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....

Friday, 30 May 2014

Ivan 'Ironman' Stewart's Super Off Road - Commodore Amiga - 1990

Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road is another game I loved in the arcades and purchased as soon as it became available on my Atari ST.  The arcade game was released by Leland Corporation in 1989 in a similar looking cabinet to Super Sprint.  I was surprised it was not released by Atari itself as it rips off borrows a lot of the look, gameplay and features from the Sprint series of overhead racers.

Home conversions of Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road started appearing in 1990.  It was released on the major handhelds, consoles and computers of the time.  On my shortlist I had versions for the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, NES, SNES, Sega Mega Drive and Sega Master System.

The SNES, Master System and Mega Drive games were respectively released in 1992,1993 and 1994.  They dropped Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart from the title and became Super Off Road.  They play a lot faster than the arcade machine and had other gameplay differences so will not be included in this entry.  Of the ‘proper’ conversions, the NES suffers against the ST and Amiga in terms of gameplay, graphics and sound.  Although the Atari and Commodore versions look and play identically, the Amiga has the best audio.

As you can see, Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road is a top down racer.  The game plays much like Super Sprint but at a slower pace.  The race cars have been replaced by off-road trucks and the racetrack has been replaced with a dirt track.  Various obstacles such as ramps, water splashes and hillocks are there to throw your car off course.  The game is played over a series of 99 races around 8 different circuits.

Each race lasts for four laps and the goal is beat Ivan who drives the grey AI car.  Finishing behind the grey car results in game over, although you do have couple of credits to allow you to continue.  During the race, power ups in the form of nitro cylinders occasionally appear and can be picked up by driving over them.  Nitro gives your car a speed boost (or at times pushes one of your opponents backwards) at the press of the fire button.  Money can also be picked up which supplements the prize money you receive by finishing on the podium.

Prize money can be used in the Speed Shop to upgrade your car between races.  Upgrades include acceleration, top speed, tyres, shocks and more nitro.  The extra credits you receive can also be converted into cash to buy more upgrades instead of being used as a continue.

Like all these types of games they really come to into their own when playing against a couple of friends.  One person can use the second joystick while another can use the keyboard.  The keyboard controls are not much of a disadvantage as the joystick controls can be a little awkward.  The sole fire button is used for the nitro and pushing forward accelerates the car, meaning the joystick has to be held forward for practically the whole race.  There is no brake.

I do like these overhead race games and Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road is no exception.  The Amiga does a reasonable job of replicating the arcade graphics, if not the sound.  It can be limited as single player game but really comes to life with one or two friends around the same TV.  This is something unfortunately missing in modern gaming.

Example gameplay...

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Image Fight - Sharp X68000 - 1990

The first boss.  Not nearly as memorable as Dobkeratops.

How do you follow up a classic game like R-Type?  In the case of Irem the answer was Image FightImage Fight appeared in the arcades a year after the seminal shoot ‘em up and seems to be largely forgotten.  Where R-Type was converted to a myriad of computers and consoles, Image Fight was only converted to four.  And three of them never saw a release outside of Japan.

All four renditions of Image Fight were released in 1990.  The NES conversion was the only one that appeared outside Japan and is easily the weakest of the quartet.  Obviously it can't match the graphics or sound of the more powerful machines and the sprites are way too small. The PC Engine went the other way, and though the graphics are better, the sprites feel too big.  From what I can tell Image Fight on the Fujitsu FM Towns and Sharp X68000 version look and sound more or less the same.  I won’t be featuring the Fujitsu FM Towns on my blog so it's the X68000 iteration that gets the nod.
NES (left), PC Engine (centre) and Sharp X68000 (right) taken from the same point in the game.

Once again, Earth is under threat from an evil alien race and once again only a lone spaceship can save it.  This time it’s aliens from the Boondoggle Galaxy who are next in line to invade.  Opposing them is an unnamed pilot in an OF-1 Starfighter.

The game is played over 8 vertically scrolling stages each ending with a boss fight.  According to the NES manual the first five stages take place in a simulator and the final three are “real combat stages”.
The simulator, I guess.

Your main weapon is rather weedy laser (accompanied by an equally weedy sound effect).

Occasional power-ups are dropped by the enemy.  The first ones to be seen are the pods.  Up to three pods can be collected – two hover alongside your ship and one behind.  Before they are picked up the pods alternate in colour between blue and red.  The blue pod fires forward and supplements your standard weaponry.  The red pod can be aimed by moving your ship in the opposite direction you want it to fire – move left and it fires right, move back and it fires forward etc.  The side pods themselves can also be launched forward to damage the enemy (much like the Force in R-Type) before returning to their original position.  If you have three already installed, picking up any subsequent pods of either colour changes them all to that colour.
Red pods came in handy for picking apart this ship that takes up most of the second stage.

The second type of power-up fixes to the front of your ship to replace the standard laser.  There a number of different attachments each providing a different weapon type.  These power-ups also act as a weak shield and are lost after one hit.  These attachments can't be dropped so occasionally it is necessary to take a hit to pick up weapons more suited to the current stage.  Lose a life and all power-ups are lost.
I screwed up here by not having the correct weapon, couldn't move to left and duly lost a life.

The OF-1 also has a choice of four speed levels.  Changing speed causes a large blue flame to appear behind your ship which can alternatively be used to damage or destroy enemies directly behind you.

One has to wonder why Image Fight did not get the acclaim it deserved.  It may not be as innovative as its predecessor but it is certainly a lot better than many of its contemporaries.  Although the sound and music are nothing special, the graphics are good.  There is a wide variety of enemies and it offers up a tough challenge.  This is yet another game I have never played before but one to which I will certainly return.

The obligatory (for this period) sprite snakes.

 Example gameplay.....

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Hellfire - Sega Mega Drive - 1990

Hellfire is another side scrolling shooter for the Sega Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis if you live in North America).  It was released in 1990 and is a conversion of a 1989 Toaplan coin-op.  I’d never heard of either game before but by all accounts the console version is better, boasting a number of improvements over the arcade original.  An initial glance at the screenshots doesn’t do the game any favours with a rather large and unattractive spaceship taking up a large amount of the screen.

Hellfire is set in 2998 and mankind has been busy colonising other solar systems.  However a mysterious force known as the Black Nebula has been engulfing other stars and has now appeared on the latest colony’s doorstep.  A robotic dictator called Super Mech is the controlling force behind the Black Nebula.  As usual the humans can only muster up one spacecraft with which to take on Super Mech’s armada.  You are cast as Captain Lancer, pilot of the snappily named CNCS1 armed with the most potent weapon available – Hellfire.

The game is played out over 6 horizontally scrolling stages, each containing at least one minor boss and concluding in a tougher end-of-level boss.  The play area is just over one screen in height so it also scrolls slightly in the vertical plane.
The red sphere is the weak spot on the bosses.  This one circles the centre when hit and has to be shot at from all four directions.

The main feature that sets Hellfire apart from its contemporaries is the unique weapon system.  Pressing the B button cycles though four laser configurations, each represented by a different colour.  The laser can be set to fire forwards, rearwards, vertically or diagonally. 

One of the challenges is working out which configuration works best in a particular situation as you will always have vulnerable spots.  The laser can be upgraded several times by collecting [P] icons which are dropped by certain enemies.  Other lettered icons include [S] which speeds up your ship and [B] which awards bonus points.  Unlike the arcade version, collecting a sequence of [B] icons increases the bonus points awarded, up to a maximum of 10,000.

Other collectable items include a shield and a distracting, autonomous drone that damages enemies and can absorb their bullets.

The final weapon is the titular Hellfire laser.  This is a limited shot ‘smart bomb’ type weapon that packs a big punch and clears the screen of enemy bullets.  Again, more shots are occasionally dropped by enemies.  Strangely, the Hellfire laser is absent in the original arcade game.
Unleashing the Hellfire laser on the Egyptian themed section of stage 2

According to Wikipedia, Mega magazine placed Hellfire at number 4 in their Top Mega Drive Games Of All Time and it’s easy to see why.  It’s an extremely slick and addictive game boasting great graphics and sound.  Your ship looks rather large and cumbersome but didn’t cause me too many issues.  However, cycling through the weapon system trying to find the right configuration cost me more than a few lives.  Losing a life in itself is a problem as you are stripped of all upgrades and sent back to a previous checkpoint essentially making Hellfire a one life game.  Unless you die near the beginning of the game it is very difficult to get up to speed again.  There is no denying it is a very challenging game, yet one that rewards plenty of practice.

Example gameplay...

I would normally compare different versions of the same game towards the top of the entry but due to the number of differences I thought I would add a short description of the PC Engine version here.  IMO the Mega Drive version is better so this won’t get a full entry on my blog but I thought someone might appreciate it…

The 1991 PC Engine CD-ROM² conversion of Toaplan’s arcade game has been renamed Hellfire S and is subtitled The Another Story (sic).  Personally, I prefer the Mega Drive version as Hellfire S is tougher than an already very difficult game.

The first noticeable difference is the animated attract screen and intro aided by the extra storage capacity of the CD ROM.  The game was only released in Japan, so a lot of it is lost on me. The protagonist has been changed from the male Captain Lancer to the female Karou.  This has no effect on the plot and just seems a flimsy excuse to show some cartoon flesh.

Also shown in the intro are two CNCS1 spacecraft.  The PC Engine is a more faithful conversion in this respect as two players can play simultaneously.

Not having played the arcade version of Hellfire, I can’t tell how accurately the graphics are replicated in Hellfire S but they are certainly downgraded from the Mega Drive.  Although the level layouts are the same, most of the backgrounds and sprites have been changed.  Also the ships don’t switch colour when the laser configuration is changed – Player 1 always has a red ship and Player 2 a blue one.

The sound is much better on the PC Engine.  I suspect this is due to the soundtrack streaming from the CD ROM.

Finally, like the arcade game, the Hellfire laser is conspicuous by its absence.

I suspect Hellfire S may be the most accurate conversion of the arcade game, but  that doesn’t necessarily make it better.  As I said earlier, Hellfire on the Mega Drive is widely considered superior to the game it is based on.  A better-than-arcade conversion.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Gaiares - Sega Mega Drive - 1990

The last scrolling shoot 'em up I played for the Mega Drive was Fire Shark.  It didn't make the grade due to its mundane backgrounds, unimaginative sprites and forgettable music - it had nothing to make it stand out from the crowd.  By 1990 shoot 'em ups needed that little something extra.  Why mention Fire Shark here?  Well, at first glance Gaiares also has mundane backgrounds, unimaginative sprites and forgettable music but it also has a unique selling point.  R-Type has the Force, Gradius has the Option and Gaiares has the TOZ.  More on the TOZ later, but first the plot.

The planet Earth has been turned into a polluted, uninhabitable wasteland by careless humans. The last vestiges of the human race are surviving on a space station.  The United Star Cluster of Leezaluth has sent them a warning about an inter-galactic terrorist group called Gulfer.  Led by Queen ZZ Badnasty, the Gulfers plan to use the polluted material to make military weapons.  If the humans fail to stop the Gulfers then the United Star Cluster of Leezaluth will blow up the Sun and wipe out the Solar System.  If the humans defeat the Gulfers they will be given a new Earth-like planet to populate.  Not much at stake then.  You take on the role of the intrepid Dan Dare (not the intrepid Dan Dare from the 1986 Spectrum game) who will single handedly take on the Gulfers.

Our hero Dan Dare and terrorist leader Queen ZZ Badnasty.  With a name like that she was never going to be one of the good guys.  I bet she was bullied at school too.

The game starts with your ship launching from the space station.  You are initially armed with a rapid fire laser and a downward firing missile.  The TOZ system follows the movement of your ship and replicates its firepower (much like an Option from Gradius).  It can also absorb enemy fire and damage enemies (much like the Force from R-Type).  Where it stands out is that it can latch onto enemies to steal their weaponry.  The weapons can be upgraded a further two times by firing the TOZ at the same type of enemy.

Certain sections of each level are best dealt with by a particular weapon.  The enemies that carry these weapons normally appear just before the area where they are needed.  Failing to collect them can make for tougher going and I lost many a life using inappropriate armament.
I liked the T-Braster (blaster?) but quickly got bogged down in this section.  The G-Beam can be picked up just before it and cuts straight through.

Losing a life in Gaiares doesn’t mean Game Over.  Although you lose any weapon ugrades you were carrying, it won’t take long to max out your firepower again.  There is also the occasional shield and smart bomb pickup to be found throughout the stages.  These are activated as soon as they are touched – they can’t be saved for later.

The game is played over eight stages each containing a rather weak mid-level and a much tougher end-of-level boss.
Gulfer - the only inter-galactic terrorist group to recruit bivalve molluscs.  Once destroyed this giant clam boss reveals a giant mermaid boss.

Your ship also has three turns of speed.  MID is fine for me with LOW coming in useful for navigating more intricate sections of the scenery.  MAX is too fast for my reflexes and normally ends up with me losing a life.

As I said the game is not much to listen too.  The graphics get better the further you go – I particularly like the watery effects towards the end of level two - but for the most part the enemy sprites are uninteresting.  It is also a very tough game and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see all eight stages.  It is something I will persevere with.  Overall though Gaiares is a great shoot ‘em up with the TOZ adding a unique element to the gameplay.

 Example gameplay....

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Final Fantasy III - NES - 1990

Final Fantasy III came out in Japan in April 1990 for the Nintendo Famicom – just over two months before the original Final Fantasy was released in North America.  It was the third and final instalment to be published on the 8-bit console before the franchise moved over to the 16-bit Super Famicom/SNES.  Like Final Fantasy II the game wasn’t released in the West so I will be using a fan translation.  The only English version was a 3D remake for the Nintendo DS from 2006.  There were quite a few differences but I will use those instructions as the basis for my playthrough.  The rest I will have to work out as I go along.

I was hoping this instalment was going to be a little more original.  The plot says that your party of four orphans have been tasked with 'sweeping away the Darkness' that is threatening the world.  So far, so very Final Fantasy.  The graphics are also pretty much the same…

Hopefully the story and the ‘job system’ will make things more interesting.

The first thing to do is to name the four protagonists.  Lacking any imagination, I took the names straight from the DS manual.  You are then plopped in the bottom of a dungeon which had been created after an earthquake.  The only graphical difference between the characters is their colour.  Their default job is listed in the game as ‘onion kid’.  I can’t begin to guess why the starting class is named after a pungent vegetable.  In the dungeon there were a few simple combats followed by a boss.  Combat uses the same system as the previous two Final Fantasy games.  As well as gaining Exp and Gil (currency) after combat, you also accumulate Capacity Points.

Capacity Points form the basis of the ‘job system’ as they are needed to change your ‘job’ or character class.  The longer a character remains in the same class the more proficient they become.  This is something I will need to experiment with as I go.  I can already foresee plenty of grinding.

After defeating the dungeon boss you come across the Wind Crystal who says the balance of everything is crumbling and the characters have been chosen to restore it.  The Crystal also gives you some of its power which allows access to the initial selection of jobs.

South of the dungeon is their home town of Ur.  As before, speaking to the citizens results in a stock response.  This normally changes once a related quest has been completed.  It looks like the option to memorise key words that was introduced in Final Fantasy II has been removed.

So far I have upgraded my party to three Fighters and a Monk.  My plan is for two of the Fighters to become a White Mage and Black Mage after a little grinding.  I have covered the first overworld area (there is boulder preventing any further progress) and have discovered a second town, a castle and the entrance to another dungeon which is blocked by a lake.

As is my wont with JRPGs, I began with some pre-emptive grinding.  One improvement over the earlier games is that if a character targets an enemy that is subsequently killed he automatically targets another - the attack is no longer wasted.  I also took this opportunity to experiment with the job system.  The initial choices are Onion Kid (the default class), Fighter, Monk, White Mage, Black Mage and Red Mage.  I retained Luneth as a Fighter and Arc as a Monk. I made Refia a White Mage and Ingus a Black Mage.  Although the whole party were gaining levels, only Luneth and Arc were gaining job skills from the combat.  It was the same when I tried a Red Mage even though they are able to use most weapons.  I therefore reverted the Mages to Fighters.  After finding a SLEEP spell in the Altar Dungeon I changed Ingus back to a Black Mage.  Ingus tends to go last in combat so is still not gaining skills as fast as the melee characters.

I used Ur as my base for grinding as one of the buildings contained a couple of springs.  One spring restores all hit and magic points, and the other resurrects dead characters.

I didn't even know that was a word

After my initial bout of grinding it was only left to fully explore the first area.  I had previously visited the Altar Dungeon north of Ur which offered up some good items and the aforementioned SLEEP spell.  Kazus was literally a ghost town.  The earthquake had broken the seal that held a Jinn who in turn changed the inhabitants into ghosts.  It was mentioned the Jinn could be defeated using a Mithril ring that was made for Princess Sara of Sasoon Castle.  The ghost of Cid said he had hidden his airship in the nearby desert and I could use it to cross the lake to the Cave of the Seal where the Jinn was hanging out.

My next stop was Sasoon Castle but the Jinn had got there before me as everyone here had also been turned into ghosts.  Princess Sara, who was protected by the ring, had already made her way to Cave of the Seal.  I found a Wight Sword which a guard said would help against the undead in the cave, but only a Red Mage could wield it.  I changed Refia to the Red Mage and returned to Ur to stock up on potions and spells.

It took a couple of attempts to get to the Jinn but he wasn't too difficult to defeat due to my earlier grinding.  Princess Sara then warped us back to Sasoon Castle.  For saving his life and the lives of his daughter and his subjects, the King bestowed upon us…a…a canoe?!  A poxy canoe!  At least we can cross the lake to retrieve the airship.  A guard revealed there was a secret passage to the King’s treasury which I cleaned out before I left.  That’ll learn the tight-arsed git.

In Kazus they were more grateful.  A smith made a mithril bow for the airship with which to ram the boulder that was blocking our passage.  The collision between the rock and the hard place resulted in both the boulder and the airship being destroyed.

I am now back on foot, but with the first area open the world is now my oyster – at least until the next obstruction.  Before heading out I will grind some more against the undead in the Cave of the Seal; the CURE spell harms undead creatures (which kind of makes sense) so I can use that to improve Refia’s White Mage job skill.  I will note my thoughts below…

  • While grinding it became apparent the enemy can now jump our party from behind and get a free attack in.  It confused the hell out of me at first.

  • There are a lot of hidden items and secret passages to discover.  Some can be seen, some are revealed by NPCs and others can be found by accident. For example, Cid allowed us into his already secret storage room after we cured his ailing wife.  This contained another secret passage leading to yet more items.  Although they have nothing to do with the main quest these little extras make rewarding diversions and can offer up useful items.
I knew there was a reason why some steps when into the water.

  • Job changes can be forced upon your characters.  I had to cast the MINI spell on my party to enter a couple of dungeons.  The small characters could only cause a maximum of 2HP damage with weapons so I had to make Luneth and Arc mages so they could cast offensive spells. 

  • Locked areas in Final Fantasy III are a lot smaller than in the earlier titles and can be quickly cleared before moving on.  At least for now there doesn’t seem to be any way to return to previously visited locations so it’s hard to determine the overall size of the game world.  As yet there has been no need for mapping.

  • Soon after writing the above I acquired a ship which opened up (almost) the rest of the ‘world’.  The ‘world’ turned out to be one of those floating continents that show up from time to time in fantasy games and novels.  This continent was quite small and could be circumnavigated in a matter of minutes on a chocobo (this was a side quest).
The edge of the floating continent.  Using chocobo avoids random encounters.

  • While on the subject of chocobos – there is a fat one you can summon in certain places to store items and ease the burden on your inventory.

  • A good feature I would have liked to have seen on some other RPGs is that equipping weapons and armour alters your Attack and Defence values, so you can easily compare items.  These values, and XP and HP, were the only stats I really needed.  For me, the main stats screen was mostly superfluous.

  • On the floating continent we discovered another crystal that gave us more jobs to choose from.  I only elected to upgrade Luneth from Fighter to Knight.  After completing all the quests, Cid converted our sailing ship into an airship allowing us to reach the world below. 
  • This world appeared to be mainly open ocean and the SIGHT spell proved invaluable in allowing us to locate the few pockets of dry land.  We came across a shipwreck and were told the populace had been turned to stone and the earthquake had caused the land to sink.  Reaching the Water Crystal caused the land to rise again and gave us more jobs.  I changed Arc from Monk to Karateka.
  • I had to cheat a bit and use a map from the internet to spare me the pain of creating one myself.  Apart from the floating continent (which didn’t need mapping) there is another large overworld area and an equally large undersea area.  For the most part dungeons were pretty simple affairs that could be memorised (apart from the Cave of Darkness and later the Dark World which both contained numerous secret passages).
The world had to be explored from both above and below the water to avoid missing anything.
  • There is a good selection of airships available during the game including the submersible Nautilus and Invincible that can be used to traverse mountains for a short distance.  Invincible also contains a bed, vending machines for (weapons, armour, spells and magic items) and a fat chocobo.
The Invincible contained everything you could need.

  • The last section of the game took part in three interconnected dungeons - Forbidden Land Eureka, Sylx Tower and Dark World.  These are surrounded by yet another dungeon - The Ancient's Labyrinth.  I had heard this last section was very difficult as the game cannot be saved in a dungeon - only on the surface.
The final save point.

  • Attempt one did not go very well.  I can't remember exactly how far I got, but Arc and Refia were turned into frogs rendering them harmless.  Lacking any Maid Kisses I had a trying time getting back to the airship to track some down.  While I was at it I picked up some extra items to counter-act other status effects.  The next time I was better prepared.
  • On exploring Eureka I found it contained some healing springs and shops selling the most powerful spells, armour and weapons.  You could also gain the best jobs - Ninjas were able to use all weapons and armour, and Sages could cast any spell.
  • At the end of the Sylx Tower is the Dark World.  From here there is no return to the surface to save.  Companion NPCs from earlier in the game helped gain entry…

  • I discovered the final boss, Dark Cloud, very easily after moving north from the entrance.  My second attempt at this last section also went pear shaped as none of my spells or weapons had any effect on her/it.  I had to reload from outside the tower and make my way through Eureka and Sylx Tower again.
  • For my last try I explored the rest of Dark World before heading north.  I found there were four dark crystals, each guarded by a tough boss.  I had a few deaths but the LIFE 2 spell bought characters back to life with full health.  If Refia was killed a Fenix Down followed by an Elixir did the same thing.  Many CURE spells and Potions were also consumed.  As each boss was defeated the crystal released a Warrior of Darkness. 

  • My next crack at Dark Cloud went better as these Dark Warriors had weakened it.  It was a long battle including one death (followed by a LIFE 2) and a round when all the characters needed to drink an Elixir but I got there in the end.  Here is the 10 minute ending sequence.....

Since my last Final Fantasy game I have completed three Gold Box games so it was refreshing to get back to an RPG with an intuitive interface and decent sound and graphics.  I’m glad the developers did away with the flawed levelling mechanism of Final Fantasy II and went back to the more traditional system of the first game.  The job changing mechanic also adds an interesting twist to the proceedings.  Graphics and sound effects haven’t been updated much but they were good by NES standards anyway.  The music, however, seems much better and more varied.

Bad points?  As with the earlier games the random encounters started to become monotonous towards the end of the game.  I also preferred the plot, if not the execution, of the earlier titles - in your travels you had the feeling something evil was abound in the world – especially in Final Fantasy II.  In this game the populous seemed to be behaving as normal even after they had returned from being submerged under the sea.  The last criticism applies to any RPG I have played and that is the currency.  I have yet to find a balanced system and halfway through this game I was a millionaire, though to be fair I did spend it all on shurikens in Eureka.  It would have been better balanced had every single monster not dropped money.

Overall, Final Fantasy III has renewed my interest in a franchise that was beginning to wane after only two games.  I am now looking forward to see what Square can do on the SNES.