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.

Friday 29 November 2013

Ghouls'n Ghosts - Sega Mega Drive - 1989

It may have had mostly monochromatic graphics and farty sound effects but I used to love Ghosts 'n Goblins on the Sinclair Spectrum.  Until now I had never really tried its sequel, Ghouls'n Ghosts.  All I knew is that it has basically the same gameplay and a reputation for being as hard as nails.  I have already excluded several games from the blog for being too difficult but I’ll let this one pass as it is so damn addictive.

The conversions I tried from my shortlist were for the Commodore Amiga and Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis if you prefer) from 1989.  From 1990 I sampled the PC Engine and Sega Master System adaptations.  

  • First to get cut was the Master System.  Ghouls'n Ghosts was on my shortlist as one of the best games for that particular console.  In this company it is understandably out of its depth. 
  • You’d think a scrolling platform/shooter game would be something the Amiga would be perfect for.  Apparently the developers at Software Creations must have thought differently.  I’ll be generous and simply say it wasn’t very good. 
  • On the PC Engine the game was called Daimakaimura and was released only in Japan.  This could go some way to explain the difficulty level.  It’s harder than the professional level on the Mega Drive and is much more frustrating than fun.  A paucity of credits doesn’t help its cause.  It has nice graphics though.
Ghouls'n Ghosts on the Amiga (left) did not use the machines potential. Daimakaimura (right) has the best graphics but is too hard.

This just leaves the Mega Drive conversion of Ghouls'n Ghosts.  It came early in the life of the console and is often cited as being one of its best games - something I find hard to disagree with.

Once again you are cast in the role of Sir Arthur the knight.  This time his quest is to restore souls, including that of his beloved Princess Prin Prin, that were stolen by Loki (or Lucifer on the non-Sega versions).  To this end you must make your way through 5 levels of nasties including zombies, buzzards, fiery bats and other demonic monsters.  Each level ends in a boss fight.

Ghouls'n Ghosts starts you off in a graveyard armed with a throwing lance.  Despite wearing a suit of armour, Arthur is quite spritely.  He can leap, duck, run, and shoot upwards and downwards (while jumping).  If Arthur is hit he loses his armour and has to continue on in his boxers.  If he is hit again he turns into a pile of bones and loses a life.  Each stage has a time limit and you also lose a life if the clock counts down to zero.

The main enemies in the graveyard are zombies which shamble up from the ground.  The occasional zombie, as do some other monsters in the game, carries a pot.  Once killed these monsters drop objects such as different weapons or items for bonus points.  Aside from the lance, weapons include axes, flaming torches and a sword. 

At certain points a chest bursts forth from the ground.  These can contain extra armour (if you’re down to your underwear), golden armour (if you’re already wearing some) or an evil magician.  The golden armour upgrades your current weapon to give you a charge shot.  The magician can turn you into a shuffling geriatric or a harmless duck for a few vital moments.

As for the difficulty….. hmm.  Yes, it is very tough but practice can get you a bit further each time.  There are some unfair moments, however. For example on the second level where sections of rope bridges collapse without warning above ant lions – even a full suit of armour won’t stop you losing a life here. After a few hours playing I can usually get through the first level and most of the second without losing a life.  If you do lose a life you start again from either the beginning or midway through the level.  One thing I didn't notice at first is the word ‘Practice’ at the bottom of the screen.  This is the default setting but from the options menu you can select a ‘Professional’ mode which makes the game even harder (not as hard as Daimakaimura).  The real kicker, though, is that once you have completed all 5 levels, you have to do them once again in order to collect a special weapon with which to defeat Loki.
I don't like hidden traps.  This section on level two has lots of them.

I don’t know how the Mega Drive game compares to the arcade version in difficulty.  Daimakaimura on the PC Engine version is certainly closer in terms of graphics but in the playability and fairness stakes the Sega has it licked.  It therefore deserves a place on my blog.
Sir Arthur soldiers on in nothing but a pair of boxers.
Example gameplay

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Gauntlet II - Commodore Amiga & Atari ST - 1989

After the success of Gauntlet in the arcades, Atari duly released a sequel.  Gauntlet II was subsequently converted to most home computers of the time with the Amiga and Atari ST once again boasting the best versions.  Both have identical graphics and gameplay although I think the quality of graphics is inferior to the original Gauntlet on the ST.  The effects, speech and jingles sound like they were sampled directly from the coin-op so are quite good on each machine.  The samples on the Amiga are of a slightly higher quality but most have a noticeable and annoying ‘click’ when they end.  If (like me) you can’t ignore this then the ST conversion is the one to choose.

Atari went with the ‘if it ain’t broke’ mantra so Gauntlet II plays like the original with more bells and whistles. For a start, there is no more fighting over which character to play as anyone can select any character. 

In addition to the original monsters a few new ones have been added.  The most memorable is the IT monster.  If this touches a character they become ‘IT’ and every monster will home in on them until they touch someone else.  Pointless in a single player game, great with two or more.  There are moving acid puddles which make a nice slurping sound when touched.  The monster legend also shows a dragon, but I don't recall ever seeing one in the game.

Other new features are moveable and destructible walls and, annoyingly, moving exits.  Another new pickup are the amulets.  These give various abilities to your character which, unlike potions, only last for the current level.  Finally there are new floor tiles - force field causes damage, stun tiles pause your character for a moment, and trap tiles can open walls (that usually have a Death or two behind).

As none of my friends play retro games Gauntlet II as a solo experience a little dull.  I used to play it a lot with my brother back in the day but the best experience is with four players.  Both the ST and Amiga versions support up to four simultaneous players using a joystick adapter.  One of my friends had one and a group of us used to play quite a bit.  We always started out intending to play co-operatively and to share any food.  These plans always fell apart as soon as one of us accidently shot another or when one of us were touched by the IT monster.  Lots of laughs, good natured banter and an experience missing from on-line gaming.  

Sample of Amiga gameplay...

Thursday 14 November 2013

Fantasy Zone - Sharp X68000 - 1989

Fantasy Zone is a conversion of the Sega arcade game from 1986.  I played the Master System conversion from the same year but didn’t think it that great.  1989 saw it released on the NEC PC Engine console and Sharp X68000 computer.  From previous experience I knew the Engine would struggle against the mighty X68000 and I wasn't wrong.  Fantasy Zone on the latter looked better, sounded better, was faster and had sharper controls.  It also has parallax scrolling which is lacking on both the PC Engine and Master System versions.

PC Engine version is easily beaten by the X68000 conversion
The plot says that the planet Menon has caused the collapse of the interplanetary monetary system.  Someone is leading their forces to steal all the money from other planets to build a huge fortress in the Fantasy Zone.  Playing as Opa-Opa, you must destroy the invading enemies and put an end to their plans.

The game takes place over a horizontally scrolling play area.  The play area wraps around indefinitely and you can fly in both directions.  The primary aim of the game is to take out the enemy bases in each zone.  The relative location of each base is shown on a radar at the bottom of the screen.  Each base has an indicator on the front which changes from blue to red depending on how much energy they have left.  In addition to the usual formations of nasties that fly around, the bases release more opponents to harrass you.  A boss fight ensues once all the bases have been destroyed in each zone.

The bosses, bases and some enemies drop coins when they are killed.  These can be collected and used to buy upgrades in a shop that appears in the form of a red balloon.  Main weapon upgrades are time-limited and you get a limited quantity of upgraded bombs.  Ship upgrades stay until you lose a life.  These upgrades get progressively more expensive each time you buy them.

In spite of it's cute and colourful looks, Fantasy Zone is a very challenging shoot 'em up.  Like all good arcade games it is also addictive, having that 'just one more go' quality.  In all another impressive arcade conversion on the X68000.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Fantasy World Dizzy - Commodore Amiga - 1989

Fantasy World Dizzy is the third in a series of graphic adventures featuring the anthropomorphic egg.  Dizzy has already featured on the blog but I omitted Treasure Island Dizzy as it only gave you a single life which I found somewhat harsh.  Fantasy World Dizzy makes amends as you start the game with three lives.

As usual I tested the game on various platforms to find the best version.  The Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64 incarnations are basically unchanged from Dizzy where the graphics are predominantly black.  The 16-bit versions on the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST look much better with higher resolution graphics and a lot more colour.  Unsurprisingly for this era they look and play identically. The only difference is the music playing throughout where the Commodore machine just pips the Atari’s jaunty chip tune.

In this game Dizzy has to rescue his girlfriend, Daisy, who has been kidnapped by the Evil King's troll.  Daisy has been taken to Wizard Weird's tallest tower while Dizzy has been consigned to the King's dungeon.  

The gameplay is pretty much the same as the previous games with Dizzy somersaulting his way around the landscape.  As before, he must find a use for the various objects scattered around in order to save his beloved.  He can carry up to two items in his inventory (or four when you find a bag).  Most of the puzzles are logical and can be solved without too much thought.  In addition Dizzy must collect 30 gold coins to fully complete the game.  Some are hidden behind scenery so it is worth pressing the fire button when you find yourself hidden from view until you know where they are.

As well as Daisy, other members of the eggy clan make their debut in this game.  Speaking too these 'yolk folk' opens up a cut scene where they give up a useful object to help you progress.

The graphics in Fantasy World Dizzy do a good job of bringing the character into the 16-bit world.  There is a tune that loops continuously throughout the game.  There are no sound effects to break up the music which does get rather monotonous after a while.  The puzzles aren't too taxing on the gray matter although some do require trial and error.  The main difficulty comes from from some of the platform elements mainly due to the somersaulting action.  This can make certain sections extremely challenging when you also have to time the jumps (damn you dragon!). Overall, though, Fantasy World Dizzy is a fun little game - especially on the 16-bit computers.

Things get confusing after jumping into the bottomless well.

Example gameplay

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Curse of the Azure Bonds - PC (MS-DOS) (1989) & Commodore Amiga (1990)

Bollocks.  I had to play Pool of Radiance on an older PC while my newer one had the motherboard replaced.  I thought I had moved all the files into a single folder and safely backed it up.  Now I can’t find it anywhere – my maps, saved game, manuals and game disks have all gone.  In fact the only proof I have of ever playing Pool of Radiance is this blog.

I now have to recreate my party from scratch and they will start at a lower level than they had previously reached.  I didn't even get to utilise one of the two new character classes added to Curse of the Azure Bonds – Paladin and Ranger.  For some unknown reason, I have always held a deep seated loathing of role-playing lawful good characters – goodbye Paladin.  I had intended to make Skimbleshanks a Ranger/Thief instead of Fighter/Thief but that option wasn't available so, for the sake of continuity, the whole party will remain the same.  They will start at level 5 – my PoR party would have been at least level 7.

I will be playing the Amiga version again because of the improved graphics and sound.  It was released in 1990, a year after the DOS version which was the pick of the initial releases.  The game uses the same gold box engine as Pool of Radiance so I won't describe it's workings again in this post.

The Adventurers Journal says our party were on their way to Tilverton to find a runaway princess.  Princess Nacacia of Cormyr was recently spotted in the vicinity and there is a large reward for her return.  On the road to Tilverton our intrepid band - heroes of Phlan, slayers of Tyranthraxus, liberators of Valhingen Graveyard – were mugged.  Curse of the Azure Bonds begins with our party waking up in Windlord's Inn in Tilverton with all their magic items gone and some symbols imprinted on their sword arms.  They do, however, have 300 platinum pieces each.

Convenient that.

Speaking to the innkeeper reveals our party were brought in a month ago by a group wearing red robes.  She said we had the markings when we arrived and suggested we speak to Filani the sage about them.  She also mentioned an armoury across the road which would be our first port of call.   The armoury only sold non-magical weapons so with our 1800 platinum coins we could afford the best weapons and armour it had to offer.  Although Tilverton itself is quite small it contains the inn, the armoury, a pub, a general store, a training hall, a temple and the sage.  The town gates are blocked by guards telling us to move on as the Royal Carriage is expected.

We went to speak with Filani who was able to tell us a bit about the bonds by way of an entry in the  Adventurers Journal.....

After wandering around some more and overhearing snippets of conversations from the invisible townsfolk, the Royal Carriage arrived.  The bonds on the party’s arms began to glow and they were compelled to attack the carriage.  The occupant shouted he was not the king and the glow faded, but the Royal Guard charged us.  After one fight we surrendered and were thrown in jail.  A short while later we were rescued by the thieves guild who returned our weapons and took us to their base.  

The guildmaster informed us the Fire Knives had kidnapped the princess and taken her to their hideout in the sewers.  During the meeting the Fire Knives infiltrated the guild and killed the leader.  While mapping the hideout there were quite few combats with Fire Knives, attack dogs and monkeys armed with slings.  We enter the sewers leaving one room unopened as the door couldn't be 'bashed' or 'picked'.  After another combat I replaced a stinking cloud with a knock spell and returned to the door.  It turned out to be a treasure room that held a good stash of money and magic items that will have to be identified later.

We headed back into the sewers which contained some otyughs and a secret thieves guild training hall where I could level up my characters.

We then battled our way through the Fire Knives hideout to the leader who was holding the Princess Nacacia and the kings impersonator captive.  Before the leader could invoke our bonds the Princess managed to free herself and hit him over the head. Just as we won the ensuing battle, the bonds disappeared, and the King and his guards burst in.  Nacacia persuaded him not to kill us, but we were banished from the lands of Cormyr.  We now find ourselves viewing the world map just outside Tilverton.  The guards won't allow us to enter so my next plan of action is to head to Shadowdale to get all my loot identified, to sell what I don't need and to train up any characters that need it.

Sounds like my kind of town.

After that I am not sure where to go.  I will summarise my thoughts and experiences below.  Although I won't need them again, here are my maps of Tilverton....

  • Some of my concerns from PoR regarding the interface have been addressed in Curse of the Azure Bonds.  It is now possible to make more use of the mouse, including selecting a target for spells and missile weapons.  The commands are on buttons so you can either click on them or use the keyboard as before.  It's still a pain in the arse to use though.
  • One aspect of combat has been made worse – you can no longer see an enemy move when they are off screen.  This makes hunting for fleeing enemies unnecessarily long-winded. Additionally, during the first fight in the thieves guild, it was impossible to differentiate between friend or foe as the icons for all the thieves were the same.
  • What has happened to the sound?!  There is now only one short tune played at the start and end of combat which is noticeably worse than the one in PoR. The scream I praised in the first game when someone dies now sounds like a klaxon.  Casting some spells produces a weird warbling noise.  There is also an annoying sound every time you take a step.  In fact, the only decent sound effect is a satisfying 'thwack' when an attack connects.
  • For the few times I could be bothered picking up treasure after random battles I only took gems and jewellery   I had been picking up platinum coins but they encumbered my characters so much it wasn't worth it. The best items are dropped in fixed encounters anyway.

Nah, give it to your favourite charity.

  • The over world map can no longer be explored as in Pool of Radiance.  There are several towns and cities and you travel directly to them.  You have choice of travelling by boat, trail or wilderness depending on the terrain.  There is always a chance of a random encounter en route.

  • During my wanderings I met a grey cloaked character at some standing stones. He hinted that I should firstly head south to a Wizards Tower.  I couldn't see the tower on the map so headed to Hap which was on the southern border. The town was overrun with Drow.  Defeating these opened up some caves which ultimately lead to the tower.  When fighting a Draco Lich at the end of the caves I found combat is not as random as it seems.  If you are defeated in combat and try again making exactly the same moves hoping for better dice rolls you'll be disappointed - I found the combat was scripted so it is exactly the same each time the combat was played right down to who hits/misses and the amount of damage inflicted.  This was confirmed with a -7 AC Drow Lord at the top of the tower which I couldn't get past.
This was the first time I noticed something wasn't quite right with combat.

  • Reloading, I decided to revisit Phlan which turned out to be just a menu town, then onto Zhentil Keep which was an ideal place to grind a couple of levels.  After that the tower was quite easy and my second bond was removed.  A tavern tale in Phlan gave a nod to Pool of Radiance.

  • I am enjoying combat more than Pool of RadianceIt's mainly due to the wider variety of opponents, some of which are immune to magic, making battles a lot more tactical than just walloping the nearest enemy.
  • It was indicated my next stop should be the green clerics to the northwest.  Before hunting them down I stopped off at training hall as Skimbleshanks was ready to go up a fighter level.  I had forgotten about racial limits and found she had already peaked at level 9.  I then headed onto Yulash and the Pit of Moander.
  • It was tough going through Yulash just to get to the Pit of Moander.  Once there I was joined by Alias and Dragonbait (who are pictured in the cover art).  We stumbled upon a ceremony attempting to summon Moander, the god of rot and corruption, into the physical realm using the power of my bonds.  When the power was used, the bonds dissipated allowing us to disrupt the service.  We had to fight a group of cultists then three 'Bits o' Moander' which had managed to come through the portal before it closed.  Behind the altar was a nice cache of treasure.

I soon put a stop to the summoning of Moander.

  • With only two bonds left my next destination was nearby Zhentil Keep.  Due to rumours being spread about my party by a halfling, all the inhabitants gave me wide berth.

Well, nearly all the inhabitants.

  • The halfling was a bard called Olive Ruskettle and she helped me enter the Temple of Bane.  She led me to Dimswart, a sage who was able to tell me more about my bonds and said I needed three artifacts to defeat Tyranthraxus (I already had two of these).  Working my way through the temple there were a few tough fights and, like Moander, there was some treasure behind the altar.  A mysterious robed woman said I was trapped and she could show me the way out. Instead she led us to the lair of a beholder called Dexam who wanted to study my bonds (how he planned to do this with no hands I don't know).  We were interrupted by Fzoul Chembryl who was the person that bonded me and demanded we be released.  Dexam disintegrated him which in turn removed the bonds.  Having no more use for me, Dexam left us to his guards.  Battling my way through the lair I eventually caught up with Dexam again along with the robed woman who turned out to be a medusa.  The ensuing fight was very difficult and left two of my characters dead.  Most of the enemy could be taken down with fireballs, but the beholder was immune and it took two rounds (and a couple of reloads) to take him out even using haste and buffing spells on my fighters.

  • Searching outside some of the menu towns reveals extra areas for optional side quests.  One of these is a quest to destroy the infamous Beholder Corps.  It's seemingly impossible to complete without the dust of disappearance and very easy with it.  Either way it gives out a lot of experience.  

  • Heading back to the standing stone, the grey robed figure reveals himself as Tyranthraxus and heads off to Myth Drannor.  

  • To reach the final showdown there are three 16 x 16 areas to get through.  Your bonds have been weakened when the 'Nameless One' reads out the scroll to dispell them so you are no longer under control.  Tyranthraxus appears in the form of a storm giant behind several dozen margoyles and flanked by eight high priests.  Tyranthraxus can cast devastatingly powerful lightning bolts, even targeting invisible characters.  The priests can cast 'hold person' and 'slay living' spells.  It took several attempts but I managed to defeat him in the end.  My tactic was to have my spell casters use area affect spells on the margoyles and priests before they themselves were taken down.  My melee characters would take on Tyranthaxus and mop up any monsters left.

Like Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds has an awful interface, awful graphics, awful sound and is a cracking game.  This time I'll make sure I keep my characters safe for Secret of the Silver Blades.

The end (spoilers)