Saturday 30 March 2013

Xevious - Sharp X68000 - 1987

I have held a soft spot for Xevious ever since I first saw it in the arcades.  I loved that you flew over forests and roads and water instead of a featureless star field   I loved that you had  to use different weapons to take out air and ground forces.  I loved the cross hairs you used to aim your bombs.  I loved the metallic look of the enemies....

Years later my first job was as a computer operator in a finance company.  We had a warehouse where we used to archive all the computer printouts.  It was also used to store repossessions.  Imagine my joy when a tatty old Xevious arcade machine unexpectedly turned up.  Needless to say, for a couple of months trips to the warehouse suddenly became a lot more frequent and took a lot longer.  I only wish I'd had somewhere to keep it when it was sold off.

Nazca lines make an appearance although although the setting doesn't look like the Nazca Desert.

The arcade game first appeared in 1982 and was released on the Sharp X86000 five years later.  I am a bit confused by the back story. Apparently it is set on Earth which is being invaded by humankind's ancestors.  These ancestors had fled to the planet Xevious hundreds of thousands of years before to avoid an ice age.  They now want their planet back. There is also mention of a super computer call GAMPS and things called Sol Towers, but who really cares?  I didn't need a plot then and I don't need one now.

Xevious is a very simple vertically scrolling shoot 'em up in which you control a ship called Solvalou.  It is armed with guns to shoot down airbourne targets and bombs to destroy ground installations.  The bombs are aimed with the aid of cross hairs that travel in a fixed position in front of your ship.  The aerial enemies fly in swooping patterns across but often as not appear at the edge of the screen fire a few pot shots then fly off before you can get to them.   There are a few harmless ground installations but most fire bullets at you.  Quite early on they start spewing out bullets every second or so making them very hard to bomb.  The game is a lot more difficult than I remember.

Indestructible flying rectangles are a nuisance when trying to line up targets.

Harking from 1982 and being one of the earliest scrolling shmups, Xevious was  basic by 1987 standards and even more so now.  It is a decent enough conversion but the graphics seem samey and look very dated.  Like-wise the sound and tunes do their job but are nothing special.  There are also no power-ups to make life easier in what is a very challenging game.  To be truthful, Xevious is here mainly for nostalgic reasons but it is a game I will break out every now and again for old times sake.  For that reason alone it makes in on the list.

Monday 25 March 2013

Bikkuriman World / Wonder Boy in Monster Land - PC Engine - 1987

The last game on my shortlist was Wonder Boy for the Sega Master System.  It left me somewhat underwhelmed so I wasn't really looking forward to this one.  Bikkuriman World is essentially a conversion of the arcade game Wonder Boy in Monster Land.  Some of the graphics have been redrawn to fit in with the Bikkuriman anime franchise, hence the title. Bikkuriman World was only released in Japan for the PC Engine, so any text is in Japanese.  Fortunately Wonder Boy in Monster Land was on my shortlist for the Sega Master System in 1988.  The SMS game didn't match up to the PC Engine in terms of sound and graphics (so didn't make the blog) but did help with the translation.

Bikkuriman World on the left. Wonder Boy in Monster Land arcade version (centre) and Master System version (right)

In Wonder Boy in Monster Land the plot involved killing monsters and demons that inhabit the land, then ultimately a dragon.  I'm guessing Bikkuriman World is much the same due to it's close similarity to the arcade original.

You start the game by collecting your sword and a potion (extra life) from an old man in a tree stump.  The sword is called a gradius, but I'm sure they must have meant gladius.  You can then set off through the twelve levels defeating monsters and bosses along the way.  When you defeat monsters they drop a coin or a money bag (or other sundry items for bonus points).  Coins can also be collected by jumping up and down in certain secret spots throughout the levels. This gold can be used in shops to purchase useful items such as boots, armour, shields, magic weapons and energy top ups.  

One of the many shops.

If you are hit by a monster your life meter starts decreasing which is depicted by a series of hearts.  When all the hearts turn black it's game over.  The first time your heart meter empties the potion you got at the beginning of the game gives you another life.  Each level also has quite a strict time limit.  The time limit is displayed by way of an hourglass to the left of the screen.  If this runs out your life meter decreases, although small hourglasses can be picked up to refill the timer.  There are also various bosses to defeat along the way, some easier than others. Some bosses need to be beaten to advance to the next level, others can be bypassed but may drop a useful item if killed - such as a broadsword from a boss in the caves early on.

This boss leaps around spawning toadstools and is a bugger to beat.

Overall Bikkuriman World is a neat little game.  The graphics, though simple, are bright, well animated and well drawn.  The levels are also nicely varied and the scrolling is very smooth.  The music is good and changes for different levels while the sound effects suit the game well.  I think the learning curve is just about right, except where it spikes for certain bosses (such as the one above). Also bear in mind that this is an arcade conversion and as such games can be quite short as there is no saving.  You can, however, use continue to start again from the level where you last died.


Wednesday 20 March 2013

Wizball - Commodore Amiga, Commodore 64 & Atari ST - 1987

Atari ST and Commodore Amiga ports share the same programmer and are virtually identical.

Wizball was initially released in 1987 for the Commodore 64 with other conversions quickly following.  Zzapp!64 magazine gave it a score of 96% and later awarded it the Game of the Decade accolade.  I gave it about five minutes of my time and never bothered with it again.  I never bought it so must have played it at a friend's house and had been put off by the frustrating controls, high difficulty level and the fact that your character looks like an anthropomorphic Brussels sprout.  Trying it again, the first issue can be overcome by purchasing upgrades and the second by playing one of the 16-bit ports. The third?  Well, two out of three ain't bad.

The story goes that Wiz and his cat happily lived in the brightly coloured Wizworld.  For some untold reason the evil Zark came along and removed all the colour, leaving the landscape in various shades of grey.  It is your task to control Wiz in his bouncy green transporter and return Wizworld to it's former glory.

Wizball on the Spectrum and Amstrad are left in the shadow of the C64 original.

In spite of its name the Spectrum does not handle colour very well so was immediately discounted.  The Amstrad game has more colour than the Speccy version but loses the scrolling. Neither have very good sound. Wizball on the Commodore 64 is in a different league compared to the other 8-bits.  Graphically it's as near as it can be to the 16-bit versions and aurally it is actually superior.  My main issue is with the controls - I don't know if it's because I played the 16-bit conversions first but the controls feel a tad 'sloppy' next them.  Maybe if I'd have played the game on the C64 first it might have been a different story so I'm still recommending it here.  This leaves the better balanced and graphically identical Amiga and ST as the top dogs. While the Commodore machine edges out the Atari with marginally (and I do mean marginally) better sound effects, it is not so superior that the latter can be discounted.  The difficulty level has also been slightly tweaked allowing only a single wave of enemies to appear at once compared to more on the C64.

Commodore 64 almost matches the 16-bit conversions.
You start the game semi-controlling your Wizball which bounces up and down at a fixed height.  Initially you can only adjust the rotation speed making just getting around both difficult and frustrating.  The first enemy sprites you come across are thankfully static and when shot drop a green bubble.  These bubbles (or pearls as they are described in the instructions) allow you to choose upgrades from a Gradius-style power-up meter.  The first two power-ups you will need are Thrust and Anti-Grav after which the game plays more like a regular shoot 'em up.  Other power-ups include shields, weapon upgrades, a smart bomb and the essential Catelite.  Lose a life and you lose your power-ups.

The Catelite acts as a drone following the Wizball around.  By holding down the fire button it can be controlled independently (or by a second player in two player mode).  The Catelite is needed to collect droplets of colour that are released when Red, Green and Blue enemies are destroyed.  Each of these enemies occupy a different level so you will need to move between the levels using pipes and holes in the ground. Initially three levels are available but more open up as the game progresses.  The droplets are collected in three cauldrons displayed on the screen.  You need to collect enough of these to fill a fourth cauldron which shows a target colour.  Completely filling the fourth cauldron brings up a bonus stage.

Two colours complete and the third is coming along nicely.
The bonus stage involves destroying as many enemies as possible to increase your score.  After this you enter the 'Wiz-Lab' where you can choose a power up which will be automatically assigned to any lives you have left.  From here you return to the game with one shade of colour restored on one level.  In all there are eight levels with three shades to restore on each.

In the 'Wiz-Lab'.  Here you can choose a upgrade that stays for the rest of the game.

I'm glad I didn't dismiss this game as easily as I did twenty-odd years ago. The Commodore 64 version is a revelation and is easily one of the best games to appear on the machine.  Until now I haven't been impressed by the much vaunted SID chip, but Wizball makes good use of it, surpassing even it's younger stablemate.  Naturally, though,  the Amiga and ST conversions have more colourful, detailed and higher resolution graphics.  As I mentioned earlier I also found the controls to be a little sharper than on the 8-bit C64, but that's just my preference.  Get past the bouncy ball stage of Wizball and you'll find a fun and challenging (read difficult) shoot 'em up.

Commodore Amiga gameplay....

Friday 15 March 2013

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar - Atari ST & Commodore Amiga - 1987

Ultima IV is one of those games I start off with every intention of completing but never quite manage it.  I love the game but my gameplay always ends up losing momentum. By the time I am back in the mood I've forgotten where I've got to and have to start over.  This time, for the blog, I was determined to reach the end.  I am playing the Atari ST version which came out in 1987 along with the identical Amiga release.  I've not personally tested it but I believe the PC version is slightly inferior in terms of graphics (certainly so in the dungeons).  Richard 'Lord British' Garriott has professed to this being his favourite Ultima game and it was the first in the series to  introduce the concept of 'virtues'.

You start the game by selecting your character name and gender and are then shown an introduction...

Upon reaching the gypsy caravan you are asked a series of ethical questions which will determine your character class.  This was unique for the time and was an ingenious way to start the game.  Although you can fudge the answers to choose any of the eight classes, I chose to answer truthfully and began the game as a fighter.  The starting location for the fighter is just outside Jhelom, City of Valour.

Each of the eight character classes starts near the city that represents their virtue.  The eight virtues are Compassion, Honesty, Honour, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality and Valour.  Your aim is to become the embodiment of all these virtues through the actions and choices you make during the course of the game.  Only then can you descend into the Abyss to reach the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom to complete the game.

The main game world is tile based and is viewed from above.  Your party, monsters and towns are represented by a single icon.  When you enter a town the scale changes to the town plan.   The game employs a line-of-sight mechanic so you can’t see through trees, mountains or walls.  The only time you can view your entire party is in the battle screen.  Movement is limited to the four cardinal directions. As with previous iterations of Ultima, dungeons are viewed in a simple first person perspective. 
Typical dungeon view
It was my intention to firstly travel to meet with Lord British, then recruit Shamino, Dupre and Iolo in their respective towns.  I would then travel to the other towns picking up clues and delving into the dungeons.  I believe you need to have a party consisting of all eight character classes towards the end of the game, but I find picking them up early makes combat too unwieldy and time consuming.

As Jhelom is located on an island the only way off is by means of a moongate.  Although they can be rather ‘hit and miss’, moongates can be a convenient way to travel long distances.  The moongates are controlled by the phases of two moons.  The first moon phase represents where a moongate is open, the second represents the destination.  When the moongate opened, the second moon wouldn't have reached my preferred ‘destination phase’ before it disappeared so I jumped in hoping for the best.

I ended up on Verity Isle which contained The Lycaeum and the town of Moonglow.  I talked to all the NPCs in both these locations before jumping back into the moongate. You can actually converse with characters in this game rather than get the stock responses you had in previous Ultimas.  All the NPCs respond to ‘name’, ‘job’ and 'health'.  You can then pick up key words in their answers to take the conversation further.  ‘Bye’ ends a conversation.
'Wrong game, mate'.
In Moonglow I took the opportunity to buy some reagents.  Reagents are essentially the ingredients of a spell.  You need to mix the appropriate reagents together to make the spell before it can be cast.  There is a list of spells in the manual though some of the more powerful don’t have the reagents listed.  Some NPCs also reveal spell ingredients.  This was  a good time to pick up some honesty points as the proprietors of the magic shops are blind and you are asked how much gold you wish to give them.

To leave Verity Isle I had to hop back into a moongate to reach the mainland.  On my way to Britain I was thankfully attacked by pirates so was able to pick up a ship early on. One of my main bugbears in this game is the random nature in which ships appear.  You can sometimes play for hours before you even see one.

Combat takes place on the battle screen.  The terrain on the battle screen depends on what type of tile combat was initiated.  The terrain can be used to your advantage in battle which can be quite tactical.  Combat is turn based and each character can either move or attack (limited to the four cardinal directions), or cast spells.  In addition to normal melee and missile weapons, you can hurl flasks of flaming oil or attack from behind your comrades using the longer reach of the  halberd.  The bestiary in the excellent ‘History of Britannia’ manual shows the standard variety of enemy types you would expect in any fantasy RPG.  A defeated enemy leaves behind a (usually trapped) chest containing a small amount of gold.  One thing I didn't really appreciate until I played Final Fantasy and the Phantasie games (which didn't make the blog) is that you can see your enemies coming.  There are no random encounters and overworld combat can mostly be avoided if you wish.

A fixed dungeon encounter

The ship l commandeered from the pirates is the most useful form of transport in the game.  I used the ship to follow the coast to the Castle of Lord British.  Travelling by sea can be slow going if the wind is not favourable but you can reach locations inaccessible on foot or on horseback.

On the ground floor of the castle you can find Hawkwind the Seer who keeps track of your virtues.  He tells you in which virtues you have attained enlightenment and gives advice on how to achieve it in others.  On attaining enlightenment in a particular virtue you can gain partial avatarhood by meditating at the appropriate shrine for three cycles.

As usual with my RPG reviews I won't be blogging a full walkthrough (for this I recommend The CRGP Addict or an old blog called Blogging Ultima).  I will note some of my thoughts and experiences below....

  • With my 3 companions I first attempted to conquer dungeon Destard but had to retreat  to the nearest town licking my wounds.  I decided I needed more magic power so returned to Moonglow to recruit Mariah.
  • Dungeons contain orbs which can boost one or two of your base stats of strength, intelligence and dexterity to a maximum of 50.  Touching them costs hit points so make sure you have enough.  Touching an orb in Dungeon Hythloth raises all three stats but will instantly kill any character with less than 600 hp.
  • Dungeons reset when you leave so any treasure you have plundered and orbs you have touched will reappear.  Creatures also respawn if you leave and return to a room with a fixed encounter.
  • I seem to be progressing much faster than I remember and quickly attained enlightenment in all the virtues apart from spirituality.  This is probably due to my previous mapping and note taking.
  • Whilst travelling the ocean I came across a whirlpool.  In Ultima III it takes you to the land of Ambrosia and when entering it in this game I ended up in Lock Lake.  My party took a lot of damage but could now enter the village of Cove.  I now need a new ship to use on the open ocean....
  • On leaving Cove I was attacked by a pirate ship that appeared in Lock Lake and was sunk before I could properly retaliate. On returning to Lock Lake after being resurrected the pirate ship had disappeared.  I now need two new ships. Gah!
  • You need to ensure you visit Lord British regularly.  As well as resurrecting and healing your party for free, he also levels up your characters.
  • Rather unfairly enemies can target your party diagonally but not vice versa.
  • Getting frustrated due to a lack of ships I entered Dungeon Hythloth to come out on the Isle of the Abyss where some pirates hang out.  Using wind spells I flew the balloon (located nearby) a little north to this 'pirate bay' then directly west back to the mainland hoping to draw out a ship or two.  Coincidence or not, after hanging about for a short while a ship did come along and there were plenty of boats appearing during the rest of the game.
  • Combat gets tiresome with a full party.  I lost my valour attainment by killing fleeing monsters as I couldn't be arsed waiting for them to leave the battle screen.  Lesson learned.
  • When you reach enlightenment in a particular virtue and meditate at the appropriate shrine for three cycles, you are granted a vision.  Each vision displays a letter which when correctly arranged form the 'one pure axiom'. To enter a shrine you need to know the mantra and be carrying the appropriate rune.
Achieving partial avatarhood reveals a runic letter. 'N' in this case.

Before you can enter the abyss to win the game you need to...
  • Find the eight runes, mantras and stones that relate to the eight virtues.
  • Behave in an appropriate manner to attain enlightenment in all eight virtues.
  • Locate the Silver Horn which allows you reach the Shrine of Spirituality on the Isle of the Abyss.
  • Meditate at each of the eight shrines to attain Avatarhood.
  • Find the Bell, the Book and the Candle (symbols of the principles of Truth, Love and Courage)
  • Discover the one pure axiom from which these three principles are derived. 
  • Use the stones on the dungeon altars to obtain the Three Part Key.
  • Know the word of passage derived from the syllables given by three Lords (but it i didn't find if/where it gave the order they should go in).
  • Arm your party with mystic or magical weapons as normal weapons won't work in the Abyss.
  • I think the mystic robes and strengthened ship hull are optional.  I picked up the mystic robes but skipped searching for the wheel of HMS Cape and still made it past the pirates.
  • Also optional is finding the skull of Mondain which can be destroyed in the volcano on the Isle of the Abyss.
One you have the above you can then sail to the Isle.  After battling the pirates, wading through a swamp and making your way through molten lava, you can then use the bell, book and candle to open the dungeon.  In the Abyss dungeon, normal weapons always miss and the spells to go up or down a level fail to work.  At the end of each level you will find an altar which poses a question on each of the virtues.  If you answer correctly and choose the stone of the appropriate colour the altar will transform into a ladder to the next level. 

Ultima IV was originally developed on the Apple II so the graphics are very, very primitive and any animation is two frames at most.  They probably looked basic back in 1985 and not much effort was expended on improving the graphics for the more powerful home computers.  The sound wasn't up to much either.  While the music is okay the handful of tunes quickly got repetitive.  I switched to the sound effects which were again basic and more annoying than anything.  I left these on but so low I could barely hear the ‘tick’ sound every step your characters take.  More that anything though, Ultima IV is about the story which is where the game excels.  Rather than saving the world from an evil baddie, your quest involves becoming the embodiment of eight virtues and an example for the people of Britannia to follow.  As far as I know this was and still is unique in the realm of CRPGs.  Also the game is completely non-linear.  I love how you can do any quest in any order as long as you complete your 'shopping list' by the time you enter the Abyss.  Ultima IV definitely deserves it's classic status.  I'm also pretty chuffed to have finally completed it after all these years and abortive attempts.

Screenshots from the Abyss.....

At the end of each level of the Abyss you are asked a question pertaining to a virtue.

Level 6 was 'interesting' to map as some rooms were divided into two and trying to find tiles to open walls whilst controlling eight individuals can get frustrating.
There was a surprising encounter on Level 8

I had the syllables for the word of passage, but not the order they went in.  The three part key is listed as TLC in the stats screen so using the syllables in that order was a good guess.

The ending sequence.....

....and final screen.