Sunday, 22 February 2015

Goodbye 1990, Hello 1991

Hello Sega Game Gear - April saw the arrival of the handheld in North America and Europe.  Although it sold reasonably well it couldn't touch the sales of the Game Boy.

Hello SNES - Nintendos entry in the 16-bit console arena was released in North America. The August release was two years to the week after the rival Sega Genesis.

1990 was the biggest and longest year on my shortlist - it represented the crossover of the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, some new console manufacturers elbowing in, the emergence of the PC as a capable games machine while the Amiga and ST were still going strong.  Playing through half a dozen RPGs didn't help.  Thankfully, it's all downhill from here on in.

One of my let downs of 1990 was Eye of the Beholder.  I remember it as one of the first games that made me jealous of Amiga owners - an AD&D based Dungeon Master clone seemed right up my alley.  Unfortunately, a turn based tabletop game doesn't translate well into a real-time first person dungeon crawler so it had to get the chop.  Like Dungeon Master (though not as subtle) the enemy creatures roamed in set areas - a group of kobolds wouldn't follow you around a corner for example.  The reaction based combat didn't work for me either.  It did, however, make me appreciated the Gold Box games that bit more.

Another big disappointment was Turrican on the Amiga.  It started out as a difficult but fair run and gunner sporting excellent graphics, sound and gameplay.  The open levels rewarded exploration and offered lots of power-ups and extra lives.  The third planet soured the whole experience for me.  The levels became enclosed, the time limit harsh, extra lives dried up and you had to rely on memorising the level to avoid frequent deaths. 

Looking forward to the 1991 games I haven't played before.  Firstly we have Another World* (or Out of this World if you live in North America).  It's a game that I've always liked the look of but never got around to trying.

Mega-Lo-Mania (also renamed in North America as Tyrants: Fight Through Time) is also another game I've wanted to play.  One of my friends had it on his ST but I only saw it running - I never got to play it myself

Finally, on the RPG front we have the fourth Final Fantasy game and the fourth game in the Pool of Radiance series of gold box games - Pools of Darkness.  Hopefully this entry will turn out better than the disappointing Secret of the Silver Blades.

* Much to my chagrin, Another World has been deferred to a later date.  I've discovered the best version is on the Sega CD and won't be out for a couple of years.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Ultima VI: The False Prophet - PC (MS-DOS) - 1990

At last!  Ultima VI: The False Prophet is one of the reasons I started this blog and is one of the games I had been looking forward to the most.  I became bit concerned when I dismissed Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny as I found playing it a bit of a chore and was worried this instalment would be more of the same.

I first played Ultima VI on my Atari ST back in the early 90’s.  It was one of my favourite games and I spent hours meticulously mapping all the towns and most of the dungeons onto graph paper.  The game ran direct from three floppy disks and one day a gamers worst nightmare happened when one of the disks corrupted resulting in all my progress being lost.  I haven’t touched the game since.

Now in 2015 it’s time to get reacquainted.  I had already purchased Ultima: The Second Trilogy from and still have my old physical manuals and map from the Atari ST days.  More importantly, I kept my 20-something year old notes and hand drawn maps.
Boy, I must have had a lot of free time.

I have elected to play the PC version of the game mainly due to the 256 colour VGA graphics.  The Atari ST and Amiga display 16 colours, run slightly slower and require disk swapping.  Ultima VI also supports sound cards on the PC but I switched the sound off as the music becomes irritating very quickly.

The game starts off with an intro sequence setting the scene – you are drawn to a moongate that appears outside your house on Earth.  Picking up the moonstone and stepping through you find yourself bound to an altar about to be sacrificed by a gargoyle priest.  Suddenly Dupre, Shamino and Iolo appear through another moongate, slay the priest and cut your bonds.  The party flees via the moongate to Lord British’s throne room having collected the priest’s sacred text.  Three gargoyles manage to follow you before the moongate closes.  Somewhere in the mix you also put in an appearance in a gypsy caravan to establish your attributes by answering some ethical dilemmas – your character class is given as Avatar.

The first thing that strikes you is the quality of the graphics.  Previous Ultima games used the Apple II as the primary development machine.  The Ultima VI engine was developed on the PC meaning the mostly black graphics of the previous games have been replaced by vibrant colours.  Although still tile-based the variety of terrain has increased dramatically.  Another change is that the towns and villages are now blended in seamlessly into the main world – they are no longer a single tile that changes in scale when you enter them.  Additionally, your party and enemies are shown in full and not as a single tile that only expands in combat.  Dungeons are now viewed from above allowing for a more varied design – a very welcome addition in my eyes.  The final main engine change is that the interface has become more user friendly with a big reductions in the number of keys required and the addition of icons for mouse control.  The game can be fully controlled by mouse, keyboard or a combination of both.

Your initial task is to defeat the gargoyles that followed you through the moongate.  By default your party members are not under your control in combat but this can be changed from their respective menus.  Like previous Ultima games, combat is turn based.  Whilst slugging it out with the gargoyles, Lord British, guard captain Geoffrey and Nystul the mage just stand by and watch.  With combat over you can speak to each of them and receive their respective quests.  All NPCs respond to Name and Job with Bye ending the conversation.  Key words are highlighted and can be used to expand the conversation tree.

  • Lord British states the gargoyles have started appearing in Britannia and have taken control of the shrines.  He also explains how to use the Orb of the Moons I picked in the intro.
  • Geoffrey says a patrol was sent to defeat the gargoyles at the Shrine of Compassion.  The soldiers were defeated and he suggests I should talk to the survivors in the village of Cove. 
  • Nystul advises I speak with Mariah at the Lycaeum and ask about the holy book that was taken from the gargoyle priest.

    As I can’t remember much of the plot I will be ignoring my notes but will consult my old maps.  I intend to systematically visit each town and speak to the populace, liberating the shrines and picking up clues and quests along the way.  What I do remember is that to make life easier my first two tasks will be to visit Yew to purchase a few pairs of swamp boots then Minoc to buy a ship.  I will note my experiences below….

    • In theory the Mayor of each town should have in their possession the mantra and rune needed to free the shrines.  In practice the runes have invariably been lost, hidden, stolen or given away resulting in a side quest to retrieve them.  In Minoc I had to go through a long winded process of joining a guild before they would help me out.  I’m trying to save the world, people!
    • The appropriate rune and mantra are needed to liberate a shrine.  The gargoyles have placed a force field over each shrine and once freed this disappears revealing the associated moonstone.  The gargoyles guarding the shrines can usually be defeated but at the Shrine of Justice they were particularly tough cookies and I couldn’t defeat them in combat.
    Combat can be avoided using the invisibility rings.
    • Meditating at shrines allows you level up once you have enough XP.  Depending on the shrine, this also raises one or more of your attributes of Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence.
    • Damn my younger self for not annotating my maps properly.  I have listed the treasure from level 2 in Dungeon Destard but failed to mark it on the map.  Not that I was aware I’d be playing the game twenty-odd years in the future.

    • Initially I didn’t use the Orb of the Moons.  It is basically a fast way to get around but I preferred to travel on foot for the first part of the game.  Depending where you ‘use’ the stone you can quickly travel to all the major towns and shrines in Britannia plus the gargoyle shrines of virtue.  I used it more than once to teleport to Lord British’s throne room for free healing when on low health at the bottom of a dungeon.  And to follow a certain errand…
    • Aside from the initial quests from Lord British, Nystul and Geoffrey, Chuckes the Jester tells you to look in Nystul’s chest.  This leads you to look under a plant in Serpents Hold, then under a bee hive in Minoc, then in a harpsichord in Moonglow, then in a jail cell in Yew.  I eventually gave up as I had a feeling it was red herring and I would end up speaking with Smith the talking horse.
    I checked a walkthrough and was right.
    • The good thing about moving about on foot is you have encounters you don’t get with the Orb of the Moons.  On my initial trek to Yew I came across some wisps who said they required knowledge.  I met them later after I borrowed a few books from the Lycaeum.   My reward for this information (it was ‘The Book of Lost Mantras’ that did it) was all I could carry in gold nuggets.  This was a nice bonus as it’s easy to burn through any gold gained from combat.
    "Likewise, I'm sure"

    • Currency is pretty well controlled in Ultima VI.  Despite the above I never really felt rich and didn't have to leave masses of gold lying about (unlike the Gold Box games).
    • Magic has changed from earlier games in the series.  Spells now have to be purchased and placed in a spell book which must equipped before the spell can be cast.  Each spell still requires reagents but they no longer need to be mixed in advance – you just need to be carrying them.  Spells in the higher circles use more magic points and require you to be a higher level.
    Dispelling a poisonous field.

    • The best spell caster in my party is the Avatar himself with 38 Magic Points.  Iolo and Shamino have a measly 9 Magic Points apiece whilst Jaana has lost the ability to cast spells altogether. 
    • I'm not quite sure how combat is calculated in Ultima VI.  I freed the Shrine of Compassion from the gargoyles easily with four very low level characters.  When I got to the Shrine of Humility with eight level five characters, I often went a couple of rounds of combat without getting a single successful hit.  This was with the whole party targeting a single wingless gargoyle.
    • After freeing the shrines it is time to assemble a treasure map.  The map was split up and divided between nine ex-pirates who reside in various places around the land.  The hoard contains a silver tablet that is needed to translate the Book of Prophesies that was take from the gargoyle in the intro.  It's then off for a trek through dungeon Hythloth to the land of the gargoyles on the other side of the world.
    That is one big map.

    • The gargoyles reveal that since the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom was taken into Britannia, their land started collapsing into the void until just one city is left.  Their prophesy says that only by returning the codex or the sacrifice of the false prophet (the Avatar) can prevent their world being lost.  They go on to say that I must visit the Temple of Singularity to receive a holy quest in order to reach the codex.  Needless to say, the temple is surrounded by mountains and I won't be able to reach it.  I couldn't figure out why a gargoyle hadn't simply flown to the temple for the holy quest and then gone on to recover the codex.
    • A balloon was needed to reach the temple and plans were found in Blackthorn's old castle in which a crazy wizard called Sutek was busy making two headed animals and killer bunny rabbits.  I guessed they were located here as this was one of the few places I hadn't mapped - I had drawn the outline when the game crashed on my Atari.
    Using the magic fan to guide the balloon over the mountains.

    • Upon reaching the Temple of Singulariy, the shrine says the Avatar needs to visit the gargoyle shrines of Control, Passion and Diligence to learn their mantras.  The shrines are statues representing the antagonists from the Age of Darkness Trilogy.
    Weren't you supposed to be a computer or something?

    • Combining the these mantras gives you the mantra to speak to the Shrine of Singularity.  This then grants a holy quest which allows you to pass the guardians that block access to the codex.  The codex gives instructions on how to send it back into the vortex from whence it came.  It can still be viewed from both worlds using the respective lenses that were used to retrieve it.

    The End....

    Like UltimaV I initially found playing Ultima VI to be a bit of chore and found myself doing other stuff to put off playing it.  Eventually something clicked and I got into the game as enthusiastically as I had the first time around.  I did find the interface to be a bit clunky and awkward when managing inventories.  The new icons also take up more of the screen reducing the main viewing window to 9 x 9 tiles from the 11 x 11 of Ultima IV and Ultima V.  This and the changed scale has the negative effect of making the play area feel slightly claustrophobic.  The game world cannot be faulted offering a freedom not seen in many games before or since.  Britannia is a truly open world where you can go almost anywhere straight away without being hemmed in by artificial barriers or impossible encounters (I'm looking at you Final Fantasy).  Most objects, however mundane, can be picked up or handled.  I can't think any other games where you can pick up items such as a shovel, a frying pan or a rolling pin let alone use them as weapons.  I can't say that Ultima VI: The False Prophet has aged well but it is still worth playing and another game I can tick off my list, albeit almost a quarter of a century later than expected.

    Thursday, 11 December 2014

    Super Mario Bros. 3 - NES - 1990

    After going off at a bit of a tangent in Super Mario Bros. 2, the portly plumber is back in his old stomping ground of Mushroom World.  Bowser has also made a return, this time with his seven children in tow.  These siblings have stolen the royal magic wands from each kingdom in the Mushroom World and have used them to turn the kings into animals.  Lord knows what Mrs Bowser makes of this.  You take control of Mario (or Luigi in two player mode) and must retrieve the wands from Bowser's offspring in order to return the kings to their human forms.

    The gameplay in Super Mario Bros. 3 has been changed from a standard linear platforming game to something a little bit different. Each kingdom is displayed from above and Mario can only travel on the roads.  On this map there are several standard platform levels to play through and mini games to participate in.  Depending on the road layout most of the levels are compulsory but some are optional and can be skipped altogether.  The mini games can also be skipped, but can give up rewards with little or no risk.
    Desert Land.  I have only skipped platform level 5.

    Examples of mini games include a reaction test to line up a picture, matching pairs of cards, or defeating the wandering 'Hammer Brothers' for a treasure chest.  A treasure chest can also be opened in Toad's house.  Items from the chests can be used at the beginning of a platform level to make things a little easier or, in the case of Jugem's Cloud, complete it without playing it.
    The non-platform levels can give up extra lives and useful items

    The meat of the game is the platforming levels.  These are more or less the same as the original game but Mario has been given more power ups.  The Super Mushroom (changes Mario into the larger Super Mario), Starman (bestows invincibility for a short while) and Fire Flower (allows Mario to throw fireballs) all return from Super Mario Bros.  New to this game are the Frog Suit, Racoon Suit and Tanooki Suit (a tanuki is a japanese racoon).  Frog Mario can jump further on land and swim better making the underwater sections much easier.  Racoon Mario and Tanooki Mario can fly for a limited time and can use a tail attack to dispatch enemies.  Additionally Tanooki Mario can turn into a statue for a short while and cannot be harmed.  As per Super Mario Bros., enemies can be killed by jumping on them or hitting them from below if they are on a platform.  At the end of each platform level Mario picks up a card.  Collect two or more the same and you are rewarded with extra lives.  An extra life is also awarded for every 100 coins collected.
    Picking up three identical cards provides some handy extra lives.

    Lives are lost if you fall down a hole or into fire, or if you run out of time.  If you come into contact with an enemy when wearing a suit, you revert to Super Mario.  If you're Super Mario and you are touched you turn into ordinary Mario.  You lose a life if you touch an opponent when you are ordinary Mario.

    The aim in each kingdom it to reach the fortress.  In the fortress you will need to retrieve the magic wand from one of Bowser's kids by jumping on his head three times.  The wand can be used to return the King to human form.  

    You will then get a letter and gift from Princess Peach and then it's off to the next kingdom.

    Super Mario Bros. 3 has often been cited as being the best game on the NES and one of the best games of all time.  Although it adds a lot of new elements to the Super Mario Bros. formula, the platforming gameplay and graphics remain pretty much the same as the 1985 release.  I also prefer the flatter learning curve of the original title.  Although it hands out a lot of extra lives, Super Mario Bros. 3 gets very difficult during the third world and it would take a lot of time to learn all the levels.  Another problem for me is that I imagine the game would take at least a couple of hours to complete and, with no save option, would have to be done in one sitting.  Is it the best game on the NES?  Well, in my opinion that would be Earthbound Zero and I don't think this title is as impressive in 1990 as Super Mario Bros. was half a decade earlier.  It's a cracking game though not quite as good as I was expecting.
    The frog suit makes traversing the water levels a lot easier.
    Example gameplay...

    Tuesday, 11 November 2014

    Strider - Sega Mega Drive - 1990 / Strider Hiryu - Sharp X68000 - 1992

    Strider (or Strider Hiryu as it is known in Japan) is a hack ‘n’ slash platform game released into the arcades in 1989.  I acquired it for my Atari ST and like R-Type and OutRun it was a disappointing conversion.  I’m guessing the same is true of the other European home computer releases as none of them appear on my shortlist. 

    The two versions that are on my shortlist are Strider for the Sega Mega Drive from 1990 and Strider Hiryu for the Sharp X68000 which was released in Japan in 1992.  The X68000 arguably hosts the most faithful conversion of Strider including some nice speech between stages.  The Sega Mega Drive release has larger sprites, slightly inferior graphics and a different ending but is equally as playable.
    Mecha Pon on the Sega Mega Drive (left) and Sharp X68000 (right)

    The game is set in the near future – 2048 to be precise – and the world is ruled by a tyrannical dictator known as the Grandmaster. You are cast as Hiryu, a member of an order of ninja-like agents known as Striders.  It is your task to fight your way through the games five stages in order to bring an end to his reign.

    The basic aim of the game is to traverse each stage from left to right.  Hiryu is controlled by the d-pad and two buttons.  One button allows him to jump and the second to attack.  The main means of dispatching enemies is the plasma sword.  Pressing down and the jump button simultaneously makes the character slide to get under obstacles and take out weaker opponents.

    Strider Hiryu is very versatile character.  He can climb sheer walls, hang from ledges and platforms and perform a long cartwheel jump.  Each stage has been designed to make the most of these abilities seeming as tall as they are wide.
    Part of the second stage involves leaping between aircraft (X68000)

    Power ups can be found scattered around the stages and are dropped by certain enemies.  These include increasing the range of the plasma sword, adding to the health bar and providing extra lives.  The power ups can also include robotic helpers.  These comprise an eagle that can dispatch aerial enemies and droids that can take out ground based opponents.  There is also a robotic tiger that follows Hiryu but didn’t seem to help much.  The final power up gives Strider a couple of short-lived doubles that make him invincible.
    The robot eagle helps take down airborne enemies (X68000)

    Every time Hiryu is hit his health gauge is decreased.  When this is depleted he will lose a life.  He can also lose a life if he falls off the bottom of the screen or when the time limit runs out.  When all lives are lost each version contains a couple of continues.

    Although these two games represent the best versions of Strider at the time, neither is perfect.  Both suffer graphical glitches when the screen gets busy (though not as glitchy as my example gameplay video).  I also found Strider starts to get very difficult during the second level, but I guess that’s the nature of the coin-op original.  It’s still a great game and I am finding it difficult to separate the two versions.
    At the end of stage one the Russian Parliament forms into a hammer and sickle wielding centipede (Mega Drive)

    Example gameplay from the Sharp X68000 (a combination of my screen recording software and youtube makes the graphics more glitchy than normal (especially at the end))....

    Saturday, 1 November 2014

    Splatterhouse - NEC PC Engine - 1990

    Splatterhouse is a 2D side scrolling beat ‘em up published for NEC’s PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16 consoles.  It was converted from Namco’s 1988 arcade machine.  I have opted for the PC Engine release as the North American version has been toned down slightly including the look of the main sprite.  Gameplay is otherwise identical.
    The hockey mask is better suited to this game than the red one in the US version.

    The story is set when Rick and Jennifer, two parapsychology students, enter the mansion of mad Dr West to take refuge from a storm.  The mansion is known locally as Splatterhouse due to rumours of gruesome experiments being performed by West.  As they enter, the door slams shut behind them, Jennifer vanishes and Rick is rendered unconscious.  Rick later awakens in a dungeon wearing a possessed mask that bestows superhuman strength and sets off in search of the missing Jennifer.

    Gameplay is ‘by the numbers’ side scrolling beat ‘em up with Rick able to jump, punch and kick his way through the seven levels of the mansion.  Weapons such as meat cleavers and spanners can be used to help dispatch the multitude of undead, possessed and/or just plain unpleasant nasties that stand in your way.
    Getting attacked by possessed furniture

    You start the game with three lives but can take several hits determined by the number of hearts remaining in the life meter.  Losing a life means you restart the current level from the beginning.  If you lose all your lives there is an option to continue.
    WTF?  Ewww

    Although Splatterhouse courted some controversy on release, it is pretty tame by today’s standards.  The game still plays well with tight, responsive and simple controls.  The graphics are good and the sound is fine, if not memorable.  It’s also not a difficult game so doesn't become frustrating and you always believe you can do better on the next go. Besides which, stoving in the head of a zombie with a length of 4x2 never gets old.
    You're not even safe from your own reflection.

    Example gameplay.....

    Tuesday, 28 October 2014

    Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe - Commodore Amiga - 1990

    After producing a sequel to their debut game, Xenon, the Bitmap Brothers turned their attention to creating a follow up to Speedball.  Although Speedball won the best 16-bit game at the 1989 Golden Joystick Awards, it has largely been forgotten as Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe surpasses it in every way.  The pitch has been enlarged, the graphics and sound improved, there are more players on pitch and the single player game has been greatly expanded.
    Even with the pitch only being one screen wide, the original Speedball (left) looks and feels a bit sparse against Speedball 2
    The best of the initial releases were for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga.  Graphics are up to the usual Bitmap Brothers high standards with both versions looking and playing identically.  Aurally, Speedball 2 on the Amiga is streets ahead of the ST version with some excellent effects and speech.
    Speedball 2 is a futuristic handball game played in an enclosed arena with two competing teams of armour clad players.  Each game is played over two halves, each lasting 90 seconds.  The teams swap ends at half time.  The object is simply to score more points than the opposing team.  Each team consists of nine on-field players and three substitutes.
    Speedball 2 can be played either as a single player or as a two player competitive game.  In the single player game you take control of the titular team Brutal Deluxe and can take part in league and cup matches among others.
    The game starts in the gym where you can train your squad by spending money on improving their attributes.  You can also use your credits to buy star players to greatly boost your team.  Additionally, the gym allows you to change your player’s position on the pitch (midfield, defence, goalkeeper etc).
    It's easy to distinguish my four 'star players' in this team.
    There are eight customisable attributes for each player – Aggression, Attack, Defence, Speed, Throwing, Power, Stamina and Intelligence.
    When playing the game you control the player who is nearest the ball.  If you are in possession of the ball you can pass it at waist height or choose a higher, longer throw.  If you do not have the ball your player can tackle opponents or attempt to intercept the ball if it is airborne.  If you win a tackle, your opponent loses energy and vice versa.  When a player’s energy is reduced to zero they have to be substituted and are stretchered off.  The energy bars for the active player is shown at the bottom of the screen.
    The aim of the game is to score more points than your rivals but, unlike it's predecessor, this does not necessarily mean to score more goals.  Although scoring a goal awards 10 points there are plenty of other ways to improve your tally.  There are two bounce domes on the pitch with 2 points awarded every time you hit them with the ball.  Each team has a cluster of five stars at the edge of the arena.  Lighting each star garners 2 points with a 10 point bonus awarded to the side which lights all five (2 points are subtracted from your score if an opponent turns a light off).  You can also gain 10 points for every opponent who is stretchered off.  The amount of points you accumulate can be increased by up to 100% by throwing the ball up the score multiplier ramp.  Like the stars, this can be cancelled by the opposing team who can also use the multiplier.
    Using the 'multiplier' to boost my score.
    Finally there are four electro-bounce units in the arena.  Throwing the ball against these electrifies the ball and it will knock over the first opponent it touches.  If you retain possession of the ball it will remain electrified.  The effect is cancelled if the opponent gains possession or the ball stops moving.
    On the pitch power ups regularly appear consisting of tokens and armour.  Picking up tokens have varying time limited effects such as freezing or slowing an opposing team, making your team immune to tackles or reversing your opponents joystick controls (in a two player game).  They can also change stats for the entire team such as increasing all attributes to maximum or reducing the opposing teams attributes to minimum.  Armour affects individual attributes for a single player depending on the item picked up. Coins can also be collected to be spent in the gym. 
    The single player game is fairly solid but, as with most sport sims, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe is best played against a human opponent.  This is how I mostly played it back in the day and it was particularly nail biting if you and your friends are evenly matched.  I would go as far as to say is probably my most favourite two player video game of all time.
    Example gameplay...

    Sunday, 19 October 2014

    Secret of the Silver Blades - PC (MS-DOS) (1990) & Commodore Amiga (1991)

    First things first - Secret of the Silver Blades is not one of my Favourite Video Games of All Time.  It’s by no means a bad game, but the only reason I played it through, apart from completeness, was to prepare my party for Pools of Darkness. 

    Secret of the Silver Blades is the penultimate title in the Pool of Radiance quartet of games.  Set in the Forgotten Realms AD&D universe, it follows on from the events in Curse of the Azure Bonds.  From what I read the game is much more linear and has more of an emphasis on combat than the previous games.  There is also no overworld map - travel between areas is by way teleportation gateways.  By all accounts it seems to be one of the weaker Gold Box titles.  My experience bared this out which is why it doesn’t deserve a ‘proper’ entry on my blog.

    Secret of the Silver Blades continues to use the venerable Gold Box engine as before but eschews the 16 by 16 level layout for much of the game.  Instead it contains several sprawling levels filled with random encounters.  The maze-like area of the map below is supposed to represent a ruined town but is made up of corridors, rooms and doors and took several hours to create. Apart from one place you are directed to, I only found two other caches of treasure.  As much as I like mapping and combat, this is too much and feels like padding – it was unrewarding and added nothing to the story.


    A more minor issue is that I had to answer riddles at the end of several levels to continue.  This breaks the fourth wall as I had seven characters in my party, two with 18 intelligence.  Surely one of them would have been able to solve them?
    There were a couple of riddles that weren't this simple to solve.
    The game did have a wide variety of opponents and some nice fixed combats, but they were just too few and far between to make up for the innumerable random encounters.

    As I said, Secret of the Silver Blades is far from being a bad game, but much of it felt like a slog which I only played to completion as a means to an end.  I’m hoping this is the weak link in the series and that Pools of Darkness won’t be as disappointing when I get to it in 1991.

    Saturday, 19 July 2014

    Prince of Persia - PC (MS-DOS) - 1990

    First task on level 1 is to find the sword.

    Prince of Persia is a platform adventure game designed and programmed by Jordan Mechner.  It was released on the Apple II computer in 1989 and was subsequently converted to most of the popular (and not so popular) systems through the early ‘90s.  Using his younger brother as a model, Jordan built on the same rotoscoping technique he first used in Karateka.  This allowed for the fluid, life-like animation that the game has become known for. 

    I first came across a garish CGA Prince of Persia over 20 years ago on a PC in my first job.  I thought it was okay but pretty samey and too hard.  Having played it again (this time with instructions at hand) I have found the controls to be pretty intricate and give more control over the character than I initially thought.

    I may be in a minority but I find the MS-DOS and Commodore Amiga versions to be the most aesthetically pleasing.  They build on the Apple II graphics and I prefer their simplicity.  Of these two, the PC version has slightly better sound effects than the Amiga so, in my opinion, comes out on top.  Releases on the Atari ST upwards feature more and more detailed graphics that move further away from the ‘classic’ Prince of Persia look.
    The Atari ST version, also from 1990, has slightly more detailed graphics.  The 1994 Mega Drive release loses the clean look of the original altogether.

    The scene is set in the game's intro.  While the Sultan is away fighting a war, his Grand Vizier Jaffar, has seized control of the throne.  He orders the Sultan's daughter marry him within the hour or else she will die.  You take control of the unnamed adventurer who must make his way through twelve hazard filled stages in order to rescue the Sultan’s daughter.   There is a time limit of 60 minutes in which to complete the quest.  

    The player has a health bar, initially consisting of three red triangles.  One of these is used up if the player gets hit by a sword or falls from the height of a couple platforms.  Small red potions can be found that can restore one triangle while the larger red potions can add additional triangles to the health bar.  
    The small blue potion reduces your health whilst the small red one restores it.  The large red potion increases the total amount of damage you can take.

    Falling too far, taking too much damage or getting killed by a trap results in the character dying.  Although there are no ‘lives’ the player has to restart the current level resulting in a tighter time limit.
    One of the many ways to instantly die

    Another obstacle are Jaffar’s guards.  They can be defeated in a simple combat using the sword that can be found on the first level.  Fight moves are limited to strike and block.

    Among the puzzles are closed doors which must be opened by a trigger tile and eventually begin to close.  There are also tiles which can close the open doors but these differ slightly in look.  Other tiles on the floor and ceiling are collapsible.  These can be spotted by jumping on the spot as they wobble slightly.  The tiles can be made to collapse from above by walking over them.  From below they can be hit by jumping, but the player must then move out of the way to avoid taking damage.

    Things start getting tricky on level 3 but thankfully the game can be saved from here.  Skeletons can't be killed in combat.

    Prince of Persia is definitely deserving of it's 'classic' status, influencing the look of later games such as Another World and Flashback.  It is a challenging, sometimes frustrating, game that is just as playable now as when it was released.  

    Example gameplay.....

    Thursday, 19 June 2014

    M.U.S.H.A. - Sega Mega Drive - 1990

    The first boss is a pagoda on caterpillar tracks.

    M.U.S.H.A. is a vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up released exclusively for the Sega Mega Drive in 1990.  It’s a game I was not familiar with and have to admit that first impressions were not that good.  If I had to describe it in one word it would be frantic.  You get wave after wave of enemies and gun emplacements firing at you.  The action is relentless and very fast and I was overwhelmed by the amount going on.  I died very quickly.  Time to consult the instructions.

    It’s the year 2290 AD and man is advanced enough to start colonising outer space.  However, the supercomputer controlling a colony goes rogue and starts sending its attack units against mankind (very original).  You are one of a squad of pilots sent to put a stop to the attack.  Unfortunately all your wingmen are shot down and it is left to you to fight on alone.

    The game has you clad in the flying Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armour of the title.  This ‘armour’ doesn’t provide any protection as you lose a life with one hit.  If you die you reappear in the same spot with no let up in the onslaught.  The default weapon is a single forward firing laser.  In line with the genre, M.U.S.H.A. is played over several stages (seven in all), each concluding with a boss fight.
    A couple of the weird and wonderful bosses.

    Your longevity and firepower are greatly improved by picking up the secondary weapons/power-ups that frequently appear.  They are displayed as Lightning, Fire and Water symbols.  The Lightning and Fire power-ups improve your firepower, while the Water icon provides a rotating defensive shield.  You can only carry one type of power-up at a time, but it can be upgraded up to four times if you continue to collect the same icon.  They also provide some protection as if you are hit you lose the power-up before losing a life.  Strangely, the main and secondary weapons are mapped to different buttons so I had to hold down both for maximum effect.

    Firepower can also be increased by collecting the chips dropped by a particular craft that occasionally hovers on the screen.  As well as upgrading your main weapon, the chips provide a maximum of two bullet firing drones - three chips for each drone.  Continuing to collect the chips when you already have two drones creates replacements that are available if one is destroyed.
    The white object on the right moves back and forth across the screen and drops 'chips' when shot.

    You can cycle through several formations for the drones depending on the situation. ‘Forward’ supplements your main weapon. With '3Way' they fire forward and slightly to the side. 'Back' fires backwards. Select 'Reverse' and they fire in the opposite way to which you are moving (the same as the red pods in Image Fight).  If you choose ‘Roll’ they circle your ship firing outwards in all directions.  In ‘Free’ mode, the drones home in on enemies and pelt them with bullets until they are destroyed.

    Finally, you can also change your speed but only when the game is paused.

    M.U.S.H.A. is intense, non-stop action with lots of bullets and varied enemies filling the screen.  Additionally, the scrolling is smooth and fast with no hint of slowdown when the screen gets busy.  The music is also good and gets the adrenaline pumping nicely.  Although very fast, the game is not overly difficult due to the fact the power-ups provide limited protection and you respawn in the same spot when you die.  M.U.S.H.A. is a game I like a lot and proves that first impressions don’t mean a thing.
    It's not all shooting.  This is a fast section where you have to avoid the walls.

    Example gameplay - NB. Uploading the file to YouTube caused glitches in the graphics making the ship and weapons disappear.  Also the scrolling is not as smooth.

    Friday, 6 June 2014

    The Killing Game Show - Atari ST - 1990

    The title of this game piqued my interest when I noticed it on my shortlist.  It was down as a top game for the Atari ST yet I had never heard of it.  From the title I guessed it would have been a platform game taking inspiration from the show in The Running Man film.  I wouldn’t be that wide of the mark.

    There is a long winded story in the manual setting the scene, but briefly you are part of a resistance movement attempting to overthrow the 21st Century Government Inc. for whatever reason.  However it turns out there is a traitor in the resistance and you are captured by the Secret Police.  To set an example you are enrolled as a contestant in The Killing Game Show.  The Killing Game Show is a televised event where the participants are criminals.  They attempt to earn their freedom by escaping the 16 ‘Pits of Death’.  Contestants are ‘prepared’ by having the lower half of their body removed. The flesh is then stripped from the top half and replaced with armour.  It seems to me the game was completed first then a plot devised to fit.  If you ‘win’ all that remains is a mess of internal organs, not a hero as the resistance leader would have you believe.
    Triple lasers making short work of the enemies.  The number of magazines are on the left, bullets on the right.

    The Killing Game Show was released on the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga in 1990.  Sega Mega Drive/Genesis owners received it a year later renamed as Fatal Rewind.  The Amiga version is by far the best looking and sounding of the three. It has the best music of the trio.  It has smooth parallax scrolling (missing on the ST) and pretty water reflections (absent on the Sega).  The computers also contain two more levels than the console game.  The only place Fatal Rewind comes out on top is that the Mega Drive can play music and sound effects simultaneously where on the computers you can only listen to one or the other.

    The Killing Game Show is a run-and-gun platform game played over 16 levels.  It takes place across 8 cylindrical satellites, each divided into 2 wraparound sections or ‘Pits of Death’.  Flying around these levels are waves of ‘Hostile Artificial Life Forms’.  These HALFs move in intricate patterns doing their best to sap your energy.  To add urgency to the proceedings there is ‘Deadly to Organic Life Liquid’ (DOLL) that gradually rises to fill the pit.  If you touch the DOLL or your energy is depleted you lose a life.  Your goal is to travel from the bottom of each pit to the top.

    Scattered around the levels are containers concealing various weapons and tools.  Weapon upgrades replace your standard single shot laser but have a limited number of shots before reverting to the default weapon.  Tools include extra energy, shaped keys, ‘water freezer’ and Oracles (these give hints when used).  You can carry only one tool and one weapon upgrade at a time.
    The Water Freezer power up is essential at the beginning of this level.

    When you lose a life you are sent back to the beginning of the section. An ingenious feature is that you are shown a replay of your previous attempt.  You can interrupt it at any time to take back control of your character.  This way you can get back to the point you messed up without playing the whole level again. You are able to fast forward the replay to save time.

    Your character itself is very mobile.  It can jump, crouch and climb walls on the way to the top of the pit.  The challenge comes from finding, then memorising, the correct path through each level.  Some sections offer an additional challenge apart from escaping.  For example, one section on the second satellite requires you to collect diamonds.
    Diamonds need to be collected on this stage.  The shaped key I'm carrying fits in the lock on the right.

    So, the Amiga has the best looking graphics, the best scrolling and the best sound.  That makes it the winner, right?  Wrong. The Killing Game Show on the Commodore suffers the same frustrating difficulty as Blood Money (also by Psygnosis).  The first section is easy enough but I kept getting killed by the DOLL on the second.  To find out why I could get further on the Atari I went to the same point in both games and waited for the rising liquid.  On the ST I had to wait 1 minute 32 seconds, whereas on the Amiga I died after only 44 seconds.  The DOLL rises over twice as fast making the game far too difficult

    So the Atari ST emerges as a surprising winner.  Losing the parallax layer helps the game scroll quite smoothly – not something the ST excels at.  The music, again, is fairly good for an ST and can be switched to sound effects if it becomes unbearable.  It also has the extra levels over the Mega Drive conversion.

    The only issue I have (which also affects the Amiga) is that your character can get ahead of the slow scrolling.  Until I got used to it I occasionally died off-screen without seeing what had hit me.

    The Oracle (eye pickup) gives hints.  Nice reflections.

    Example gameplay....