Sep 222013

This post is pretty much a formality to say that I have moved over to Tumblr, where I have been making regular posts since December. You can catch my feed at this link. Although I will occasionally be adding game art prints and wallpapers to this blog for easy finding by the portion of the internet that doesn’t use Tumblr, I will not be making any more text posts here. The good news is that I have hundreds of posts there you can pore through at your leisure. The link above has some side categories to break it down more easily for you, but if you’re the kind of person who wants to see everything at a glance (with thumbnails and all), try browsing the archive instead.

Jul 132012

Street Fighter 2010 Sticker ImageIn the mid-to-late eighties, making a game for the NES was like having a license to print money. It was almost impossible to do wrong. Games with horrible artwork like the original Mega Man were a success, games with terrible gameplay, such as Athena, were a success, and games with ridiculous storylines and titles were a success. Case in point: Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight. I’ll give you a moment to just say that title out loud and wrap your head around it. While the original Japanese version of the game was simply Street Fighter 2010, the western localizations added The Final Fight which is what really pushes this over the top. You might not immediately realize or remember that this game was released in 1990. Street Fighter II would not be released in arcades for another year. Given that the original Street Fighter was only mildly successful, Final Fight was actually a bigger draw, so adding that name onto the end definitely lured in more potential players. Players who might no have tried it otherwise. Players like me.

Of course, it would only take five seconds of gameplay to discover the immense irony in the game’s title: Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight has nothing to do with Street Fighter or Final Fight. It plays like neither game and has a storyline and continuity all its own. Sure, the localized version of the game says that your protagonist is Ken, the champion from Street Fighter, but it also says he won the street fighting tournament 25 years earlier. Since Street Fighter took place in 1987, that should make this Street Fighter 2012: The Final Fight. If you can’t even get your timeline right, how am I supposed to trust that Ken, who could only even complete Street Fighter under odd gameplay circumstances (*) is who we’re playing?

Alright, alright, enough about the title and story. What about the game, you ask? It’s actually pretty nice and one of those that never really got the respect it deserved (although hardly a timeless classic.) You control “Ken” as he moves from location to location, taking out select enemies to gather energy to power teleportation portals to new areas. Your ultimate goal is to track down the villain who killed your best friend and co-scientist Troy. Some stages have you hunting multiple smaller enemies to build up the necessary energy supply, while others pit you directly against a boss creature.

Street Fighter 2010: Giant Eyeball Boss

When the big boss tells the bad guys to keep an eye out for you, they take it very seriously.

Although you’re a former street fighting champion, you won’t be using any punches or kicks against enemies, at least not directly. Instead, you’ll fire energy projectiles akin to the hadouken fireball used by Ken in Street Fighter. You can launch these with kicks as well, causing them to curve around the screen in wide arcs. The distance for your projectiles begins at a not-very-respectible quarter of the screen, but can be increased with power-ups. You can make incredible jumps, easily climb up walls (or even streams of quicksand) and do backflips, all befitting of someone with your renowned physical prowess, but you don’t get to actually punch or kick anyone.

Street Fighter 2010 is a tough game. Really tough. Although the controls respond well enough, enemies come at you from all directions and it takes precision placement in order to eliminate them without being hit. And you do not want to be hit because, aside from the obvious loss of energy and eventual death, each hit reduces your power-ups by one, which will very quickly eliminate your ability to defend yourself. As it progresses, the game can become very unforgiving and I have no shame in admitting that I never actually beat it without help from my trusty Game Genie.

Street Fighter 2010: The Dune Years

Sure, fighting these enemies is tough and all, but do you know how hard it is to get sand out of powered street fighting armor?

In the graphical arena, the game performs well. The sprites used are small, but well animated. Areas take advantage of the full available palette, even changing the colors used to display your life and power-ups from area to area, to increase the number of available colors (**). Although it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Blaster Master the game looks great. As you would expect from Junko Tamiya, the woman who composed Gun.Smoke and Bionic Commando on the NES and Strider in the arcade, the music for Street Fighter 2010 is energetic, catchy and fits the themes of the game. I wish some of the tracks went a little longer before looping, but shorter music was often a trait of the times.

Ultimately, Street Fighter 2010 works on a number of levels. If you’re looking for a challenge, it will certainly provide that. If you just want to cheat and run around blasting things to pieces while backflipping over alien environments, you can do that as well. With skill, the game can be beaten in half an hour, but the same goes for so many other pure-action games of the time, that it’s hardly a drawback, especially in this day and age of cramped schedules and instant gratification. It may never have been a contender, but it deserves to be given another shot.

* In order to play Ken in the original Street Fighter, a second player would have to join a one-player game in progress and then defeat the first player. After doing so, the second player could continue the game as Ken and potentially win. Without winning a two-player match, no one can play Ken in that game, much less win the tournament.

** The NES can display 16 colors at a time from a palette of 52 total colors. By changing colors from the UI, there were more varied colors available for the game’s graphics. Other games either used a static UI, which reduced graphic colors available, or only made the UI black and white.

Jul 062012

Asylum sticker imageOf all the genres in gaming, perhaps the one which suffered the most tragic death is the text adventure. What started with the simple Colossal Cave Adventure in 1975 matured through the 1980s in the loving care of companies like Infocom, becoming more thorough, immersive and complex. The benefits of the text adventure were many. For one, pure text adventures, like a book, were fueled by imagination. You were fed descriptions and formed your own images which, given good writing, were certainly superior to the 16-color (or possibly monochrome) low-resolution images available at the time. Just as importantly, you were in control. Most games, even in this day, limit your possible actions significantly due to the complexity of programming the results of doing anything you want. Because the only real impact of a command in classic adventure games is the setting of invisible flags and pointers and the output of text (which requires little space or code), your possibilities were amazingly large. If you’ve ever played some of the Infocom games renowned for their complexity like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Trinity, Suspended or Stationfall, you’ll know what I mean.

Eventually, however, the genre of text adventure games died, with a primary reason being the shift in gamer mentality to graphics being an item of significant importance. Although text adventures are still being made, their commercial viability and widespread appeal are a thing of the past. Thus, the storyline for Asylum–that rampant addictions to the virtual worlds created within adventure games caused psychoses that were treated by placing victims in artificial environments that they had to interact their way out of–never came to pass. But that doesn’t make it any less of an interesting game. In Asylum, you play one such patient, forced to move through a large maze while encountering other characters (purportedly cyborgs according to the intro) and interacting with them to solve puzzles and eventually escape.

Asylum is an unusual game, a hybrid of text adventure, graphical text adventure (such as those developed by Magnetic Scrolls) and 3D free movement like an RPG. You use the arrow buttons on the keyboard to navigate a rather nondescript maze, with individual graphic images appearing when something interesting happens–usually an encounter with another character within the maze. Some characters are helpful, some less so, and many are crazy.

Asylum, Another Inmate

This guy? One of the crazy ones. As if the image and descriptor of “quite mad!” didn’t make that clear.

The graphics in Asylum are serviceable. They won’t win any awards or captivate you like something out of The Pawn but they convey the atmosphere well enough. Wander around the maze long enough and meet enough slightly off-kilter inhabitants, and you’ll get the feeling you really are in some sort of rehabilitation center, or possibly just a government experiment.

Like many of its ilk, Asylum has more than its fair share of unusual puzzles, several of which can only be overcome with trial and error–that is, by making a mistake in order to see the result and then act in advance to circumvent that result on your next attempt. For example, violence toward other inmates will be met with electroshock therapy, but such violence is actually required to advance, so it’s only after you’re punished that you even consider sabotaging the electroshock equipment before your next attempt. This can be a bit on the frustrating side, but nowhere near as much so as other cases in the genre like the infamous Babel Fish puzzle in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And of course, you must navigate a maze to make your way around, which can be tricky in and of itself.

One thing Asylum has going for it is the convenience of playing without a time limit and with few (if any) chances of getting stuck without the ability to succeed. Your character needs neither to sleep nor eat, and short of just giving away crucial items for no reason, it’s difficult to back yourself into a corner. Character death is the one thing that will force you to restart your game or load an earlier save and, you usually have to do something overtly dangerous for it to happen. Usually.

Asylum, an Unlikely Death

Death, although not common, can happen anywhere. And yet, at the outset, the game tells you to look everywhere! It’s a trap!

In the end, Asylum is hardly the poster child for excellence in interactive fiction, and yet at the same time it holds a distinctive charm all its own. Would I recommend it for first time text adventurers? Absolutely not–that honor would fall to some of my other favorites such as (in increasing order of difficulty) Wishbringer, Zork I, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Trinity or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But if you feel like you’ve experienced all that text adventures–graphical or otherwise–have to offer, you’ll probably find yourself surprised.

Jun 292012

Spy Hunter sticker imageWhen I was a child, arcade gaming was a way of life. In addition to dedicated arcades such as Aladdin’s Castle, arcade games could be found in all sorts of ancillary locations. Laundromats, convenience stores and even some restaurants would have a couple of cabinets on hand to pass the time. You could hardly swing a cat without hitting an arcade machine, which is just how I liked it, even if the cats didn’t appreciate it so much. Dedicated arcades were the province of malls or other out-of-the-way places, so most of my exposure to these games came from those isolated cabinets. One of the earliest arcade games I fell in love with was Bally Midway’s classic Spy Hunter, located in a Stop-n-Go in the Florida town I lived in.

Spy Hunter puts you behind the wheel of a tricked-out car on a never-ending race against the eponymous spy hunters. Your vehicle comes equipped automatically with infinite-capacity machine guns, which can be used to take down some of your enemies. Other opponents are either bulletproof or remain out of reach of machineguns. For these foes (and to help with the others whom you can still shoot, of course), you’ll need to upgrade, which is accomplished by driving up into a semi, much like Knight Rider, the television series that premiered a year before. Via the semi, you can acquire limited supplies of oil slicks, smoke screens and even surface-to-air missiles. A light on the cabinet’s display will even flash to get your attention when the semi approaches, which would hopefully help prevent you from accidentally wiping it out with said weapons. In addition to weapons, you can also ram some enemies off the road, but you’ll have to exercise caution not to run off the road and into a tree yourself.

Spy Hunter, Upgrade Time

This smokescreen semi couldn’t have come at a better time. Now all you have to do is survive long enough to get in it.

Your car is controlled through a gas pedal for speed and a steering wheel (complete with weapon triggers) for direction and attacking. Points are awarded for distance covered as well as enemies eliminated, so driving faster will result in a higher score but make it more likely you’ll rear-end someone, totalling your car. And you do not want to crash this car. In addition to the travesty of smashing up this sweet ride, you’ll end the game very quickly. Unlike many games, Spy Hunter starts off with a timer, about a minute and a half long, during which you have infinite lives. Get destroyed during this period and you’ll lose nothing but scoring opportunity. Once the timer ends, however, you have only the car you’re driving, plus any extra cars you earned from bonus points.

Civilians are an issue. They populate the roads and get in the way of your glorious escape. Accidentally destroying them isn’t as punitive as it is in, say, Operation Wolf, Lethal Enforcers or even City Connection — they won’t cost you a life — but they’ll temporarily disable earning any points. While you’d often have to actually try to destroy civilian cars (watch that machinegun fire), it’s very easy to nudge motorcycles with your own car and wipe them out. But really, that’s kind of what they get for being in your way. You’re trying to save the world from some nefarious plot; they’re just trying to save a little gas by driving a bike.

Stay alive long enough and you’ll have the opportunity to covert your spy car into a boat and take to the open water. This provides a nice dash of variety, even if the gameplay changes only slightly (the coolest change being that oil slicks catch fire, leaving a trail of flames that torches enemies.) Eventually, you’ll cycle through terrain changes, such as the gray environments of an icy winter.

Spy Hunter, Boat Chase

Laying down a trail of flames in a speedboat while evading all enemies. Does it get any better than that?

Technically, Spy Hunter was and is a remarkable game. It sported a much larger resolution (480×480) than almost any other game of the time or, for that matter, most arcade games following it for the next two decades; even modern widescreen sprite-based games rarely crossed 400 pixels in either dimension. This enabled the sprites it used to be small yet surprisingly detailed, an important element in trying to tell the good guys from the bad guys without relying on silly high-contrasting elements like pink cars. The graphics and sound, use of multiple weapons, different enemies with distinct attack patterns and even the ability to detour into playing on water were significantly above the depth offered by many other arcade games at the time, including hits like Zaxxon, Xevious and Pole Position.

Despite a legacy that includes a buggy-but-fun NES port, a terrible arcade sequel, and some very respectable re-imaginings on the PS2, the original Spy Hunter is still the best. It’s also one of those games that, unfortunately, you need to play in a cabinet to truly appreciate; while the game can be emulated, the experience of controlling your car through a keyboard, joystick or even mouse ranges from mediocre to rage-inducing. You’re best off seeking out an old-school arcade (for a variety of reasons, in truth) and spending some quality time cruising to the tune of Peter Gunn.

Jun 222012

Raid Over Moscow sticker imageIt was 1984 and even though we were 30+ years into of the Cold War and (unknown to us) nearing its end, we were clearly at the height of its social and media exposure. One year earlier, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy had narrowly avoided starting a nuclear war in Wargames. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen were about to lead a guerrilla resistance of russian occupation in Red Dawn. And in a year, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky would be tackling Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago (“I must break you”) in Rocky IV. Far from attempting to hide the Cold War, the entertainment industry was riding the idea all the way to the bank. Propaganda or Capitalism? Either way, it opposed the doctrines of Communism represented by the Soviet Union.

Enter Raid Over Moscow, not the first Cold War-based computer game, but arguably the greatest of its era. As the name might suggest, the ultimate successful conclusion of the game will put you in the position of directly attacking the heart of the USSR. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning. The game’s intro sets the stage. Following successful anti-nuclear movements throughout America and Europe, the United States and Soviet Union signed a nuclear disarmament treaty. The U.S. has complied with the treaty, desroyed all of their missiles and is replacing its arsenal with a series of defense satellites bearing both lasers and military dropships. The USSR has not been able to implement such a plan so, while on the surface they have been disarming, they have hidden nuclear stockpiles in three major cities. When tensions increase due to a American-Russian conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Soviets launch their missiles, threatening to detonate if the U.S. does not back down in the gulf. In response, the United States dispatches the forces from its single operational satellite to take out the control centers for the missiles and then strike the Soviet headquarters.

Raid Over Moscow, Incoming Nuclear Strike

The world map, displaying the current incoming strike from Russia. Note: Incoming Russian nuclear missles are not to scale.

As a youngster in middle school I didn’t really grasp the full context of this intro, being content to just blow stuff up and save the world, but this story has a surprising amount of complexity for an action game in its time. Many developers (and players) would have been satisfied with the mere concept of intercepting and stopping a Soviet nuclear launch, but the backstory surrounding disarmament and Persian Gulf conflict were remarkably prescient. To be sure, there are some gaps in the logic involved, and the technology proposed within the game still isn’t feasible nearly 30 years later, but it was still a great step forward for action gaming.

You take control of the commander of the satellite station, and will be responsible for the decisions that will (hopefully) save the United States from nuclear annihilation. The first of these decisions is how many shuttles to launch from your satellite during each sortie. You have to pilot each out manually, potentially destroying them in the process. Take too long, and the missiles in the air will touch down, obliterating a United States city. Don’t take enough shuttles, and you may run out of them during the next step of the process, a Zaxxon-style shooting stage leading to the enemy control center. Running out of shuttles would be a bad thing, as it means starting back at the satellite and travelling to the city all over again. Assuming you make it through this, you’ll still need to face down a number of armed bunkers to take down the control center. And if you defeat that, there are two other major cities just waiting to launch their nuclear strikes. Why didn’t all three cities launch simultaneously? Who knows, but that kind of thinking must be why we won.

After disabling the nuclear arsenals at Minsk, Leningrad and Saratov, it’s time for Moscow itself. You’ll have another Zaxxon-esque flying stage to tackle on your approach before, armed with nothing more than a grenade launcher, you assault… the State Historical Museum? Well, that’s a little weird, but I can’t blame the developers for possibly thinking this was the Kremlin considering how many people nowadays make that mistake. It certainly looks more Russian than the chief building of the Kremlin–maybe that was the reason. The only building more demonstrably Russian is St. Basil’s Cathedral, which would later be featured on the cover of Tetris–and who would want to blow up that?

Raid Over Moscow, Assaulting Moscow

Admittedly, it was convenient that someone dug a trench in Red Square that you could hide in while bombarding the capital.

Even after you’ve overcome snipers and a weird alien tank-thing to bust into this building, you’re still not done. The central reactor for Moscow is guarded by not just one but two drones that you must take out Deadly Discs of Tron-style. This is very difficult and complicated by the fact that after the first drone is defeated, a reactor explosion counter starts, and you’ll need to defeat the second drone in time to successfully escape.

Raid Over Moscow is a remarkable game for its time. The game has six different types of gameplay to go through, all loaded into memory simultaneously and all sporting graphics that, while sometimes simple, are quite respectable. You’re challenged right off the bat to pilot shuttles out of your satellite, dealing with altitude, direction and inertia all at once. Things only get trickier from there and the fast action plus missile detonation deadlines really stress the urgency of a Defcon 1 scenario. And although modern games (especially shooters) still portray Russians as a force of potential evil in the world, we may never again see a game that so places you so squarely in the iron-clad tension of the Cold War. While the fears represented in the game when it was published were very real, now Raid Over Moscow serves only as a look into what could have been, and thankfully wasn’t.

Jun 162012

Marvel vs. Capcom sticker imageIt seems like just yesterday that my wife and I bought Street Fighter II Turbo for the SNES–our first joint purchase. Many a heated match were fought pitting her Guile against my Chun-Li, her Ken vs. my Ryu. Little did we know how the face of fighting games was changing. X-Men: Children of the Atom and Marvel Super Heroes, bearing super-powered combatants, were just around the corner and, in 1996, the fighting game crossover was born with X-Men vs. Street Fighter. (While previous crossover games like Battletoads and Double Dragon and Aliens vs. Predator had been created, they were beat-em-ups and not fighting games.) Capcom had a grand idea on their hands, and they followed up with Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. It was only inevitable that they would take it to the next level with Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes.

It’s easy to forget, now that the world has seen Namco vs. Capcom, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, just how amazing this concept was. For the first time, characters with no place in a fighting game–some of them believed to be losts to the mists of time–were duking it out in the arcade. Popular favorites like Mega Man as well as obscure characters like Jin Saotome (of Cyberbots) joined the expected Street Fighter II cast and even members of Darkstalkers, while the Marvel side also added some new characters not seen in any of Capcom’s previous Marvel fighting games. You select two characters to fight with, as well as a random “helper” which enabled the inclusion of cameos in the game for characters who would not be feasible to play on their own, like Michelle Heart from Legendary Wings. My team of choice? Strider Hiryu and Chun-Li, with, if I was lucky, Saki of Quiz Nanairo Dreams as an assistant.

Marvel vs. Capcom, Strider Hiryu vs. Morrigan

Strider Hiryu shows off his cipher skills; Morrigan is unimpressed.

Not that you play a game like this for the story, but essentially Professor X is summoning heroes (and villains, it seems) from the Marvel and Capcom universes to help him stop Onslaught or prevent him from becoming Onslaught, or something like that. You end up fighting Onslaught as the main boss. Since Onslaught is made from the dark sides of both Professor X and Magneto (whose mind was wiped clean at the time), someone on the development staff was smart enough to realize that you shouldn’t be able to play as Magneto in a game where you ultimately end up fighting a being that is one-half Magneto. They weren’t smart enough to realize Magneto shouldn’t be an assist character, however, so you can actually unleash Magneto on himself if you play it right. However, that’s an issue of continuity, which is something that hardly belongs in a vs. fighting game.

Broken laws of time and space aside, for my money, Clash of Super Heroes remains the best game in the Marvel vs. Capcom series (a view which, I admit, is not widely shared), and the most intense representation of sprite-based fighting in its heyday. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 added many, many new characters, it’s true, but it also simplified control schemes, took out helper characters (in favor of an overloaded 3-character fighting team), has a nonspecific character story driven by Ruby Heart, a Capcom creation who never even appeared in any previous game, and began the transition away from bitmapped images by using 3D rendered backgrounds. Marvel vs. Capcom 3, while improving on the storylines and fan references from Marvel vs. Capcom 2, further simplified controls (down to three buttons from the original six) and did away with sprite-based graphics altogether, now rendering each character in polygons. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 may well represent the pinnacle of vs. fighting games to date, but chucks reality out the window, with ludicrous match-ups such as Phoenix Wright against Doctor Doom, or Chris Redfield against Galactus being possible.

Marvel vs. Capcom, Roll vs. Onslaught

Okay, so this fight isn't that fair either, I suppose.

Playing the original Marvel vs. Capcom may be problematic. Finding a copy in your local arcade–or even having a local arcade–can be tough. The game was ported to the Playstation 1, but that version was abysmal due to memory restrictions that removed the helper character and made your second fighter character a “helper” instead so that you really only controlled one character. By the time the game came out, Capcom had abandoned the Sega Saturn, else it could have done a respectable Japanese release with the 4MB memory cart it used for other fighting games. The Dreamcast port is very respectable, with accurate graphics and gameplay, and even a mode allowing four players to fight at once, Smash Bros.-style. Of course, this requires a Dreamcast. The easiest option will be an emulator such as MAME, if you’re willing to wade into the grey area of emulation.

Even if you don’t like the genre, if you get a chance to check this out, you should. It stands as the last hurrah of old-school fighting games and an experience that lovers of both comics and Capcom games (old or new) should witness.

Jun 112012

Spelunker sticker imageFive years ago, if you had asked me, I would have laid good money that this game–a treasure of the ancient past about seeking a treasure from the ancient past–was long forgotten. That was before Irem arranged for the NES version of the game to appear on the Wii Virtual Console, and created Spelunker HD for the PS3. Neither of those are the Commodore 64 version, because they’re based on the inferior NES port, but they’re enough to show how long a good game can live.

Spelunker, a Brøderbund release (completely coincidental to The Guardian Legend I posted about last time), was one of the earliest games I played on my Commodore 64, which is the version I’ll speak of here. It puts you in the role of–you guessed it–a Spelunker, making your way through an extremely large series of caves in search of hidden treasure from who-knows-when. Along the way, you’ll need to deal with the sort of dangers that real spelunkers face, such as instantly deadly bat guano, ghosts and dropping more than five feet from any surface. Don’t be fooled by the cover art from any version; you’ll be playing no fit and bold explorer, but instead a dumpy unfortunate with bones are made of crystal and whose ability to slip off any surface could make Groo look graceful.

This game is hard, make no mistake. Your movements require the kind of precision that would make many modern platformers look easy, and there’s almost no allowance for error. Virtually every jump that you slightly mistime will end in your death because if you fall more than about one body length for any reason, you lose a life. You don’t have forever to stand around figuring out how to make a sequence of jumps either, because, just like a real explorer trapped in a cave larger than that seen in The Goonies, you’re constantly running out of air. Go figure. Air supply tanks are plentiful, but they don’t last long when picked up, so you must continuously move from one to the next. To make matters worse, ghosts occasionally appear. While you can blow them away using a fan-type device (if only someone had let Egon Spengler know it was so easy), doing so consumes even more oxygen.

Spelunker, grabbing an air tank

It may not look like much, but this little object will let you breathe for a whole 60 seconds! (No, I'm not kidding.)

There are either five or six levels–I can’t remember how many because it’s been so long since I finished the game (a feat I’m proud of)–but many players will never make it past the first due to this kind of difficulty. If you survive to the third stage, consider yourself accomplished. Beat the game, and that’s one to put on your gamer résumé.

So what makes such a punishing game worth talking about? The atmosphere. No, not the literal atmosphere of the game, which must be something like 99% cyanide to kill you so quickly. The Commodore version of the game runs on a 320×200 resolution, sports 16 colors, has part of the display taken up by your score, the game’s title and a bar for the remaining air, and still manages to portray a large, immersive underground world. Each level (loaded from disk when you move from one to the next) is surprisingly large given the memory constraints of the machine at hand and the amount of things going on in each.

Spelunker, hitching a ride

Nice of someone before you to leave a bridge and cart. Right next to the deadly fire spouts.

Curiosity about what you’ll find next (or at the end) constantly drives you forward. The puzzles, if they can even be called that, are incredibly simple; find dynamite, flares or keys and use them to overcome appropriate obstacles. Jumping and maneuvering around hazards takes real work and can send your blood pressure through the roof, but like the best of games, the challenge comes with a thrill of victory that’s reward enough in itself.

Spelunker is not for the faint of spirit, but it’s an experience that you won’t find elsewhere. Nearly 30 years later, many games can’t set the simple yet deep tone it provides. Check it out and see for yourself–just be sure to have some stress balls handy.

May 312012

The Guardian Legend sticker imagesFor this, the inaugural edition of our revived Games of Yore feature, I picked one of my favorite NES games, 1988’s The Guardian Legend, published by a company known for games that can stand the test of time, Brøderbund. This is the North American port of a Japanese Famicom game developed by Compile known as Legend of Guardic. While I can understand changing the name of the game to The Guardian Legend, I remain puzzled, all these years later, why they chose a cover that not only has nothing to do with the game but shamelessly rips off the 1985 sci-fi film Creature (a not uncommon act, as the covers for Navy Moves, Metal Gear and Contra, among others, demonstrate.)

Cover choice aside, The Guardian Legend instantly captivated me in my youth and can easily still do so today. One reason for this is how the game starts. You can wait at the title screen if desired, and you’ll gladly be presented with a token one-screen rundown on how you have to save the Earth from a planet hurtling toward it, but actually starting the game, you get nothing but white-knuckle action, as your ship propels through space at insane scrolling speeds which I didn’t even know were possible on an NES at the time. Just because this is the first stage of the game doesn’t mean things will be easy, either. Meteors and enemies zoom in from off-screen, pelting your ship as they go. In most shooters, the instant death suffered as a result would be frustrating in the extreme; because The Guardian Legend operates on an energy meter, here it simply forces you into an adrenalized state of survival. Survive the initial blistering-speed corridor and things slow down as you approach the first boss. That’s right; you have to fight a boss before you’re allowed to get into the game proper. You must earn the right to fully enjoy The Guardian Legend.

After the first boss–consisting of a dozen cannons simultaneously firing on you–is defeated, you’re taken into the actual game, where you’re given a mysterious message beseeching you to explore the ten corridors of the planet Naju and shut down the failsafe in each of them in order to trigger a self-destruct sequence that will stop Naju from colliding with and infecting any other worlds. You’ve now entered into the other part of the game: top-down exploration similar to The Legend of Zelda, only with space-age weapons, alien life forms, and, admittedly, less secrets to uncover. You scour the planet Naju, locating and clearing the ten corridors. While exploring the overworld of the planet, you’ll find and purchase weapons, and encounter mini-bosses, who also provide permanent power-ups when defeated. Each corridor contains two different shooting stages, which you play through when your robot character transforms into a spaceship. Each of these shooting segments is a few minutes long and punctuated with a boss fight. While the bosses do repeat with different colors and attack patterns in different corridors, there’s plenty of variety between them.

The Guardian Legend, Corridor 3

An open corridor, just waiting for you step forth, become a spaceship, and save the world.

To help you defeat the many enemies in your way, you can acquire up to 11 special weapons that can be switched through at will through a sub-menu, and each of these can be powered up to three levels. There’s a massive amount of variety, with lasers, fireballs, enemy-seeking orbs, and even lightsabers that attach to your ship, damaging anything that comes within reach. Fueling these weapons uses up “chips” which serve as a weapon energy supply separate from your main energy; your maximum chips can be increased along the way, which not only increases the power of your primary, unlimited-ammunition weapon, but allows you to use special weapons longer. The lower your chips fall, however, the weaker your primary weapon becomes, so it’s important to balance the use of them.

From start to finish, The Guardian Legend is a quality product. The graphics, especially in the shooting stages, are colorful and varied, and demonstrate the personalities of each zone, from underwater areas where you’ll encounter giant crabs and cosmic anemone, to icy terrains with active volcanoes erupting with ship-seeking  alien debris. Musically, the game squeezes a lot out of the NES’s four-channel processing. While the game lacks the length and depth of dedicated overworld explorers like Zelda or Crystalis, what it has works really well, especially when you consider that it also includes 21 shooting stages (including the opening.) And in the end, it’s this fusion of styles in a smooth package that makes The Guardian Legend an experience that each gamer should try.

The Guardian Legend, Area 11

You're a spaceship flying underwater, fighting giant piranha and space-sea rays. This is totally normal.

For those who love the sound of the shooting stages, but hate exploration to get to them, Compile has you covered. Completing the game or flipping through the most recent Nintendo Power checking the internet will reveal that putting in “TGL” as a password will take you through a version of the game with only shooting stages in immediate succession, with the power-ups you would have found while exploring instead awarded based on your gameplay performance. This turns the game into a monster difficulty challenge, so consider yourself duly warned.

There remains little else to say. By this point, you know if you’re going to try this game or not, but if you’ve ever enjoyed shoot-em-ups, you owe it to yourself to do so. There simply isn’t another overland/shoot-em-up fusion like it out there. Relive the glory of 1988 today.

Dec 172011

Note: This started out earlier today as a post with a definite focus and as the day went on and my mental faculties drained it devolved into me talking up my two favorite pinball games. I could apologize, but hey, it’s my blog…

Those who talk with me for any length of time about games will know that not only do I have deep unconditional love for the traditional “video game” but also for pinball. Indeed, when Ground Kontrol hosts their $5 Free Play Night and I occasionally attend (but not nearly often enough!) I usually spend half or more of my time at the pinball area and, specifically, in front of one (now two) tables: Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Twilight Zone.

Unlike most (especially modern) video games, pinball is something that, with an infinite amount of skill, could be played forever. The table doesn’t keep on tilting to make the ball fall faster as the game progresses, nor do the flippers move apart, essentially analogs to the concept of enemies moving faster, shooting more, hitting harder and being more difficult to defeat as occurs in most games as they proceed–if they don’t outright end after a certain number of stages. This alone sets pinball apart from its video game brethren in very significant ways.

Why all the love for these two games in particular, though? Because, more than other tables that I’ve tried, they envision the things necessary for a pinball game to be successful: flash and depth or, if you will, style and substance. When you combine those in a pinball table, it’s a win-win–the visual and aural flair of things happening, the exhilarating feel as you complete objectives, and the plethora of possibilities–it’s hard to go wrong. These games capture the sort of feel necessary for the pinball industry (which now consists of just one company, Stern) to continue surviving.

Take for instance my long-time favorite, Twilight Zone. From top to bottom it’s apparent the game is a labor of love. Almost every inch of the table is crammed with references to the fabled television show, and so are the various graphics and sounds inside the game itself. (Ironically, three of the table’s most remarkable features, the “Powerfield” pyramid, the non-magnetic ceramic “Powerball” and the Gumball Machine, don’t correspond to anything in TZ.) There more than a dozen different gameplay modes or award panels to be lit, and several of those, like The Camera, have a variety of sub-awards that they can give. Playing the game, you really get the feeling that the designer simply ran out of room to put more features and references in there, unlike other licensed games such as, Star Trek: The Next Generation where, despite seven seasons to draw from, there are still many generic-sounding missions, such as exploring asteroids. In that game it’s cool when you encounter Q and fight the Borg, sure, but instances like that feel more like the exception to me than the rule when I play.

Although it was released almost 19 years ago and still runs on old Yamaha sound chips, Twilight Zone’s dot matrix graphics and sound stand up even today, and the design of the table itself feels organic and smooth–targets and ramps are laid out in a logical manner and they’re not placed too close to the drain-holes as obvious traps. Twilight Zone’s “wizard mode,” activated by getting all 14 door panels/awards, is rumored to be a particularly magnificent rush, with unlimited respawning multiball, bunches of special modes active and a timer for that extra special sense of urgency. I say “rumored” because I have never achieved it, coming at best two panels away. But I’ll keep trying because the game is simply great. Unrelated to the actual gameplay, Twilight Zone has one of the best translite art pieces for a cabinet ever: classy, colorful and overflowing with episode references (even more than appearing within the game itself.)

The Lord of the Rings pinball (based on the movie trilogy) came out ten years after Twilight Zone, in 2003 and is a worthy contender for the title of best licensed pinball game. This table shares the same feeling of “how many references can we put into the game?” that TZ did. It features more modes of play (and more complicated modes) than even TZ did before it. There are six different event modes (two from each movie), each consisting of multiple goals and stages to advance through. It has no less than six different ways to activate a multiball and each of those also have their own goals, stages and rules. Peppered throughout all of these scenarios are digitally-drawn renditions of characters and scenes from the movies, along with audio clips.

One thing that LOTR does even better than TZ is in how its play feels like a re-enactment of the source material. While TZ has targets such as the Camera, Piano or Slot Machine which are references and can be hit for awards, LOTR has targets that are hit in ways which preserve the “feel” of the movies. Take for instance, the easiest multiball mode to activate, the Fellowship of the Ring, available after you pick up all nine members of the Fellowship through shots to locations on the board. The meat of this mode, after (optionally depending on settings) fighting the Cave Troll from the first movie, is the Balrog stage. Here, a plastic “balrog” target is swiveled onto the field and your goal during the multiball is to alternate hitting the balrog with one of the balls and then sending a ball up one of two ramps; each ball that goes up a ramp after a balrog hit represents one of the Fellowship escaping the balrog (the screen actually tells you which member escaped.) Proceed far enough with at least two balls in play and you’ll find that only eight members can cross–just like in the stories, Gandalf doesn’t do so and on the balrog hit right before he would, you get his epic shout at the balrog instead. This sort of connection between the gameplay and events is extremely captivating.

Lord of the Rings is also known for having (arguably) the hardest “wizard mode” to activate in any pinball game, requiring you to successfully complete all the goals for all six special modes, activate the multiball for all three movies and complete their goals, destroy the One Ring (a set of actions in itself) and some other things — all within the space of one game. It’s a goal I’ll likely never achieve, but it demonstrates how the game has enough in it for casual players and the hardest of the hardcore.

These two tables are radically different than what the genre was popularized with back in the 70s and 80s, with their digital score counters showing against translite screens and their often-simpler (but no less easy) gameplay. Now we have dot matrix screens with graphics, elaborate multi-stage goals and complete soundtracks to dazzle you with. The technology behind pinball has evolved, but the gameplay must keep up if the genre is to remain relevant in decades to come.

If you’ve never tried pinball, I can’t recommend enough finding a local arcade which sports a few tables and giving it a shot. If you want to take a stab at the games without leaving home, there are a number of decent options available, such as Pinball FX2, which is an extremely accurate representation, but nothing can replicate the tactile experience of a true pinball table.

“You open this door with the key of imagination…”

Aug 312011

Yesterday was our (Nikki’s and my) 19th anniversary of being together as a couple. That’s all well and good, you say, but what does it have to do with gaming? Well, for one thing, we’re both gamers and have been for longer than since we’ve known each other. But the time we’ve been together, there’s been a lot of gaming too. Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane…

In 1993, Street Fighter II was still the rage. Many a battle was waged on our Super NES, often pitting my Chun Li against her Ken, with the outcome always in doubt. Indeed, the SNES cartridge for this game was our first joint purchase. Some of you may still in this day and age think it’s no fun to have a significant other that can hold their own against you in a game; you are wrong. Its calculated cat-and-mouse gameplay also suited both of us better than today’s more modern 67-hit power-bar-fueled ultra-combo finishes. We later revisited this kind of awesomeness with Soul Calibur when the Dreamcast launched but it never quite reached those previous heights.

While some of the irritating tactics used in SF2 led to occasional ill-will, no game ever came close to destroying our relationship–except for Magic: The Gathering. We hopped on board with the Revised Edition and Legends in mid-1994 and, like many others, became mildly addicted, buying packs and boxes to increase the variety and potency of decks. But Magic is a game where, with a careful deck and lucky draw, you can (or at least could at the time) end the game before your opponent plays a single card, and we tried to get as close to that ideal as possible, stacking multiple Black Vises, Ivory Towers, Channeled Fireballs and all sorts of other jackassery that led to games where we wouldn’t meaningfully speak to each other for an hour or more afterward. We stopped playing sometime around 1996 or 1997 and sold almost all of our cards to finance a cross-country move. While I still sometimes miss Magic, I don’t miss any of those cutthroat matches.

For several years, we played an online text-based MUD, Aardwolf. Countless hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours were gobbled up in this madness that reached far back into our psyche and harkened to a time that we can both remember, when people with computers used their phones to dial in to bulletin boards and interact socially from there. Yes, that’s right, if you’re young you might not have realized it, but Wargames really was how people used to connect to other computers. I know it’s mind-blowing in the days of your hula-hoops and dot-coms, but there we are.

The 2000s brought graphical MMOs into our world. We’ve shared Final Fantasy XI, City of Heroes and, more recently, Warcraft; there have also been occasional dalliances that never quite stuck, such as Anarchy Online and Rift. Our characters always have some sort of intricate backstory that inevitably brings them together for… Well, whatever the purpose of the MMO happens to be. The limiter to us playing these games usually turns out to be budgetary–both in terms of time and money–more than enjoyment-wise (however, even some free games, like Champions Online, just never clicked.)

Our lives, like many others, were changed in 2005 when Harmonix developed Guitar Hero. Since then, through Guitar Hero II (and, admittedly, GH3), and all the iterations of Rock Band, we’ve found yet another way to play together, living out private jam sessions in our own game room. Much like with MMOs, our bands have stories about getting together, becoming famous, breaking up and reuniting; we even have custom art of them (usually from the hand of our good friend Amy Mebberson.) Of all the game series we have played, Harmonix’s empire has lasted the longest–we still play to this day and watch for the announcement of new downloadable songs every Friday. Will Dance Central 2, which adds multiplayer, be the next straw in the cap that is Harmonix’s stranglehold on our entertainment? We shall see.

Though neither of us are true shooter afficionados, Borderlands sucked us in when it came out in 2009 due to RPG elements and the now-catchphrased “kill guys and take their stuff” motif. It allowed us to easily work together at our own pace, level up, acquire lots of goodies and otherwise succeed where Halo, Call of Duty and so many others would fail. Oh yes, we’re very much looking forward to the sequel.

Our most recent joint venture is Pathfinder, which brings me back into the fold of D&D style campaigning after more than 20 years and gives Nikki a chance to experience the joy of extended campaigning; so far we’re loving it (and our ever-expanding collection of dice) with me running her characters through the Kingmaker adventure path while she puts mine through a custom campaign made up of a bevy of individual, usually-unrelated adventures. Prior to this, we had enjoyed Neverwinter Nights when it came out many years earlier, but while the two are both built on the foundation of Dungeons and Dragons, they are incredibly different experiences and I can say that not once did we stay up until nearly four in the morning playing Neverwinter…

All in all, it’s been an excellent 19 years (for more than just the gaming, mind you.) If you’ve never been able to get someone else to enjoy gaming with you, then I feel for you. If you’ve never been interested in gaming (tabletop, card, video game or otherwise) with someone else, you should reconsider. Me, I’ve got both of those experiences with the best girl in the world and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Here’s to another 19 years of gaming and then some.