#241 Return to Zork

Posted: 11th August 2017 by Jeroen in Games
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624th played so far

Genre: Adventure
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1993
Developer: Activision
Publisher: Infocom

Zork is, as we’ve discussed before, one of the most important and best known text adventures. Return to Zork is a point and click instead, from a first person perspective, and with some live actors like we’ve seen in Gabriel Knight – though with pre rendered CGI backgrounds.

I’ve played a sequel to this, Zork Nemesis, and was (to be honest) horribly confused by it, but simultaneously enthralled by what was on offer. I hope this will do something similar.

Our Thoughts

I’m not sure this game comes across as well now as it did when it was first released. The combination of pre-rendered background with actors clearly shows how artificial the backgrounds are, while the graphics just can’t measure up. It’s a weird point, as I’m not sure what the game could have done here, even if released at another time.

Text adventures can have some interesting descriptions, designed to evoke the imagination rather than providing an exact visual. Creating those afterwards don’t necessarily look the best, and by giving more information you box them in as well. At several places in the game, the environments looked like they were trying to evoke these written images, without always pulling it off that well. It means some areas come across as bizarre and navigation can feel a bit odd because you jump from screen to screen, rather than moving there. Turning around especially led to some weird results.

This will be an issue in early Myst as well, but that game was fixed up. Here, obviously, little of that happened.

That doesn’t mean the game just plays as a text adventure with graphics. The use of live actors leads to a far more interesting dialog system. This involves letting them speak while you select your emotion, with the characters (sometimes) responding appropriately. As other adventures, they will also respond to items and such you show them, but you also get recordings of the things they say that you can play to other characters, and show them photos you take of locations. It creates loads of new options, not always as good as others (having to play audio clips over and over gets boring), but it feels deeper and seems intended to showcase all of these actors.

Beyond that, the game does play like a point and click adventure. Find items, find places to click, combine them, not always in obvious way. It seems like there are places where you can get stuck if you don’t do the right thing, but mostly it doesn’t kill you that quickly. There are still some death scenarios, but with saving you’d be fine. The difficulty is still there, but more accessible than the text adventures.

Final Thoughts

There were times where the game certainly confused me, and I’m still not quite sure what my goal was the whole time, but there was an interesting world to explore here with one of the more interesting dialog mechanisms in games. It’s doing its best to make use of the extra capabilities it has, even if it looks a bit worse now. If it had struck bigger, a remake at this point seems like it would well. For now, I need to gather more courage to try again.

#228 Virtua Racing

Posted: 7th August 2017 by Jeroen in Games
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623th played so far

Genre: Driving
Platform: Arcade
Year of Release: 1992
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

We see a lot of experiments with 3D in the early nineties and I vaguely remember the Virtua series being at the forefront of it. Aside from the Virtua Racing series, there were the Virtua Fighter games we discussed a few years ago. They look quite dated now, but they sure tried…

Looking at the screenshots, the differences in the animation required means that Virtua Racing looks less chunky than Virtua Fighter despite being a year older. We got Daytona USA a year later, which is as much of a touchstone now. Graphics were changing, and this is one of the places where this started.

Our Thoughts

There is a pretty standard setup for these racing games – a few laps around a track, trying to get ahead of the pack – and Virtua Racing doesn’t really do anything different there. This is one of the first that did it, and the first that made 3D seem as something that had to be here. The impact is diminished, in part because I’ve played later games that build on this, but I can see from that what makes this special.

There’s one other weird feature that stands out – rather than provide a full score, the game plays a short music clip as you pass through checkpoints. It’s an odd feature, one that really stands out when it suddenly drops in.

As for the tracks, they’re fairly varied, but can be a bit of a pixelly mess where it can be hard to figure out early where you go, which meant I set myself up to go the wrong way a few times. This would be different if I memorized the track, but I rarely get far enough to really do that.

In the end, one of the things that breaks down here is that there are timed checkpoints that means you’re unlikely to finish your laps. I can see how it’d be an arcade constraint, but for too much, it just feels like an annoying thing that gets in the way.

Final Thoughts

I do enjoy the racers of this era. There’s something not quite as complex about them, while getting past the clunkiness of earlier racers. As said, it’s a shame about the time limits, but that is a limitation of the arcade requirements. It’s possible playing another version woudl have solved me for this, but at the same time, right now I feel I could find better in other games.

#428 Vib-Ribbon

Posted: 3rd August 2017 by Jeroen in Games
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622nd played so far

Genre: Music
Platform: Playstation
Year of Release: 1999
Developer: NanaOn-Sha
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

A line moves in tune to the music. A bunny, sort of made from that line as well, moves alongside. Rhythm game controls let you do so. It looks stylish, if simple, if that makes sense, and having read about the game in the past, most of that seems to be because memory was limited and this was the best way to make sure you could play with your own CDs.

Our Thoughts

It feels like there are two main ways to make music games more complicated. One is speed – if you have to respond faster and more often, it gets more difficult. The other is through complexity – pressing multiple buttons at once or doing so in different patterns. Vib-Ribbon brings in the higher speeds on its more difficult songs, but it’s the complexity where it got me.

At its most basic, four different shapes come down the track, each corresponding to a different button, and you press them at the right time.  When it gets more difficult, it starts to combine the symbols. You have to unwrap the shapes and figure out which two buttons to press. Not having internalised them, and not really having easy mnemonics memorized, that actually makes it quite complicated.

It becomes a pretty difficult game when we tried the Smash Bros soundtrack, where there were a lot of combined symbols while greatly sped up. It’s actually quite pretty to go through, the line art aesthetic being simple enough to create something simply artistic. It’s those graphics that add to the fun view, more so than others form the season sometimes do.

Final Thoughts

Vib-Ribbon is, for someone with my sense of ribbon, as hard as something like Guitar Hero (the colours get to me. They don’t always map to my fingers). And while predating the more complex looking music games, the simplicitly created by the constraints actually help make the game better for me.

621th played so far

Genre: Strategy/Adventure
Platform: ZX Spectrum
Year of Release: 1984
Developer: Mike Singleton
Publisher: Beyond Software

I sort of remember Lords of Midnight. I was a lot younger, but cousins had it on an old computer system and we (sort of) used to try it. I’m not sure I ever understood quite what it was about, but they probably got into it. Most important was that it looked and felt different, a game where you went out on an adventure and no platforming was required. Instead you got these blocky knights standing in this world.

Our Thoughts

Before starting Lords of Midnight, it felt like a good idea to read up on strategies and how things worked. An old strategy game usually doesn’t communicate its best routes that well and I really didn’t want to get lost with this game. While this paid off – I managed to play for quite a while – it meant that I had a bunch of false starts as I figured out the control and direction to go in. Not too frustrating, but at times confusing.

Often, when a game is listed here with two genres, it’s either because it combines both or, in the case of action/adventures in particular, because they’re their own sub genre. Here, however, you are playing two games that overlap and mix, but where you only need to play one to win – although using both can help a lot.

The adventure game is somewhat Lord of the Rings like – sneak into a mountain fort to destroy an artifact. It’s a simple light RPG thing that’s not as deep as proper entries in the genre, but is quite difficult with the armies and monsters roaming the map and the character who needs to do so generally not being as strong.

The strategy game isn’t complex either – you recruit armies and generals who need them, strengthen them and go around until you are strong enough to assault the main base and take out the big bad.

The big epic mode is of course to do both, as a two pronged attack that, again, sounds a bit like the Lord of the Rings plot.

You have a group of protagonists who help you through – four starting off, although you recruit more generals. The first, Morkin, is the adventurer who is the protagonist of the adventure strand. His father, Luxor, is the great general who leads the army to success. Two others can move around as well, with Rothron being good at recruiting further armies. It feels like there is a nice bit of differentiation between them that adds character to it.

A last element that stands out are the graphics. What’s quite amazing for the time is that it doesn’t show a set image, based on your immediate surroundings, but that it shows elements several squares away (depending on what would be blocking it). They’re not full 3D effects, but add enough depth to create more of a sense of place and especially scale.

Final Thoughts

One of the interesting features of the game is that it feels like it was one of the first that gave you options. There are two ways of winning the game, and while they support each other, if you focus on one you can manage. It makes for an interesting path, one that is still interesting today and that I could see work with a cleaned up interface.

620th played so far

Genre: Role-Playing
Platform: Playstation 3
Year of Release: 2009
Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment/Atlus Software/Namco Bandai

The Dark Souls series has its own particular reputation for difficulty and requiring learning by repetition. I’ll be honest, while I think I would enjoy parts of it, it also sounds like something I would get too frustrated with to keep going.

Demon’s Souls is the serie’s predecessor, not a sequel (not that I’m quite sure why that is, probably story reasons) but setting a lot of the wheels in motion. And this is where I get to see how that works out for me for real.

Our Thoughts

Having heard about all the difficulty in this game’s sequels, I was ready for something tough but fair here, and I wasn’t disappointed. I mean, it was frustrating, because I clearly didn’t have the skill to make it that far, but the challenge felt so good. I mean, I would have loved a checkpoint in a level here or there. I would have loved some of the mechanisms that made the level a bit easier (in some of the sequels, killing an enemy a certain number of times removed them). It would have been really useful if there was some signposting that an optional difficult enemy was in this direction, rather than the main level. And yeah, that all happened before I could unlock the game’s full feature set, not yet being able to being the first boss.

From the bits I know, the Dark Souls series might have made everything a bit more fair.

But the game pulled me in. Because it was difficult, but fair, it kept me wanting to try, constantly pushing further to get through – although a few times I got far, died, lost all my souls, and couldn’t get back in time. Those were the moments where I stopped playing for a while, too frustrated to go on. I did jump back in, but it might be a bit too much for me.

I wish I had made it to the final boss, but right now I don’t have the patience to do that, and there are other games still waiting for me. I believe the first sequel is still coming up and I’m hoping to see where that leads for this game. It might work better for me. If not, I’ll just have to invest more time later.

#61 Lode Runner

Posted: 22nd July 2017 by Jeroen in Games
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619th played so far

Genre: Platform
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1983
Developer: Doug Smith
Publisher: Broderbund/Ariolasoft

I’m not going to claim any great affinity with Lode Runner, but I remember playing a version of this at some point and becoming obsessed for a bit with its large number of levels and built-in level designer. It, of course, came with a large number of home built levels, similar to just about any version fo Stunts you’ll find.

I’m not sure if that is a good endorsement of the game itself, but it made such a difference in making a game interesting.

Our Thoughts

I played one of the original versions of Lode Runner to cover this blog. I think it has a definite influence on my opinion now, as it looks more primitive than I remember and harder to get into. I certainly missed some control cues, including how to deal with digging in the floor.

The game itself is reasonably simple. Collect all the treasures and make your escape while avoiding the enemies that are moving around the (single screen) level. The controls for it are okay, but not great. There’s no jumping and few options to avoid enemies other than running away. Most interesting was how you could dig through the level, trapping enemies in a single gap hole, or sticking them in larger gaps. They can trap you as well, though, which would be fatal. They are actually annoying to control, but it’s a decent idea.

But sure, the size of the game is what’s impressive. Not because there is huge variation, but because of the giant number of levels included by default and the many more you can make. As one of the first games to have a level editor, this makes a statement on its own.

Final Thoughts

Lode Runner is a fine platformer for its time – predating the shift that really made them interesting for me, but on the level of how Donkey Kong is interesting.  And where the latter has fewer levels, they are more refined. But the sheer amount of content that is in the game and offers is great, and that is enough to keep you playing – you want to see whether you can still beat that next level, even if the current one stumps you.

#235 Cannon Fodder

Posted: 18th July 2017 by Jeroen in Games
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618th played so far

Genre: Action/Strategy
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1993
Developer: Sensible Software
Publisher: Virgin Interactive

Partially because of this blog, I started reading up more on older games, to learn about their background and find out more about them.

Cannon Fodder is one of the games that I feel are often discussed in them. There’s some impact to your actions in them that make the games more meaningful than they otherwise would be. I’m not sure if it works that way for me, but we’ll have to see.

Our Thoughts

Cannon Fodder sees you take out a squad of soldiers to fufill a couple of tactical objectives – kill everyone, blow up several buildings, that sort of stuff. The group you take out grows a bit in the first few levels, so there’s a small squad that follows your cursor. It’s a decent game, taking you through pretty varied levels. Your characters level up as they survive missions, making them more valuable.

But not that much. As you are more succesful, more soldiers join your army. They make for an excellent replacement if one of your guys gets taken out and dies – permadeath in that sense is a thing. It means that you won’t bond too much with each character, because they are expendable – real cannon fodder.

And with that, they show you tombstones for each of your dead recruits. More recruits still join you, but it feels dark. You have a decent strategy game, but what it really talks about is how these soldiers are so easily replaced.

It’s a subtle statement, one the game just as much implies as it says. These characters are expendable, but it doesn’t let you forget about them either.

Final Thoughts

Cannon Fodder is a fine strategy game, but to be honest, it would have been forgettable if that was all it was. However, the things it implies regarding cannon fodder is where it sets itself apart for me.

#328 Wipeout 2097

Posted: 14th July 2017 by Jeroen in Games
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617th played so far

Genre: Racing
Platform: Playstation 1
Year of Release: 1996
Developer: Psygnosis
Publisher: Psygnosis

We have played several Wipeout games – including the first – and the main thing I remember is that the first in the series didn’t agree with me… and that later ones were okay, but still difficult.

The second – which doesn’t feature the game show aspects that I originally, somehow, associated with this series and this specific installment – would probably be better and more polished, but we will see…

Our Thoughts

So I did a lot better playing this game than I did the first one. Not that, of course, I was winning everything, but I could reliably keep up with more racers and managed a few top three wins quite easily. I’m not sure if that was even quite as intentional, the controls just felt more reliable and responsive. It was a more enjoyable experience, although the Wipeout series was always fun anyway.

What it’s aided by is that the tracks are easier to follow. The game takes a step up in visuals and it helps to identify what’s going on and when to react. There are a bunch of small fixes here that are simply that helpful.

Final Thoughts

I admit I still struggled to really get far into this game, but there is a clear progression and I did feel I was getting more out of the game this time. It’s a fun racing game and drives you much more than others would.

616th played so far

Genre: Stealth
Platform: PC
Year of Release: 1998
Developer: Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive

After System Shock 2, Thief: The Dark Project is another part of the Looking Glass trifecta of important games – the Ultima Underworld series will follow later. All three evolved what 3D games could do, each in their own way, and with Thief we look at improving stealth gameplay.

Our Thoughts

It’s probably not a surprise that this game has you infiltrating mansions, breaking out of prisons and so on. Mostly – so far – with a motivation of fun and profit, which works as a good enough wrap around plot without getting too involved.

It’s all, then, about these large environments and AI patterns of everyone who inhabits these areas. A lot of it becomes a bit of a puzzle – how do I get past this guard without alerting the others, where are the dark areas or loud grates and how does this work out? Even so, it offers multiple options past, more giving you a toolbox to get past these challenges in these different circumstances.

One of the goals, then, is often a deathless run as well – don’t kill any guards or servants, just sneak past or knock them out. It’s a nice added bonus, and even playing at a difficulty where I didn’t see the need to stick to that, I tried as much as I could – just failed at it from time to time.

To be honest, for the first playthrough, I just got lost. Obviously I had to be careful walking around the area, but I was spending quite a bit of time just exploring and seeing what’s about. There isn’t quite as much story telling in the areas as System Shock – in part because they’re independent levels – but I could see that appearing later.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure the game grabbed me as much as System Shock, but I felt like repeating the level several times to get further – I got killed a few times because I didn’t quite get it right. It’s what showed off the many opportunities best though, with strong stealth showings becoming easier, but having some big battles in between that got worse quite quickly – and killed me soon enough. You can keep trying, and it seems like a lot will feel different every time.

#827 De Blob

Posted: 6th July 2017 by Jeroen in Games
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615th played so far

Genre: Puzzle/Platform
Platform: Wii
Year of Release: 2008
Developer: Blue Tongue Entertainment
Publisher: THQ

I’ve been keeping an eye on De Blob since, I believe, just before the start of this blog, as an interesting game that seemed so different from everything else.

Not to mention that the original version of the game was based on the area around the railway station in Utrecht, a place I’d been traveling to and through over the years for various reasons (mostly education related) and I was wondering whether I could see any of that in the final game.

Our Thoughts

The basic premise of the game is simple – just spray as much of the area with paint. You get some choices in colour – the primary and secondary colours, really – and there is a lot of just colouring buildings going on that just involves bouncing around the level.

If that’s all there is to it, the game would have gotten boring – even with black paint and water (washing off the paint) it would have been straight forward. It’s the missions that guide you through the world and give the game purpose. Not all of them are required, which means that the more annoying ones (with jumping puzzles…) didn’t feel too punishing.

Aside from the fairly unique mechanics, what really sets the game apart in my mind is its setting. The basics of it – a police state that says everything has to be colourless – isn’t that special, and we always tend to associate dictatorships like that with greys and browns. However, it sets it in this weird and happy world, one that you really make happy and beautiful. All the city’s inhabitants are simple blob creatures – with a helmet on if they’re a police officer, that sort of stuff. You colour them as well as you colour their buildings. Then there are the weird paint receptacles – cute spiders with paint on their back that you stomp to increase your paint reserves. They’re all cute and create a nice atmosphere that feel like it encourages bouncing around.

Final Thoughts

The concept for this game is quite interesting, something fairly unique, especially when placed in these action/adventure style 3D levels. There’s a lot to do and find and it takes a long time to run out of these. I really enjoyed the game and its challenge.