Sunday 30 December 2012

The Legend of Zelda - NES - 1987

I'm not sure what race Link is supposed to be.  An elf? A leprechaun?

Like Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that started on the NES in 1987 and is still going strong today.  Like Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda is in a series I had never played before.  My son has Majora's Mask and Ocarina of Time on his Nintendo 64 but I have never really had the inclination to play them.  That had to change because of this blog and the first game in the series earns a place here.

The peaceful land of Hyrule has been invaded by Ganon and his hordes.   Ganon also stole the Triforce of Power - a golden triangle possessing mystical powers.  Fearing his rule, Princess Zelda broke up the second Triforce - the Triforce of Wisdom - into eight pieces and hid them throughout the realm.  At the same time she ordered her nursemaid, Impa, to go out into the kingdom to find someone brave enough to confront Ganon.  Ganon uncovered the plot, imprisoned Zelda and ordered his men to capture Impa.  Eventually Ganon's men caught up with Impa, but she was saved by a boy called Link.  After hearing the story from Impa, Link resolves to save Princess Zelda.  Before he has a chance to defeat Ganon, he must retrieve the fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom.  Only after piecing together the Triforce will he be powerful enough to make his way to Death Mountain and face Ganon.

The Legend of Zelda is viewed from above with most of the game taking place on the large overworld play area.  The play area is split into screens and scrolls onto the next when you reach the edge of the previous one.  Each screen is usually patrolled by several enemies.  Dotted around the landscape are a number of caves and dungeons.  In the caves you can find people such as merchants and others who will give you clues (sometimes for a price).  For example, in the cave on the first screen is an old man who gives you a sword.  

In addition to picking up the sword early on, Link starts the game with a shield that help can protect him from certain enemy attacks.  Although the sword will be your main form of attack, some enemies are immune and you will have to find their individual weaknesses.  If you are hit by a monster your life force is depleted.  This is represented by a series of hearts in the status bar.  Initially you have three hearts and each hit takes away half a heart. When destroyed some monsters drop useful items such as small hearts (which restores one life heart), fairies (which restore all your life hearts), rubies (currency), keys, weapons and sundry other objects.  Large hearts can occasionally be found which adds another heart to your life counter.  A sub screen can be called up at any time which shows your inventory and allows you to change items or secondary weapons.

To retrieve fragments of the Triforce you need to enter the dungeons.  The dungeons comprise several rooms and are home to different and more numerous monsters than the overworld.  The dungeons contain puzzles, locked doors, secret rooms as well as a boss that guards a part of the Triforce.  Each boss has it's own weakness and some can only be destroyed in a particular way by a particular weapon.

The Level-1 boss went down easily.

The eight dungeons that hold the Triforce fragments can be tackled in any order although the higher the level the harder they are.  Also, some higher level dungeons can only be completed using items found in lower level dungeons.

One of the secret rooms where the view changes from top down to side on.

In my mind The Legend of Zelda treads a very fine line between being challenging and overly difficult.  It was only by sheer luck that I worked out how to kill the Level-2 boss after fruitlessly trying every weapon I had.  That was one of the easier dungeons so I can only imagine how frustrating the later ones will be - I can envision weeks of experimenting with the various items.  The actual game play reminded me of a cross between Atic Atac and Sabre Wulf which is no bad thing.  After Final Fantasy the graphics look a little bit simplistic; on the other hand, the sound effects and especially the music are very good.  In spite of the difficulty level, The Legend of Zelda just about makes it onto my list.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Gauntlet - Atari ST - 1987

Whether it was a marketing ploy or whether it was something else entirely, there were several Atari arcade conversions that made it to the Atari ST but not the Commodore Amiga.  Asteroids Deluxe was one game, Super Sprint another.  Probably the most well known, though, was Gauntlet. How me and my mates would have poured scorn on our Amiga owning buddies if we had had any.  Which we didn’t.

Gauntlet was a hugely popular top-down scrolling dungeon crawler.  The original 1985 arcade version supported up to 4 simultaneous players, had plenty of speech and superlative graphics.  Gauntlet was subsequently converted to most most home formats at the time with the Atari ST boasting the best version.

On the home versions you can only have 2 players participating at once and the Atari ST was no exception.  Each player takes their pick of one of the available characters who are Thor the Warrior, Thyra the Valkyrie, Merlin the Wizard and Questor the Elf.  Each of the characters has their own strengths and weaknesses. Thor is strong in hand to hand combat but has weak magic.  Thyra has the strongest armour and I would say is the most balanced character.  Merlin (my personal favourite) has the best magic but is useless in hand to hand combat and has weak armour.  Questor has the fastest movement and shots and is my least favoured of the four.

Like lambs to the slaughter.

You start the game as your chosen character with 2000 health points which gradually decrease over time.  The objective of the game is to reach the exit on each level of the dungeon and to get as high score as possible.  There are several types of monsters that are out to stop you.  The ghosts are suicidal and just run into you to deplete your health.  The grunts try to engage you in hand to hand combat.  The demon and sometime invisible sorcerers respectively dispense fireballs and magic spells at you.  Lobbers can throw projectiles at you from the other side of a wall.  All these monsters come in three strengths and can be spawned from generators which also come in three strengths.  Their strength determines how many shots it takes to kill them.  Death also puts in an appearance from time to time – he can only be destroyed by magic or when he has drained 200 of your health points. 
Lots of Deaths and lots of teleports
To help you get further into the game or score more points there various types of pick-ups that are scattered around the levels.  There are several kinds of potions that can be used.  Standard potions can be picked up and used to damage all enemies and generators on screen, or can be shot for less destructive power.  There are also several marked potions which provide specific power ups such as more potent shots or extra speed.  Food and drink can be used to replenish health; however the jugs of drink can be shot so be careful.  For navigation, keys can be picked up to open any locked doors and, although not pick-ups, teleporters appear in later levels.  Finally, treasure chests can be picked up to boost your score.  If you linger too long a level all the doors will open automatically and eventually all the walls will turn into exits.
Merlin the Wizard is about to pick up speed potion.

Although it was the most authentic conversion of Gauntlet outside the arcades at the time, the Atari version was far from perfect.  The biggest feature to suffer was the sound – The title tune and spot effects sound like they were sampled (badly) from the arcade machine and the speech is missing altogether.  As with the other home versions only two players are supported simultaneously.  The graphics look pretty authentic but lack the palette of the arcade game and the horizontal scrolling in particular is pretty bad.  Most of these issues were addressed in Gauntlet II apart from the floor graphics which lost some colour but it was still at good game for 1987.  Oh, and did I mention it wasn't available on the Amiga?

Addendum - 22nd April 2013

Back in January, commenter Red_Cardinal left the message “What I remember of Gauntlet on the Atari ST is that it ran soooooo slowly it was virtually unplayable”.  "Pah!" thought I, "Check out the video". I then thought no more of it.

More recently they sowed seeds of doubt in my mind as to the authenticity of my review - “
As for the video, are you playing the game on an actual ST machine or are you emulating it? The two things not being the same of course :-)”.

Ok, you’ve got me there.  I hold my hands up and freely admit to playing the games on an emulator for the sake of convenience. It’s the only way I have to make half decent videos and screenshots.  But, what to do about Gauntlet

Da Daaaaaa!!

One genuine Atari 520 STe (upgraded to 1 meg) and one, ahem, not so genuine copy of Gauntlet.

After some rummaging around in the loft I found a “backup” copy of Gauntlet and an old Atari.  I switched it on at arms length half expecting a puff of smoke and the smell of frying capacitors.  To my amazement it started first time.  After more faffing about I managed to tune it in on the telly in my study.  I was a bit perturbed the disk drive light didn't go out and the top of the picture was flickering a lot but it will serve my purpose .  What was more surprising was that my copy of Gauntlet still worked….

Anyway, I can now state with no uncertainty that Gauntlet plays exactly the same on a real Atari ST as it does on an emulator and I therefore stand by my review.  I have posted a video below (the rattling/creaking sound is my 25+ year old joystick). 

And Red_Cardinal – please spare my sanity and don’t cast doubt on any of my Spectrum reviews ;-)

Sunday 16 December 2012

Final Fantasy - NES - 1990

Cruising the Aldi Sea.

From 1987 we are temporarily jumping ahead in time to 1990 for my next game….

Before embarking on my blog I had never played a Final Fantasy game.  Hell, I’d never even played a JRPG.  Final Fantasy on the NES was released in Japan in 1987 with the English language version not appearing until 1990.  Due to my desire to try the Japan-only Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III I am reviewing the first game early to keep them in chronological order.  It is the first in a long series spanning not only the JRPG backbone, but includes other genres such as MMORPGs and even a rhythm action game.

As a JRPG virgin, what did I expect?  I expected lots of random encounters and a linear story-led quest.  Because of this I half expected not to like the game.  In reality I think it’s great.

Basically you control four Light Warriors as they attempt to restore light to the orbs they carry. To accomplish this they need to defeat four elemental fiends who are ravaging the land.

Your initial task is to select up to four characters from a choice of six classes. The available classes are Fighter, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage and Black Mage. The Fighter is your standard warrior type and can use all types of weaponry and armour.  The manual says ‘the thief is good to have when you need to avoid an attack from the enemy’ which makes him superfluous in my book (moreso as I didn't find any traps to disarm, locks to pick or anything to steal).  The Black Belt can fight effectively without weapons.  The Red Mage is described as a fairly good fighter who can cast some Black and White magic spells.  The White Mage can cast only White (mainly defensive and healing) spells and the Black Mage can only cast Black (mainly offensive) spells.  Both the Black and White Mages are weak fighters.  You can give your characters any name you like as long as they contain no more that four letters.  Your characters are given stats but I didn't take note of whether these are preset or randomly generated.  These stats  increase during the game as you gain levels.  The manual suggests rookie players should select a Fighter, a Black Belt, a White Mage and a Black mage.  That’ll be me then.

Your party is dropped on the map just south of the castle and town of Croneria.  Despite being without arms and armour I decided to take a quick look around and it wasn't long before I came across my first random encounter.  The combat screen displays your party on the right and enemy creatures arranged on the left.  The combat is turn based and menu driven with you and the creatures fighting until one side is destroyed or flees.  Combat options are Fight, cast Magic spells, Drink a potion, use an Item and Run away.  Once you select an action for each of your characters, the combat cycles through all the participants until they have all taken their turn. Some enemies have special attacks such as paralyse or poison.  Some can turn you to stone.  With the party arranged in a line, combat is not very tactical as any character can attack any enemy and vice versa and there are no ranged weapons.  Additionally if you have a character attack an enemy creature and it dies, any subsequent attacks already aimed at that particular creature are wasted.  When enemies are killed you collect an amount of gold and experience points dependent on the creature type and how many there were.

You can't have an RPG without skeletons.

After a couple of skirmishes I headed into town to heal and tool up.  With a couple of exceptions each town has the same shops.  There is a weapon and armour shop to buy combat gear.  An inn allows you to save your game and restore magic and hit points.  The Clinic allows you to reincarnate a dead character for a small fee.  There is a white and black magic shop with each store in the town selling a particular spell level.  For example, the two magic shops in Croneria sell first level spells, while Elf Town has four magic stores selling third and fourth level spells.  Finally there is a supplies store where you can purchase various potions and various shelters.  The shelters are tents, cabins or houses which are used to restore health and save the game when you are not near a town.

I'm sure I can squeeze a few cabins and a couple more houses into my backpack.

As I mentioned, magic spells are bought in shops with the higher level spells getting progressively more expensive.  Each level has four spells while a mage is only able to memorise three of these so you need to choose wisely.  You are able to cast a set number of spells for each spell level.  The number of spells you can cast is increased as your character gains experience.

Here is my summary and thoughts of the game (for a full walkthrough check out Zenic Reverie's  RPG Consoler blog here (still WIP at the time of writing) or the irreverent Shen Nung and his Inconsolable blog here). 

  • Unlike a lot of CRPGs, Final Fantasy does not let you explore everywhere straight away.  For the first quest you can only travel in one direction as you are blocked in by mountains and the sea.  After this you can again only explore a bit more land before you get a ship.  After this you can navigate a landlocked sea until further quests opens this up.  Although you are spoon-fed the plot, the pacing is set just about right.  It is not until you get an airship that the whole world opens up.
  • Random encounters are not nearly as annoying as I thought they would be.  They are set at just the right difficulty and frequency. I only wished it could be like the Ultima series and you could see monsters coming.  Also, the enemy creatures increase in level depending on location.  As you explore new locations the stronger the enemy get.  Earlier locations will always contain the same weak enemies no matter what level you have reached.
  • There is no NPC interaction to speak of.  Talking to an NPC triggers a stock response which may or may not change if a related quest is completed.
  • The amount of money you get is set about perfectly.  You can get about every necessary item you need without much grinding, and there is always something (such as higher level spells) to spend your gold on or to save for.  It is only late in the game that gold becomes irrelevant.
  • Buying from shops is a pain in the arse.  You can only purchase one item at a time so buying, for example, fifty potions with at least three button presses for each one is needlessly time consuming.
  • Gaining experience/levelling is very well implemented and didn't have to go out of my way to grind.  For a few quests I had to make a several attempts, getting closer each time, without feeling the need to go hunting for random encounters.  Additionally, one of the early dungeons has a lot of set encounters on adjacent tiles so you can use these to gain experience points if needed. When I completed the game all my characters were on level 37.
  • In comparison to a lot of random encounters the boss fights were relatively easy, rarely lasting more than a couple of rounds.
  • One thing I really loathe is unmappable levels.  One of these appeared in the Sky Castle where you can travel on indefinitely as the level just keeps wrapping around.  This strikes me as lazy programming and it was more through luck than judgement that I made it to the next floor on my second attempt (my first thought was that the game wouldn't let me continue because I didn't have the adamant sword).
  • Considering the limitations of the NES the graphics are nigh on perfect.  Apart from some odd palette choices (green wolves?) I can’t see how they could have been improved.
  • The music and effects are okay.  There are only a handful of different tunes used on the various screens and locations yet I didn't feel the need to mute the sound which must say something.

Final Fantasy is a peach of an early RPG.  The graphics are excellent and sound is good considering the host platform.  It is also nice having the play area taking up the whole screen rather than viewing it through a window (à la Ultima/Bard's Tale etc).  The plot unfolds at a decent pace - you are forced along a linear path in the first half of the game but once you obtain the airship the whole world opens up.  There is also a nice twist at the end.  The  difficulty is set just about right - there were times when I had to limp into the nearest town with two dead characters and I only had a couple of full party deaths.  If the other games in the franchise are as enjoyable as this I am in for a treat.

You are given a Rat's Tail(!) on completing the Citadel of Trials.  Taking it to Bahamut the dragon rewards you with a class change.

Entering the dungeon to defeat the final elemental fiend.  It is only accessible by a submarine.
There is a nice twist near the end of the game.  You have to travel back 2000 years in time to defeat the final boss and complete the game.

Final boss fight and rather long-winded ending....

Sunday 9 December 2012

Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa - Sega Master System - 1987

I was beginning to get a bit worried about a lack of Master System games on my blog.  I have played about nine or ten games from my shortlist, including the original Fantasy Zone, and this is the first one that has really caught my attention.

Fantasy Zone II is set 10 years after the original game and a band of Blackhearts have banded together to take over the planets that make up the "Fantasy Zone".  You take control of a be-winged and be-footed spaceship called Opa-Opa with which to take on the invaders.

The developer must have made use of the entire Master System palette.
Each Zone contains enemy bases which are your primary targets.  The bases spawn small nasties which drop a small coin when destroyed.  There are also formations of enemies which release larger coins when eliminated. When the bases themselves are blasted they either drop some cash or reveal a warp gate.  A blue warp gate transfers you to a different scene within the current zone.  A red warp gate takes you to a boss fight and is only activated when all the enemy bases in the Zone are eradicated.  Each scene is quite small but indefinitely wraps around Defender style. 

The bosses drop lots of coins when destroyed. This is the boss of Zone 2.
Opa-Opa has standard weapons of a bomb and forward firing cannon.  One of the scenes will contain a shop where you can upgrade your ship or weapons.  Ship upgrades such as faster engines or bigger wings last until you lose a life.  Cannon upgrades are time-limited and bomb upgrades are quantity-limited.

Each time you buy an item it gets more expensive the next time.

Fantasy Zone II has jolly music to match the psychedelic graphics.  The sound effects are good and it has a perfect difficulty level with each zone getting progressively tougher.  Hidden behind it's colourful cutesy graphics is an addictive and challenging little shooter.


Tuesday 4 December 2012

Exolon - Sinclair Spectrum & Commodore 64 - 1987

[Spectrum] Just before Game Over.  I don't have enough ammo left to break the force field.

Exolon is a flick screen run and gun game released in 1987.  It was originally released on the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC, with the feeble Amiga and ST offerings following on in 1989. The game was designed by Raffaele Cecco who produced some highly regarded shooters in the mid to late eighties.  The best versions of Exolon were on the Spectrum and Commodore 64.  The gameplay on both versions is the same but whereas the Spectrum has sharper graphics, the Commodore can boast superior sound.  The graphics on the Amstrad are colourful, though very blocky and it feels slightly sluggish so it didn't make the cut.  The 16-bit versions are completely forgettable.

[Commodore 64]  Better sound than the Spectrum but blockier graphics.

Exolon is a very simple game - basically you walk left to right shooting anything that moves and firing RPGs at anything that doesn't.  The game is set over 5 levels each made up of 25 zones (screens).  The fact that you start the game with 9 lives means it's not going to be a walkover and it's very easy lose several lives on one screen.

[Commodore 64] Entering a teleporter to get to the ammo boxes.

You start the game with 99 bullets and 9 grenades.  These can be replenished from the ammo boxes that are dotted over the landscape.  Enemies normally come in two forms - flying and static but both can lead to cheap deaths as you get near the edge of the screen.  Some of the screens are split into two levels with teleporters allowing access between the two.  On each level there is also a dressing unit where you can pick up an exoskeleton.  The exoskeleton doubles your blaster power and provides extra protection against some of the nasties, but your bravery bonus takes a hit.

[Spectrum] A reaction test game at the end of the first level.
At first glance Exolon seems like a simple game, and it is, but it is also pure mindless blasting and quite addictive once you get into it.  The good reviews it got on release are well deserved.

Spectrum gameplay