#449 Phantasy Star Online

Posted: 19th September 2019 by Jeroen in Games
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815th played so far

Genre: Action/Role-Playing
Platform: Dreamcast
Year of Release: 2000
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega

Following the disappearance of City of Heroes (even if it was found to have fan servers online this year), we set off to play as many of the online games as possible, especially MMORPGs that rely on it so much. When doing so, however, we missed out on Phantasy Star Online, mostly because it has a single player mode… just one that you need to connect to a server to to play.

Thankfully, having researched it earlier this year, we found that there were ways of playing the game on fan servers and getting through that way, so that’s what we’ve been doing to try and see what this, the MMORPG adaption of a Japanese JRPG series, is about.

Our Thoughts

It’s weird to walk through what I guess is a semi-lobby for a multiplayer game when you’re playing single player. After the process of setting up your character – which took some guessing as to what’s what – you end up in the space station that orbits the world you’ll be exploring, and it’s a mostly empty error, shops in some corners, that feel lifeless without other players. It also meant I felt confidence being weird on my own, so I guess it’s all trade offs.

I think the single player missions are somewhat different from the multiplayer ones, with both being useful, but either way I can see the general pattern being similar. You teleport down to the planet – at least at first always to the same area, but you expand where you can go as you get further into the story. Still, you learn the first area inside and out, several doors preventing your transit so you have to take a different route each time, but you still know the places to hit up to get your supplies. It starts to wear out its welcome a bit earlier than it takes to get a new area, but at least it gets you more areas eventually.

Character building is fairly straight forward. Partially you have the JRPG levelups, while you need to buy additional techniques and spells using your profit. It’s not too complicated, but the mysterious names means I needed a guide to really see what’s going on. The combat itself isn’t the best with those – the auto aim tends to lose focus quite quickly and when you rely on your spells, that leads to a lot of wasted tech points (the game’s MP). I probably made a mistake by picking a magic focused character here, but it still felt unnecessarily annoying. I hope this is better in multiplayer, though – this might have been me and bad AI on the NPC helpers.

Final Thoughts

One of the issues I obviously have is that this is an old MMO that hasn’t had the time put into it to upgrade it to modern standards. Its sequel is still online, but with only fans keeping the servers running, we have  a status quo where the game doesn’t move, and where some of the possible online appeal is lessened from its unofficial status. Still, there’s a decent game underneath and I can see how playing this with others could have been fun – especially with its sci fi story setting it apart from standard fantasy fare.

#220 Cybernator

Posted: 14th September 2019 by Jeroen in Games
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814th played so far

Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up
Platform: SNES
Year of Release: 1992
Developer: NCS Corp
Publisher: Konami

As I don’t have much of an interest in shooters, I have a bunch of series that I clearly messed out on. Assault Suits, which this is a part of (Cybernator being the international title) is a mech shooter series that seems to have been popular enough for a while. For me, what I wonder is whether we get something to grab on to here.

Our Thoughts

Cybernator is a decent shooter. It looks decent, obviously limited by the SNES’s restrictions, but there’s some quite good about the gritty, mech-based graphics. They work well and give you that feeling of a dystopian future where you’re in a mined asteroid or something like that. It adds some decent storytelling to that, with small conversations during the level as you’re updated on what’s going on. For once, I felt like I could get the story of the game without looking at the manual, something games struggle with at the time. It made all the difference in keeping me interested.

In other places, the game still struggles. It wants to be a twin stick shooter, separating movement from your firing direction, but that’s not really possible on the SNES controller. Instead, you need to use the same d-pad for aiming and moving. You can freeze the direction of your shots if you want to – the game even lags changing its direction so you can fine tune it – but that means movement is always on going, rather than letting you aim. It feels off and it takes a while to get used to those controls – mostly I started ignoring enemies to help with that.

The good thing is that that’s fine – you don’t need to kill everything and I felt running past was often a good option, especially as I could time it to avoid taking damage. When adding the movement option, allowing dashing and short flight, maneuverability becomes important and it pays off – the shooting issues from before making that more difficult, but the options are there, and the fact that the game starts playing with gravity in the first levels adds to that feeling of motion, especially vertically.

Final Thoughts

Cybernator has some unavoidable control issues, but overall it remained quite playable – it felt tough but fair and I felt like I was proceeding and getting further as time went on. It’s dated, but it feels fair to judge it in the context of its era and even now it feels like it’s on the good side of all of that.

#322 Donkey Kong Country 3

Posted: 10th September 2019 by Jeroen in Games
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813th played so far

Genre: Platform
Platform: SNES
Year of Release: 1996
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo

It feels like Donkey Kong always took some weird turns in his gaming appearances. Originally, the ape was Mario’s big enemy, and vice versa. Skipping ahead a couple of years (and, conveniently, this game) he appeared in the Mario Kart series as a racer, the Donkey Konga bongo group of games, the still upcoming Mario vs. Donkey Kong games and a bunch of other appearances.

One of the changes in how Donkey Kong appeared came from the Donkey Kong Country series. Him – and his family members – became the stars of a bunch of platformers by Rare, who were a Nintendo-affiliated studio at the time. The third is the only entry of the series on the list, picked because it’s the biggest and most featureful one – the pinnacle of the series even as the SNES had been replaced by the Nintendo 64.

Our Thoughts

Like the contemporary Super Mario RPG, Donkey Kong Country 3 uses prerendered 3D graphics, sprites created from existing 3D models. It’s a cartoony look that would have looked incredibly advanced at the time and aside from looking a bit pixelly now, it allows for some nice animations that traditionally animated sprites would have struggled with.

That cartoony feel belies the difficulty of the game – at least when I tried to play it. I feel I got some decent distance in when I played, nicely finding some shortcuts and secrets and dealing with a rather incongruous set of levels – a snow level next to some tropical seeming areas seemed a bit weird.  There wasn’t much thematic consistency in it, unlike other bigger platformers, which I guess gives it some nice consistency here. It’s what it is, but with the size of the game it doesn’t matter too much. It certainly gives a bunch of different things to play with early on.

There are several secret caves with bonuses as well, and the world feels incredibly large as you explore. They are still linear, but there aren’t many games of the era that gives you that sense of size. I guess it’s the scale of the game, both in the size of the world and what happens in all the levels, that really stands out.

Final Thoughts

The difficulty of Donkey Kong Country 3 – the mill level got to me – was a bit of a roadblock, but I’m glad to have played and seen what I have. There’s quite a bit of variation and the whole game makes it feel like there’s so much to do. Every level felt different, with three games worth of options going into it, and I hope I’d continue to see more of that.

812th played so far

Genre: Role-Playing
Platform: PC
Year of Release: 1993
Developer: Looking Glass Technologies
Publisher: Origin Systems/Electronic Arts

There are a few games that I vividly remember being introduced to through the library. It started me on Baldur’s Gate, which I played that way first before getting my own copy, as well as the Discworld adventure games. The other series I played because of it – although I never got too far in because of my limited time – was the Ultima Underworld series. As an off shoot from the Ultima series, from around Ultima VII, it switched to first person dungeon crawls for the entire game while laying the groundwork for immersive sims. In fact, Looking Glass Technologies went on to be involved in both System Shock and the Thief series, both of which pushed that further. This early part of that legacy started here and it managed to get me quite involved and interested.

Having been exposed to more games and more of these genres (and really enjoying them), I’ve been dying to go back to the series that started so much of it. Now I finally get to go for it.

Our Thoughts

Just walking through Lord British’s castle, there is something big feeling about this game. There are a lot of named NPCs walking around with their own schedules and set up s who seem to react quite well to what’s going on – it’s not bad by contemporary standards and great for 1993 – Ultima was doing it anyway, but it feels it stands out here too.

Add to that that this first “level” has a bunch of things going on anyway – several secret areas, one of which actually contains the supplies you need to cast spells. I’m sure it’s hinted plenty, but it stands out here as something that avoids hand holding. Still, obviously there aren’t many quest lines here, but it stands out as not being the only level setting up this way, even if you might expect that. The dungeon levels under the castle are a fairly standard dungeon crawl, including some annoying puzzles and death traps, but it feels fairly simple for the most part compared to that castle. The stand out in that sense is a community of peaceful goblins who are happy to leave you be, and even accept some help.

Then you get to the prison tower. Other games would have you fight or sneak your way through. Here you can find a food delivery voucher that lets you travel through uninterrupted, as long as you deal with the guards correctly. Fighting is, of course, an option, but it’s a lot more difficult and less satisfying. It’s a neat way of giving you multiple options where the game supports it.

From there on, the world also opens up. You need to return to the castle regularly to open up new routes and deal with things as they happen, things changing at you do, but also need to travel between levels as their quests aren’t contained to one side. It’s a cool mechanism, with a pretty varied set of areas that it seems to take you through, and it feels quite intense. It’s all more dungeon focused than other Ultima games, but creates its own good feel.

The magic system, ported from the original game, is as interesting. You combine different runes to cast spells. A number of them are given, but you can experiment with combinations to cast more of them. A lot of them are utility as well, which works in this type of world as well. I didn’t get to the point where my MP was high enough to keep using them – and the fact that you need to swap rune stones around mean it’s not as easy to use several of them – but it feels immersive and good.

Now, these systems appear in other games, but somehow this feels different from the original Ultima‘s, which focuses a lot of this on the NPCs. Everything interacts, but since it seemed like it is more focused on your interactions with other characters, here it feels like you’re more involved with the world – it’s smaller but your interactions with it seem more in depth.

Final Thoughts

Ultima Underworld II struggles with the constraints of its age at every point. Visually it can’t quite show everything with the detail it needs and its systems maybe aren’t quite as worked out as they could be. It certainly runs up against the limits of the UI it has – no WASD, no hotbar casting for your spells and so on – which I don’t think has a decent engine update to improve this. It’s a game to go to and explore, but I need to take my time to take a deeper dive. This is a game that needs it.

#229 The Incredible Machine

Posted: 2nd September 2019 by Jeroen in Games
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811th played so far

Genre: Puzzle
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1992
Developer: Jeff Tunnell Productions
Publisher: Sierra On-Line

As one of the other games I had great memories of, I mostly experienced the Incredible Machine franchise through The Incredible Toon Machine, a more kid focused presentation of the whole thing. It has hints of Armadillo Run or a more focused Eets, creating Rube Goldberg style machines to solve puzzles.

This is the more serious version, but I think even then it has some cartoonish elements. I’m looking forward to see whether it’s still as playable as I remember it being.

Our Thoughts

While the Incredible Machine is one of the earlier Rube Goldberg games, it is a lot of fun to play – I kept playing the puzzle levels and needed to force myself to stop playing. There are a lot of different puzzles in there, with their own parts and different goals. In a way, it already feels like all the other games follow this. While the sequels put some additional flavour on it, later games that use this feel like they specialize for a specific type of goal or puzzle pieces or methods. In that, they lose some flexibility and they become less interesting – the potential here is what makes it good, especially with some of the creative elements and flexibility in your solutions. It’s a big space and it meshes well.

Graphically, obviously the game is quite simple, butthey work well. There are some situations where it’s a bit difficult to see whether they line up properly, but the game gives you enough chances to work all of this out. It makes it quite clear what’s going on, which is what matters.

Final Thoughts

The Incredible Machine perfects its formula well – big Goldberg devices with a bunch of different puzzles to solve and more than enough to play around with later. It still works and while the sequels aren’t on the list, they feel like they would work just as well.

#120 Rolling Thunder

Posted: 29th August 2019 by Jeroen in Games
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810th played so far

Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up
Platform: Arcade
Year of Release: 1986
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco

Do I need to say it? There are some games that I know are on the list for their impact or because they stand out in the genre, but where I know it doesn’t appeal. Rolling Thunder is a side scrolling shoot ’em up, without adding more that I see appeals – it’s very gory even by today’s standards, but I just don’t really see whether I would care.

Our Thoughts

Perhaps part of the realism for this game is that the main character animations stand out so much. They are decent, better than I’d expect from the era, and it almost feels unnecessary for the game. They’re quite slow, which is their big downside, but it’s a nice touch for the game. The art style is closer to what’s expected of the era, but on the whole, it looks nice if only it didn’t hinder gameplay as much as it seems to have been doing.

Beyond that, this felt like a pretty standard shooter. There are an abundance of enemies, possibly more than I’d really want, and you keep being challenged. It’s an incredibly difficult game, both from the enemies, the clunky platforming and general slow control issues, in a way that doesn’t really pay off long term.

Final Thoughts

I guess there’s a certain level where Rolling Thunder is appealing, but for me it’s too difficult to pick up in the time I gave the game. It looks nice though, and does its best to give you something that looks good for the eighties. It just goes to and past arcade difficulty while offering the arcade ‘expensive’ feel.

#348 The Curse of Monkey Island

Posted: 25th August 2019 by Jeroen in Games
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809th played so far

Genre: Adventure
Platform: PC
Year of Release: 1997
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts

I’ve always loved The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island II and it was a treat to revisit them for the blog. I’m not as familiar with the third game, having played through it only once, but I’ve been excited about revisiting it. It’s prettier – a step up this time – and I recall some interesting characters as well that I want to see again – Murray became well known for a reason. This should be one that I’ll be able to finish for this write up – I’m looking forward to that.

Our Thoughts

Although Ron Gilbert is no longer involved with the series, Curse of Monkey Island for the most part still feels like it. It doesn’t explain much about the ending of the second game, even if we return to some of the concepts later, but just handwaves a lot of it away. Instead, we get dumped in the middle of a fight in a couple of semi-tutorial scenes – short, one or two screen rooms that have you figure out puzzles one by one while introducing some new characters. I’t s aoog dway to get used to the new interface, and feels natural – only with hindsight does it feel like it’s showing you different bits and pieces.

What happens is the same as other games – you travel across several islands, each with their own set of puzzles, in this case tracking down how to undo the curse that turned Elaine into a golden statue. There are some decent chunks of puzzle here, with the first full island paying off the best. It introduces a bunch of neat characters and while it repeats some concepts (like the pirates you need to hire) it works well as a decent set of objectives. I wish it carried over for a bit longer, as the end feels a bit rushed, and while there are some callbacks, on a whole it feels a bit disconnected. I’m not sure if it was rushed or intended, but it didn’t feel as satisfying as the ends of the other games in the series.

At the same time, the puzzles don’t feel as obscure – I needed to get a bit of help with pixel hunting, but for the most part beyond that it felt more straight forward. The lack of death obviously helps, but it’s nice no matter what.

Graphically the game looks a lot better than its predecessor, going for a cartoony look that LucasArts built through over time. This is probably at its height – a higher fidelity than Day of the Tentacle while not going for Full Throttle‘s grittiness. It works well, making the zaniness more acceptable and it makes it a lot of fun to watch in the first place.

Final Thoughts

At this point, it feels like we’ve reached the pinnacle of LucasArts adventures – aside from the other titles mentioned, this was followed by Grim Fandango as the first 3D title. It also led to Escape from Monkey Island, a far worse sequel that feels misguided in how wrong it went. Still, I enjoyed this game and revisiting the world – there are a lot of interesting scenes and ideas in it, perhaps not in a way that came together in a whole as well as others, but it felt like it created a better, easier to follow game than before.

#135 California Games

Posted: 21st August 2019 by Jeroen in Games
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808th played so far

Genre: Sports
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1987
Developer: Epyx
Publisher: Epyx

Out of all these replay games, California Games is the one I’ve probably known longest – even in the full list there are a few (like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man) that could match it. I played it, in part, on a keyboard that was slowly dying, and not having a shift-key made some of the minigames a lot more difficult to play, but somehow I spent hours on figuring out the hackysack game and bmxing around.

I’m well aware of its limitations, but I hope some of that magic has carried over and I can still find my way around. Why else would I have spent this much time on the game?

Our Thoughts

The upsides, playing California Games after I’ve played more conventional games like Track & Field and Summer Games II, is that it brings a number of games to the table that feel quite different from the standards. There’s no awkward button mashing running game and although something like BMXing is quite similar to Excitebike, there is actually a nice bit of variation in the scenery and it feels like quite a different game (even if roller skating is quite similar – though with a more ice cream defined endpoint).

What was vaguely reassuring is that I still had okay skills with the ones I used to be good at, and still don’t get the games I never got. I’m not sure I quite understand surfing – although I remember learning a few tricks for it 25 years ago, getting up on the board seemed difficult enough. I got back into Footbag easily enough – kicking the bag up is easy enough to time, and it comes down to the tricks you need to learn – and frisbeeing is probably the closest to the other games, with the standard golf hit bars and a trickier catching sequence at the end.

The controls remain flakey, even with a full keyboard, and somewhat inconsistent feeling between mini games. That impacts the games and makes it more difficult to learn it, holding back this feeling like a coherent set of games. It’s easy to jump between games though, not requiring a certain order if you don’t want to, and that on its own feels comfortable – you can do what you want.

Final Thoughts

California Games‘s strength in this group of games lies in its variety of games, it feels different and unique, which not all games like this seem to do. Sadly the games aren’t all that consistent – at least in controls and feel, even if the quality is similar enough – and it feels like a bit more care could have solved that. It’s a fun way to waste some time, but didn’t entirely hold up in my mind.

#349 MDK

Posted: 17th August 2019 by Jeroen in Games
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807th played so far

Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up
Platform: PC
Year of Release: 1997
Developer: Shiny Entertainment
Publisher: Shiny Entertainment/Playmates Interactive

I’ve sort of played MDK before – it wasn’t loads, and mostly dropping into other people’s games rather than playing a full campaign on my own. The sequel stands out as being an early Bioware game, release shortly after Baldur’s Gate, as they were still getting settled. The first was made by Shiny Entertainment, who also made future game Sacrifice, but co-designed by Nick Bruty, who later made Giants: Citizen Kabuto, a game I liked rather less.

The meaning of MDK isn’t as clear – at least officially – but we thought it was genuinely meant to stand for Murder, Death, Kill. The creators denied it, but it was such a cool sounding name that we had to go for it. The game itself wasn’t that aggressive from my momery, but even that didn’t really matter here.

Our Thoughts

MDK feels like a product of its time. Graphically it’s got some nice models, but it also has the lengthy brown unreadable ground textures in places and generally works more on creating bigger environments than making that readable. Beyond that, what you get is mostly a decent third person shooter, using smaller areas than we make get in current games but clearly designed to help with performance. It’s fine, but the amount of enemies in each place means that there were times where the whole thing can feel quite overwhelming, with not that much leeway for errors.

There’s a decent selection of weapons, which get pretty ridiculous – the “World’s Smallest Nuclear Bomb” is as deadly as you’d expect, but just as ridiculous. More notable for most of the game, though, are the other abilities. Each level starts with a freefall using the parachute in your suit and subsequent areas in the level let you use the same thing. The gliding gives you a nice bit of extra control when playing and works as a nice addition to make the world feel more 3D. The sniper scope is another nice addition – it does what you expect it to do, but is usable whenever you want. It feels incredibly satisfying and becomes a part of the core gameplay.

The levels themselves differ a lot in how engaging they are. Some are pretty standard, almost boring arenas, but others take place in these giant factories and testing facilities. Where it works well, you get a nice bit of world building, but despite there being a written explanation, the story never really gets shown well in the game. It’s a shame – considering there are voice overs, adding a few more might have made it all connect a bit better for me.

Final Thoughts

MDK is a difficult, unforgiving shooter that sometimes manages to pay it off with some amazing moments and nice sights, but at others drops the ball a bit and makes them less interesting. On the whole it was okay to play, but time hasn’t been as kind as it should have been, so it’s a case of needing to be careful with what you get into.

806th played so far

Genre: Driving
Platform: PC
Year of Release: 1998
Developer: Stainless Games
Publisher: Sales Curve Interactive/Interplay Entertainment

Carmageddon is one of those games that felt like a transition to adulthood for me. While we weren’t allowed to play – the violence and indulge in dark humour were too much for our parents – we got an illegal copy and I remember playing it while not telling my friends’ parents what we were actually playing. There was something exciting and naughty about it that made it even better.

A few years later, when I got a new system, it had the second game in the series – this one – installed on it, so of course I played it. By that point, my parents didn’t care as much and it was okay to play it – with some comments, but it was fine. I guess the world moved on, we got older, and it just didn’t feel as bad as presented. Twenty years on, more will have changed, but this is where we’ll see how that goes.

Our Thoughts

The first question to ask is whether Carmageddon II is a good racer? Whatever else the game may offer, it’s important that it does the basic gameplay well. The answer there is that as a racer on its own, it’s pretty standard. The game feels quite floaty, especially with your first car, and you don’t have a lot of grip (it’s pretty bad, to be honest, if this is meant to be average grip). It’s not impossible, but if you want to have the collisions this game has, it’s good for your car to have some weight to it. In a blast to the past, the game still uses a standard checkpoint system: go from point to point in the time allotted. What saves that is that the game is very generous with bonus time, so unless you go out of your way to be a good person, which isn’t easy in the game, you might run out.

Here’s the thing though: Racing around the track isn’t really the fun part of the game. Sadly some challenges require it, but when you can it’s not what you want to focus for. Another is to kill all the pedestrians in the level – the bit msot people objected to, but not something you want to do normally. They’re a quick source of extra time and money, but they get exhausting to find after a while.

More enjoyable, and what you’d want to do, is to waste your competitors. They’ll seek you out too, sometimes, which makes that more helpful, but it’s a lot of fun to find the different ways to waste them. More important, if you wreck another car, you get a chance to buy their car at the end. Getting a sturdier, heftier car really helped moe going forward – just to get more cars.

What makes finding the pedestrians more difficult, but chasing the cars more fun, is that the game’s levels are pretty big. Multiple courses use the same level layout with different routes and checkpoints. The areas still seem bigger than that and it feels like there are more secrets and easter eggs in there that can take a while to discover. It also makes it a lot more fun to wreck cars, as there are so many more places to go – even underwater if you want to, which has more there than you’d expect.

Final Thoughts

Carmageddon II isn’t a great racer. It’s fine, but feels too floaty to really work well as a racing game. Where it sets itself apart is in its violence and how much it indulges in it. It’s far from realistic, but that comedy is what makes it work. It’s crass, but goes far enough for it that it works here.