Saturday, 30 January 2016

Lemmings - Commodore Amiga - 1991

Along with Tetris, Lemmings has to be one of the most ported games out there.  Originally released in 1991 for the Commodore Amiga, it has been ported to 30+ devices ranging from the Nintendo Gameboy to the Playstation 3 and Mobile Phones.

For me, the game is best controlled with a mouse which leaves us with the initial versions from 1991 for the Amiga, Atari ST and DOS.  Although all three versions play the same, the original Amiga game has the best graphics and sound in my opinion.

The concept of the game is simple - guide a specified percentage of Lemmings through the exit portal within the time limit.  

There are 120 levels split across four difficulty settings.  FUN is the easiest and is mainly there to get you used to the controls.  The game gets progressively more difficult through TRICKY and TAXING, with MAYHEM being the most demanding.  There is a password system so you don't need to repeat completed levels.  
One of the TAXING levels.  Note the lack of available skills.

Each level starts with the Lemmings dropping out of a trap door.  Their release rate is shown at the bottom left of the screen.  This can be increased or decreased using the + and - icons, but cannot be set lower than the initial rate.  Left to their own devices the Lemmings will move in a certain direction until they reach an obstacle, at which point they will turn around and walk the other way.  If they encounter a long drop, water, lava, a trap or anything else lethal to them, they will walk mindlessly to their deaths like, er, lemmings.

You do not control the Lemmings directly but give them actions by using the skill icons.  The Climber icon allows the Lemming to scale a vertical surface.  Using Floater on a Lemming allows it to survive a high fall. The Bomb causes the selected Lemming to self destruct taking a chunk of the landscape with it.  Blocker stops other Lemmings passing and sends them in the opposite direction.  A Bridge Builder constructs a set of twelve steps to cross chasms or climb to higher platforms. The Basher icon orders the chosen Lemming to dig horizontally if in front of a suitable surface.  Use the Miner or Digger skills and the Lemming will respectively tunnel diagonally or vertically down.
Building a stairway to heaven.

The final two icons are 'Paws' and Nuke 'Em.  Paws obviously pauses the game.  You can still scroll around the level to plan a route or quickly get to a Lemming that's about to die, and becomes invaluable in later levels with the tight time limit.  Nuke 'Em causes all your Lemmings to explode if a level is obviously lost.

Some parts of a level can be made of metal and can't be dug through, blown up or damaged in any way.  Some walls can only be tunneled through from a certain direction.
This obstacle can only be tunnelled through in the direction of the arrows.  The metal floor prevents digging under.

When Lemmings was released in 1991 it was a totally original concept - there was nothing else like it.  In 2016 it is still fun to play.  The graphics are still acceptable and the tiny Lemmings are well animated despite being only 8 pixels high.  The soundtrack is good for the most part, mixing some original songs with music from other Psygnosis games and some well known tunes (March of the Mods on the intro, the Can Can and the like in game).  Sound effects are limited in number but are effectiveThe learning curve is pretty good too, ranging from very simple on the lower levels to practically impossible in the MAYHEM stages.  Like Tetris it's a game the that stands the test of time.

A couple of FUN levels....

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Gradius III - Nintendo SNES - 1991

Although I am a big fan of the Gradius series, Gradius III has somehow passed me by.  The SNES port is based on the 1989 coin-up of the same name, but with several changes, including shorter stages and a toned down difficulty level.

Once again it's just you and your trusty Vic Viper spacecraft facing the might of the Bacterion Empire.  Gradius III retains all the staples of the original game in the series such as the power meter, weapons and options.  In addition, many of the enemies from previous games return in this one.
These appeared in Gradius II and as boss in Salamander where the tactics are the same - stay close and they can't get you

Like Gradius II you can choose from a number of pre-configured power meters as well as shield types at the start of the game. There is also an edit mode where you can tailor the power meter to suit.  

The game starts off in the usual way with simple formations of enemies to shoot down.  Shooting all the enemies in these early formations results in them dropping a power up capsule that adds to your power meter.  Later, you can tell which opponents will drop a capsule as they are a slightly different colour.  The capsules come in an orange or blue colour.  The orange one adds to your power meter, whereas the blue one acts as a smart bomb when it is touched.

Pressing the appropriate button activates the highlighted power up.  Added to the end of  the meter in Gradius III is the '!' symbol. By default this activates a smart bomb when selected, but this can be changed in the edit mode.

Even early on I found the game tough going and had difficulty getting to the first boss without losing a life.  I wasn't particularly enjoying the game, so had to relent and choose the easy mode.  This made the game much but better for someone with my meagre skills although it may have made it a tad too easy - on my initial attempt I didn't lose my first life until the level three boss only because I didn't know its attack pattern.  As with any Gradius game, when you lose a life you also lose your power-ups making it difficult to get up to speed again.
I lost more than a few lives on this high speed stage.
Moreso than the previous game on my blog, Gradius III is afflicted by slowdown when the screen is busy (and sometimes when it's not).  In most cases this makes the game that little bit easier rather than being an annoyance.
Lots of things on screen means lots of slowdown

The music and graphics are good, and the gameplay (slowdown apart) is typical Gradius.  It sticks to the basic Gradius recipe but adds few extras without spoiling it.  I found it a bit too hard for my tastes in the normal mode, but these was overcome by lowering the difficulty level.  Gradius III is a very good addition to the series. 

Example gameplay....

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Gradius - NEC PC Engine - 1991

This is the third and final conversion of the 1985 coin-op classic I will include on my blog before the 'arcade perfect' iterations begin to appear in the 32-bit era.  Gradius on the PC Engine is considered by many to be the best version so how does it compare to the others on my blog so far?

It was released only in Japan in 1991 for the PC Engine - it didn't make it to the US on the TurboGrafx-16.  The only western release I have included was published for the NES way back in 1986.  Although good, the five year old game is no match for the PC Engine version.

Gradius for the Sharp X68000 came out a year after the NES release and as far as sound and graphics go, is practically indistinguishable from the arcade original.  The game runs at a faster pace than the PC Engine manages and playing it again reminded my how frustratingly difficult it is.  This version is for masochistic gamers only.

PC Engine Gradius can't display the whole screen so has to scroll vertically.  Sharp X68000 Gradius is almost pixel perfect.

So how does Gradius on the PC Engine stack up?  Well, it can't match the graphics or pace of the Sharp machine for starters.  The simpler graphics are still good so this does not detract from the game at all.  It also has the same slight vertical scroll as the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 version of R-Type.  Unlike R-Type, gun emplacements and such are thankfully still visible on the screen.

The reduced pace makes for a better balanced and much easier ride than the X86K version in my opinion.  I also prefer the soundtrack over the original arcade machine. Additionally, the PC Engine features an exclusive level though I'm not able to get that far without a lot more practice.

A major issue with Gradius on the PC Engine is its bouts of slowdown.  This is not noticeable on Level 1 but can become a problem when the screen gets busy from Level 2 onward.  The slowdown can be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.  It can make traversing a busy screen and avoiding bullets a lot easier but is somewhat disconcerting when it suddenly speeds up again.
Slowdown is an issue when the screen gets busy.

So, the PC Engine conversion, in my opinion at least, is the best version of Gradius released so far and looks to stay that way until the mid-90s.  Although it may not be as graphically accurate as the X68000 version, it's a hell of a lot less frustrating.  It also has that extra level over the coin-up.  The only fly in the ointment is the slowdown. 

Example gameplay....

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Gateway to the Savage Frontier - Commodore Amiga - 1991

Gateway to the Savage Frontier is the first of a two part series of games.  It was released for the Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga and PC-DOS in 1991.  It's another solid and enjoyable entry in the Gold Box canon.

As always, the first thing to do is to roll-out a party.  Like Pool of Radiance the game is set in the Forgotten Realms universe so racial limits apply to non-human characters.  Therefore, like Pool of Radiance, most of my party will be human.  As I have mentioned before, dice rolls in Gold Box games tend to be on high side.  As a test I kept re-rolling - I got plenty of 18's but none of the rolls in any of the six attributes fell below 10.

Taking up the rear of the party are a female and male magic user, Merida and Velcan.  Next up is Ramur, a cleric.  Daisy is a half-elf and my only non-human character; I made her a fighter/thief/magic user.  The thief class is not racially limited but she will top out as a fighter at level 7 and mage at level 8.  As much as I hate role-playing them, and as I have not used one in a Gold Box game before, I made Cameron the hoity-toity, holier than thou, goody two-shoes paladin.  Leading the way will be Wingnut, a straightforward, salt of the Earth fighter.  All the characters start at level 2.

As usual I started playing this game on the Amiga as it has the edge over the PC version.  Things did not go to plan as the game began locking up with certain actions such as fleeing combat and bashing doors.  It eventually got bad enough that I couldn't continue and had to play the DOS version.  I have played five previous Gold Box games on the Amiga without any issues so my copy is probably corrupt.  It does however give me an opportunity to compare the engine on the two platforms.

Firstly, the character creation.  Obviously rolling the stats will be the same for both but creating the character icons is a much more laborious process on the PC.  You have choose whether you want to change the 1st or 2nd colour, then cycle through the 15 available colours until you find the one you want.  The Amiga does it all on one screen making it much simpler, and with 30 colours in the palette I didn't have to compromise as I did with DOS the game.  
The icon screen on the Amiga (right) is infinitely more user friendly.

With VGA as a graphics option the PC should be able to display better graphics than the Amiga.  In reality there is no difference.
Aside from the blue background on the Amiga, the graphics are virtually identical.

The audio is streets ahead on the Amiga.  The game only plays spot effects and the occasional tune but all are of much better quality on the Commodore machine.

The major annoyance (especially in combat) is having to press 'M' every time you want to move a character.  On the Amiga you can press the direction keys and you go.  Similarly, at the end of your moves in combat you have to press A(im) then T(arget) to get in a final hit.  On the Amiga pressing the direction key will do the same thing.

The only real advantage the DOS version has is the ability to install the game on a hard drive.  It is quicker to start the game and there are no noticeable loading times within the game itself.  The Amiga game came on three floppy disks and, with two drives supported, you only need to swap disks when saving.

The game begins in the town of Yartar.  Having had an uneventful journey escorting a caravan of mithril from Citadel Abdar to Yartar, the party are out on the town spending their well earned gold.  During the evening, something is slipped into their food causing them to pass out.  In the morning they awake to find all their gold and possessions (including a prized magic sword) have been stolen.  They vow to find those responsible and to retrieve the sword.

Yartar is the standard 16 x 16 town containing a weapon shop, training hall, temple, inn and a couple of bars.  Each character had a few platinum pieces so I was able to equip them with weapons and armour.  The only options available on entering any bar is 'fight' or 'leave' (sounds like a pub I know).  With a paladin on the team I would not start an unprovoked fight so I had to choose 'leave'; I just hope I don't miss anything important.
"I suppose a drink is out of the question?"

During my exploration I rescued Krevish, a fighter, who was being attacked by some bandits.  He took me to his leader who wanted me to deal with a cleric of Bane who is causing disruption in Nesme.  Krevish also offered to join the party.  He does take his share of the spoils and experience but an extra weapon is always handy.  At this point, Ramur was ready to level up but I didn't have anywhere near enough gold to afford the 1,000gp required at the training hall.

Leaving for Nesme brought up the overworld map.  Instead of using the cursor keys to move in the direction you want, you have to use the left/right key to change the way the party is facing and the up key to move forward.  I guess this ties it in with the movement in the towns/dungeons but it is not very intuitive.  On they way we encountered some hill giants who demolished the party before I even got near them - their thrown stones could one-hit-kill most of my characters.  Reloading, I paid to journey by boat which was uneventful.

Nesme was another 16 x 16 town with the usual establishments.  It has been suffering incursions from Lizard Men and in two parts of the town there was a 'troll problem'.  The town was offering a 100gp reward for each troll killed, but from Pool of Radiance experience I knew I would not be powerful enough to face them yet.  I did find the Banite Cleric who began burning some papers as I entered the room.  After I killed him the remains of a letter said the Banites were intending to foil a Zhentarim plot to take control of the region and that there was a magic user who knew of a way stop them.  As the cleric was now dead my quest was revealed - it is up to my party to find the magic user and take on the Zhentarim. 

It turned out the wizard is called Amanitas and has gone and got himself captured.  As always, the only man who can disrupt the Zhentarim plans is conveniently kept alive long enough to be rescued.  He reveals the Zhentarim, led by General Vaalgamon, are seeking four magical statuettes that in times past protected the ancient city of Ascore.  We are tasked with finding the statuettes before Vaalgamon.

I will note my thoughts below.....

  • The Gold Box engine always give me something to grumble about, not least in this game for the things that have been taken out.  Gone are the custom character icons that were present in the Krynn games (at least in the Amiga version).  Also gone are the improved graphical effects for spells that were introduced in Death Knights.  Finally, the diagonal cursor has also been removed.  I used this a lot for movement in combat and I can see absolutely no reason for programming out a feature has been present since Pool of Radiance.

  • Gateway to the Savage Frontier features an overworld map but it is slightly different to those contained in previous Gold Box games.  It is now viewed in the 3D window, rather than using most of the screen, and is split into several sections.  Navigation is less user friendly in that you have to turn the party in the direction you wish to go then move forward rather than move in the four cardinal directions using the cursor keys.  If a town is next to a river, you can travel by boat which offers up less of the long-winded random encounters that take place in the wilderness.  I didn't go hunting for side quests in the overworld map despite locations such as the Trollmoors and dangerous Neverwinter Woods.
The viewing window only shows a portion of the overworld map.

  • I did stumble across two optional side quests.  One involved taking a piece of meteorite to a shop in Neverwinter where they could use it to fashion a magical weapon.

  • The game has a good range of monsters to fight.  One memorable combat takes place in an aquarium which requires a change of normal combat tactics.
Strangely the Stinking Cloud spell still worked and made the squids cough and nauseous (Amiga screenshot).

As mentioned above the object of the game is to collect four statuettes.  

After each one Amanitas tells you where the next is located.  Once you have all four it is time to head to Ascore where the final confrontation takes place.

The end of the Gateway to the Savage Frontier is a change from the Gold Box norm and slightly disappointing.  Firstly, you have to go through several fights in the combat view, so there are no opportunities to save the game or rest to recover HP and MP.  

In the final room you face General Vaalgamon along with Zhentarim fighters and mages, and several shambling mounds.  I had a few attempts at defeating him but could not get close - he is difficult to physically hit, casts powerful spells and is immune to magic.  There is however an exit just to the north of where you enter the room and directing a character through there leads to the end of the game (and lots of reading)....