Tuesday 10 July 2018

Treasures of the Savage Frontier - PC (MS-DOS) - 1992

Treasures of the Savage Frontier marks the end of the road for SSI's Gold Box engine.  It has given good service over the nine AD&D (and two Buck Rogers) games starting with Pool of Radiance in 1988.  There have been a couple of hiccups along the way, but for the most part the series has been very good.

This game is the follow up to Gateway to the Savage Frontier released the previous year.  The main things I remember about Gateway was the step backwards the Gold Box engine took and the contrived ending.  This time I am playing the DOS version as the VGA graphics are a big improvement over the 16 colours displayed on the Amiga.  Things got off to an inauspicious start when I had to create my party using the awkward character designer.  Picking the icons was so much easier in The Dark Queen of Krynn.
I can't say I'm sorry to see the back of this.

Indeed, it seems like Treasures of the Savage Frontier used a Gold Box engine several versions older than the last couple of games:-
  1. You have to press (M)ove to enter a move mode and then (E)xit before you can perform any other actions.  In most of the games you can simply use the cursor keys or the mouse to move.
  2. You have to quit the game and restart in order to load a saved game.
  3. It's not so easy to move around with the mouse - the cursor no longer changes to show your intended direction in the 3D window.
  4. The graphics aren't as good as The Dark Queen of Krynn which was also released in 1992.
  5. This last point affects all Gold Box games - what is described is not what you see in the first person view.
Description vs reality.

The manual says that Amanitas has magically transported your party, the Heroes of Ascore, to the city of Llorkh.  Zhentarim survivors from the last game are battling the resident dwarves for control of the city.  You have been summoned to aid the dwarves in defeating the Zhentarim and are then to visit Amanitas in Secomber.

Amanitus was the mage in Gateway to the Savage Frontier  who told us where to go next.  He does this again but this time we can communicate with him via a magic crown so we don't need to travel to Secomber each time we complete a task.

As the game goes on it is revealed that the Zhentarim, Hosttower Mages and the Kraken society have joined forces with the goal of taking over the region.  The Lord's Alliance is made up of a dozen cities who have grouped together to combat common threats in the area.  The evil union is intent on breaking up the Alliance using kidnapping, deception and subterfuge to set the cities against one another.  They have also framed the Heroes of Ascore as traitors.

Miscellaneous notes...

  • Combat has been tweaked by occasionally adding fresh opponents or friendly NPCs to a battle already in progress.  This can make the fights a little more interesting.
  • Some higher level items of magic equipment have been given names such as Sword of Stalking +4, Squid Shield +2 and Redflame Armour +2.  I'm not sure if they are imbued with extra abilities.
  • I kept picking up loads of Lucky Papers during the game.  Without knowing what they were for I didn't want to throw them away...

  • It turned out you can read them with three coloured crystals, one each from a Zhentil Lord, a Hosttower Sorceress and a Kraken Master.  If you meet them in battle and kill one of the enemies you can pick up their crystal. The remaining opponents smash theirs.  To collect them all you have to ensure you kill a different type of opponent first.  Lucky papers show the enemy objectives in each town.  I guess you can use these if you want to complete any city quest out of order.  I didn't.

  • There is a cheesy romance between the main character and a recruited NPC.  It doesn't detract from the plot but doesn't really add anything either.
  • There were at least a couple magic stores that sold the whole gamut of +1 weapons and armour.  I don't recall seeing one in any of the other gold box games apart from the occasional store that sold wands, potions and scrolls.

After completing quests in all the cities it was off to Mirabar to meet with the Councilors of the Lord's Alliance and to prove our innocence.  This brought up the usual end game screens with pages of reading...

What came next seemed disconnected from the main quest and felt like it was tacked on afterwards.  We were tasked with retrieving a magical gem from the hoard of a long dead (yeah, right) dragon.  This was to be found in Ice Peak in the far north of the overworld map.

The dragon's lair was located in a maze-like area on the far side of a one way door - once in you can't get out.

Alas, I was unable to finish the game due to an impossible penultimate battle.  You are attacked by three groups made up of blackrobed mages, spies and masters.  The blackrobed mages and blackrobed spies always get the jump on you and have a propensity for casting hold monster and hold person spells.  The blackrobed masters finish off held characters and disrupt my mages spells.  I'm lucky if I can get through the first round with half my party able to move.  Having a hasted party, invisible characters, and even turning the level down to Novice makes no difference to the outcome.  After many failed attempts I watched a couple of 'Let's Plays' on YouTube to see how it was done.  The videos showed the players being attacked by two groups of four and one group of five.  I had this...
Thirteen opponents would have been doable, twenty-five were not.  If anyone has any ideas please let me know*.

Although I couldn't complete the game I did like it.  Contemporary reviews weren't very kind calling it more of the same.  This is fine by me as I like the series.  Also, I found Treasures of the Savage Frontier was refreshing as it took us back to where Hold Person and Stinking Cloud spells still worked and my starting characters couldn't yet cast Fireballs. 
It was not quite the fitting end to the series I had hoped for but I still enjoyed it.  Here's hoping SSI's Dark Sun engine games are just as good.


After finishing writing this entry I did go on to complete the game.  I needed to load up my final save just to confirm the names of the enemies in the 'unwinnable' battle so I didn't bother buffing.  I decided to have a go anyway and was lucky enough to get off two fireballs before the enemy started to cast, so disrupting most of their spellcasters.  Their first volley of 'holds' only affected a couple of my party.  Some friendly dwarves and extra enemies turned up and I eventually won with only three dead characters.  The end game....

Having no chance to rest or heal we were thrown into a battle against Freezefire.  This was an ancient dragon that once terrorised the realm.  After the last battle it was disappointingly easy.  Although it had a -8 AC, it only had 56 hit points and was not immune to magic.  It went down within two rounds managing to hit only one accompanying dwarf with some kind of cold attack.

"You do realise this game doesn't have a sequel don't you?"

The End


Wednesday 27 June 2018

Super Raiden - NEC PC Engine Super CD-ROM - 1992

Raiden is a scrolling shoot 'em up that appeared in the arcades in 1990 and was successful enough to spawn several sequels and a few spin-offs.  Home conversions started appearing the following year but the only ones on my shortlist are for the TurboGrafx-16 and PC Engine.  Raiden was released on the HuCard format in 1991.  It was a good rendition of the original arcade game although it loses the two player mode. In 1992 an enhanced version was released on CD-ROM as Super Raiden.  Appearing only in Japan, it was more of the same but featured a much improved soundtrack and a couple of extra stages.

As befits an arcade shoot 'em up the plot is simple.  Super Raiden is set in the year 2090 after the Earth has been invaded by aliens.  Using the alien technology the World Alliance Military have developed the Raiden Supersonic Attack Fighter with which the only hope for mankind lies.
A 1UP and a B waiting to be collected.

The game is set over ten vertically scrolling levels each ending with a boss fight.  Your Raiden ship is initially armed with the usual pea-shooter which can quickly be upgraded by collecting power-ups dropped by certain enemies.  The power-up cycles between red and blue.  A red power-up give you a Vulcan Cannon which fires a spread shot - the more it is powered up the more it spreads.  The blue power-up arms you with a an Ion Laser.  The laser fires a narrow beam but is more powerful than the spread shot.

Sub-weapons can also be added to the ship.  An H icon arms the vessel with homing missiles and the M icon equips forward firing missiles.  Picking up icons when fully armed provides extra points.

Additionally, you carry three powerful Thermonuclear Bombs with each of your three lives.  More can be added by collecting B icons.  They may not destroy all enemies on the screen but they do a lot of damage and absorb bullets.
It doesn't fill the screen but the Thermonuclear Bomb provides a brief respite.

Other pickups include P which sets your current weapons to full power and 1UP which provides an extra life.

Extra points are awarded for picking up medals, Miclus and fairies.  Miclus is a dragon mascot of the developer and I only saw an elusive fairy once on the first stage but couldn't seem to find it again.
Miclus is a recurring character in Raiden games and is playable in at least one.

Super Raiden is once again one of those 1 life games where if you lose a life you lose all your power-ups and it's hard to get going again.  When you do die your explosion throws out some shrapnel that damages enemies for a few extra points.

It has to be said that the graphics aren't great in Super Raiden though this is mostly the fault of the arcade game rather than the PC Engine.  Although detailed the graphics are pretty uninspired and many of the sprites feature throughout the whole game.  There is also some flicker when things get busy.  Likewise the sound effects are nothing out of the ordinary.  The soundtrack, however, is excellent being directly streamed from the CD.

This type of shooter is not normally my cup of tea.  While it's far from a 'bullet hell' game there are lots of enemies and bullets flying around to keep track of.  Bosses especially are fond of spewing out waves of bullets.  The speed of your ship is also fixed making it that much harder.  This all makes for a difficult and at times a very frustrating game.   It is however very addictive and hard to stop playing.  For that reason it gains a place on my blog.

A faster ship would go amiss in situations like this.

Example gameplay....

Saturday 31 March 2018

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 - Sega Mega Drive - 1992

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the inevitable sequel to the first Sonic the Hedgehog game.  Once again it was well received by critics and went on to become 2nd best selling Mega Drive game of all time, beaten only by its predecessor.

The plot is pretty much the same as before.  Dr Ivo Robotnik is again trying his luck at taking over the world by creating an army of robots powered by innocent creatures.  He is using these robots to build a doomsday machine called the Death Egg.  All Robotnik needs to complete his plan are 7 Chaos Emeralds.  It is up to the blue hedgehog to find them first and foil his plans.

The core mechanics of the game are also pretty much unchanged from Sonic 1.  There are ten themed Zones to get through each divided into 'Acts'.

In Sonic 2 you can be accompanied by an anthropomorphic fox named Miles Prower aka 'Tails'.  By default Tails follows Sonic through each zone and is useful for mopping up missed rings.  He also flies by spinning his tail.  Another player can take control of Tails, in which case he just has the same moves as Sonic and cannot fly.  There is also the option to play as either Sonic or Tails alone.  Additionally, the game also features a 2-player split screen competitive mode.  I don't know what it is like on a real Mega Drive, but on the emulator the display looks rather squashed.

You start each game with three lives.  As you go through the levels you need to destroy enemy robots and pick up rings.  You destroy an enemy by spinning into them, which releases the trapped animal within.  If you are hit by an enemy you drop all the rings you are carrying.  If you are hit by an enemy and have no rings you lose a life.  Lives are lost instantly if you are crushed, fall off the screen, drown or exceed the generous time limit.  Extra lives can be picked up during the game or by collecting 100 rings.   Other items that can be picked up include Power Sneakers, Super Rings, temporary invincibility and a one-hit shield.

If you pass one of the Star Post check points while carrying at least 50 rings, you have the option of entering a special stage.  Here the view changes to an 'into the screen' mode where the goal is to collect a certain number of rings whilst avoiding bombs.  Collect the  the required number of rings (this increases with Tails in tow) and you are awarded a Chaos Emerald.

There are seven Chaos Emeralds to collect.  Once you have these you have the ability turn into Super Sonic by gathering a further 50 rings.  This mode turns Sonic yellow and he is invincible with greater acceleration, top speed and jumping abilities.  While in this mode you lose a ring per second and the mode ends once all rings are gone. 

At the end of each zone, Dr Robotnik turns up in a different machine, which you must spin into a number of times to destroy (he always manages to get away).

The music is by the same composer as the original game and is of much same quality.  Graphics, however have been greatly improved - they are of better quality and much faster.  To this end, more of the stages have been designed to take advantage of the extra speed.  A welcome addition is the Super Dash Attack which allows Sonic can reach full speed from a standing start.  I found Sonic the Hedgehog 2 to be harder that the original.  Maybe I need more practice but inertia made it difficult to land on small moving platforms.  It was all too easy for me to fall off the rafts in the Chemical Plant Zone.
****ing moving platforms.  These wouldn't be such a problem Mario game.

It was also too fast for it's own good in places, as you can find yourself bouncing around barely in control.  The Casino Night Zone is appropriate - it's set up like a pinball machine which is sometimes how Sonic 2 feels.  Overall, though, it's a great game and hasn't really dated much at all.

Friday 9 March 2018

Pinball Fantasies - Commodore Amiga - 1992

You wait ages for a good pinball game to come along then two turn up at once.  Pinball Fantasies is the follow up to Pinball Dreams and was released later in the same year.

The game contains four new tables each based around a different theme.  The tables are the same width as the previous game but are a longer and slightly more complex.

Partyland has the theme of a fun fair.
Speed Devils is based on motor sport.
Billion Dollar Gameshow speaks for itself.
Stones 'n Bones is set in a haunted house,

Apart from the new tables and a redesigned scoreboard there is not a lot of difference between the two games.  Everything I've said about Pinball Dreams applies here. 

Saturday 3 March 2018

Pinball Dreams - Commodore Amiga - 1992

Pinball games have been few and far between on my shortlist.  There have been a few 8-bit games which were fairly primitive in both looks and physics.  More recently I've played four games in the 'crush' series.  While good they were designed from the outset as video pinball games and could never be physically recreated.

So, Pinball Dreams is the first such game to be included on my blog.  It was developed by Digital Illusions and originally released in early 1992 for the Commodore Amiga.  It has been ported quite a few times up to and including an HD version for OS X in 2011.

On loading the game the credits appear and it is reassuring to see an entry for 'Realtime Ball Calculations'.

There are four themed tables included in the game - 

  • Ignition is the easiest table and is based around a rocket launch and space exploration.
  • Steel Wheel is based around the railroad and the wild west.
  • Beat Box is themed around the music industry.
  • Nightmare is apparently the hardest table and is based around a haunted graveyard.

Each table is a tad over two screens high and scroll vertically.  They also have their own theme tune playing throughout.  Although decent I found the music overpowered the sound effects, but thankfully they can be switched off.

The controls are responsive with several keys to choose from for the flippers (I chose left and right shift).  The plunger can be controlled by the down arrow or pulling back on the mouse.  The space bar acts as the 'tilt' key although I have never understood why this is always included in video pinball games.

Apart from loading times, the only real criticism I can lay against Pinball Dreams is that the tables look slightly bland and flat.  This is especially so compared against the fantasy 'crush' series, and even against the Space Cadet table that came free with Windows XP.  I suppose the 32 colours the Amiga can display at once doesn't help there.  It is, however, the physics that can make or break a pinball game and in Pinball Dreams they are spot on. 

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Parodius Da! - NEC PC Engine - 1992

As I've stated a few times before, the Gradius series contains some of my favourite shoot 'em ups.  These games in turn produced a couple of spin-off series - one being Salamander/Life Force, and the second being the rather strange Parodius.  As can be deduced from the title, Parodius is a parody of Gradius.

Parodius first appeared in 1988 on the MSX as Parodius: The Octopus Saves the Earth.  Like the MSX version of Gradius, it wasn't great.  In 1990 Parodius! From Myth to Laughter was released in the arcades.  It is this version on which Parodius Da! is based.

I'd heard of Parodius before but had never seen it in the arcades nor played any of the conversions.  The first time was when it appeared on my shortlist for 1991 for the Sharp X68000.  Comparing it to the original ROM on MAME, it was a pretty accurate rendition.  Even then the mighty X68000 struggled on the second level with quite a bit of slowdown when the screen got busy.  The second level was as far as I got as what really put me off was the insane difficulty level.

Come 1992, and Parodius Da! was released for the PC Engine in Japan (there was no US release on the TurboGrafx-16).  First impressions were not good after playing the X68K version.  The graphics were a lower resolution and not as detailed, and the transitions between backgrounds was not very smooth.  The music and sound effects, although good, paled against the computer.  Compared to the Sharp machine it generally looked a bit rough around the edges.  I soon got used to this, however, and found the PC Engine game more enjoyable (and needless to say, easier).  Just after completing this entry I found a there was a version of the game for the SNES.  It was not on my short-list but I decided to try it anyway. Like the other two conversions it was not released in the US but came out in Europe as Parodius: Non-Sense FantasyOf the three, it had the best sound and most options, and the graphics are almost on a par with the Sharp.  Maybe it's because I played it more extensively I still preferred the gameplay on the PC Engine.
Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy on the SNES and Parodius Da! on the Sharp X68000
I'd always thought of Parodius as Gradius but reskinned with weird graphics.  To a certain extent I was right - it plays identically to Gradius and the graphics are a bit bizarre - but to label it as such would be unfairParodius builds on Gradius by adding a few extra elements to the game.  The strangeness starts on the ship selection screen.  Your choices include the Vic Viper from Gradius and TwinBee from another Konami franchise, which is fair enough.  Your other choices are an octopus and a penguin. I'm not going to attempt to discover if there is any sort of plot.
TwinBee is possibly the weakest character.

After the selection screen you have the choice of whether powerups are applied automatically or manually.  You also have choice of three difficulty levels.  Even the hardest level makes for an easier ride than you'll get on the X68000.

Basic gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has ever played Gradius.  You proceed through each level shooting enemies.  Certain individual enemies (usually coloured red) and waves of enemies drop capsules when destroyed.  Blue capsules act as a smart bomb and destroy all enemies on the screen when picked up.  Picking up orange capsules incrementally highlights items on your power meter which upgrade your ship (or character) when selected.  Besides 'Speedup' and the unfamiliar '!?', all upgrades are unique for each ship.  At the end of each level you are met by a 'pre boss' (such as the volcanoes in Gradius) followed by the end of level boss himself.
Defeating the second level boss.

Collecting certain capsules turns your power meter red which starts a game of 'roulette' on it.  Pressing the power up button stops it on a random power up.  I try to avoid these because if it lands on 'Speedup' it can make your ship too fast, or it can reduce the power of your main weapon (say from a laser to double shot in the case of the Vic Viper).  If it lands on '!?' then all your powerups are removed and your ship is reduced to the slowest speed.  This also happens if you are killed and can quickly lead to 'Game Over' as Parodius is pretty much a one life game.

In addition to the capsules, certain enemies drop one-time-use bell power ups.  These vary in colour which denotes their effect and you can change their colour by shooting them (though ‘choosing’ a colour is easier said than done).  The most common bell is yellow and provides bonus points.  The points value increases with each consecutive yellow bell.  The green bell increases the size of your character and any options for a short time.  In this state you are invincible but cannot use your weapons.  The white bell equips your character with a megaphone which ‘fires’ phrases in Japanese to damage enemies.  The blue bell equips your ship with a ‘smart bomb’ that clears the screen of enemies.

The green bell and white bell in action.

The sound effects and music are good with speech when power ups are selected.  The main score is based on the music from Gradius interspersed with classical jingles and music from other Konami games. 

Overall Parodius Da! is an enjoyable game.  The graphics can be strange and it’s weird playing as the different characters, but underneath it is pure Gradius so I can’t help but like it.

Example gameplay....