Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Cyber-Lip - SNK Neo Geo AES - 1990

Cyber-Lip is an early title for the Neo Geo AES.  It was released in 1990 - the same year as the console itself.

The plot involves a malfunctioning supercomputer that causes all the military androids under its control to run amok.  As always, only you can save the planet.

The game is a run and gunner set across seven stages.  The player takes control of Rick (or Brook in two player mode).

The main sprites are rather, er, spritely.  The protagonists move around quickly and can jump, duck, hang off rails, and are able to shoot in four directions.  The default weapon is a fairly rapid laser gun which is handy as the enemy androids can come in thick and fast.

Certain opponents drop lettered icons which add additional weaponry to your arsenal.  These include a bazooka, grenades, flame thrower, wide shot and a faster firing version of the standard laser.  All these extra weapons can be cycled through and each have a finite supply of ammo. There is an ammo store midway through each stage where they can be topped up.  In addition a Core Bot can be collected.  This is a drone that orbits the player and can absorb a number of bullets before it disappears.  You are also up against a strict time limit and will lose a life should this count down to zero.

Each stage ends in boss that must be defeated to progress.  I was particularly impressed the first time I met the monstrosity at the end of the first level.

The game runs at a good pace and there are no complaints about the controls which are very responsive.  The graphics are colourful and fast, and there is very smooth parallax scrolling.  The music playing throughout the game is fairly quiet and not particularly memorable.  For the most part it is drowned out by the louder sound effects which is just as well.  I have no complaints about the difficulty level either – the learning curve is set just right.

In terms of pacing and game play, if not graphics, Cyber-Lip is a little reminiscent of Metal Slug. According to Wikipedia some of the team that developed this release went on to create the latter game so they do share the same DNA.  Cyber-Lip is bog standard run and gun fare but, as an arcade quality title, that extra polish makes it good enough to get onto the blog.
A hint of what is to come.

 Example gameplay.....

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Champions of Krynn - PC (MS-DOS) & Commodore Amiga (1990)

Champions of Krynn marks the start of a new trilogy of Gold Box AD&D games from SSI.  Where Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds were set in the Forgotten Realms universe, this is set in the Dragonlance universe and differs in many ways starting with character creation.  I will be playing the Commodore Amiga version for this blog entry.

As this is the first game in a series you have to create a party of up to six characters from scratch.  There are seven races to choose from – Human, Qualinesti Elf, Silvanesti Elf, Mountain Dwarf, Hill Dwarf, Half Elf and Kendar.  Kendar are new to the series and have their own unique weapon, the hoopak (spelt houpak in-game), for which they gain combat bonuses.  The hoopak can be utilised as both a ranged and melee weapon.  The Kendar can also taunt the enemy by using the Yell command in combat.  Affected opponents become enraged and take penalties to their THAC0 and Armour Class.

In addition to the regular fighter, ranger, magic user, cleric and thief character classes, you can also choose to become a Solamnic Knight.  Knights can only be human and must be lawful good (my least favourite alignment to role play).  They start the game wearing plate mail and carrying a long sword but must pay a tithe when entering outposts due to a vow of poverty.  The tithe is a percentage of any coins the knight is carrying and changes depending on which ‘Order’ the Knight is following.  The manual says that at least one knight is needed to complete all the quests in the game.  In addition to winning in combat and finding treasure, the Solamnic Knights also gain experience by doing 'knightly' deeds (whatever they may be).

Other differences concern clerics and magic users.  Clerics can choose a god to follow, each deity providing a bonus spell or ability.  The selection of gods depends on the alignment of the cleric.  Dwarven clerics can only worship Reorx who gives bonus of +1 to THAC0.  Mages come in two guises - Red Robe or White Robe, again dependant on alignment.  The main difference is the type of spells they have available but as both can cast magic missiles, stinking clouds and fireballs I wasn't overly concerned.  Each type of mage is also affected by the phases of the moons which govern bonus spells, saving throws and their effective level.

One major change Champions of Krynn has over the Forgotten Realms universe is the racial limits.  In the Forgotten Realms games, any non-humans had limits on what levels they could reach.  There are still limits in the Dragonlance universe but only for certain classes.  For example, elves can reach maximum levels as clerics, rangers and magic users.

Rolling good characters does not take long as the values given are on the generous side.  This came up after only a handful of re-rolls….

I am slightly concerned my party may be lacking in melee characters – I would preferably have had one more.  The manual shows a lot of undead creatures in the bestiary which is why I have four characters who can cast cleric spells and ‘turn’.  This is the party I have chosen….

Crockett – a male Solamnic Knight
Lumley – a female Solamnic Knight
Grout – a male Hill Dwarf fighter / Reorx cleric
Varley – a female Kendar thief / Paladine cleric
Carraway – a male Qualinesti Elven White mage / Majere cleric
Hazel – a female Qualinesti Elven Red mage / Shinare cleric

The game starts at an outpost in the northwest corner of the world map.  You are joined by another Solamnic Knight, Sir Karl, and have options to visit the Commandant's office, training hall, temple, vault, bar, inn or the armoury.  The Commandant tasks you with investigating the nearby town of Throtl and to report back if you see anything suspiciousOn the way you come across a caravan being attacked by draconians.  After escorting the survivors back to the outpost you hear sounds of a fight coming from the Commandants office.  You find Sir Karl standing over the body of a Sivak draconian that was impersonating the Commandant.  Sir Karl says the outpost is severely lacking soldiers and you must return to Throtl and find a patrol led by a knight called Caramon that had not yet returned…..

I will note my thoughts and experiences below….

I found the early game very tough going for my level 1 and 2 party with evil Warriors, Mages and Clerics being encountered early on.  Not yet able to cast fireballs, my most frequently used spells were sleep, magic missiles and hold person.   Draconians also seem partially immune to magic. 
The fourth or fifth location.  In Pool of Radiance I would still be fighting Kobolds at this point.

The manual puts an emphasis on draconians in the bestiary.  Draconians are created by corrupting metallic (good) dragon eggs and most have rather unpleasant consequences for the party in their death throes.  Baaz draconians turn to stone which can trap weapons until combat is over (the manual suggests doubling up on melee weapons).  Kapak draconians have a chance of paralysing when they hit and dissolve into pools of acid when they die.  Sivak draconians are powerful fighters who get three attacks per round.  Bozak draconians can cast spells and explode when they die.  Auraks can also cast spells and are immune to ranged attacks.  They seem to have a couple of lives and burst into a blast of magical energy when they eventually perish.  

Steel coins seem to be the main currency.  I found some copper and platinum pieces but no gold.

Graphics and sound have been improved no end over the previous games.  Static graphics are still in 16 colours but their quality is much better.  Spells now look and sound more like you imagine they would.  There are also more spot effects in combat.  

Unfortunately, the 3D view is still the same.

Collecting coins and looting dead opponents is not as initially important as it was in Pool of Radiance.  There is only a small selection of weaponry and armour to buy in the outpost armoury and levelling up at the training hall is free, as opposed to 1000gp in the previous games.

The world map has been reduced in importance over the previous games.  Half the map is unused and wandering off the beaten track results in monotonous encounters.

Although the game uses the same combat mechanics as the previous Gold Box games, I didn't find them as enjoyable.  There seem to be fewer types of enemy with most battles fought against draconian or human opponents.

As usual, notes and letters found in the game are written out in full in the Adventurer's Journal.  A lot of them referred to the Solamnic Knights as the 'good army' which sounded plain odd.  Did they refer to themselves as the 'evil army'?

I found Champions of Krynn to be very linear.  It was basically go to Sir Karl and later the commandant, receive a quest and return once complete.  Even then the game managed to get its knickers in a twist.  The last quest I received from Sir Karl was to collect a silver rose. I returned to find he had been taken prisoner and had perished whilst escaping.

Wha..?  I hadn't given the rose to him yet!

Each quest involved exploring one or more 16x16 maps.  Each area was only used once – there was no point returning to previously visited locations.

Mapping the game also took a long time as there seemed to be a combat every few steps. Some of the enemies came in combinations that didn't make sense - giant centipedes teamed up with giant rats and snakes.  Wouldn't the rats have made an easier meal for the snakes than armour clad warriors?

The overarching story involved an antagonist called Myrtani who is secretly in the process of creating draconians from good dragon eggs.  I was under the impression Mrytani would be an evil wizard but it turns out he himself was a draconian, but that’s by the by.  Anyway, with this draconian army and an army of undead (controlled by a Death Knight) he intended to take over the world.  It was up to me to put a stop to his actions.  There were mentions of a ‘good’ army but they only put in an appearance after the game was effectively over.

I didn't like the last 20% of Champions of Krynn as it was unsatisfying and felt quite rushed.  One moment I was investigating the city of Sanction, and the next I was whisked off by gold dragons to some flying citadels and then onto the end game.  All my characters were weighed down with unidentified treasure from fixed encounters and were badly in need of levelling.

Combat seems to rely as much on luck as it does on skill.  In the final encounter against three red dragons my party was massacred before I had a chance to react.  I remember I had used a scroll of protection against dragon breath earlier so reverted to a previous save.  On working my way back to the final fight I forgot to use the scroll yet only one of my characters took any damage.  A lot of battles followed this pattern.

The End...

That'll be right.  Turn up late, take my good gear and bugger off.  Bastards.

At least someone appreciates me.

Despite my criticisms I did enjoy Champions of Krynn, just not as much as the earlier Gold Box titles.  As Zenic Reverie prophesied in his comment at the end of Curse of the Azure Bonds“Enjoy these first two, as the rest of the series gets kind of stale from what I recall”.  I think he may be right.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Blue's Journey - SNK Neo Geo AES - 1990

It’s fitting that my first game of the decade should be for the first console released in the 90's.  The Neo Geo AES was a console version of the Neo Geo MVS arcade machine.  The cartridges contained the same PCB that slotted into the arcade hardware so the games were identical.  This meant you had arcade quality games you could play in the comfort of your own home.  All was not a bed of roses, however, and the Neo Geo had a couple of issues.  The biggest stumbling block was the price – in the US a basic console with one controller and no games cost about $400 while each game cost upwards of $200.  Secondly, you only got arcade titles which are limited by their very nature.  There were no strategy, RPG, adventure or similar releases available for the AES.  None of this prevented me from wanting one.

The attract screen of Blue’s Journey tells the story of the planet of Raguy.  It has been invaded by the evil Daruma Tribe who are consuming the planet’s resources and polluting the atmosphere.  You take control of Blue who has been tasked by Princess Fa with saving the once peaceful planet.  I have to say it's a bit weird having all the friendly characters dressed up as insects (or are they hybrids?) but maybe that's just me.  

The game plays as a colourful cartoon platform game that Japanese gamers seem to love.  There are, I believe, five levels to work your way through.  Each level has a time limit and ends with a boss fight.
Blue has the ability to jump and to shrink in size to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.  He also has the ability to stun enemies by jumping on their heads or wielding his almighty….leaf!  Stunned enemies can be picked up and used as projectiles.  A second player can take control of Princess Fa who has the same abilities as Blue.

During his journey across Raguy there are many flowers to be collected.  These are used as currency to buy special items in the shops and houses that are can be found on his travels.  Certain plants can’t be picked up and must be hit.  These reveal items such as weapon upgrades or special abilities.

Blue's Journey has charming visuals and quality audio to encourage you to buy more credits.  It also doesn't want you playing too long so gets very difficult very quickly.  It's an addictive game but not the most original.  I have played many platform games for this blog and this borrows features from a few of them.  There are recognisable elements from Wonderboy in Monster Land and Super Mario Brosfor example. Would I have paid $200+ for Blue's Journey?  Probably not, but it's still good enough to get on my blog.

Example gameplay....

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Goodbye 1989, Hello 1990

Goodbye Amstrad CPC – The last of the three main 8-bit computers onto the UK market was the first to leave.  In the UK at least, sales of the system always lagged behind the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64.

Hello SNK Neo-Geo Max 330 Pro-Gear Spec Advanced Entertainment System – Or Neo Geo AES to you and me. Launched in January it was basically Neo Geo MVS arcade hardware in console form.  As it was able to play the latest arcade releases (not ports) it was only for gamers with deep pockets.  In the US the basic console was $400 while games started at $200.  That’s a lot of quarters.

Hello Sega Game Gear – This handheld console was released in October as a competitor to the Nintendo Game Boy.  Although technically superior it suffered from a short battery life and couldn’t compete in terms of sales.  Due to similar hardware, Master System cartridges could be played by way of a converter.

Hello Nintendo Super Famicom – Nintendo’s 16-bit console was launched in Japan in November 1990, just over two years after its Mega Drive rival.  Nintendo needn’t have worried about being left behind as it eventually sold more units than the Sega 16-bit.

Hello Sega Mega Drive – As usual, European gamers got the shaft.  The Mega Drive eventually arrived in November, 25 months since its initial launch in Japan and 15 months after North American gamers got their hands on it.

I can’t remember what I was doing in 1990 but it couldn't have been much gaming as I hardly recognise any titles on my shortlist. Then I saw it – Ultima VI: The False Prophet.  So that’s what I was doing in 1990.  I religiously mapped all the towns and dungeons and got a long way into the game until my game disk corrupted.  I downloaded the game from gog.com a while ago and if I still find it playable I will give it another go.

The only other games I’m looking forward to are Cadaver by the Bitmap Brothers and Powermonger by Bullfrog Productions.  I had both these games for the Atari ST but never got around to playing them.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Game Over: The Eighties

During the course of my blog I have witnessed the rise and fall of the 8-bit home computer.  There were still games being released for the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum and Amstrad CPC into the early nineties, but their glory days were well and truly over. Their position in the market had gradually been usurped by the 16-bit Commodore Amiga and Atari ST from the middle of the decade.  The PC was also making its way from the office into the home and was becoming a viable games machine as the graphics and sound hardware improved.

After adding a couple of video games for Atari consoles in the early eighties, the NES took up the mantle and dominated the console scene.  This Japanese machine would continue to remain popular for a few years to come.  At the very end of the decade Sega released the Mega Drive/Genesis, nicely taking us into the 16-bit era of the early nineties.

Over the decade I have discovered some gems I had never heard of (eg Below the Root), played games for little known systems (eg Sharp X68000) and seen the birth of franchises that are still going strong today (Mario, Metal Gear, Zelda etc).  I also experienced my first JRPGs and finally completed my nemesis of many years – Ultima IV.

To find my personal crème de la crème for each year, a lot of 'classics' have bitten the dust.  I messed up a little at the beginning by deleting games from my shortlist as I played them but, to put it into perspective, the number of games that got through are listed below against the number I rejected (in brackets).

            1981                3          (??)
            1982                1          (??)
            1983                9          (37)
            1984                16        (58)
            1985                14        (83)
            1986                7          (107)
            1987                13        (117)
            1988                10        (149)
            1989                12        (181)

I have also listed the number of games that got through for each system.  It comes as no surprise to see the Speccy on top.  A machine is only as good as its games and these figures justify my purchase back in the day.  What is a surprise is that the Atari ST features more games than the Commodore Amiga.  This was mainly due to the early ST exclusives and lazy conversions that didn't take advantage of the Amigas better hardware.  This position will certainly reverse as we move into the nineties.  I had expected the PC Engine to have some good arcade conversions, but it was the Sharp X68000 that really impressed me.  Games such Space Harrier (not on the blog) and Gradius were as near as dammit arcade perfect.  If Sharp could have packaged the hardware into console form and distributed it worldwide, who knows what the current gaming scene would have looked like?

 1.   Sinclair Spectrum (24)
 2.   Commodore 64 (18)
 3.   Atari ST (12)
 4.   Nintendo NES (10)
 5.   Commodore Amiga (9)
 6.   Amstrad CPC (6)
 7.   Commodore VIC-20 (5)
 8.   Sharp X68000 (4)
 9.   BBC Micro (3)
 =    NEC PC Engine (3)
11.   NEC TurboGrafx-16 (2)
 =    Atari 2600 (2)
 =    Atari 5200 (2)
 =    PC (MS-DOS) (2)
 =    Sega Master System (2)
16.  MSX (1)
 =    Sega Mega Drive (1)


Saturday, 18 January 2014

Xenon 2 Megablast - Atari ST & Commodore Amiga - 1989

After Xenon, the Bitmap Brothers released the decent (though completely overshadowed by its sequel) futuristic sports game, Speedball.  They then went about designing a follow up for their debut game.  With Xenon 2 Megablast the Bitmaps decided to forego their usual metallic looking graphics and instead went for an organic theme for all but the final level.
The graphics in Xenon 2 Megablast are some of the best to appear on the Atari ST

The best versions were for the 16-bit Commodore Amiga and Atari ST.  As is usually the case, the graphics and gameplay are identical on both computers.  The Atari ST has much, much weaker music than the Commodore machine but has meatier sound effects in my opinion.  Although the music is better on the Amiga, the drums use the same sound channel as the spot effects so keep cutting out.  You also have to wait for data to load on entering and leaving the upgrade shop – this is especially irritating at the mid-level shop.  The ST has no in-level loading so the game flows much better.  Taking all this into account, the two are about equal so I have included them both on the blog.
The wafer thin plot says the defeated antagonists from the first game, the Xenites, are trying to wipe out the players history.  To this end they have planted bombs in several time zones.  It is up to you to conquer these zones - for some reason each bomb is diffused by destroying an end of level boss.  Needless to say the plot is not mentioned again in game.

Xenon 2 is set over several vertically scrolling levels, each with a particular theme (underwater, insects, dinosaurs, technological).  As well as the gorgeous graphics the game features three layers of smooth parallax scrolling.  Unusually your space craft has reverse thrust to allow you to back up a limited distance.  This comes in especially useful where sections of scenery have dead ends and when tackling particular bosses.
Reverse thrust can also be useful for slowing the game and regulating the appearance of enemies or, as in this case, reaping money from the endless supply of flying squirrels.

The scenery scrolls by slowly but the enemies come in thick and fast.  When waves of smaller enemies, or certain larger enemies, are shot they drop a bubble.  The smaller bubbles are worth 50 credits and the larger ones are worth 100 credits.  The credits can be spent at the mid and end of level upgrade shop.  Upgrades can be bought as well as sold and must be picked up wisely as some weapons can’t be used together (eg side and rear lasers) and certain weapons are more effective on particular levels.  Some of the weapons can be upgraded several times to increase their firepower.  A couple of the items are effectively useless such as the Bitmap Shades (dims the screen) and Super Nashwan Power (gives you all the weapons but they are so short-lived they are gone before any enemies appear).  As well as weapons you can also purchase health and extra lives.

Decisions, decisions, decisions....

Additional upgrades occasionally appear during the level in the form of pods.  Shooting the pod reveals the upgrade to be collected.  At the start of one level several side lasers can be picked so it is worth remembering to sell any side or rear lasers you already possess for extra cash. 

If your ship is hit by an enemy or their bullets you lose energy.  This can be replenished at the upgrade shop or by collecting a health pickup when one appears.  If the energy bar disappears completely you lose a life and restart at one of the many checkpoints with upgrades still intact.

Bosses appear at the end of each level and most have a mid level boss.  These bosses are suitably large and, again, are very impressive in terms of graphics for the Amiga and ST.  Each boss has obvious weak points and drops a lot of credit bubbles when destroyed.  These have to be collected quickly before they drop off the screen.

The first boss

Xenon 2 Megablast has been criticised for being too hard.  The Bitmap Brothers purposely did not want to make an easy game and in fact went out of their way to make it more difficult.  A common feature on many joysticks in the 80s was an autofire switch which took the pain out of a lot of shooters.  The Bitmap Brothers used some kind of programming trickery which disabled these and even went as far as creating a less effective autofire as a power up.  Little did they count on my cheap but fragile Cheetah Mach 1+ joystick.  I had mainly used it as a second stick for two player games and was the only one I could find where autofire worked in Xenon 2.  It had weak microswitches so I had to buy a second stick and used the first one as spares when they failed.  If it wasn’t for the Mach 1+ I would now have a stump where my left thumb should be.

As I said, the game is very difficult and to get anywhere near completing Xenon 2 you will need either a bionic trigger finger or a (working) autofire joystick.  Other criticisms?  The game is exactly the same each time you play it – power ups and enemies appear in the exact same places so it can turn into a memory game.  Having said that, Xenon 2 Megablast has to be one of my all time favourite shooters - better than a lot of the excellent titles I have already featured on the blog.  It’s loud, good looking, has great gameplay, numerous power-ups and is polished to the nth degree – everything I look for in a shoot 'em up.

The final level, the only one not to have organic looking graphics.

Example gameplay - music off, autofire on

Sunday, 5 January 2014

R-Type - PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 - 1989

Dobkeratops - The archetypal R-Type boss.

Along with Gradius, R-Type is one of my favourite shoot ‘em up franchises.  I have enjoyed every game I have played in the series, from the 1987 arcade classic to the excellent R-Type Final on the Playstation 2. 

In 1988 I had already dismissed the Sega Master System and 8-bit computer conversions of the original game.  Now in 1989 it’s the turn of the big guns – the Sharp X68000, the Commodore Amiga and the NEC PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16.  Each has major flaws compared to the arcade original so do any deserve a place on my blog?

I had great expectations for the Sharp X68000 conversion and knew it could handle a pretty accurate rendition of the arcade game.  Arcade quality graphics? Check.  Arcade quality sound? Check.  Fast moving, flicker free sprites? Check.  Accurate gameplay?  Erm…  Now, I like challenging games and R-Type is already a tough game so why make it even harder?  In this version you spend more time dodging bullets than you do shooting enemies which is not much fun.  There are also two difficulty levels – normal and hard.  The only difference I can see with normal mode is that the hit box of your ship is made smaller so bullets can pass through parts of it without registering.  Why mess up the collision detection when a reduction in the number of bullets would suffice?  Disappointing to say the least.

R-Type on the X68000 looked and sounded the part.  It was let down by the hike in difficulty level.

Contrary to the X68K conversion I didn’t have high hopes for the Commodore Amiga.  I used to own the subpar Atari ST conversion of R-Type and was expecting another lazy port.  To my surprise it turned out to be much smoother and faster than on the ST.  Having a limited palette, the graphics can’t hope to compete with the Sharp and NEC machines, and some backgrounds are missing altogether.  Additionally, with only one fire button you have to take your hand off the joystick and use the spacebar to control the ‘Force’ pod - not ideal in this shooter.  Having said that, the Amiga version of R-Type is a pretty good game in its own right.

A good shooter for the Amiga but out-classed in this company.

Finally we have the legendary conversion of R-Type for the PC Engine/Turbografx-16.  The Engine wasn’t released in the UK but screenshots of the game appeared in several magazines of the time and practically kick-started a grey import market on their own. R-Type on the PC Engine was released in Japan as R-Type I and R-Type II with the eight levels split equally across two Hu-Cards. Lucky Turbografx-16 owners got the game in its entirety.  The issue with this version is that instead of reducing the size of the graphics, the developers decided to have the levels scroll slightly in the vertical plane.  This is easy to become accustomed to but does mean you can’t see, for example, gun emplacements at the top of the screen if you are in the lower half.  Nevertheless, the game gets through since this blog is about my favourite video games, not how accurately they were converted.

The NEC console makes a good stab at the graphics.  Only a few shades are missing.

In the game you control an R-9a “Arrowhead” starfighter and must take on the mysterious Bydo – an amalgam of biological and mechanical components.  The R-9a is initially armed with a quick fire laser.  This weapon can also fire a powerful laser pulse by holding down the fire button for a few seconds to charge it.  The Arrowhead can also be upgraded by collecting power-ups.  Upgrades include ‘bits’ (help protect the top and bottom of your ship and fires weak lasers), speed ups, homing missiles and three different lasers (by picking up coloured crystals).  The most famous power-up has to be the ‘Force’ pod.  The ‘Force’ is an indestructible pod that follows the up/down movement of your ship and fires small laser bolts.  It can also be attached to the front or rear of the R-9a where it provides protection and allows the upgraded laser types to work. As it is indestructible it can soak up bullets and harms any enemy it comes into contact with.  Astute use of the 'Force' is needed to successfully navigate the eight levels of the game.

Each of the stages I completed ended in a boss.  The only exception was the third where the boss is a giant ship that takes up almost the entire stage.  Each has one or more weak points that need to be hit several times to take them down.
This boss splits into 3 parts.  The first one has just exploded

If your ship gets hit or you touch the scenery you will lose a life.  You restart a game at the last checkpoint passed but any upgrades you were carrying will be lost.  Depending where this happens restarts can often be frustrating.  And short-lived.

So, although it’s not perfect, R-Type on the PC Engine/Turbografx-16 is the best version I have found so far.  The graphics are pretty close to the arcade original losing out due to fewer colours and lower complexity in places.  There is the occasional slow down, flickering sprites, and that annoying vertical scrolling but it still deserves a place on my blog.  I guess I’ll have to wait for R-Types on the Playstation for the definitive conversion.

Level 3 is basically one huge boss.
Example gameplay....

Monday, 30 December 2013

Populous - Atari ST - 1989

Populous may not have been the first 'God-sim' nor the first game developed by Bullfrog Productions, but it did put both the genre and the company on the map.  Bullfrog's maiden game was a mediocre shoot 'em up called Fusion which I think was largely ignored by the games buying public.  The British company really burst onto the scene with Populous and have since produced a host of well received titles.  The Bullfrog label eventually disappeared a few years after the company was absorbed by Electronic Arts.

I tested Populous on the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and PC.  They all look and play more or less identically but both the PC and Amiga versions have issues with the audio.  The DOS conversion loses out first as it has inferior sound compared to the 16-bit computers.  The Amiga version has exactly the same sound effects as the ST.  In addition it has an incessant, headache inducing heartbeat playing throughout.  This can only be turned off by muting the sound effects which play an important role in the game. The Atari ST lacks the heartbeat so, perhaps surprisingly, comes out on top.

In Populous you take on the role of a god.  Your aim is to destroy all the followers of an opposing god while they try to do the same.  Once a world has been conquered you move on to another, more difficult level.  There are 500 worlds in all but one or more are skipped depending on your score for the previous level. 

The main screen shows a close up view of the landscape.  Above this is a map which can be clicked on with mouse pointer to move the view around.  Each world is be made up of one of four landscapes – Grass, Rock, Desert and Ice.  I don't know what difference the Rock world makes but your followers die quickly in the Desert and reproduce slowly in the Ice world.

The randomly appearing swamp monster leaves a deadly trail across the land.

The most important aspect in defeating your opponent is by increasing the number of your followers.  To this end you need to raise or lower the land in order to create flat spaces where your followers can settle.  When a follower finds a square of flat land they build a dwelling.  After a while the dwelling produces another follower who wanders off looking for another flat area to populate.  A follower will eventually die if they can’t find somewhere to build.  Creating a larger flat area allows the people to build bigger buildings.  Bigger buildings take longer to produce followers but these followers are more powerful and last longer.

Influencing your followers is performed by using the icons on the interface.  You can order them to build, merge (to create more powerful followers), fight if there are any enemies nearby, or travel to your Papal Magnet.  The Papal Magnet is an ankh and is your religious symbol. Your most important follower is the leader who carries a mini ankh.  If you use the ‘go to Papal Magnet’ command, all your followers merge with the leader to create a powerful character.  The Papal Magnet can be moved around while you have a leader so you could even place it in the middle of enemy territory.  If the leader is killed, the Papal Magnet stays in that spot until another leader is created by touching it.

The ‘?’ icon allows you to place a shield on any building or follower (friend or foe) you want to keep track of.  Their stats appear in the shield to the top right of the screen.  Either side of this are two graphs showing the relative power of the opposing forces.

As your population increases so does your mana.  Mana allows you to perform acts of god and is depicted by a bar towards the top right of the screen.  Each divine act uses mana which is also depleted after a loss in combat.  Divine abilities begin with simple acts such as raising and lowering land and moving the ankh around.  As you become more powerful you can create earthquakes which disrupt your opponent’s buildings and swamps which can drown your enemies.  Depending on the level, swamps can be shallow (they disappear after swallowing a person) or bottomless.  You can turn your leader into a knight who marches off into enemy territory killing opponents and burning buildings as he goes.  The volcano icon causes the land to rise and creates rocks.  The rocks disrupt building and can only be cleared by lowering the surrounding land to sea level.  Creating two or more volcanoes on top of each other is particularly devastating.  The flood act raises the sea level causing people on low lying land to be pitched into the sea.  Sea can be either fatal where the followers drown immediately or harmful giving you a chance to save some.  The final act of god is Armageddon.  Armageddon moves both Papal Magnets to the centre of the map.  All the followers travel towards them where they fight to the death.  Each divine act is accompanied by a distinctive sound – for example, if you hear slurping sound you know your opponent has created a swamp on your land.

Flood can devastate large areas of land.
Before each world you are given a description of the next world to conquer including the landscape type and the number of followers you have to start with.  It also includes the divine acts you have available and if you can build land up, down or not at all.

Populous is probably the game I spent most time on when I had the Atari ST and would definitely be in my top 3 games for that machine.  I upgraded my ST to 1mb in order to play Populous II: Trial of the Olympian Gods in 1991 but found the sequel disappointing in comparison.  Besides being great with a single player, two STs, two Amigas or even an ST and an Amiga can be linked up to make an excellent two player game.

It’s telling that this game was still in my disk drive when I had to take my Atari out of storage earlier in the year (and it still worked!).

Populous: The Promised Lands

Due to the success of Populous, a data disk was released containing five new types of landscape.  Wild West and Révolution Française are graphically similar to the Desert and Grass landscapes of the original game with more appropriate looking buildings and people.  Bit Plains has a landscape made up of line printer paper and replaces the buildings with computers.  Block Land looks like it is made of Lego.  Silly Land is, well, silly.  The game behaves differently with the new landscapes but I can only recall that the pacifist Block Land decreases mana when you win battles, and that certain types of building decrease your mana in Silly Land.

Two landscapes from The Promised Lands.  From days when you could have cigarettes in a game and no one would bat an eyelid.