The Single Button Joystick

IBM and Compatibles


A World of Chesscraft…offline.

by on Mar.04, 2014, under Amiga, Commodore 64, IBM and Compatibles, Retro

I always loved this screen.

I always loved this screen.

She sits at the top of the high places above the city. She is restless and determined. She girds her loins with strength. Her feet stay not in her house. She moves in every direction and into every corner. Her evolutions are wonderful, her spirit untiring. How comely are her footsteps as she moves diagonally, one step after another, from square to square!

-12th century Spanish Hebrew text,

 

Battle Chess (BC) was a stalwart of my earliest Amiga years. Having no set of my own, this game served to be my only regular outlet for my chess needs.Battle Chess

This game has been with me my whole game playing life, likely one of the first games we got from my uncle upon purchasing an Amiga. I mean, Chess is one of the oldest games, so why not make it one of the first you own on your new computer box?

The BC AI was always difficult to beat (more on that later) and it could be relied upon for a challenge. Since I am an only child, this was very important! What set BC apart from other Chess games was its animation.

She could move where she wanted!

She could move where she wanted!

When moving a piece, they walk around like people. No bases, no sliding along the board, just straight walking. Pawns are little Squires, Knights are literally armoured knights and so forth. The most interesting piece in an aesthetic sense is the Rook. Rather than simply use a moving tower, the developers decided it should become a hulking rock monster, resembling a golem. Many Pawns have met their doom at the hands of this monster.

This brings me to BC’s crowning achievement, the combat. When a piece is taken a brief (sometimes not) animation takes place, representing the combat. Rooks smash, Knights slice and Bishops can often show their crafty side with a ninja like display with their crosier. The King, in the rare occasions when they take a piece, show a variety of tricks, from a box of magic powder to a 16th century style pistol.

Fittingly, it is the queen who is the most entertaining. A powerful sorceress, she shoots fireballs and can shrink her opponents to a more manageable size. It is also hinted that the queen is a dragon. What a twist!

I am Bart...

I am Bart…

However, I feel this game  provided a great disservice. By making some of funniest and cleverest animations for when pieces are taken, Battle Chess made the game more about setting up moves, eg Pawn takes Queen. and not playing and learning the real game of chess. Maybe I am just bad at looking more than one move ahead.

 To make sense of the title, Battle Chess was one of the earliest games that Silicone and Synapse went to work on, making a version for windows and the Commodore 64. They would later call themselves Blizzard.

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Descent: A Decent Game.

by on Feb.25, 2014, under IBM and Compatibles, Modern, PC, Retro

IS_robots“You’ve got to listen to me. Elementary chaos theory tells us that all robots will eventually turn against their masters and run amok in an orgy of blood and kicking and the biting with the metal teeth and the hurting and shoving.”

-Dr. John Frink

It seems the old (?) doc was right about this one. In the future, the robots have rebelled. Fortunately for humanity, they aren’t in a popular tourist destination, but in remote mines and military bases throughout our solar system. Earth is safe, but these bases need to be cleansed and we are the only man… man enough to do it.

After a mission briefing,Stats! which hilariously includes your own sarcastic thoughts to what the corporate overlords are asking, it is straight to the action. Piloting your craft, you navigate the mines, destroying the infected and/or rebellious robots and rescuing the mine workers who have been imprisoned. I don’t know why these insane robots would bother imprisoning people. Maybe they are ransoming them for precious lug nuts? It isn’t really explained. Needless to say, the robots need destroying.

Being zippy!Each mine or base follows a sequence of finding the blue key, then the yellow key (which was behind the locked blue door), then the red key (which was behind the locked yellow door). The red door will lead to a section of the mine with a power generator which needs to be destroyed. It will take a while to destroy, even with powerful weapons, but it can’t move. It has to rely on its own modest (but constant) firepower and any remaining robots. When it is destroyed, the most intense part of Descent begins.

Escape.

By destroying the reactor/power generator, the level will start shaking and begin to

Remember this place!

Remember this place!

explode around you, giving you forty seconds to escape. For some unknown reason the entrance door is sealed behind you so that cannot be used as a way out. Sealed emergency exits are encountered (hopefully) during your search for the reactor. They can’t be used for an early escape, but they do open when the base is about to blow. These are your only way out.

When it was new, what set Descent apart from most games of the day was its presentation. Unlike Doom, which was only a year old, Descent has the player flying around the world in an actual 3D environment. I’m not going to look up the terminology, but Doom used tricks to make the environments look like they had ups and downs. You could never walk under a platform, or over the top of anything, such were the limitations at the time.

I think I did okay...

I think I did okay…

Descent was only 14 months after Doom and already a major technical improvement had been made. Traveling over and under different areas not only made the level design far more complex than in Doom, it also gave the robots so many extra ways to come at you. Believe me, angry robots are just as scary as a Baron of Hell.

Descent was one of the early PC games that I really wanted but I was still making do with my aged (yet beloved) Amiga. I had a few friends who owned the Shareware version (those were the days) which runs for about 3-4 hours (a good game length in 2014). I was very happy that I could pay a few dollars just last week and grab a copy of this fantastic game and its sequel.

I’m up to the 11th level and there are 30… it’s already so very hard 🙁

Wish me luck!

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The Darkest of Lands.

by on Feb.18, 2014, under IBM and Compatibles, Retro

Darklands coverDarklands takes you to Germany in the year 1400.

It is a scary place.

I’m saying ‘is’ because I am currently walking a group of fine fellows through it. These ‘fellows’ (men or women) have decided to strike out as heroes and make their names known. On their way to riches and renown, they’ll be assaulted by bandits, solve mysteries and recover holy relics. Why else would they do this though? I mentioned heroics and bankroll, but there is a third, even more important reason.

God.

In 1992, Microprose, the masters of depth and realism, intended Darklands to be a simulation of high adventure in fifteenth century Germany. However, the Germany you’re in is not real, but what people at the time believed. You’ll not only fight bandits, but gargoyles. The mysteries you solve are why the mine goblins aren’t letting the miners do their job anymore and the holy relics you recover are magical.Gargoyles in the intro

Darklands is controlled in many ways, the most common being a map screen. Similarities to 1998’s Baldur’s Gate are many, but with the travel mechanics reversed. Baldur’s Gate, which came six years after Darklands, has your heroes being directed manually through towns, where as the map view is almost a menu with no freedom to go anywhere, apart from the preset locations. Darklands has the town interaction menu driven, greatly speeding up the process of getting around. In the outside mode it allows full control over where the player can take his adventurers. It is this quick, menu driven interaction in towns that allows Darklands to still be playable and slick so later.

So much freedom

So much freedom!

Comparisons to Baldur’s Gate come again with the combat, which is in real time. Pausing the game lets you assess the situation and assign different tasks to your characters. Strategy and planning generally flies out the window about ten seconds after any fighting begins, particularly since you are outnumbered in almost every encounter. Generally, combat is a few seconds of throwing potions and spears, shooting arrows, or firing early handguns and then your opponents will close with mêlée weapons.

I mentioned God earlier for good reason. Religion is key of almost every part of Darklands. All characters that are in your team are practicing Catholics. There is no doubt in their hearts and minds who the one true god is. City ChurchesHowever, because this is set in a semi-fantasy world, praying to St. Clotilde will really improve your abilities in healing wounds for a few days and St. Christopher means your horses travel faster than ever before. In a time when even those who thought the Catholic Church was corrupt and failing, there were few who didn’t believe in a god, miracles and the power of prayer.

Perhaps more important than god is that other religion, money. Medieval Germany has three coins, pfennigs, groschen and florins,

Crappy Bandits

Crappy Bandits

which are roughly equal to our old pennies, shillings and pounds. Money is hard to come by and you’ll initially be shocked at how expensive anything good is (which I was). Do a few missions for the right people though, and you’ll be showered with riches. I daresay thirty florins is more money than most people would have ever seen in their life, and if you kill a robber baron for the Medici, you will receive that big money.

There is so much to cover in this game. The character generation is in-depth and fun, allowing a large variety of specialists. Whoever you decide to create, make sure everyone is strong and tough. Everyone will need to be able to stand toe to toe with soldiers, wolves or other horrors. Someone needs to be able to make potions and

I splatted them

I splatted them

another needs to be able to heal. Speaking Latin, reading and writing as well as using swords are important skills. Your characters can take a few weeks off from adventuring and earn money as smiths, clerks or even physicians!

This is a very ambitious game, where dealing with heresy is as serious and real as Sauron’s influence in Lord of the Rings. Do you help the merchants getting attacked by bandits or do you hide and let them be robbed and killed? Will you visit the university in Leipzig for training in Alchemy or will you plunder an ancient tomb to recover a lost family heirloom?

TerrorI have played Darklands for two long periods never stuck with it long enough to finish it. I did get close once. I am certain that even if I were to finish it a dozen times, I’d never have seen everything in it.

Darklands is vast, slick and twenty-two years old. It’s still a hell of a game.

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Still searching for that ‘perfect’ game.

by on May.19, 2013, under Amiga, IBM and Compatibles, Retro

Shame you're always 'American'.My perfect game will never be found. If it were created, it’d be the end of my productive life. I would work only to feed, clothe and house myself. It is, therefore, to my advantage that such a game does not exist. It’s a nebulous term, ‘perfect’, thrown around like so many World At War hand grenades. I mean it as a game that’s perfect for my needs and wants.

Huge games in my life have been well documented in previous posts, but the games that come close to ‘perfection’ are a very different group. These games tend to be ones that stay with me for a long time, or come back periodically. One such game is Colonization, more properly, Sid Meier’s (<3) Colonization, which I am currently playing.

As close to a perfect game that I am going to get Colonization, has near unlimited re-playability, great variety of practical strategies and an excellent interface. The click and drag method of organising A wonderful town!your colonies is so intuitive, that the game is still completely playable, nearly twenty years later. It handles exploration, trading and warfare all very well despite the very basic interface. This game is a more focused offshoot of Civilization, but I have always thought Colonization succeeded in the end game, where Civilization was lacking.

Colonization has you running your colonies as trading outposts until you’re able to declare independence from your mother country. The King then sends waves of soldiers, dragoons and ships to blockade and take back your colonies. The game transforms from a trading/exploration game to a basic but competent war game. If you plan and anticipate where the blows will come you can win your freedom, but it is rarely easy.

New France!The end game of Civilization is almost always a foregone conclusion. You are either in an overwhelming winning position or you’re probably not going to win. On all but the hardest difficulties, you’d roll over your opponents as your modern armour plows through their spearmen and archers. Colonization never suffers from a predictable end game, except that it will be a worry!

So while I continue an unending search for this ‘perfect’ game, I will probably find myself twenty years in the future still playing Colonization.

That isn’t such a bad thing is it?

 

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MicroProse: Another hero of yesteryear.

by on Mar.20, 2013, under Amiga, IBM and Compatibles

FuturisiticalI have some amazing memories of my Amiga days. Unfortunately uniform stats didn’t exist, so I can’t go back and measure the hours spent on this or that game. If I could find out these stats, MicroProse games would have many hundreds of hours dedicated to them.

Upon closing Covert Action.

Upon closing Covert Action.

Primarily a strategy game developer, MicroProse was making just what I wanted to play. Their release history is literally a catalogue of the most influential games of all time. MicroProse games are among my favourites for many reasons, but primarily because they had a great sense of achievement and continuation in an age when the arcade game was still a viable medium.

Gunship, Silent Service II and Pirates! all had very different scoring systems. Gunship was one of my favourites because it awarded you medals, combat ribbons and promotions. Trying to keep your pilot alive while accumulating these was immensely satisfying. The original Civilization’s method of  comparing you to a famous world leader has yet to be beaten. Doing poorly would result in comparisons to Neville Chamberlain or even… Dan Quayle.

Upon closing Gunship 2000

I’ve always thought games during my peak Amiga years (1989-1996) to be more niche and with a steeper learning curve than the years after it, yet, I managed to figure out the controls to these games without a manual. As a ten-year old I piloted my AH-64 Apache through the jungles of Central America, destroying those dastardly FSLN forces, after some trial and error of course! I’ve always looked back and found surprising at how willing I was to figure out games from scratch. The pre internet days really gave me no choice in this matter!

Deciding to play these on Amiga emulators or through DOSbox is a tough choice. The Amiga versions are generally slower and less responsive, but have great sound and music. The PC versions run smoothly but sound very ‘tinny’.

I could go on about MicroProse, but I’d rather praise them on a game by game basis. I felt it was important to give the company as a whole some love.

After writing the article on Covert Action I sunk another ten hours into it. Some classics will never leave me!

It seems even Turkey has fans of Gunship 2000 and MicroProse!

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Amiga Best Of… Sid Meier blew my cover!

by on Mar.12, 2013, under Amiga, IBM and Compatibles, Retro

Stealth is key.微乎微乎,至于无形;神乎神乎,至于无声;故能为敌之司命。 (O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.)

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Espionage, or spying as it is more clumsily known, is an old profession. Knowing what your opponent/rival/best friend is going to do is always going to give you an advantage. Knowing without them knowing you know is even better. Successful intelligence gathering is most useful in preventing wars rather than winning them. The vast networks of agents, contacts and moles employed by the Soviet Union and United States in the latter half of the 20th century went very far to convince both sides that the other guy wasn’t going to fire first.

We come to the game Covert Action, or more properly SidCovert Action Meier’s Covert Action, which is set in the Cold War world of international espionage. Your place in this game is that of Max Remington (Maximilian or Maxine) a spy (agent) for the CIA. Your goal is to stop terrorist attacks before they happen. These attacks range from sabotaging a bus right up to destruction of whole cities. To stop these crimes you need to apprehend members of the criminal gang or confiscate their contraband, money or weapons. Breaking one chain in the crime’s plot will cause the plan to fall apart sending the conspirators into hiding. It pays to try and arrest people in such a way that stops the gang members going into hiding before you can arrest them.

The game is divided into five sections. Traveling and reviewing evidence (kind of an over world), infiltration/combat, electronics, cryptography and driving. Skills points are allocated to these depending on how you like to play. I’d always put my skills into infiltration/combat and cryptography. I generally avoided the driving, since it was the weakest mini-game of the four. Also I’m not a driver, so that makes sense I guess…

Covert Action CombatI used to love doing the combat in this game, which is generally slow paced compared to most other shooting games. Infiltration/combat is a top down, third person view, with Max navigating a randomly generated building, looking for clues. He/She can plant bugs, photo evidence and arrest suspects if they are present. It is possible to avoid all confrontation with enemy thugs/agents and take apart a crime via cryptography and wiretapping.

Like many Microprose games, Covert Action has an ongoing campaign where you can accrue rank (expressed as your double 0 ranking) and points. If you’re lucky, during a mission you can capture a mastermind of a criminal gang. These organisations are based on real terrorist groups from the mid to late Cold War period. Islāmic Jihad renamed Muslim Jihad, Black September is called Red September and so on. Capturing all the masterminds ends the game and is a process that will take many weeks of playing. Masterminds don’t appear in every mission and each mission generally takes half an hour or more so it is a long commitment.

As much as I loved playing this game, I never got close to finishing it. Secondly, Sid Meier himself realised the error in making a game in four distinct parts;

Sid MeierThe mistake I think I made in Covert Action is actually having two games in there kind of competing with each other. There was kind of an action game where you break into a building and do all sorts of picking up clues and things like that, and then there was the story which involved a plot where you had to figure out who the mastermind was and the different roles and what cities they were in, and it was a kind of an involved mystery-type plot.

I think, individually, those each could have been good games. Together, they fought with each other. You would have this mystery that you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get on the building, and you’d say, “What was the mystery I was trying to solve?” Covert Action integrated a storyPatron Saint of Dorks and action poorly, because the action was actually too intense. In Pirates!, you would do a sword fight or a ship battle, and a minute or two later, you were kind of back on your way. In Covert Action, you’d spend ten minutes or so of real-time in a mission, and by the time you got out of [the mission], you had no idea of what was going on in the world.

So I call it the “Covert Action Rule”. Don’t try to do too many games in one package. And that’s actually done me a lot of good. You can look at the games I’ve done since Civilization, and there’s always opportunities to throw in more stuff. When two units get together in Civilization and have a battle, why don’t we drop out to a war game and spend ten minutes or so in duking out this battle? Well, the Covert Action Rule. Focus on what the game is.

Sid is correct. I don’t think Covert Action suffered as much as he thinks it did, but any game should be a focused experience. I had much fun with Covert Action and I intend to start a new game tonight. Wish me luck!

 

 

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Day Z and my Operation Flashpoint memories.

by on Aug.09, 2012, under IBM and Compatibles, PC, Retro

With the popularity of the survival/zombie apocalypse mod Day Z currently high, it reminded me of an older game. The Day Z mod runs on ARMA II, itself a realistic military simulation made by Czech developer Bohemia Interactive. Using that engine, Day Z puts the player in a persistent online world where they must survive Zombies as well as the most dangerous game of all, Man. It looks unforgiving and awesome.

Eleven years ago, Bohemia Interactive created their first game, Operation Flashpoint and it quickly became one of my favourites. Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis (I really wanted to spell it Crysis), is the tale of a Soviet invasion of a small island during the ’80s. The player takes the role of a number of characters, all fighting to free the island (Everon) from Soviet control. It featured a huge playable area, (dozens of square kms) realistic shooting physics and a fairly gripping single player campaign.

Because the game is super realistic (one bullet one kill) and you generally only get one save per mission, it makes for a very tense experience.  There’s Call of Duty style heroics, winning is shooting someone before they see you in Flashpoint.

I never played this online so all my experiences involve either the campaign or using the game’s extensive mission editor. One of the missions involves you (as a Spec Ops dude) and two buddies infiltrating behind Soviet lines and scoping out their base. Surprisingly easy stuff. Unfortunately I had ordered my subordinates to move only while crawling to avoid being spotted (it had worked). When I turn around to head back to our base I forgot to order them to stand. Without a command letting them know that they could stand, the ended up lagging behind me.

I continue jogging along back to my base. After a couple of minutes I turn around and notice my crew about 500m behind me edging along, still prone. ‘Ha’ I thought, realising my mistake. I ordered them up from prone and they stood and starting hustling my way. I turned back toward our base.

I spot three soldiers. About 200m away, walking at me, their rifles still slung on their shoulders. Briefly I considered them to be Americans, but the helmets were too rounded and the rifles had a wood finish on the stocks. They were Soviet soldiers and they noticed I wasn’t one of them about the same time.

Oh god, it looked so much like that!

As they un-shouldered their AK-74s, I shakily raise my carbine and loose a few rounds at them. All three drop untidily to the ground, underneath a tree. My two fellow spec ops boys are soon at my side and we continue on our way home. Mission accomplished. The whole mission would have taken about 20-30 minutes. I fired three bullets and killed three people in the space of 5 seconds in that whole time. The lack of action for much of the game servers only to highlight the short, sharp and deadly action. I could almost imagine the other two spec ops guys taking the carbine out of my hands and saying, ‘Its okay, you got ’em’.

I think when ARMA II is on sale, I’ll grab it and Day Z. I’ll feel more guilty shooting three player controlled Russians, but it’d more of an achievement.

I think this is good example of how the game works.

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No gaming, I did not know!

by on Jul.27, 2012, under IBM and Compatibles, Short updates

I thought this was an interesting little tidbit. I always wanted to play more of this series, but point and clickers are cruel. You get stuck and that’s that!. Ahh well I just know I’m going to waste a lot of time at this tumblr.

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Early FMV games, or how I put off buying a PC and learned to make the most of my Amiga.

by on Jun.14, 2012, under IBM and Compatibles, Retro

There was a time in my life when I was completely out of the loop when it came to contemporary trends. In particular were games that used the capabilities of the then new CD ROM drive. In fact a CD Rom capable PC would elude me for until early 1997.

Garish, trying to be moody: It's the '90s!

I don’t know why it took the gaming industry nearly a decade to start really using CDs for storage; they are both cheaper and can hold many times the amount of space a cartridge, disk or tape can.  Whatever the reason, when they got around to using them, it immediately lead to some problematic developments. The space had to be filled, and filled it was. Full motion video was the obvious choice. Real life has the best graphics of anything, so putting that into games means they’ll look the best? Right?

An example of this fallacy is the well-known ‘classic’ 7th Guest. This game employs real footage of actors against pre-rendered, computer generated backgrounds. You move through a cheesy CG looking mansion trying to figure out what’s going on, all the while solving puzzles and watching video clips that explain the story. The acting is dreadful, since most of the cast would have been Sierra employees or C grade actors.

The appeal of these games is hard to see today, but if you think back to what games had been before, these FMV games were something

Did this EVER look good to anyone?

completely new and different. They offered a lot up front (real actors with recorded dialogue, which meant you had to read less) and simple gameplay that didn’t rely on reflexes or wits, just working through puzzles. 7th Guest and the sequel 11th Hour were popular with my PC CD ROM equipped friends as well as mothers (from what I heard). To teenagers the game seemed creepy, dark and adult. To the older players it offered a straightforward game with ‘flashy’ visuals.

Phantasmagoria, an edgy horror game made in 1995 took the FMV game in a different direction. Controlling a digitized FMV actress, the player had to solve puzzles while avoiding being murdered by her demonically possessed husband. While more of a game than the 7th Guest, placing a live action protagonist in a computer generated environment looks tacky. The way the character borders don’t quite gel with the backgrounds is very irritating and it never looks like she’s really there. Blues Clues looks more realistic!

That's a great costume...

Betrayal at Krondor, an RPG from this time used digitized actors (with hilarious wigs and costumes) in place of sprites. Unlike Phantasmagoria and 7th Guest, these actors were not animated in real-time, instead they moved in stills. The game was great despite this anomaly and it remains a very unusual footnote in the history of video game graphics.

My experience with these games was very limited. My Amiga 500 could barely run the games made for it, let alone things requiring a CD-ROM. I was intrigued by these games, but never really felt like I was missing out on much. I remember being very impressed at the number of CDs they required (usually more than five!), not taking into account all the gross swapping that would need. By the time I got a PC the FMV game fad was over and I had a backlog of classic PC games to catch up on.

These games were an important step in using a new technology to its ‘full potential’. Sadly, they have not stood the test of time and stay relics of a bygone era. They will forever be consigned to a primary school time capsule, along with Bill Clinton, Fido Dido 7up commercials and Cool Spot.

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