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…”

Mar 202011

A month or two ago, I had a feature telling you what games that you should play this year in case the world ends. It looks like there’s still time to do that, so you should hop to it. However, in retrospect, there are a couple of problems with the post. First of all, it was way too fun to do just once a year. Secondly, in a post describing eight different games, each game only got a couple of paragraphs, and I could write so much more. With that in mind, I’m starting a new, semi-regular (and of course, award-winning) series to talk about great games from the past. You’re welcome to disagree with these assessments if you like; that just means you’re completely wrong. But enough about your shortcomings; let’s move instead to our first game: the classic computer RPG Wasteland.

The world of Wasteland, aerial view. Note: Superman-crippling red sun not included.

One of the most awesome game covers in history. If they'd sold a poster of this, you had best believe it would be framed on my wall right now.

Maybe you’ve heard of Wasteland; maybe not. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a little game series known as Fallout (including the earlier PC games or modern incarnations like Fallout 3 or New Vegas), then you owe a thanks to its progenitor, this game. Released in 1988 for home computers by Interplay (who would go on to publish Fallout 1 and 2), Wasteland set the bar for radioactive apocalyptic RPGs, as well as establishing several conventions in the Fallout universe. Wasteland didn’t have the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats system, per se (though it came close.) However, let’s be clear: Wasteland doesn’t really play anything like Fallout and you’ll only see the barest of references to anything that would later appear in the Fallout series.

Wasteland puts you in the role of a unit of the group known as Desert Rangers, and your objective is to explore the areas of the southwest desert, particularly Nevada and Arizona. You’ll pass through a number of towns and cities, each containing different people to interact with and factions to aid or turn against. As expected in a post-nuclear world, there are plenty of hostiles to take on, from generally vicious people to mutated creatures and on to futuristic death machines. Achieve enough experience and you can radio in to Ranger Headquarters for a promotion up through a bevy of military ranks, each granting additional stats.

Yes, it's the future. With nuclear weapons, laser rifles and... Catapults.

Exploration in Wasteland takes place in a top-down perspective, although people are turned perpendicular as if they were lying on the ground. Veterans of earlier Ultima games will feel at home here, except that you don’t have to worry about pesky things like hunger and thirst. Your character is a badass ranger; you live off the land. That doesn’t mean you’re immune to the elements. You still need to carry around some basic equipment–every party member has to have a canteen or they’ll suffer heat damage when passing through harsh areas, and radioactive sections can be a death sentence if you cross them. There are two statuses for radiation poisoning in Wasteland: you’ve got it or you don’t, and you don’t want to have it, since your character stops healing wounds and won’t recover from being knocked unconscious. None of the increasing radiation you would see in Fallout.

The only way to get rid of radiation poisoning, or to recover from serious wounds that your team medic or doctor can’t handle, is to go to someplace where you can pay for, er, “professional” medical care.

Normally, you'd go to a doctor not covered in someone else's blood, but this is the Wasteland, son. You're a beggar, not a chooser.

Don’t want to have to enlist the help of  a back-alley doctor? Then stop getting your butt kicked in combat. For that, you’ll want to make sure your characters are leveled up in a variety of weapons–ranging from combat knives and 9mm pistols to high-end energy weapons like the mighty proton axe and meson cannon. You’ll wear armor to protect yourself, starting with leather jackets and working your way up to power armor (no need for special training like in Fallout, however.) Radiation suits provide decent combat protection, but take note that they actually provide no defense against radiation. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter a semi-glitched loot bag in the game which contains game-breakingly powerful loot like the Red Ryder and “Name AC” armor.

If you’re not careful, however, you’ll end up with a character in bad shape, in the middle of the desert. When that happens, the best you can hope for is to try and make it to a friendly town before the worst happens. Wasteland’s manner of handling injuries and death is both interesting and harsh. Unless you’re radioactive, hit points slowly recover over time and short of paying up a doctor, there’s nothing that can speed it up. Any time your character drops to 0 hit points (or a little bit below), they’re simply unconscious; enemies will stop attacking them (even if the entire party is knocked out) and they’ll eventually wake up with 1 hp. If the attack that put them under is strong enough, however, it will knock them to the next condition down: serious. At this point, unless one of your team members can use a skill to stabilize them, the affected character will begin losing hit points as time goes on. Their condition will worsen unless you make it to a real doctor… and the desert can be a large place to try and cross. If you fail to get there in time, the character is gone, toast. But along the way, you’ll endure the traumatic experience of watching their condition degenerate from serious to critical, then to mortal and eventually comatose, before their condition just becomes a skull, indicating death.

If this happens to any characters, you can recreate them (starting at first level), but your entire party will be wiped out any time they’re all reduced to serious condition or less, or even just knocked out while radioactive. At that point, you get reclaimed by the Wasteland, and you’ll see this:

Oh, you thought you might get resurrected at a temple or something? Nope, you're dead. Game over, man.

About now, unless you’ve pulled your floppy disc out or made a backup file along the way, your game is finished. Yes, Wasteland was one of those games that operates off the “Ironman” gaming prinicple. There are no game saves here. You get one game (tracked manually on the copies of game discs you make when you first start playing) and if you blow it, that’s it. This adds to what makes Wasteland such a great game after all these years: atmosphere and environment. You feel the desolation of moving through a ruined world as you pass irradiated mountains and explore crumbling buildings, scavenging for ammunition or anything you can sell for money used in turn to buy things to help keep you alive. You’ll have to practice inventory management: just as you wouldn’t actually trek through the desert carrying five thousand mimigun rounds (sorry, Fallout 3, I love you, but you know it’s true), you can only carry a limited number of items here. And you never really make friends, just people who will choose not to attack you. NPCs, far from being the puppets in other games, may actually refuse orders, especially if you’re trying to strip them of equipment.

Recognizing that the system limits of the time made it difficult at best to deliver graphical gameplay and a gripping narrative, Wasteland came with a booklet that contained numerous paragraphs of text (more than the discs it shipped with could handle) which the game would reference occasionally. While this also served as a form of copy protection (some passwords needed to continue could only be found in the book), it ultimately allowed for deeper storytelling.

In the end, Wasteland delivers a compelling experience. The look of the game won’t blow you away and, at least on the C64 where I played it, there’s no music, but you’ll nevertheless find yourself sucked in for hours, sitting in the cold of your parent’s basement, hands numb, as you attempt to make it past that one group of Slicerdicers and Octotrons that appeared as you left the building, and… Well, while you likely won’t relive any of my socially-inept fourteen-hour playing sessions, you’ll likely leave fulfilled. Wasteland isn’t available for download through any legitimate source (Good Old Games doesn’t have it yet), but you can’t find it in lots of other places and you’ll only need to install an old-PC emulator like DOSBox to make it work.

Jan 162011

Welcome to 2011. It’s a new year. This could be the year the world ends. That’s a morbid thought and I apologize for springing it on you just like that. Maybe I should have prefaced it with a joke, like so:

Person A: Knock-knock.
Person B: Who’s there?
Person A: The End of the World…MAYBE.

Either way, with such maybe-kinda-imminent doom upon us, it’s more important now than ever that you play certain games. Sure, you could be stocking up food for Armageddon, or making amends with the religious entity of your choice, but when the time comes, is any of that really going to compare to knowing that you experienced all that gaming has to offer? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

With that in mind, here are some games you need to play this year. These are not new–they are games that, unlike my knock-knock joke above. stand the test of time. These are some of my favorite games as well, but there’s more to it than that. I have favorite games, such as Final Fantasy VI or Fallout 3, which, although great games, are simply fantastic representations of their genre. I chose these games because they have great design, greater execution and offer you experiences you’ll rarely find anywhere else. Playing these enriches you as a gamer. Unless you happen to own the systems in question and are fortunate enough to find reasonably-priced copies of these treasures, you’ll likely have to resort to emulation to pull this off. So be it, I say!

Valkyrie Profile – Enix (Tri-Ace), 1999 (Playstation)

In this game, you'll learn just how greedy Odin is with anything he thinks he owns, even if you need it to, you know, save the world.

Back at a time when Enix was pretty much known for Dragon Warrior and maybe Star Ocean, they came out with this gem, which casts you as a Valkyrie gathering the souls of the dead to fight as Einherjar in the end-of-the-world scenario of Ragnarok. While based on Norse legends, the game takes a lot of liberties with the overall roles and fates of the gods, so mythology buffs may have to grit their teeth a little.

The gameplay of Valkyrie Profile is split up between recruiting fallen heroes through cutscenes and town exploration, and traversing dungeons in order to acquire equipment and build up those heroes before sending them to Valhalla. Unlike the standard overhead RPG mechanic, dungeons are handled like side-scrolling platformers, with running, climbing, jumping and puzzles to solve. Every town or dungeon you visit consumes time, which counts inexorably toward the final showdown between the Gods.

Graphics and sound for the game are excellent, setting moods perfectly, but it’s the unique storytelling method and gameplay elements that make this game shine. Unfortunately, the game was undermarketed and underproduced in the U.S., with less than a hundred thousand copies sold, so it can be pricey to get your hands on. If you have a PSP, you can play a reasonable port of it in Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, but the original is definitely best.

The Guardian Legend – Broderbund (Compile), 1989 (NES)

The first boss--not actually an advertisement for Visene, but an incredible simulation.

The Guardian Legend is one-half space shoot-em-up, one half exploration ala the original Legend of Zelda, and all awesome. You play a robotic female who can also transform into a spaceship. In the former role, you’ll move throughout the inside of a cybernetic-star-type-thing called “Naju” which is heading for Earth. In order to stop it, you’ll have to shut down 20 (maybe more, I can’t remember exactly) corridors within Naju.

The corridors comprise the outer space shoot-em-up aspect of the game, as you fly through them (sometimes at amazing speeds) en route to tackle a boss at the end of each. To get to the corridors, you have to traverse 10 different zones within Naju; these are similar to Zelda in that you explore them from an isometric overhead perspective and screens “scroll” when you move to their edges. The zones have lots of enemies, including bosses of their own, and items to find, including those that might be sold to you. Your character can amass something like 20 weapons, and each of those can be enhanced twice to make them more effective.

As the description might make you think, this is a pretty long game. Not long like the Legend of Zelda or other action-RPGs, but far, far longer than standard shooters, with more than 20 “shooting” stages interspersed with the overworld areas. The graphics and sound are obviously dated by today’s standards, but the game did an impressive job on the NES of delivering many enemies to fight and providing a good sense of speed–the opening stage has you zooming toward Naju at hundreds of miles an hour and you feel that sense of motion. Shooter-phobics will want to avoid, of course, but anyone else should check out this unusual game mesh.

Dragon Force – Sega, 1996 (Saturn)

Don't be fooled by this crappy screenshot; the real game is awesome, especially with 200 soldiers duking it out. Here, the classic battle of ninja vs. samurai ensues.

The premise behind Dragon Force is not terribly ground-breaking: raise an army, unify various nations, save the world. But the subtle, insidious complexity involved in doing so is something that hadn’t been seen on a console before (or since.) You play the ruler of one of eight kingdoms and must subdue the others under one banner in order to stop a demon god from taking over. Every leader has their own story and motivation and starts with their own unique retinue of followers.

You’ll accomplish your mission through managing your generals (of which there is a fixed, unique number in the game) and their armies. Each general’s force consists of a single type of unit (with ten different kinds possible); each unit has strengths and weaknesses, such as the mage, which is weak against melee types such as soldiers or cavalry, but excels versus zombies or harpies. You can promote generals or gift them in order to increase their loyalty, lest they desert under stress.

As the game progresses, you conquer more and more of the overworld map, come across storyline encounters and cut-scenes and edge closer to saving the world. And when you finish, you’ll select another kingdom and do it again to see how their game unfolds, because whether it’s the charming ambiance, the gameplay strategies, or something else, this game is horribly addictive. The PC may have real-time simulations to match it, but as console games go, Dragon Force is incomparable.

Terranigma – Enix (Quintet), 1995 (SNES)

Okay, so "Someone help me" isn't the most original line in gaming history. That doesn't make this less great.

Terranigma is an action role-playing game, similar in some respects to, say, the Secret of Mana. Your lone character moves and attacks enemies in real-time as he, piece by piece, seeks to restore the entire world from having been frozen in time. He brings back the five ancient continents and then proceeds to bring back life one order (birds, mammals, plants) at a time.

The game has excellent production values, with bright, detailed graphics and an atmospheric soundtrack, with a story that goes beyond the standard of the genre, dealing with some deeper subjects, such as reincarnation and human spirit. Unfortunately, although the Japanese version was translated for Europe, Nintendo of America never saw fit to release it in the states, so, short of a PAL system, you’ll have to emulate and use a translation ROM, but the effort is worth it.

Archon I – Electronic Arts (Free Fall Games), 1983 (Computer)

It doesn't matter that you have no idea what's happening here. Just trust me.

Okay, so this is an arguable must-play if you only play games alone. Archon sports a decent AI for solo games, but where it shines is in head-to-head multiplayer. It combines a layout similar to chess (featuring creatures from the fantasy realm) with quick-reflexes combat and extra strategy in the form of magic, “power points” on the board, and even a light/dark cycle that ebbs and flows, strengthening one side or the other. All of these come together to form a sublimely balanced game where it’s never too late to turn around victory (although get too far behind and it will take a miracle to pull it off.)

There’s no music apart from a couple of primitive jingles heard at the title screen and when the game is over and, being from 1983, the game’s graphics are primitive by today’s standards (yet still managing to depict the minuscule creatures with character, such as the lumbering gait of golems.) With each piece capture being settled by combat, games often last more than half an hour and come down to desperate one-on-one battles to win. Archon may not be your cup of tea, but you should definitely try it to find out.

Katamari Damacy – Namco, 2004 (Playstation 2)

What other game allows you to combine acorns, majhongg pieces and later on, a sumo wrestler? That's right: NONE.

Few games can say they are unlike anything else out there, but the original Katamari Damacy can. As with the best games, it takes only moments to learn but can never be perfected. The goal is simple: roll around a sort of cosmically-magnetized ball called a “katamari” and attach as many things as possible to it, so that it may be converted into one of the many stars needed to rebuild the galaxy after it was destroyed by your father, the King of the Cosmos. The rest of the game is just about as crazy. Although the game has had sequels (on the PS2, PS3 and 360) the original is still the best and can be found for a reasonable price–heck, it debuted at an astonishing $20 price tag.

You’ll go through level after level reconstructing stars, planets and constellations, striving ever-so-hard to meet your eccentric father’s approval. The game culminates in–well, I won’t spoil it, but rest assured it’s suitably epic, and not just in the overused-nowadays-sense-of-the-word. Throughout the game you’ll be treated to an astonishing soundtrack featuring a bevy of styles–jazz, rock, orchestral and even a ballad sung by kids (all vocals being in Japanese.) The game utilizes very simple, even jagged, polygons in order to squeeze as many items as possible on the screen with fast, fluid motion. Entertaining and sporting hopelessly addictive gameplay, Katamari Damacy is the sort of game that everyone in the family can appreciate–although they might not get its humor.

Devil’s Crush – NEC (Compile), 1990 (Turbografx-16)

You know when there's a giant demon-woman-head on the table surrounded by skeleton things, it's going to be good.

I’m a big fan of pinball, and a bigger fan of video games. For years I lamented that, unlike chocolate and peanut butter, these two great tastes just didn’t seem to taste great together. Sure there was David’s Midnight Magic on the C64 or Epic Pinball on the computer. But as good as they were, those were just digital simulations of real pinball tables. Devil’s Crush says, “screw that” and brings a pinball experience you could never have in real-life, at least not without unethically subjecting living creatures to a nightmare. You play pinball on a table filled with living, moving targets, all of an evil bent, and your objective is to score points (of course) and work your way up to taking out the lord of evil.

Walls crumble, enemies transform (including the female face in the center of the board who starts out asleep, then awakens and with each hit slowly changes into a serpent) and the board itself changes, teleporting your ball into a half dozen bonus stages when certain goals are accomplished–another feature not possible in the real-world. Don’t be put off by the 16-bit graphics and tinny (but well-composed) music; I’d wager you’ll find this more fun than just about any modern home pinball game option. Devil’s Crush was preceded by Alien Crush and followed by Jaki Crush, both with similar concepts, but it remains the best of the three.

Suspended – Infocom, 1983 (home computers)

"Is a screenshot of a text adventure really necessary?" you ask. On MY blog, yes.

This might seem like an odd choice given that Infocom’s last true text adventure was released more than 20 years ago and, apart from a few exceptions, their dissolution signaled the end of the genre, but the lack of those games being released doesn’t negate what was released in the past. If you’ve never tried a text adventure, Suspended probably isn’t where you should start: it’s difficulty rating among Infocom games was “Expert” and justifiably so, for the very thing that sets it apart from most text adventures is what makes it difficult: you don’t control yourself and your actions.

You play the role of a person placed in suspended animation with control over a number of robots needed to solve puzzles in order to save a planet from the brink of destruction and in the process save yourself from being deactivated/killed by its inhabitants. Each robot in your control possesses only one sense that it can use (sight, sound, sonar, magnetics, etc.) and you use to utilize these senses in order to save the planet. This is no small feat for even an accomplished text adventurer, so the novice may wish to consider alternatives such as Zork I (the first game in Infocom’s most famous series), Trinity or Wishbringer (a true entry-level text adventure game.)

Those brave enough to forge ahead will find a game that tests the very way you think about senses and how to use them, and forces you to juggle resources in ways you likely haven’t before. There are different difficulty settings that allow you more time before you’re killed, including a unique “impossible” difficulty where the entire universe is destroyed shortly after you begin playing.

So there you have it: eight games you need to play this year. If by next January the world isn’t obliterated by some megalomaniac who’s unearthed an ancient artifact, I’ll see about telling you what you need to play then, too.

Oct 292010

While working recently on One Coin One Play, my self-proclaimed greatest compilation of arcade music  ever, I (of course) recorded the music from Sega’s classic arcade hit, Space Harrier. Since the game’s built-in sound test omitted some of the tracks, I had to re-play the game in order to get some of that tasty music. In so doing, I was reminded of what makes a great game and why, among so many other games that do not hold up as one would hope, Space Harrier stands that all-important test of time. If you do not agree, read on and be persuaded. If you are already a Space Harrier convert, by all means reaffirm your faith below!

A legendary game usually has to have impressive graphics or sound, at least for the time when it comes out, and Space Harrier totally did. The game came out in 1985, which in case you didn’t notice, is a long time ago. The state of graphics in games was pretty much what you would see in staples such as Gauntlet, Commando or Rush n’ Attack. Indeed, Sega’s own offerings from that year include Fantasy Zone, which was stylized but not exactly mind-blowing. Onto the field came Space Harrier, sporting simulated super-fast 3D graphics (achieved through scaling sprites, not actual 3D rendering) and dazzling colors set in a imaginative world where every stage has a different look and feel, with enemies ranging from mammoths and floating puffballs to giant polyhedral dice, robots and multiheaded dragons. Space Harrier was, and in many ways still is, graphically mind-blowing. The soundtrack is nothing to sneeze at either, with a 4+ minute main theme (unusually long for its time) and individual music for each boss.

Space Harrier - Floating City

It may not seem like much, but in 1985 we built this city... On AWESOME.

Space Harrier was also tough. Of its 18 levels, only the first one or two were gimmes. After that, you’re in for it. As mentioned before, the game moves fast. That’s great for impressive graphics, but it also makes for a hard experience. Enemies (including indestructible ones) zip toward you at blazing speed and projectiles heading in your direction sometimes give you about a quarter of a second to react and move. In typical fashion for the time, it’s one-hit-and-you-die. With just three lives, it’s extremely likely you’ll need a lot of play before you master the game.

Space Harrier also introduced or heavily reinforced gameplay conventions. On your journey you’ll travel through icy lands, deserts and a futuristic world complete with a floating city-thing. In fact, all Space Harrier is missing is a fire/volcano stage in order to run the gamut of what would now be considered stereotypical–except that they weren’t tired and played out then. Its bosses, while all relying upon hitting you with things in order to kill you, otherwise display variety and set up the archetypes for many bosses to come in future games. Also–and this seems to be impossible to verify–but it appears that Space Harrier is the first game to feature a rush succession of bosses faced in prior stages.

In short, if you have never experienced the wild thrill of Space Harrier and are a fan of any sort of fast-paced gaming, you should play it. Emulation through MAME is a possibility (and allows for cheating if you’re down with that), but nothing beats taking on the game with an actual arcade screen. You might be able to find a Ground Kontrol-esque location in your area (although even they don’t currently have it.) One way or another, give this a try and I bet you’ll agree that after 25 years, it still has what it takes.

Aug 262010

I’m looking forward to Fallout: New Vegas. This should be no surprise to anyone who knows me, considering how much time I spent in Fallout 3 and how much I dig the whole post-nuclear-war milieu. Certainly the new game will play a great deal like its predecessor, being a first-person shooter/RPG mix, and I’m sure I’m going to enjoy it., but it would be dishonest to say that it feels like something’s missing. No, not awesome combat with detailed character models and morally ambiguous choices not addictive “one more level” gameplay nor good acting and writing…

It’s the radiation.

Fallout, by its very nature, is a series set in a post-nuke world. It’s been that way since the days of Wasteland (one of the greatest RPGs ever created), which Interplay developed back in the day and served as an inspiration if not direct descendant of the original Fallout games. Wasteland’s geographic setting was the border between Arizona and Nevada and many of their surrounding areas. New Vegas as indicated by the name, is set in Nevada, but Bethesda indicates that the area has been spared from bombings, which has led to a change in the environment, surviving technology and all of that.

How can you put Fallout in an area without the effects of nuclear holocaust? It’s the iconic setting for the series. That would be like, like making a Bioshock game and then saying it’s not going to be set underwater or something. Oh, wait.