Tuesday 10 November 2015

Gradius III - Nintendo SNES - 1991

Although I am a big fan of the Gradius series, Gradius III has somehow passed me by.  The SNES port is based on the 1989 coin-up of the same name, but with several changes, including shorter stages and a toned down difficulty level.

Once again it's just you and your trusty Vic Viper spacecraft facing the might of the Bacterion Empire.  Gradius III retains all the staples of the original game in the series such as the power meter, weapons and options.  In addition, many of the enemies from previous games return in this one.
These appeared in Gradius II and as boss in Salamander where the tactics are the same - stay close and they can't get you

Like Gradius II you can choose from a number of pre-configured power meters as well as shield types at the start of the game. There is also an edit mode where you can tailor the power meter to suit.  

The game starts off in the usual way with simple formations of enemies to shoot down.  Shooting all the enemies in these early formations results in them dropping a power up capsule that adds to your power meter.  Later, you can tell which opponents will drop a capsule as they are a slightly different colour.  The capsules come in an orange or blue colour.  The orange one adds to your power meter, whereas the blue one acts as a smart bomb when it is touched.

Pressing the appropriate button activates the highlighted power up.  Added to the end of  the meter in Gradius III is the '!' symbol. By default this activates a smart bomb when selected, but this can be changed in the edit mode.

Even early on I found the game tough going and had difficulty getting to the first boss without losing a life.  I wasn't particularly enjoying the game, so had to relent and choose the easy mode.  This made the game much but better for someone with my meagre skills although it may have made it a tad too easy - on my initial attempt I didn't lose my first life until the level three boss only because I didn't know its attack pattern.  As with any Gradius game, when you lose a life you also lose your power-ups making it difficult to get up to speed again.
I lost more than a few lives on this high speed stage.
Moreso than the previous game on my blog, Gradius III is afflicted by slowdown when the screen is busy (and sometimes when it's not).  In most cases this makes the game that little bit easier rather than being an annoyance.
Lots of things on screen means lots of slowdown

The music and graphics are good, and the gameplay (slowdown apart) is typical Gradius.  It sticks to the basic Gradius recipe but adds few extras without spoiling it.  I found it a bit too hard for my tastes in the normal mode, but these was overcome by lowering the difficulty level.  Gradius III is a very good addition to the series. 

Example gameplay....

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Gradius - NEC PC Engine - 1991

This is the third and final conversion of the 1985 coin-op classic I will include on my blog before the 'arcade perfect' iterations begin to appear in the 32-bit era.  Gradius on the PC Engine is considered by many to be the best version so how does it compare to the others on my blog so far?

It was released only in Japan in 1991 for the PC Engine - it didn't make it to the US on the TurboGrafx-16.  The only western release I have included was published for the NES way back in 1986.  Although good, the five year old game is no match for the PC Engine version.

Gradius for the Sharp X68000 came out a year after the NES release and as far as sound and graphics go, is practically indistinguishable from the arcade original.  The game runs at a faster pace than the PC Engine manages and playing it again reminded my how frustratingly difficult it is.  This version is for masochistic gamers only.

PC Engine Gradius can't display the whole screen so has to scroll vertically.  Sharp X68000 Gradius is almost pixel perfect.

So how does Gradius on the PC Engine stack up?  Well, it can't match the graphics or pace of the Sharp machine for starters.  The simpler graphics are still good so this does not detract from the game at all.  It also has the same slight vertical scroll as the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 version of R-Type.  Unlike R-Type, gun emplacements and such are thankfully still visible on the screen.

The reduced pace makes for a better balanced and much easier ride than the X86K version in my opinion.  I also prefer the soundtrack over the original arcade machine. Additionally, the PC Engine features an exclusive level though I'm not able to get that far without a lot more practice.

A major issue with Gradius on the PC Engine is its bouts of slowdown.  This is not noticeable on Level 1 but can become a problem when the screen gets busy from Level 2 onward.  The slowdown can be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.  It can make traversing a busy screen and avoiding bullets a lot easier but is somewhat disconcerting when it suddenly speeds up again.
Slowdown is an issue when the screen gets busy.

So, the PC Engine conversion, in my opinion at least, is the best version of Gradius released so far and looks to stay that way until the mid-90s.  Although it may not be as graphically accurate as the X68000 version, it's a hell of a lot less frustrating.  It also has that extra level over the coin-up.  The only fly in the ointment is the slowdown. 

Example gameplay....

Sunday 4 October 2015

Gateway to the Savage Frontier - Commodore Amiga - 1991

Gateway to the Savage Frontier is the first of a two part series of games.  It was released for the Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga and PC-DOS in 1991.  It's another solid and enjoyable entry in the Gold Box canon.

As always, the first thing to do is to roll-out a party.  Like Pool of Radiance the game is set in the Forgotten Realms universe so racial limits apply to non-human characters.  Therefore, like Pool of Radiance, most of my party will be human.  As I have mentioned before, dice rolls in Gold Box games tend to be on the high side.  As a test I kept re-rolling - I got plenty of 18's but none of the rolls in any of the six attributes fell below 10.

Taking up the rear of the party are a female and male magic user, Merida and Velcan.  Next up is Ramur, a cleric.  Daisy is a half-elf and my only non-human character; I made her a fighter/thief/magic user.  The thief class is not racially limited but she will top out as a fighter at level 7 and mage at level 8.  As much as I hate role-playing them, and as I have not used one in a Gold Box game before, I made Cameron the hoity-toity, holier than thou, goody two-shoes paladin.  Leading the way will be Wingnut, a straightforward, salt of the Earth fighter.  All the characters start at level 2.

As usual I started playing this game on the Amiga as it has the edge over the PC version.  Things did not go to plan as the game began locking up with certain actions such as fleeing combat and bashing doors.  It eventually got bad enough that I couldn't continue and had to play the DOS version.  I have played five previous Gold Box games on the Amiga without any issues so my copy is probably corrupt.  It does however give me an opportunity to compare the engine on the two platforms.

Firstly, the character creation.  Obviously rolling the stats will be the same for both but creating the character icons is a much more laborious process on the PC.  You have choose whether you want to change the 1st or 2nd colour, then cycle through the 15 available colours until you find the one you want.  The Amiga does it all on one screen making it much simpler, and with 30 colours in the palette I didn't have to compromise as I did with DOS the game.  
The icon screen on the Amiga (right) is infinitely more user friendly.

With VGA as a graphics option the PC should be able to display better graphics than the Amiga.  In reality there is no difference.
Aside from the blue background on the Amiga, the graphics are virtually identical.

The audio is streets ahead on the Amiga.  The game only plays spot effects and the occasional tune but all are of much better quality on the Commodore machine.

The major annoyance (especially in combat) is having to press 'M' every time you want to move a character.  On the Amiga you can press the direction keys and you go.  Similarly, at the end of your moves in combat you have to press A(im) then T(arget) to get in a final hit.  On the Amiga pressing the direction key will do the same thing.

The only real advantage the DOS version has is the ability to install the game on a hard drive.  It is quicker to start the game and there are no noticeable loading times within the game itself.  The Amiga game came on three floppy disks and, with two drives supported, you only need to swap disks when saving.

The game begins in the town of Yartar.  Having had an uneventful journey escorting a caravan of mithril from Citadel Abdar to Yartar, the party are out on the town spending their well earned gold.  During the evening, something is slipped into their food causing them to pass out.  In the morning they awake to find all their gold and possessions (including a prized magic sword) have been stolen.  They vow to find those responsible and to retrieve the sword.

Yartar is the standard 16 x 16 town containing a weapon shop, training hall, temple, inn and a couple of bars.  Each character had a few platinum pieces so I was able to equip them with weapons and armour.  The only options available on entering any bar is 'fight' or 'leave' (sounds like a pub I know).  With a paladin on the team I would not start an unprovoked fight so I had to choose 'leave'; I just hope I don't miss anything important.
"I suppose a drink is out of the question?"

During my exploration I rescued Krevish, a fighter, who was being attacked by some bandits.  He took me to his leader who wanted me to deal with a cleric of Bane who is causing disruption in Nesme.  Krevish also offered to join the party.  He does take his share of the spoils and experience but an extra weapon is always handy.  At this point, Ramur was ready to level up but I didn't have anywhere near enough gold to afford the 1,000gp required at the training hall.

Leaving for Nesme brought up the overworld map.  Instead of using the cursor keys to move in the direction you want, you have to use the left/right key to change the way the party is facing and the up key to move forward.  I guess this ties it in with the movement in the towns/dungeons but it is not very intuitive.  On they way we encountered some hill giants who demolished the party before I even got near them - their thrown stones could one-hit-kill most of my characters.  Reloading, I paid to journey by boat which was uneventful.

Nesme was another 16 x 16 town with the usual establishments.  It has been suffering incursions from Lizard Men and in two parts of the town there was a 'troll problem'.  The town was offering a 100gp reward for each troll killed, but from Pool of Radiance experience I knew I would not be powerful enough to face them yet.  I did find the Banite Cleric who began burning some papers as I entered the room.  After I killed him the remains of a letter said the Banites were intending to foil a Zhentarim plot to take control of the region and that there was a magic user who knew of a way stop them.  As the cleric was now dead my quest was revealed - it is up to my party to find the magic user and take on the Zhentarim. 

It turned out the wizard is called Amanitas and has gone and got himself captured.  As always, the only man who can disrupt the Zhentarim plans is conveniently kept alive long enough to be rescued.  He reveals the Zhentarim, led by General Vaalgamon, are seeking four magical statuettes that in times past protected the ancient city of Ascore.  We are tasked with finding the statuettes before Vaalgamon.

I will note my thoughts below.....

  • The Gold Box engine always give me something to grumble about, not least in this game for the things that have been taken out.  Gone are the custom character icons that were present in the Krynn games (at least in the Amiga version).  Also gone are the improved graphical effects for spells that were introduced in Death Knights.  Finally, the diagonal cursor has also been removed.  I used this a lot for movement in combat and I can see absolutely no reason for programming out a feature that has been present since Pool of Radiance.

  • Gateway to the Savage Frontier features an overworld map but it is slightly different to those contained in previous Gold Box games.  It is now viewed in the 3D window, rather than using most of the screen, and is split into several sections.  Navigation is less user friendly in that you have to turn the party in the direction you wish to go then move forward rather than move in the four cardinal directions using the cursor keys.  If a town is next to a river, you can travel by boat which offers up less of the long-winded random encounters that take place in the wilderness.  I didn't go hunting for side quests in the overworld map despite locations such as the Trollmoors and dangerous Neverwinter Woods.
The viewing window only shows a portion of the overworld map.

  • I did stumble across two optional side quests.  One involved taking a piece of meteorite to a shop in Neverwinter where they could use it to fashion a magical weapon.

  • The game has a good range of monsters to fight.  One memorable combat takes place in an aquarium which requires a change of normal combat tactics.
Strangely the Stinking Cloud spell still worked and made the squids cough and nauseous (Amiga screenshot).

As mentioned above the object of the game is to collect four statuettes.  

After each one Amanitas tells you where the next is located.  Once you have all four it is time to head to Ascore where the final confrontation takes place.

The end of the Gateway to the Savage Frontier is a change from the Gold Box norm and slightly disappointing.  Firstly, you have to go through several fights in the combat view, so there are no opportunities to save the game or rest to recover HP and MP.  

In the final room you face General Vaalgamon along with Zhentarim fighters and mages, and several shambling mounds.  I had a few attempts at defeating him but could not get close - he is difficult to physically hit, casts powerful spells and is immune to magic.  There is however an exit just to the north of where you enter the room and directing a character through there leads to the end of the game (and lots of reading)....


Saturday 1 August 2015

Final Fantasy II - Nintendo SNES - 1991

The fourth game in the series and the second to be translated into English, Final Fantasy II was released in North America for the SNES in late 1991.  In Japan it was known as  Final Fantasy IV, as were subsequent remakes after Square decided to sync the names for Final Fantasy VII.  As well as the name change, Square lowered the difficulty level as they were worried US gamers would find the game too hard having missed the previous two titles in the series.  Final Fantasy II also fell foul of Nintendo of America censorship policies - several death and religious references were changed or removed.

Like Secret of the Silver Blades, Final Fantasy II was a game I had high expectations for, but failed to deliver as I had hoped.  It was a title I wanted to finish as I had completed the previous three installments, but won't be counted as a full entry on my blog.

My main problem concerns the plot.  It starts off well enough with the protagonist, Cecil, questioning the Kings motives for forcibly taking the elemental crystals from peaceful towns.  It later became so convoluted I simply lost interest.  Much of the game had you travelling the world collecting the crystals before the bad guys got to them, only for them to be snatched from your grasp anyway.  You might as well have just gone straight for the big boss.  According to Wikipedia, the designer acknowledges that some parts of the story were "unclear" or were not "looked at in depth".
Part of the plot involves travelling to the moon.

Another issue I had is that, besides Cecil, there were eleven other characters you can have in your party.  As only five slots are available, the additional cast where swapped in and out at the whim of the plot making it hard to care for any of them.  I just looked on them as tools to advance the story.

Both of the above took the shine off Final Fantasy II for me.  Don't get me wrong, it is still a good game or I would not have completed it, just not one of my favourites.  Here are some of the good points...

The move to the 16-bit SNES allows for greatly improved graphics and sound.  The greater detail in the character sprites mean little things, like a nod or a turn of the head, gives them a personality that could not be created on the NES.  

The music is of a high standard and much more orchestral than the NES titles.  A track or two sounded out of place but overall the music is very good indeed.

The combat screen and combat options look pretty much the same as the earlier games, but Final Fantasy II introduces the Active Time Battle system.  Combat is now in real-time making it a bit more exciting than selecting all the moves at the beginning of a round.  When a character flashes it is their turn to attack, cast a spell etc.  They will only flash again when a cool-down period (depending on their speed) has passed.  Casting spells or using special moves takes longer than a normal melee attack.
Typical combat screen.  I have four members in my party at this time.

The programmers made use of some graphical trickery in Final Fantasy II.  Some areas have parallax scrolling and when flying an airship, the world map tilts slightly giving a 3D effect using Mode 7.

To summarise the plot, Golbez has mind control over King Baron (and later Cecil's best friend Kain) and is using his men to gather all the elemental crytsals.  Golbez makes a lot of enemies along the way with most of them joining the player.  Golbez is in turn controlled by Zemus, a Lunarian living on an artificial moon.  Zemus wants the crystals to destroy humans so the Lunarians can take over Earth.  After Zemus is defeated he turns into Zeromus, the final boss.  It also turns out Cecil's father was a Lunarian.  Oh, and Golbez is Cecil's brother. 

The 20 minute end sequence...

It should be noted that Final Fantasy II (or IV) was the earliest in the series to get a direct sequel.  Final Fantasy IV: The After Years was released in 2009 on WiiWare and is set 17 years after this game.  In 2011 Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection was released on the Sony PSP.  As well as Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, it also contained Final Fantasy IV: Interlude, which is set between the two.

Friday 22 May 2015

Death Knights of Krynn - Commodore Amiga - 1991

It was with much trepidation that I approached Death Knights of Krynn, the fifth Gold Box game on my short list.  The series started well with the excellent Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds.  Next up was the predecessor to this game, Champions of Krynn, which while good, I criticised the linearity and a lack of varied opponents in combat.  Then came Secret of the Silver Blades.  Oh dear.  The designers were now capable of creating areas much larger than the 16x16 zones we had been accustomed to.  Sadly they didn't put anything interesting in them.  Rather than a decent RPG, SotSB was a boring, linear game where most of the time is spent in random combats.  I'm going to play through Death Knights of Krynn whatever, but will it be able to buck the trend?

Unlike previous Gold Box games, the PC and Amiga conversions were released in the same year.  Despite some PC games now coming with VGA graphics, Death Knights of Krynn was stuck with only 16 colours.  The graphics on the Amiga version were upgraded to 32 colours so this is my pick.  Things did not get off to an auspicious start when the game wouldn't read my Champions of Krynn disks so I was forced to recreate my party from scratch.

I rebuilt my party with the same names, classes and stats as before.  In Death Knights of Krynn you can now create a character as a paladin - this class was missing in Champions.  Starting equipment was plate mail or Solamnic plate mail and either +1 swords or +1 maces depending on class.  These had to last some distance into the game as it turned out better magic items were not found until a fair way into the game.

The game starts a year after the events in Champions of Krynn.  You are invited to celebrate the anniversary of the demise of Myrtani (which is just as well as we defeated him practically single handedly) and to attend a memorial for Sir Karl Gaardsen.  The memorial is disrupted when an undead Sir Karl flies in on the back of a Death Dragon.

The general plot involves thwarting the evil Lord Soth who is bringing fallen heroes back from the grave as Death Knights in order to take over the world (what else?).  His ultimate goal is to resurrect the legendary warrior Sturm Brightblade whose body has been laid to rest in the Clerist's Tower.  Soth can only be defeated using the Rod of Omniscience which was stolen from him by his former cleric Sebas Astmoor. It is up to your party to retrieve the rod before facing Lord Soth himself.

I will note my thoughts below.....

  • For Death Knights of Krynn the Gold Box engine has been improved in several respects: 
i) Character names have been colour coded so you know when they are ready to level up without consulting the tables in the manual.
ii) The game now remembers the spells your characters had previously memorised so you can (K)eep your favourite spells without having to choose them every time you rest.
iii) Combat now ends when all the enemies are defeated - it is no longer necessary to complete all of your characters turns.
iv) Some of the magic spells have better animations - a fireball now looks like a fireball. 

  • The engine has also taken a couple of steps back in my opinion:
i) The main annoyance is that, instead of just using the cursor keys to move, you have to press the M(ove) key first.  This is particularly annoying during combat when you have to do this each turn for every party member.
ii) Not a major point but the static graphics are more scarce and of a lesser quality that the ones I praised in Champions of Krynn.
Compared to Champions of Krynn the cut-scene graphics look rather crude.

  • Yes! This game marks the return of an overworld map similar to the one in Pool of Radiance.  Exploring the map leads to one non-optional and several optional side quests that break up the main plot.  Each is in a self contained area and provides treasure and XP.  Only some of the quest locations are marked on the map - others need so be discovered...
...or you can find hints to them on the road.
  • At the beginning of the game there were some odd role-playing choices and several more throughout the game.  The following screen resulted in nothing happening whatever option I took.  They seemed pretty pointless to me and a waste of code.

  • I don't know if the game was written by a different team but it had a different 'feel'.  There were several scripted events that I can't recall being in the series before.  For example, when I disturbed Sir Karl's grave I was attacked by worms.  My party took damage but it was all done in the text; there was no battle screen or chance to defend myself.

  • The game featured one thing I absolutely hate and that is maps that don't make sense.  The town of Vingaard has several 'exits' at the edges of the map that wrap around to the opposite side.  Step through one of these at the north end of town and you end up at the south end - they act like the tunnel in PacMan.

  • Exploring the overworld map offers up a number of side quests.  One of these involves liberating the slaves from a Kuo-Toa slave ship which you are compelled to complete whether you are ready or not.  I came across it early on, roundly got my arse kicked and had to reload.  I returned to it a couple of levels later and with a Solamnic Knight, Sir Durfey, in tow.  I managed to complete the quest, but still had to reload several times as Kuo-Toa are immune to most magic and their clerics can cast the poison spell which instantly kills any character.

  • As with all the Gold Box games, the economy is broken.  Money is only really needed to identify magic items and can be mostly ignored after combat.  Shops don't sell anything better than your starting equipment and useful magic items are only found on quests.

  • Draconians appear in this game as they did in Champions of Krynn but have been toned down.  They each have 27 hit points and none of the special traits they had in the previous title. 

The End* (spoilers)

The end game where you face Soth takes place in Dargaard Keep.  After some epic battles at the climax of previous games, Death Knights of Krynn was a tad disappointing.  Soth appeared flanked by four Death Knights with a handful of Iron Golems off to one side.  All are immune to magic.  My buffed, hasted and invisible (not that it made any difference) party managed to weather a volley of fireballs cast by the Death Knights.  Grout and Carraway were both affected by 'fear' - I cast dispel magic on Grout in the same round and Carraway in the next after he decided to hang around and cast a hold person spell instead of fleeing.  After that it was just a case of going to toe to toe to finish the fight.  My only mistake was that Lumley's sole weapon was a Mace of Disruption which was fine against the undead but useless against the Golems.  After the battle, using the Rod of Omniscience opens a vortex to another dimension.

With Soth out of the way, Lenore who pretended to be a defenceless widow and followed our party for protection, grabbed hold of the rod.

You reappear in the Clerist's Tower and are escorted to the Knight's Council.

Overall I really enjoyed Death Knights of Krynn.  My one main criticism, which also applied to Champions of Krynn, was a lack of variety in encounters.  As well as seemingly hundreds of Skeleton Warriors, there was an over abundance of groups of Black Wizards and Evil Warriors.  The Skeleton Warriors are immune to turning and spells and can only be harmed by magic weapons, so any straight magic users would potentially be left twiddling their thumbs in combat.  I'm glad I multi-classed.

It is good to see SSI getting back on form.  I have another two Gold Box games to play in 1991 so let's hope they can keep it up. 

* On completion of the main game a short quest called Dave's Challenge becomes available.  I only found this out when consulting a walkthrough after finishing the game.  I didn't attempt it as it didn't look very interesting and I would never have been aware of it anyway.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Coryoon: Child of Dragon - NEC PC Engine - 1991

Coryoon: Child of Dragon is a horizontally scrolling shoot 'em up for the PC Engine released only in Japan in 1991.  More specifically, it belongs to (and I hate this phrase) the 'cute 'em up' genre.

Without a manual it's hard to be precise on the exact plot.  The intro shows a princess and Coryoon, her pet dragon.  In a flash of lightning an evil ne'er do well appears and, for some unexplained reason, transforms the princess into a little girl.  You are then thrown into the game as Coryoon, presumably to catch up with the evil doer and ask him to change the princess back if he would be so kind.

As with most games like this, it's the graphics that first catch your attention.  The flicker-free sprites are fast, well drawn and colourful.  The background is bright and colourful with multiple levels of parallax scrolling.  The music is ultimately forgettable but quite jolly and matches the graphics well.  Underneath all the pretty bells and whistles is a solid shoot 'em up.

The game is played over several stages made up of different environments.  Each stage has a mid and end-of-level boss.  The enemies are mostly made up of various types of birds and animals.  When killed they drop fruit which can be picked up for bonus points.  The enemies come in thick and fast without any slowdown and the screen can get very busy.
One of the easier bosses.

With Coryoon being a dragon his main weapon will be his breath.  This starts out as the usual rapid fire pea shooter.  Not pressing the fire button charges up a shot similar to the beam weapon in R-Type.  When Coryoon puffs out his cheek the weapon is charged and releases a powerful ball of flame when you next press fire.

The main weapon can be powered up by collecting orbs dropped by a stork.  The orb alternates between red, yellow and blue so you can choose your upgrade.  The red orb gives you a powerful, but short range fire weapon.  The blue orb gives you a longer, but thinner laser type weapon.  The yellow orb gives you a multi-way shot.  Each type of shot can be powered up a further two times by picking up orbs of the same colour.  If you are hit while carrying an upgrade, you lose the upgrade.  Get shot again and you lose a life.  If you do lose a life you carry on from where you died.
Making good use of the fire weapon.

As well as dropping fruit the enemies occasionally drop Diamonds, Hearts, Spades and Clubs.  The Diamond changes Coryoon into a miniature version of himself.  It means he is harder to hit, but he loses the charge shot.  The Heart gives you two fairies that circle Coryoon and act as a shield.  They can alternatively be locked above and below your dragon.  The Spade is a single use smart bomb that clears the screen when detonated. The Club acts as a fruit magnet and draws fruit to Coryoon when holding down button I.  Only one of these power-ups can be active at once.
Carrying the diamond makes Coryoon harder to hit

The final power up can be obtained by killing a chicken that occasionally appears.  The chicken provides a small dragon option that darts around the screen taking pot shots.  It disappears, however, when you encounter a boss

The games biggest draw is also its biggest drawback.  The screen can get very busy which, combined with the games speed and bright graphics, sometimes makes hard to figure out what's going on or why you lost a life.  You start the game with 5 lives and plenty more can be gained as your score goes up, but there are no continues. The bundles of extra lives make the game quite easy, which suits me fine and I can see myself coming back to it a lot.

Example gameplay...

Sunday 22 February 2015

Goodbye 1990, Hello 1991

Hello Sega Game Gear - April saw the arrival of the handheld in North America and Europe.  Although it sold reasonably well it couldn't touch the sales of the Game Boy.

Hello SNES - Nintendos entry in the 16-bit console arena was released in North America. The August release was two years to the week after the rival Sega Genesis.

1990 was the biggest and longest year on my shortlist - it represented the crossover of the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, some new console manufacturers elbowing in, the emergence of the PC as a capable games machine while the Amiga and ST were still going strong.  Playing through half a dozen RPGs didn't help.  Thankfully, it's all downhill from here on in.

One of my let downs of 1990 was Eye of the Beholder.  I remember it as one of the first games that made me jealous of Amiga owners - an AD&D based Dungeon Master clone seemed right up my alley.  Unfortunately, a turn based tabletop game doesn't translate well into a real-time first person dungeon crawler so it had to get the chop.  Like Dungeon Master (though not as subtle) the enemy creatures roamed in set areas - a group of kobolds wouldn't follow you around a corner for example.  The reaction based combat didn't work for me either.  It did, however, make me appreciated the Gold Box games that bit more.

Another big disappointment was Turrican on the Amiga.  It started out as a difficult but fair run and gunner sporting excellent graphics, sound and gameplay.  The open levels rewarded exploration and offered lots of power-ups and extra lives.  The third planet soured the whole experience for me.  The levels became enclosed, the time limit harsh, extra lives dried up and you had to rely on memorising the level to avoid frequent deaths. 

Looking forward to the 1991 games I haven't played before.  Firstly we have Another World* (or Out of this World if you live in North America).  It's a game that I've always liked the look of but never got around to trying.

Mega-Lo-Mania (also renamed in North America as Tyrants: Fight Through Time) is another game I've always wanted to play.  One of my friends had it on his ST but I only saw it running - I never got to play it myself

Finally, on the RPG front we have the fourth Final Fantasy game and the fourth game in the Pool of Radiance series of gold box games - Pools of Darkness**.  Hopefully this entry will turn out better than the disappointing Secret of the Silver Blades.

* Much to my chagrin, Another World has been deferred to a later date.  I've discovered the best version is on the Sega CD and won't be out for a couple of years.

** Try as I might I really couldn't get into this game.  I didn't like the combat and I couldn't get into the story, which are two of the most important aspects of an RPG.  This is the first Gold Box RPG I didn't finish and I have no regrets.

Friday 6 February 2015

Ultima VI: The False Prophet - PC (MS-DOS) - 1990

At last!  Ultima VI: The False Prophet is one of the reasons I started this blog and is one of the games I had been looking forward to the most.  I became bit concerned when I dismissed Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny as I found playing it a bit of a chore and was worried this instalment would be more of the same.

I first played Ultima VI on my Atari ST back in the early 90’s.  It was one of my favourite games and I spent hours meticulously mapping all the towns and most of the dungeons onto graph paper.  The game ran direct from three floppy disks and one day a gamers worst nightmare happened when one of the disks corrupted resulting in all my progress being lost.  I haven’t touched the game since.

Now in 2015 it’s time to get reacquainted.  I had already purchased Ultima: The Second Trilogy from gog.com and still have my old physical manuals and map from the Atari ST days.  More importantly, I kept my 20-something year old notes and hand drawn maps.
Boy, I must have had a lot of free time.

I have elected to play the PC version of the game mainly due to the 256 colour VGA graphics.  The Atari ST and Amiga display 16 colours, run slightly slower and require disk swapping.  Ultima VI also supports sound cards on the PC but I switched the sound off as the music becomes irritating very quickly.

The game starts off with an intro sequence setting the scene – you are drawn to a moongate that appears outside your house on Earth.  Picking up the moonstone and stepping through you find yourself bound to an altar about to be sacrificed by a gargoyle priest.  Suddenly Dupre, Shamino and Iolo appear through another moongate, slay the priest and cut your bonds.  The party flees via the moongate to Lord British’s throne room having collected the priest’s sacred text.  Three gargoyles manage to follow you before the moongate closes.  Somewhere in the mix you also put in an appearance in a gypsy caravan to establish your attributes by answering some ethical dilemmas – your character class is given as Avatar.

The first thing that strikes you is the quality of the graphics.  Previous Ultima games used the Apple II as the primary development machine.  The Ultima VI engine was developed on the PC meaning the mostly black graphics of the previous games have been replaced by vibrant colours.  Although still tile-based the variety of terrain has increased dramatically.  Another change is that the towns and villages are now blended in seamlessly into the main world – they are no longer a single tile that changes in scale when you enter them.  Additionally, your party and enemies are shown in full and not as a single tile that only expands in combat.  Dungeons are now viewed from above allowing for a more varied design – a very welcome addition in my eyes.  The final main engine change is that the interface has become more user friendly with a big reductions in the number of keys required and the addition of icons for mouse control.  The game can be fully controlled by mouse, keyboard or a combination of both.

Your initial task is to defeat the gargoyles that followed you through the moongate.  By default your party members are not under your control in combat but this can be changed from their respective menus.  Like previous Ultima games, combat is turn based.  Whilst slugging it out with the gargoyles, Lord British, guard captain Geoffrey and Nystul the mage just stand by and watch.  With combat over you can speak to each of them and receive their respective quests.  All NPCs respond to Name and Job with Bye ending the conversation.  Key words are highlighted and can be used to expand the conversation tree.

  • Lord British states the gargoyles have started appearing in Britannia and have taken control of the shrines.  He also explains how to use the Orb of the Moons I picked in the intro.
  • Geoffrey says a patrol was sent to defeat the gargoyles at the Shrine of Compassion.  The soldiers were defeated and he suggests I should talk to the survivors in the village of Cove. 
  • Nystul advises I speak with Mariah at the Lycaeum and ask about the holy book that was taken from the gargoyle priest.

    As I can’t remember much of the plot I will be ignoring my notes but will consult my old maps.  I intend to systematically visit each town and speak to the populace, liberating the shrines and picking up clues and quests along the way.  What I do remember is that to make life easier my first two tasks will be to visit Yew to purchase a few pairs of swamp boots then Minoc to buy a ship.  I will note my experiences below….

    • In theory the Mayor of each town should have in their possession the mantra and rune needed to free the shrines.  In practice the runes have invariably been lost, hidden, stolen or given away resulting in a side quest to retrieve them.  In Minoc I had to go through a long winded process of joining a guild before they would help me out.  I’m trying to save the world, people!
    • The appropriate rune and mantra are needed to liberate a shrine.  The gargoyles have placed a force field over each shrine and once freed this disappears revealing the associated moonstone.  The gargoyles guarding the shrines can usually be defeated but at the Shrine of Justice they were particularly tough cookies and I couldn’t defeat them in combat.
    Combat can be avoided using the invisibility rings.
    • Meditating at shrines allows you level up once you have enough XP.  Depending on the shrine, this also raises one or more of your attributes of Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence.
    • Damn my younger self for not annotating my maps properly.  I have listed the treasure from level 2 in Dungeon Destard but failed to mark it on the map.  Not that I was aware I’d be playing the game twenty-odd years in the future.

    • Initially I didn’t use the Orb of the Moons.  It is basically a fast way to get around but I preferred to travel on foot for the first part of the game.  Depending where you ‘use’ the stone you can quickly travel to all the major towns and shrines in Britannia plus the gargoyle shrines of virtue.  I used it more than once to teleport to Lord British’s throne room for free healing when on low health at the bottom of a dungeon.  And to follow a certain errand…
    • Aside from the initial quests from Lord British, Nystul and Geoffrey, Chuckes the Jester tells you to look in Nystul’s chest.  This leads you to look under a plant in Serpents Hold, then under a bee hive in Minoc, then in a harpsichord in Moonglow, then in a jail cell in Yew.  I eventually gave up as I had a feeling it was red herring and I would end up speaking with Smith the talking horse.
    I checked a walkthrough and was right.
    • The good thing about moving about on foot is you have encounters you don’t get with the Orb of the Moons.  On my initial trek to Yew I came across some wisps who said they required knowledge.  I met them later after I borrowed a few books from the Lycaeum.   My reward for this information (it was ‘The Book of Lost Mantras’ that did it) was all I could carry in gold nuggets.  This was a nice bonus as it’s easy to burn through any gold gained from combat.
    "Likewise, I'm sure"

    • Currency is pretty well controlled in Ultima VI.  Despite the above I never really felt rich and didn't have to leave masses of gold lying about (unlike the Gold Box games).
    • Magic has changed from earlier games in the series.  Spells now have to be purchased and placed in a spell book which must equipped before the spell can be cast.  Each spell still requires reagents but they no longer need to be mixed in advance – you just need to be carrying them.  Spells in the higher circles use more magic points and require you to be a higher level.
    Dispelling a poisonous field.

    • The best spell caster in my party is the Avatar himself with 38 Magic Points.  Iolo and Shamino have a measly 9 Magic Points apiece whilst Jaana has lost the ability to cast spells altogether. 
    • I'm not quite sure how combat is calculated in Ultima VI.  I freed the Shrine of Compassion from the gargoyles easily with four very low level characters.  When I got to the Shrine of Humility with eight level five characters, I often went a couple of rounds of combat without getting a single successful hit.  This was with the whole party targeting a single wingless gargoyle.
    • After freeing the shrines it is time to assemble a treasure map.  The map was split up and divided between nine ex-pirates who reside in various places around the land.  The hoard contains a silver tablet that is needed to translate the Book of Prophesies that was take from the gargoyle in the intro.  It's then off for a trek through dungeon Hythloth to the land of the gargoyles on the other side of the world.
    That is one big map.

    • The gargoyles reveal that since the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom was taken into Britannia, their land started collapsing into the void until just one city is left.  Their prophesy says that only by returning the codex or the sacrifice of the false prophet (the Avatar) can prevent their world being lost.  They go on to say that I must visit the Temple of Singularity to receive a holy quest in order to reach the codex.  Needless to say, the temple is surrounded by mountains and I won't be able to reach it.  I couldn't figure out why a gargoyle hadn't simply flown to the temple for the holy quest and then gone on to recover the codex.
    • A balloon was needed to reach the temple and plans were found in Blackthorn's old castle in which a crazy wizard called Sutek was busy making two headed animals and killer bunny rabbits.  I guessed they were located here as this was one of the few places I hadn't mapped - I had drawn the outline when the game crashed on my Atari.
    Using the magic fan to guide the balloon over the mountains.

    • Upon reaching the Temple of Singulariy, the shrine says the Avatar needs to visit the gargoyle shrines of Control, Passion and Diligence to learn their mantras.  The shrines are statues representing the antagonists from the Age of Darkness Trilogy.
    Weren't you supposed to be a computer or something?

    • Combining the these mantras gives you the mantra to speak to the Shrine of Singularity.  This then grants a holy quest which allows you to pass the guardians that block access to the codex.  The codex gives instructions on how to send it back into the vortex from whence it came.  It can still be viewed from both worlds using the respective lenses that were used to retrieve it.

    The End....

    Like UltimaV I initially found playing Ultima VI to be a bit of chore and found myself doing other stuff to put off playing it.  Eventually something clicked and I got into the game as enthusiastically as I had the first time around.  I did find the interface to be a bit clunky and awkward when managing inventories.  The new icons also take up more of the screen reducing the main viewing window to 9 x 9 tiles from the 11 x 11 of Ultima IV and Ultima V.  This and the changed scale has the negative effect of making the play area feel slightly claustrophobic.  The game world cannot be faulted offering a freedom not seen in many games before or since.  Britannia is a truly open world where you can go almost anywhere straight away without being hemmed in by artificial barriers or impossible encounters (I'm looking at you Final Fantasy).  Most objects, however mundane, can be picked up or handled.  I can't think any other games where you can pick up items such as a shovel, a frying pan or a rolling pin let alone use them as weapons.  I can't say that Ultima VI: The False Prophet has aged well but it is still worth playing and another game I can tick off my list, albeit almost a quarter of a century later than expected.