Saturday, 1 August 2015

Final Fantasy II - Nintendo SNES - 1991

The fourth game in the series and the second to be translated into English, Final Fantasy II was released in North America for the SNES in late 1991.  In Japan it was known as  Final Fantasy IV, as were subsequent remakes after Square decided to sync the names for Final Fantasy VII.  As well as the name change, Square lowered the difficulty level as they were worried US gamers would find the game too hard having missed the previous two titles in the series.  Final Fantasy II also fell foul of Nintendo of America censorship policies - several death and religious references were changed or removed.

Like Secret of the Silver Blades, Final Fantasy II was a game I had high expectations for, but failed to deliver as I had hoped.  It was a title I wanted to finish as I had completed the previous three installments, but won't be counted as a full entry on my blog.

My main problem concerns the plot.  It starts off well enough with the protagonist, Cecil, questioning the Kings motives for forcibly taking the elemental crystals from peaceful towns.  It later became so convoluted I simply lost interest.  Much of the game had you travelling the world collecting the crystals before the bad guys got to them, only for them to be snatched from your grasp anyway.  You might as well have just gone straight for the big boss.  According to Wikipedia, the designer acknowledges that some parts of the story were "unclear" or were not "looked at in depth".
Part of the plot involves travelling to the moon.

Another issue I had is that, besides Cecil, there were eleven other characters you can have in your party.  As only five slots are available, the additional cast where swapped in and out at the whim of the plot making it hard to care for any of them.  I just looked on them as tools to advance the story.

Both of the above took the shine off Final Fantasy II for me.  Don't get me wrong, it is still a good game or I would not have completed it, just not one of my favourites.  Here are some of the good points...

The move to the 16-bit SNES allows for greatly improved graphics and sound.  The greater detail in the character sprites mean little things, like a nod or a turn of the head, gives them a personality that could not be created on the NES.  

The music is of a high standard and much more orchestral than the NES titles.  A track or two sounded out of place but overall the music is very good indeed.

The combat screen and combat options look pretty much the same as the earlier games, but Final Fantasy II introduces the Active Time Battle system.  Combat is now in real-time making it a bit more exciting than selecting all the moves at the beginning of a round.  When a character flashes it is their turn to attack, cast a spell etc.  They will only flash again when a cool-down period (depending on their speed) has passed.  Casting spells or using special moves takes longer than a normal melee attack.
Typical combat screen.  I have four members in my party at this time.

The programmers made use of some graphical trickery in Final Fantasy II.  Some areas have parallax scrolling and when flying an airship, the world map tilts slightly giving a 3D effect using Mode 7.

To summarise the plot, Golbez has mind control over King Baron (and later Cecil's best friend Kain) and is using his men to gather all the elemental crytsals.  Golbez makes a lot of enemies along the way with most of them joining the player.  Golbez is in turn controlled by Zemus, a Lunarian living on an artificial moon.  Zemus wants the crystals to destroy humans so the Lunarians can take over Earth.  After Zemus is defeated he turns into Zeromus, the final boss.  It also turns out Cecil's father was a Lunarian.  Oh, and Golbez is Cecil's brother. 

The 20 minute end sequence...

It should be noted that Final Fantasy II (or IV) was the earliest in the series to get a direct sequel.  Final Fantasy IV: The After Years was released in 2009 on WiiWare and is set 17 years after this game.  In 2011 Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection was released on the Sony PSP.  As well as Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, it also contained Final Fantasy IV: Interlude, which is set between the two.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Death Knights of Krynn - Commodore Amiga - 1991

It was with much trepidation that I approached Death Knights of Krynn, the fifth Gold Box game on my short list.  The series started well with the excellent Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds.  Next up was the predecessor to this game, Champions of Krynn, which while good, I criticised the linearity and a lack of varied opponents in combat.  Then came Secret of the Silver Blades.  Oh dear.  The designers were now capable of creating areas much larger than the 16x16 zones we had been accustomed to.  Sadly they didn't put anything interesting in them.  Rather than a decent RPG, SotSB was a boring, linear game where most of the time is spent in random combats.  I'm going to play through Death Knights of Krynn whatever, but will it be able to buck the trend?

Unlike previous Gold Box games, the PC and Amiga conversions were released in the same year.  Despite some PC games now coming with VGA graphics, Death Knights of Krynn was stuck with only 16 colours.  The graphics on the Amiga version were upgraded to 32 colours so this is my pick.  Things did not get off to an auspicious start when the game wouldn't read my Champions of Krynn disks so I was forced to recreate my party from scratch.

I rebuilt my party with the same names, classes and stats as before.  In Death Knights of Krynn you can now create a character as a paladin - this class was missing in Champions.  Starting equipment was plate mail or Solamnic plate mail and either +1 swords or +1 maces depending on class.  These had to last some distance into the game as it turned out better magic items were not found until a fair way into the game.

The game starts a year after the events in Champions of Krynn.  You are invited to celebrate the anniversary of the demise of Myrtani (which is just as well as we defeated him practically single handedly) and to attend a memorial for Sir Karl Gaardsen.  The memorial is disrupted when an undead Sir Karl flies in on the back of a Death Dragon.

The general plot involves thwarting the evil Lord Soth who is bringing fallen heroes back from the grave as Death Knights in order to take over the world (what else?).  His ultimate goal is to resurrect the legendary warrior Sturm Brightblade whose body has been laid to rest in the Clerist's Tower.  Soth can only be defeated using the Rod of Omniscience which was stolen from him by his former cleric Sebas Astmoor. It is up to your party to retrieve the rod before facing Lord Soth himself.

I will note my thoughts below.....

  • For Death Knights of Krynn the Gold Box engine has been improved in several respects: 
i) Character names have been colour coded so you know when they are ready to level up without consulting the tables in the manual.
ii) The game now remembers the spells your characters had previously memorised so you can (K)eep your favourite spells without having to choose them every time you rest.
iii) Combat now ends when all the enemies are defeated - it is no longer necessary to complete all of your characters turns.
iv) Some of the magic spells have better animations - a fireball now looks like a fireball. 

  • The engine has also taken a couple of steps back in my opinion:
i) The main annoyance is that, instead of just using the cursor keys to move, you have to press the M(ove) key first.  This is particularly annoying during combat when you have to do this each turn for every party member.
ii) Not a major point but the static graphics are more scarce and of a lesser quality that the ones I praised in Champions of Krynn.
Compared to Champions of Krynn the cut-scene graphics look rather crude.

  • Yes! This game marks the return of an overworld map similar to the one in Pool of Radiance.  Exploring the map leads to one non-optional and several optional side quests that break up the main plot.  Each is in a self contained area and provides treasure and XP.  Only some of the quest locations are marked on the map - others need so be discovered...
...or you can find hints to them on the road.
  • At the beginning of the game there were some odd role-playing choices and several more throughout the game.  The following screen resulted in nothing happening whatever option I took.  They seemed pretty pointless to me and a waste of code.

  • I don't know if the game was written by a different team but it had a different 'feel'.  There were several scripted events that I can't recall being in the series before.  For example, when I disturbed Sir Karl's grave I was attacked by worms.  My party took damage but it was all done in the text; there was no battle screen or chance to defend myself.

  • The game featured one thing I absolutely hate and that is maps that don't make sense.  The town of Vingaard has several 'exits' at the edges of the map that wrap around to the opposite side.  Step through one of these at the north end of town and you end up at the south end - they act like the tunnel in PacMan.

  • Exploring the overworld map offers up a number of side quests.  One of these involves liberating the slaves from a Kuo-Toa slave ship which you are compelled to complete whether you are ready or not.  I came across it early on, roundly got my arse kicked and had to reload.  I returned to it a couple of levels later and with a Solamnic Knight, Sir Durfey, in tow.  I managed to complete the quest, but still had to reload several times as Kuo-Toa are immune to most magic and their clerics can cast the poison spell which instantly kills any character.

  • As with all the Gold Box games, the economy is broken.  Money is only really needed to identify magic items and can be mostly ignored after combat.  Shops don't sell anything better than your starting equipment and useful magic items are only found on quests.

  • Draconians appear in this game as they did in Champions of Krynn but have been toned down.  They each have 27 hit points and none of the special traits they had in the previous title. 

The End* (spoilers)

The end game where you face Soth takes place in Dargaard Keep.  After some epic battles at the climax of previous games, Death Knights of Krynn was a tad disappointing.  Soth appeared flanked by four Death Knights with a handful of Iron Golems off to one side.  All are immune to magic.  My buffed, hasted and invisible (not that it made any difference) party managed to weather a volley of fireballs cast by the Death Knights.  Grout and Carraway were both affected by 'fear' - I cast dispel magic on Grout in the same round and Carraway in the next after he decided to hang around and cast a hold person spell instead of fleeing.  After that it was just a case of going to toe to toe to finish the fight.  My only mistake was that Lumley's sole weapon was a Mace of Disruption which was fine against the undead but useless against the Golems.  After the battle, using the Rod of Omniscience opens a vortex to another dimension.

With Soth out of the way, Lenore who pretended to be a defenceless widow and followed our party for protection, grabbed hold of the rod.

You reappear in the Clerist's Tower and are escorted to the Knight's Council.

Overall I really enjoyed Death Knights of Krynn.  My one main criticism, which also applied to Champions of Krynn, was a lack of variety in encounters.  As well as seemingly hundreds of Skeleton Warriors, there was an over abundance of groups of Black Wizards and Evil Warriors.  The Skeleton Warriors are immune to turning and spells and can only be harmed by magic weapons, so any straight magic users would potentially be left twiddling their thumbs in combat.  I'm glad I multi-classed.

It is good to see SSI getting back on form.  I have another two Gold Box games to play in 1991 so let's hope they can keep it up. 

* On completion of the main game a short quest called Dave's Challenge becomes available.  I only found this out when consulting a walkthrough after finishing the game.  I didn't attempt it as it didn't look very interesting and I would never have been aware of it anyway.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Coryoon: Child of Dragon - NEC PC Engine - 1991

Coryoon: Child of Dragon is a horizontally scrolling shoot 'em up for the PC Engine released only in Japan in 1991.  More specifically, it belongs to (and I hate this phrase) the 'cute 'em up' genre.

Without a manual it's hard to be precise on the exact plot.  The intro shows a princess and Coryoon, her pet dragon.  In a flash of lightning an evil ne'er do well appears and, for some unexplained reason, transforms the princess into a little girl.  You are then thrown into the game as Coryoon, presumably to catch up with the evil doer and ask him to change the princess back if he would be so kind.

As with most games like this, it's the graphics that first catch your attention.  The flicker-free sprites are fast, well drawn and colourful.  The background is bright and colourful with multiple levels of parallax scrolling.  The music is ultimately forgettable but quite jolly and matches the graphics well.  Underneath all the pretty bells and whistles is a solid shoot 'em up.

The game is played over several stages made up of different environments.  Each stage has a mid and end-of-level boss.  The enemies are mostly made up of various types of birds and animals.  When killed they drop fruit which can be picked up for bonus points.  The enemies come in thick and fast without any slowdown and the screen can get very busy.
One of the easier bosses.

With Coryoon being a dragon his main weapon will be his breath.  This starts out as the usual rapid fire pea shooter.  Not pressing the fire button charges up a shot similar to the beam weapon in R-Type.  When Coryoon puffs out his cheek the weapon is charged and releases a powerful ball of flame when you next press fire.

The main weapon can be powered up by collecting orbs dropped by a stork.  The orb alternates between red, yellow and blue so you can choose your upgrade.  The red orb gives you a powerful, but short range fire weapon.  The blue orb gives you a longer, but thinner laser type weapon.  The yellow orb gives you a multi-way shot.  Each type of shot can be powered up a further two times by picking up orbs of the same colour.  If you are hit while carrying an upgrade, you lose the upgrade.  Get shot again and you lose a life.  If you do lose a life you carry on from where you died.
Making good use of the fire weapon.

As well as dropping fruit the enemies occasionally drop Diamonds, Hearts, Spades and Clubs.  The Diamond changes Coryoon into a miniature version of himself.  It means he is harder to hit, but he loses the charge shot.  The Heart gives you two fairies that circle Coryoon and act as a shield.  They can alternatively be locked above and below your dragon.  The Spade is a single use smart bomb that clears the screen when detonated. The Club acts as a fruit magnet and draws fruit to Coryoon when holding down button I.  Only one of these power-ups can be active at once.
Carrying the diamond makes Coryoon harder to hit

The final power up can be obtained by killing a chicken that occasionally appears.  The chicken provides a small dragon option that darts around the screen taking pot shots.  It disappears, however, when you encounter a boss

The games biggest draw is also its biggest drawback.  The screen can get very busy which, combined with the games speed and bright graphics, sometimes makes hard to figure out what's going on or why you lost a life.  You start the game with 5 lives and plenty more can be gained as your score goes up, but there are no continues. The bundles of extra lives make the game quite easy, which suits me fine and I can see myself coming back to it a lot.

Example gameplay...

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...