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.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Pipe Mania - Commodore Amiga - 1989

I do enjoy puzzle games so it strikes me as odd the only one on my blog prior to this is a game written in BASIC from 1983.  I'm not keen on games like Solomon's Key or Sokoban where one wrong move can get you hopelessly stuck.  I prefer puzzle games where the game gets progressively more difficult, where reflexes count, where quick wits can help you recover from a seemingly hopeless situation.  Games like Tetris.  Or this.

Pipe Mania was designed in the UK by The Assembly Line who would later program one of my all time favourite shoot 'em ups.  The US publishing rights were bought by Lucasfilm Games who renamed it Pipe Dream.

The 16-bit Commodore Amiga and Atari ST computers are the best versions I have played.  They also have the advantage of being able to use the mouse as a controller.  The Amiga has cleaner sound than the ST so gets the nod.  (The very best version belongs to the Acorn Archimedes but I am not featuring that computer on this blog). 

One of my better efforts.

Like all good puzzle games the objective is very simple - connect pieces of a pipe from the dispenser on the left hand side of the screen to make the longest pipeline possible.  The game begins with an empty grid containing only a start pipe.  A bar to the right of the grid decreases and once it reaches the bottom the 'flooz' starts to flow.  By this time you should have the beginnings of a pipe already in place.  The D: counter at the top of the screen indicates how many pieces of pipe the flooz must pass through to complete the level though making it go further means more points.  If the flooz reaches an open end of pipe before the counter reaches 0 then it's game over.

The dispenser is filled with random sections of pipeline and shows the next 5 shapes.  Pipes can be placed anywhere on the grid and you can replace a pipe already laid as long as the flooz has not yet reached it but at the expense of time and points.  At the end of each level points are deducted for each unused section of pipe left on the grid.  

After every 4 stages you get a password and a bonus level appears.  On the bonus level a section of pipe moves back and forth across the top of the screen and can only be dropped downwards.  The goal is just to make the longest possible pipe for extra points - there is no minimum length here.

On later levels there are obstacles in place which you cannot build on.  Special sections of pipe also crop up such as bonus pieces (you get extra points for directing the flooz through these), reservoir pieces (slows down the flooz), and one-way pieces.  Sections of the grid wall can also be missing to allow the flooz to flow from one side of the grid to the other.  Still later end pieces appear where the pipe must terminate after being built to the required length.  The flooz also moves faster as the game progresses.

I remember having this game on the Atari ST.  At the time a puzzle game was not something I would have spent my hard earned money on so it must have come on a compilation or been a budget buy.  Pipe Mania is not a game where great graphics and sound are needed (although some levels are a bit garish) and it remains as addictive today as the day it was released.
A secret bonus is awarded for making 5 crosses.

Sample gameplay...

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Earthbound Zero (aka Mother) - NES - 1989

Until I started compiling the shortlist for this blog I had never heard of the Mother/EarthBound series of RPGs.  The first Western release in the series was EarthBound (Mother 2 in Japan) on the SNES which, although not commercially successful, has become somewhat of a cult classic. 

The original game in the series was known as Mother.  It was released in Japan in 1989 for the Famicom console.  Unusually (perhaps uniquely?) for the time, this was an RPG set in a contemporary United States rather than in some fantasy world.  Psychic powers replaced magic and everyday items replaced weapons.  The game was officially translated into English as Earth Bound but for whatever reason was never released.  The translated code subsequently found its way onto the internet and this is the version I am playing.  To prevent confusion it was renamed EarthBound Zero.  

Before you start playing you have to name the four protagonists of the game and enter your favourite food!.  You are then presented with the introduction...

Due to the lack of a manual I am going to try and work out what’s going on as I play.  My first combat was with a table lamp so this may be more difficult than it seems.

You are cast as a pre-teenage boy and the action starts in your bedroom where you are attacked by the afore mentioned lamp as you try to leave.  In one of your sister’s bedrooms you are accosted by another lamp followed by a doll in your second sister’s room.  When examined the doll plays a melody.  I guess one of the tasks is to collect these tunes as a musical note appears in your stats.  If you talk to your sisters they give you orange juice which replenishes your hit points.

Downstairs you find your mother.  Talk to her and she suggests calling your dad on the phone.  He said it sounds like the work of a poltergeist and that your great grandfather George's diary in the basement may tell your more.  The basement contains the diary, a plastic bat (your first weapon) and loaf of bread.

At the start I was using the house as a base and the designer implemented some great ideas here.  Speak to your mum and she gives you dinner and tells you to rest which fully replenishes your HP and PP (Psi Points).  You can leave items from your (rather limited) inventory with one of your sisters for safekeeping.  If you speak to your dad on the phone he deposits money into your bank account and tells you how many XP you require to level up.  He also gives you the opportunity to save the game.

Heading out of the house I could only go in one direction and was attacked by a hippie.  Combat is turn based and a simple process of mashing the Fight button or using magic psi-power when you gain some effects. Psi-powers seem to be gained through combat, not when levelling up.  I can’t mention the hippie fight without commenting on the combat music – it is fantastic and some of the best I have heard on the NES.  In fact music on the whole is great throughout the game.

Some opponents have special attacks that can render you helpless for a few rounds and not all of them fight on their respective turn…

If you are defeated in combat your character faints and can take no action until they are brought around.  If the whole party falls unconscious you are returned to the last location you saved with only your main character 'alive'.  Other party members need to be healed before they can be used again.  There are no deaths Earthbound Zero .

The first house I came across had a woman saying her daughter Pippi was missing and I should tell the mayor.  I eventually reached the town of Podunk.  Instead of having to enter towns, they are the same scale as the world map making it rather large.  The building interiors are, however, a different scale.  Buildings in Podunk include a burger joint, a hospital, the city hall, a hotel and a department store.  The department store has a cashpoint allowing access to your money and a payphone to call your dad.  It was in Podunk I got my first quest from the mayor.

The first quest involved rescuing Pippi from the zombie infested cemetery.  I found her in a coffin in the bottom of a crypt.  The mayor gave me a measly $100 reward and tasked me with investigating the zoo where the animals had gone mad.

The path through the zoo was pretty linear.  At the end there was a capsule containing Starman Jr.  He was a tough opponent and it took me two attempts to beat him.  Once he was defeated the animals calmed down.  That leads me to believe aliens are behind the goings on and  I’m not looking forward to facing Starman Sr.   I picked up my second melody from a singing monkey.

Back in town a couple of people mentioned a canary city to the northwest of Podunk.  I noticed earlier the pet section of the department store only had one animal left to sell – a canary.  I bought this and at canary city it was reunited with it's mother.  This gave me my third tune.

The only place to go next was Merrysville to the east.  The river bridge was blocked off by orders of the Mayor but the guards said I may be able to cross further north.  The guards there were more lax and let me through.  The path winded up at a cave which led me to Magicant.  Magicant is weird….

Magicant is an ideal place to grind at the beginning of the game.  Like your house, you can hand in items for safekeeping, save the game and get healed and resurrected for free.  For grinding you can recruit the Flying Men to help you out.  They can't be healed though, and when they die a grave stone appears next to their house.

In Magicant Castle my quest becomes clear as Queen Mary reveals she is trying to remember an 8 part melody and begs me learn it.  On the way out of Magicant I found a sleeping dragon which I couldn't wake.  I also discovered the Onyx Hook which can be used to return to Magicant from wherever you are.  I used this a lot when a party member went down for the free resurrections.

The exit from Magicant led to Merrysville where I recruited my first party member - Darren the bullied geek.  He can be found on the roof of the school in a dustbin.  He takes you to Duncan's Factory where he launches a rocket to clear a rock slide that has been blocking the railway line.  This opens up a lot more of the map. 

The nearest town was called Reindeer where an old lady gave me hat to return to a girl in the town of Snowman.  The hat belonged to Annette who joined the party to seek her missing mother.  Like Wingnut, Annette has access to psi powers.  She gained the abilities faster and was the only character capable of using offensive psi skills.  Towards the end of the game she could cast PK Beam ƴ which instantly killed any target.  For opponents that were immune to the Beam spell, PK Freeze ƴ reduces their HP to critical levels where they could be killed with just one more hit.  Of course, some of the enemies have the same powers.

With a full party we continued on to Spookane.  A haunted house there contained a piano that gave us our fourth tune.

The fifth melody was to be found in a desert.  I totally missed this one and had to consult a walkthrough when I noticed a gap in my stats.  In the desert I came across an oasis where a man offers to give you flights in his plane.  Being unobservant I failed to notice we flew over a cactus with a face which is where the fifth tune came from.  After a few flights you can take a ride in the man's tank.  You can't leave the desert and can only exit the tank at the oasis so it is not very useful.

South of the desert was a railway track that led to Youngtown.  Near Merrysville the bridge had been destroyed preventing the train from running so we had to follow it on foot.  Youngtown was full of kids who said their parents had been abducted.  A baby with psi powers gave Wingnut and Annette the ability to Teleport to any town they had previously visited.  This came in very useful when having to go back to Magicant for resurrections.

At Ellay we were joined by the Colin, leader of the notorious Bla Bla Gang.  He replaced Darren which is no bad thing.  Like Darren he has no Psi skills but is a stronger fighter.  Our final destination is Mount Itoi (named after the game's designer) which has much tougher opponents and required lots of teleporting between Magicant and Ellay.  At least our our party was now powerful enough to take on the sleeping dragon on the way out of Magicant.  He gave us our sixth melody.

As I said Mount Itoi was very tough going with frequent deaths.  We did gain a lot of levels but eventually met an unbeatable giant robot which easily kicked our collective arse.  The gallant  Darren came to our rescue with the tank from the desert.

This battle put Colin out of action so Darren rejoined the party.  Further up the mountain there was a lake where a broken down speedboat was moored.  Once Darren had repaired the boat we sailed into a whirlpool which seemed like the obvious thing to do.

We were sucked into a secret underwater base where we discovered a giant robot.  It introduced itself as EVE and said it was built by my great grandfather George. It says George was taken to the ends of the universe and then brought back and that it's purpose was to protect me.  With EVE disposing of most enemies with a single hit our continued ascent of Mount Itoi went swimmingly until we encountered another giant robot which was a match for EVE.  Both robots were destroyed in the ensuing battle.  In the wreckage of EVE we found our penultimate melody.

Our party eventually reached the summit and came across what looked like a grave stone.  Checking it revealed our eighth and final part of the tune.  I used the onyx hook to return to Magicant and to Queen Mary.  When we sang the tune, Queen Mary said she loved Giegue (whoever that may be) as if he were her own child.  And that it would happily wag it's tail until she tried singing lullabies.  She also revealed she is Maria, my great grandmother, and that Magicant is an illusion created by her consciousness.  As she fades to join George, so does Magicant and our party is returned to the summit of Mount Itoi.  

There is now a cave we can enter were we find the adults from Youngtown.

We also come across Giegue who turns out to be an alien.  Giegue explains that he was raised by George and Maria, but George stole information from his planet that could have been used to betray his people.  He goes on to say that I am obstructing his plans and I should perish with the rest of 'the ugly Earth people' (he doesn't explain what his plans are).  After our final visit to Magicant we now have SING among our commands.  This is used to harm Giegue who escapes in a spaceship vowing to return. Wingnut heads off to bed for a well-earned kip and everyone lives happily ever after.  The ending video….


I really enjoyed Earthbound Zero.  Although the game is fairly linear it doesn’t really feel like it.  You have a clear path to follow from town to town, but do not know what to expect or what you have to do until you get there.  There are also quite a few optional side quests to take on – some I did, some I didn’t.  The game is not tile based so your party can easily move in eight directions – something you can’t do in Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star.  I think the graphics are well drawn and animated for the NES.  The sound is very good, especially the music (even my wife was humming along to some of it).  The game world is vast - one of the largest games I have played so far (with the possible exception of Ultima V).  I have to confess I used a map from the internet which saved me weeks, if not months, of tedious mapping.  There is an in-game map which shows the relative location of the towns but no detaiI. 

This is no criticism of the game but a lack of manual hindered me slightly as I couldn't work out what some objects did or were supposed to do.  I picked up a ‘Flea Bag’ early on but it didn’t have any effect when I tried to use it on an enemy so gave up.  I still have no idea what a PSI Stone or a Noble Seed does. Psi powers were easy to work out by watching what effect enemy attacks had on my party.

I'm in disbelief as to why this wasn't released after the translation had already been done.  It is an excellent, if quirky, game and I'm sure it would have been a success.  Towards the end of Phantasy Star and the Final Fantasy games I was willing for them to finish.  That did not happen with Earthbound Zero.