Thursday 22 August 2013

Super Mario Bros. 2 - NES - 1988

When a game is successful it comes as no surprise when a sequel appears.  Super Mario Bros. spawned two.  The first Super Mario Bros. 2 utilised the same sprites and tiles as Super Mario Bros. but cranked up the difficulty to 11.  It was released in Japan in 1986 and was deemed too challenging for overseas gamers so that's where it stayed.  The second Super Mario Bros. 2 was launched in the West in 1988.  Gone were the Goombas and Koopas.  Gone was the coin collecting.  Gone was Bowser.  You could no longer dispatch enemies by jumping on their heads.  In fact, Super Mario Bros. 2 didn't feel like a Super Mario Bros. game at all.  That's because it wasn't. 

Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic came out in 1987 for the Famicom Disk System.  It was a platform game with an Arabian theme and featured four protagonists of differing carrying, running and jumping abilities.  Their goal was to save two children who are pulled into a story book by jumping into the book after them.  Imajin is the 'all-rounder' character.  Remove his turban, stick on a silly cap, a moustache and put him in some blue dungarees and, hey presto, you have Mario.  Give the other characters a similar makeover, call the game Super Mario Bros. 2 and you have a guaranteed hit.

Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic and Super Mario Bros. 2 are virtually identical

The aim of the game is to free Subcon, the Land of Dreams from an antagonist called Wart.  The game is made up of 7 worlds divided into 20 stages.  At the beginning of each stage you can choose to play one of the four characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  Mario is the the best all round character.  Luigi is the highest jumper.  Toad has the least jumping power but his speed and jumping power do not decrease when carrying items.  Princess Toadstool is the slowest and doesn't have much jumping power, but can be made to float in the air for a short while.

Your main means of dispatching enemies is by lobbing root vegetables at them.  These can be plucked out of the ground where you can see them above the surface.  Pulling at these plants may reveal special items such as bombs, koopa turtle shells, potions and extra lives. If you happen to land on top of an enemy they can also be picked up and thrown.

When you throw a potion a door appears which leads to the sub space.  You will normally find a mushroom which restores 1 point of health.  Any plants you pull up will reveal coins that are used in an end of level slot machine game.  After a short while you are thrust back into the main world.
Picking up a coin in the sub space.

Scattered throughout levels are cherries.  Collect enough of these fruits and Starman will appear and make your character invincible for short while if picked up.  Likewise, killing enough enemies will produce a heart which can be collected to restore some health.

Overall, Super Mario Bros. 2 is a great game that I actually prefer it to its predecessor. So successful was it that it was re-released in Japan as Super Mario USA.  I didn't make it very far into the game - I kept getting stuck at a giant mouse that throws bombs and it will take bit of practice to get past -  but what I did see I really enjoyed.  The graphics and sound are as good as can be expected on the NES and the controls are very tight.  It feels bit weird as some of the Arabian themes from Doki Doki Power remain (such as the magic carpet) but as this game takes place in a different world I suppose this can be forgiven.  The only thing lacking from my point of view is some kind of points system.

This is as far as I could get without more practice.

Example gameplay......

Sunday 11 August 2013

Salamander - Sharp X68000 - 1988

Level 4 has a lot of enemies from the first level in Gradius (including the volcanoes).

Salamander is another cracking coin-op conversion for the Sharp X68000 computer.  The arcade version of Salamander was released in 1986 as a spin off of Gradius.  Gradius is one of my favourite shoot 'em up franchises, so comes as no surprise to see this game on my list.

Once again you take control of your dependable Vic Viper in single player mode.  There is a two player co-operative mode where the second player takes control of a ship called the Lord British.   I'm not 100% certain but I believe the ultimate goal of the game is to fight your way to and destroy the eponymous Salamander which, judging by the striking artwork, is some kind of giant snake.

Salamander was also released in 1988 for the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum all of which had levels and/or features removed (such as two-player mode).  The closest rival at the time was the NES version, renamed as Life Force in the US and Life Force Salamander in Europe.  It retained the two-player mode but differed by having a Gradius-style power-up meter. Nevertheless, it couldn't hope to match the sound or graphics of the mighty X68000.  A conversion for the PC Engine followed three years later in 1991 which I will review when (if) I get there.

Life Force on the NES (left) is better than most conversions but can't compete against Salamander on the Sharp (right).

Rather than picking up pods and selecting a power-up from a meter as in Gradius, you have to collect icons representing each power-up.   These comprise Speed Up, Missile, Laser, Ripple Laser, Force Field and Multiple.  Personally, I prefer the former method which allows for more customisation of your spacecraft.

Even the attract screen is present.

The major departure from Gradius is that Salamander has alternate vertical and horizontal scrolling levels.  The vertical scrolling sections are more frantic with increased numbers of enemies, bullets and objects to avoid.

The vertically scrolling stages tend to get busy.
One thing I am glad of is that when you lose a life you continue from where you died rather than at the beginning of the stage.  You will lose all your power-ups but with quick reflexes you can gather up any Multiples you were carrying.

I haven't played the original coin-op for many years, but if this game is anything like the X68K conversion of Gradius it will be hard to tell apart.  The sound effects and music are good - including some clear speech (remember this is 25 years old).  The controls are responsive and the graphics are well drawn and smooth with some nods to Gradius.  Salamander is an excellent conversion of an excellent arcade game.

This is similar to a level in Gradius 2.  Normally the flares come towards you giving a fraction of a second  warning.
A couple of the bosses.  Once you work out a weakness in their movement pattern they go down quickly.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Pool of Radiance - PC (MS-DOS) (1988) & Commodore Amiga (1990)

Graphics card issues, a holiday and a long spell of gorgeous Summer weather have been conspiring to keep me away from my PC but I have finally got my next review up....

Pool of Radiance is the first game in the acclaimed Gold Box series of RPGs published by SSI in the late '80s and early '90s.  The Gold Box games share the same engine and use the Advanced Dungeon & Dragons rulesets.  Pool of Radiance was released in 1988 for the PC, Commodore 64 and Apple II.  Further conversions include the Commodore Amiga in 1990 and NES in 1992.  I am including both the PC (the pick of the initial releases) and the later Amiga versions on my list.  I will be playing on the Amiga which has the best graphics (at least for the portraits) and has nice snippets of music at key points.  An Atari ST version was announced but unfortunately not released so I missed out on this game first time round.

Rather than an epic journey to best a threat to an entire planet (or planets as in my previous game), Pool of Radiance takes place within the environs of a single city.  Phlan, a once mighty city, has fallen into wrack and ruin and been overrun by evil creatures. The only civilised district left is a heavily defended area around the docks.  The council of 'New Phlan' has decided it wants to reclaim the old city and has appealed for mercenaries and adventurers to clear out the hostile regions.... 

Back in school, a group of my friends used to get together regularly to play AD&D.  I only joined in about three or four times (it was too nerdy for me back then) but I got a handle on the basic rules and character creation. These were reinforced over the years by various AD&D computer games and like every other AD&D game you begin by rolling out your party.  Sitting back with a steaming mug of tea and a packet of chocolate hobnobs, the familiar rules give a nice, comfortable feeling.  Or maybe that's just the tea and biscuits.

You begin by creating a party of six characters.  You have a choice of four character classes (magic user, fighter, cleric, thief) and six races.  Apart from the thief class, all non-human characters have a limit on the level they can reach.  There is also an overall cap on the level for each class.  As I have not played this game before and not wanting to be hobbled by having a party I can't develop, I erred on the side of caution and made all bar one of my characters human.  To that end I created Bustopher and Mungojerrie as male fighters to provide the muscle.  These were backed up Skimbleshanks, a female half-elf fighter/thief.  Macavity was the token cleric to provide the healing.  Finally I created Mistoffelees and Rumpelteazer as male and female magic users to soften up the enemy from behind the front line.  

It doesn't take long to roll a half-decent PC.
The dice rolls in Pool of Radiance seem quite generous and before long you can have a decent party up and running.  After creating a character you have the option to 'modify' their stats (ie cheat).  I used this to bump up Macavity's wisdom to 18 as I could only get a maximum of 17 after countless rolls (I did compensate by reducing another attribute). 

Once you have a full party it's time to begin the game and get used to the interface.  The main screen is split into four parts.  The top left hand corner shows a rudimentary first person view of the area in front of the party or a portrait if you are in a conversation. To the right you can see your party members, their armour class and their hit points.  Below this is a space for any pertinent messages to be displayed.  At the very bottom is a list of available actions.  Movement is by mouse or cursor keys. 

On your arrival in Phlan you are met at the docks by Rolf, who gives you a brief guided tour.  You are then on your own.  I decided firstly to explore and map the immediate surroundings.  The civilised area (as are all the zones) comprises a block of 16 x 16 squares.  It contains three temples for curing and healing.  There are various shops, taverns and inns.  The docks provide passage to Sokal Keep.  To the north is an academy where you can level up your characters and recruit henchmen.  The largest building is the City Hall.  Outside the City Hall is posted a list of proclamations that are described in detail in the Adventurer's Journal.  Most of the initial proclamations seem to involve the Valhingen Graveyard.  Residing behind the only unguarded door within the building is the city clerk who hands out commissions and rewards for completed quests.  In the western wall of the civilised area is the ominous gateway to the slums.

I forgot to take a screen shot at the beginning of the game.

After kitting out the party, I saved the game, turned on 'search' and warily stepped through the gateway.  After just one step I was confronted by a group of kobolds.  You are given the options for Combat, Wait, Flee or Parlay.  As our job is to clear out the slums there was only one option.  The turn-based combat is the standout feature in this game.  The screen switches to a skewed third person perspective showing the combatants and an approximation of the local area including walls that can be used to hide behind or give cover.  After defeating the kobolds I then had another encounter which left two characters unconscious.  I headed back to civilisation to get healed.  The early encounters only give up meagre amounts of loot and XP and before long I ran out of money.  I also discovered that leaving on 'search' drastically increases the number of random encounters.

It was time to rethink my starting tactics.  I decided to map and search one area at a time and turn off search for areas I had already covered.  Once I had collected the equivalent of one platinum coin (the price for staying at an inn) I would return to the civilised district to sell my loot and rest.  This worked a treat and I soon won two or three fixed encounters.  Shortly after, random encounters stopped completely and I was able to map the slums unimpeded apart from the southwest corner of the Old Rope Guild where I was soundly beaten by some trolls and ogres.  I retrieved a potion for a man in one room, found several stashes of treasure through searching, had my palm read and found a secret treasure room after overhearing a rumour in the Hemp Market.

It was worth checking out for the experience alone.

Presently I am ready to enter Kotal's Well after mapping the third district.  Before this I will return to the academy as my magic users now have sufficient XP to reach third level.  I will also attempt to defeat the trolls in the slums to finally complete that area.  It looks like other districts will be more of the same so I will continue onwards and note my experiences below.  Despite the creaky interface I am thoroughly enjoying playing and mapping this game and will definitely see it through to completion.  My map so far....

  • The main issues I have with Pool of Radiance concern the interface.  Understandably the 1988 versions of the game will be keyboard driven but I would have liked the Amiga version to have been tweaked to make more use of the mouse. Coming 3 years after the slick Dungeon Master it feels cumbersome and awkward, making the simplest tasks very long-winded.  There is a long list of things I would change.
  • I am greatly enjoying the tactical combat.  Some battles can become tiresome while waiting for each opponent in a large enemy contingent to make their move.  Chasing down 'turned' undead or fleeing enemies can be a pain too, but overall it's by far the most satisfying system I have seen. The CRGP Addict has a great description here.

Battles like this become a lot quicker once you can cast fireballs.

  • After an epic (and long) battle at Sokal Keep the boat from New Phlan docks had new destinations to open up more of the map.
  • Also, is it Sokal or Sokol Keep?  In-game it's Sokal Keep, in an atlas you find, which is printed in the journal, it's Sokol Keep.
  • While it's essential early on, money soon becomes irrelevant.  After gaining magic weapons and the best armour, there is little left to buy apart from the expendable and cheap missile weapons.  It is then only needed for healing and training and even training becomes less frequent the further you progress.  It didn't take long before I gave up collecting random encounter loot altogether.
  • Thank goodness for the internet.  How else would I know what a Cloak of Displacement does or what a Manual of Bodily Health is for?
  • Overheard gossip and letters found during the game give the impression that someone or something called 'The Boss' is the main threat in the game.  After clearing the Temple of Bane I found a note saying he is also concerned about the goings on at Valhigen Graveyard and had asked the priests of Bane to investigate.  It seems he may not be the only antagonist in this game after all.
  • Initially I wasn't aware of this, but there is also a large area outside Phlan.  This has a traditional top down view and contains monster and wild animal encounters not found inside the City.  
Hog Roast is on the menu tonight. 

  • My plan of creating single class characters backfired when Macavity reached level 6 which is the maximum for a cleric. This happened, I guess, about two thirds of the way through the game.  I didn't mind too much as the character continues to gain XP which will be carried forward to the next game in the series.
  • Likewise, my magic users maxed out soon after going through the tricky-to-map pyramid which handed out lots of XP and magic items.  Fortunately, fighters and thieves can attain higher levels than the cleric and magic user classes.
  • Spells taken directly from pen and paper AD&D don't necessarily translate very well into a CRPG.  This is the case here and I came to rely on about half a dozen spells at most.
  • I left Valhingen Graveyard until near the end as I'd heard it was the toughest area.  Most of the enemies went down easily with turning and fireballs and I didn't have any levels drained on the way to the main boss (I got 'diseased' by mummies but that was easily cured at a temple).  The main boss was a vampire who was taken down with a fireball, a hit from Mungojerrie and finished off with a magic missile.  He took a swipe at Mungojerrie and missed, and his 'Gaze' at Rumpelteazer was ineffective.  The only injuries to my party was collateral damage from the fireball.  The vampire then returned to his coffin where he was weaker, going down with one melee hit and a magic missile. I felt the Kobold Cave was harder going. 
I expected the vampire to put up more of a challenge.

Clunky interface aside,  Pool of Radiance certainly lives up to it's classic status.  The game is largely non linear and the story unfolds at a good pace with snippets of information being picked up throughout the adventure.  I loved how you discover more than one malevolent force at work, and how the graveyard also concerns your main adversary.  Graphically the game hasn't aged at all well.  The first person view is very primitive and can only really be used for navigation - you don't see any of the details described in the text.... 

Despite what the text says, all rooms look empty.

Likewise there are only a small selection of basic sound effects (though there is a nice scream when someone dies).  There are a couple of atmospheric musical interludes when combat starts and when camping but that's your lot.  Underneath all this lies a fantastic game and I'm already looking forward to reacquainting myself with my party in Curse of the Azure Bonds...

The End (Spoilers)

Just before entering Tyranthraxus' lair you can recruit someone called Genheeris who offers to join you in your fight.  I hadn't long saved so thought I would give him a chance. In his lair, Tyranthraxus appears in the form of a bronze dragon.  

You are first forced into a fight with several level 8 fighters.  These were defeated with the help of stinking cloud and hold person spells.  Genheeris had a wand of lightning which proved useful.  Once the fighters were killed, Tyranthraxus asks you to join him.

If you refuse, you have to take him on in battle.  The first fight didn't go well as every magic spell I tried had no effect.  I was soon defeated as Tyranthraxus can do 80hp damage with each attack.  On the second attempt I just used melee attacks.  Genheeris still insisted on using lightning but went down early on - rather him than one of my characters.  I managed to win with only three members of the party left standing.

Tyranthraxus boasts he cannot be defeated and threatens to possess one of my characters.  However, it seems Bane has other ideas as Tyranthraxus fades out and the pool of radiance drains away.

I then head back to civilised district, heal my characters and collect my reward.  A satisfying ending indeed. 

I made a rough map of the wilderness to make sure I hit every single square.

My completed map of New Phlan