post.

Colonel's Bequest - Act III Part 1 )
davidn: (Default)
Let's reanimate ourselves, head upstairs and enter Murder House Zone, Act 2!

Colonel's Bequest - Act II )
davidn: (Default)
After piecing together all the information we gathered from the previous part by looking through strategically placed portraits (which is one of the most seriously obvious ways of spying on people when you think about how it would look in real life, but options were limited in the 20s), I've produced this helpful diagram of the characters' known relationships overlaid on the Dijon family tree.

Colonel's Bequest - Act I Part 2 )
davidn: (Default)
Okay, with the introduction out the way, it's time to get down to a hard night's snooping. Act 1 of 8. Not even the Germans write plays this long.

Colonel's Bequest - Act I Part 1 )
davidn: (skull)
Well, [personal profile] kjorteo has been requesting for someone to do this for a very long time - partly because of interest in the game itself but mostly as repayment for the years of suffering she went through to produce her wonderful run of Laura Bow 2 - so at long last, I'm going to take a look at the first game Laura Bow appeared in, The Colonel's Bequest.

Colonel's Bequest - Introduction )

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