The Single Button Joystick

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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Sega’s Trap!

by on Feb.11, 2014, under 8-bit, Retro

Dragon's Trap BoxMy experiences with the Sega Master System are limited, but very positive. Researching the history of the Master System isn’t the point of this blog, but a few things are worth mentioning.

The Master System was the only serious challenge to Nintendo’s dominance from the mid ‘80s onwards. Due to Nintendo neglecting Europe/UK and Australasia (PAL regions, my friends) the Master System was able to defeat or at least achieve parity with the all-conquering NES. However, in North America and Japan, children would be beaten up and left for dead if they were found to have a Master System.

I owned neither an NES or Master System (now unfortunately abbreviated to SMS), but I did borrow a Master System in the early nineties. I think the friend who lent it to me even offered it, since he had the superior Mega Drive. Even though this console was obsolete by five or six years, I was very excited to try it out.Cursed!Cursed!

Alex Kidd in Miracle World was of course included, since this game comes built in to the console. It was an enjoyable game, as was Shinobi, although both I found to be very difficult. I’m sure there were other games that I borrowed, but the most important game that I played was Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap.

Wonder Boy III is a side scrolling, open world, role playing adventure game. You control Wonder Boy through his adventure by killing monsters, Advanced Save System!collecting money and upgrading your gear, the usual RPG tropes. The twist in this game begins with the prologue. Wonder Boy easily defeats the game’s first boss, Mecha Dragon, but Wonder Boy is cursed and transforms into a lizard! The journey to become human (or Hu-Man heh) again is on a grand scale, especially considering the limits of the Master System.

Each dragon that is defeated (at the end of a castle or other grand structure) allows you to change into a new form. Lizard, Mouse, Piranha, Lion and Bird. All with different abilities, they allow (or block) progress to certain parts of the world. After changing form, you can go back and change your form at will, allowing a return to otherwise restricted areas.What do arrows know!?

In scope, the game seems small and quaint but is actually a large world that will take completionist first time players around ten to fifteen hours to complete.

The colours, controls and sounds of this game all combine to create a wonderful experience. In my opinion this is the apex of the 8-bit era. Although it was greatly appreciated at the time, I feel that Wonder Boy III is underappreciated by most retro gamer enthusiasts.

If I ever try to do an all time top ten, this one gets in there. Somewhere below Total Annihilation, but above Dead Space.

Play this classic 😀

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A time before… Achievements

by on Nov.30, 2013, under PC, Xbox 360

achievement unlockedThe achievement system is an interesting, and successful idea. I believe it helped the Xbox 360 get an early edge on the PS3 as it offered a then unique feature. But what do they mean for the experience? Achievements are simple rewards that are given for doing something, or a series of somethings, in-game. They are usually not related to a game’s story, but are rewards for doing things that are often difficult, time-consuming or both.

George W in IraqFor Xbox Live, the rewards for these achievements are nothing more than a sense of completion and satisfaction. Microsoft never made efforts to regulate the system well enough to exploit the achievement system for competitions and real world rewards. As it is, the gamer score is just an arbitrary number, that gives people a rough sign of how serious you are at games, and how many games you’ve played.Still Scary.. Dead Space

Criticisms aside, the achievement system pushed many a gamer to greater heights, simply by acknowledging their efforts. I braved Dead Space THREE TIMES to secure the full collection of achievements. Far from making me sick of the game, I appreciated it even more and noticed something new every time I played.

Prior to achievements, I would often set my own special goals in games that I played, often because I am a hopelessly sentimental and can’t bear the idea of leaving anyone behind, or any stone unturned. One game that I remember this dedication to was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.

They all made it!

One of the premier shooters of its day, Allied Assault combined realistic World War 2 weapons, with the fast pace of Quake and other older shooters. Several missions give you a few AI controlled soldiers who would work with you. The game made sharp distinctions between allies who were meant to survive and those who weren’t. Two airborne soldiers join you and your Captain in a mission behind enemy lines. These two ‘extras’ can only take a few hits (rather realistic) and there is no revival system to bring them back.

Not being able to bear one of these boys dying, I spent a tiring few afternoons making sure they got through to the next mission. It was very time-consuming and frustrating, but eventually I got my two airborne boys through the forest of Flak 88s, MG42 emplacements and many grenades.

I don’t think there was much fanfare for getting them through the mission, maybe one of them saying ‘We made it!’. In modern times, this would have been rewarded with a middle to high value achievement. Back in 2000 though, I just had my sense of self satisfaction. I still have it.

Some pictures from a few helpful places.

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The Bounty

by on Oct.29, 2013, under Amiga, Retro

The Amiga 2000There are moments in our lives that will always stick in our heads. For the nostalgic gamer, there is certainly one, but more likely many, of these defining moments. It’s almost impossible to look back at these within the context of the time they were set (crushing amounts of homework, primary school blues) but sometimes it’s fine to put on the rose coloured glasses.

I’ve mentioned many times, that before leaving high school and working, I didn’t Super Scaryhave much money to spend on precious video games. Birthdays and Christmases may have resulted in a few new games here and there, but it was a rare occasion that I’d come into anything like a ‘haul’. That was where my near legendary uncle became involved.

It was 1993 and my uncle had upgraded his Amiga set up. I believe he’d got an Amiga 2000 (a sophisticated business machine compared to my A500) and a new monitor. The Monitor would have been 15” (small now but huge for the time) and I remember it had a lot of blurring and a bad refresh rate. Still, it was very impressive!

LeChuck's RevengeHardware aside, the real part of the excitement was the amount of new games that came with this new Amiga. Desert Strike, Darkseed, Monkey Island 2, Lemmings 2 and Another World, to name just a few.

With me in this visit to my uncle’s was my longest-serving friend, Chooie aka Ryan. The drive through the city was filled with anticipation as I showed Chooie the games my uncle had in the new Amiga Power. Generally games took months to come out in Australia compared to the US/UK, as well as being much more expensive. It was a rare feeling for once to be on the cutting edge.

The bounty I brought home that night was akin to De Gama’s return from India. My uncle didn’t often have time for games, but always made sure I didn’t deplete his vast collection. For the life of me, I can’t remember what I borrowed that night, but I want to think Eye of the Beholder 2 was one of them. A game that would terrify me for many, many months.

Visits to my uncle’s would continue for many years (and still do on occasion), but as far as classic Amiga Memories go, the anticipation of that night is unrivaled.

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Bucked, Rogered and Four hundred years hence!

by on Sep.04, 2013, under 16-bit, Amiga, Retro

Countdown to Doomsday TitleA couple of years ago, I posted a most amusing find on this blog; a piece of my childhood being auctioned off at a ridiculous premium. What I failed to do then was speak about this terrific game and my experiences with it.

 Recent events have also led me to acquire a copy of Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday for the Mega Drive, a version I have been very curious about for close to twenty years, but I digress!

 Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday was a complete triumph in SSI, TSR and all those concerned. It adapted a futuristic role playing setting (based loosely on the TV show and novels of the same name) into a traditional Gold Box Dungeons and Dragons rule set.Buck Rogers Scary

Besides the setting, there were two important changes between the Buck Rogers series and the older Forgotten Realms games. The player’s character ‘pieces’ were no longer customisable, but instead were picked from a selection of 40-50 preset designs. This might seem restricting, but the results were far more impressive. There was enough variation to make a great looking crew. Some of them even had headbands! Treasures of the Savage Frontier came out two years later and had far poorer looking icons.

Buck Rogers Characters

Choose from these great looking icons!

The most important change in this game is the inclusion of class specific skills. Ten years later Third Edition D&D rules would introduce skills, but Buck Rogers would use this very well in 1990.  Skills ranged from Rocket Piloting and  Zero G training, to First Aid and Leadership.

The game features some idiosyncratic character classes, really capturing the comic book future. Rocket Jocks are your party leaders, rocket pilots and second tier fighters. Generally good with a firearm, it is best to not have them in the front lines.

Savage Frontier. Poor Icons.

Savage Frontier. Poor Icons.

Engineers keep your ship running, as well as being important in laying explosives as well as programming things. Rogues are the same as they are in regular D&D, except they bypass security doors/cameras as well as cut people when they aren’t looking. Medics, weakest of all, are vital as healing in Buck Rogers isn’t as simple as drinking a potion or sleeping for weeks inside a dungeon.

 Apart from Terrans, playable races in the game are based on genetically modified humans. Venusians, Mercurians and Martians are all slightly modified or have simply changed over the hundreds of years living in and around their respective planets. More interesting are the Desert Runners (half beast men/women who inhabit the deserts of Mars) and Tinkers (half chimp mini people who are great engineers and medics, because of their dexterity and diminutive size).

 The game gives you (after a few introductory missions) a whole solar system to explore, a multitude of secondary missions (all of which should be taken) and a great cast of characters. Buck Rogers himself makes an appearance. I have many good memories of this game back at the end of primary school, particularly how long it took Chooie and I to beat the second part of the game. No GameFAQS in 1992!

I saw this game, a year or so after playing the Amiga version, on a Mega Drive in a shopping center. It looked so different! Rather than static pieces moving across the game board, the characters animated when they walked, and the map view was isometric! This fascination stuck with me until last month, when a happy series of accidents happened and I managed to acquire a copy! When I get my Mega Drive up and running, I’ll report back!

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Final Yo!

by on Aug.17, 2013, under Amiga, Arcade, Retro

Tributes, homages, nods or call backs are a risk. When a homage is done well, it reminds you of past greatness and good times, without bludgeoning you over the head with it. Cinema naturally does this both expertly and poorly all the time, but so do video games. Good homages can be very subtle and are often missed. This is generally a good sign, because obvious is almost always bad. Remember the Star War Prequels and their constant references of the original trilogy? Ugh.

A cute homage came to my mind when I was leaving the train as I was heading in to work. This particular train had a few carriages covered in graffiti in the way I like. They made the outside colourful, with some nice big letters. I hate vandalism and the like, but I loved this. Graffiti in games has sometimes been controversial (especially when games get banned for allowing the player to create it, but not for cutting off people’s heads), but it isn’t super common.

Final Fight is a great game that featured a run down, graffiti covered city as its backdrop for THE classic side scrolling beat ‘em up. The most memorable level in Final Fight is the vandalised, train. The train has many breakable barrels which seems strange… perhaps the subway transported bourbon? The barrels don’t spill any liquid when broken, so I guess we’ll never know. Regardless, the game and that level in particular are a wonderful vision of a punk, drugged up, vandalised dystopia.

Six years after Final Fight’s original Arcade release, Yo! Joe! was released. This is another fantastic game and one of my Amiga favourites. Two graffiti artists wind up exploring a mansion, and then uncover some grand, magical conspiracy. It’s a one or two player action platform game, with some great controls. You can grab ledges (Prince of Persia style) and use an array of weapons. The larger weapons don’t allow you to grab ledges, so some strategy is needed. It also features a chainsaw that you spin wildly while wielding, but it needs its own fuel to run (it’s amazing).

The homage? Yo! Joe! has a mini level toward the end of the game that is a graffiti covered train. It is a particularly difficult, since there are no platforms and the enemies use a lot of throwing weapons. However, it’s a cute nod to video game history, as is their inclusion of an iron bar as a weapon, much like Final Fight did.

What’s scary is that there was seemingly a long time between Final Fight and Yo! Joe!, but… Yo! Joe! is now twenty years old. While in the last few years, retro game fans and non gamers alike have been very keen to commemorate  the 8/16 bit era, gamers and developers alike were already making their own tributes, two decades ago.

That’s the theme running through these articles, I’m getting older.

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The Amiga Puzzle

by on Jul.16, 2013, under Amiga, Retro

TV Adaptor!This won’t be some retrospective on how this computer fits (fitted) into my life. I’ll leave the philosophising to the professionals. Today I’m thinking back to when my Amiga was bought and how much of an ordeal it was to get together.

I should be honest that it really wasn’t much of an ordeal for me, but more for my parents who had to do all the running around and stressing. Oh, and paying for it. You can’t forget the money.

Costing $900, the Amiga pack came with, among other things, a TV adapter. This large and frumpy plug served as a gateway between the serious computer user and the man on the street. This connector allowed the Amiga to connect to a television (much like the Commodore 64 before it). This removed a barrier that prevented many from affording a computer.

Having bought our Amiga, the next move to make was getting a dedicated monitor. It was a few months until we realised the TV we were using in lieu wasn’t going to cut it.
Point of origin!

K-Mart Cranbourne! (Better than Airport West!)

The odyssey began when we brought our first monitor home. Despite my dad asking and checking at the shop (K-Mart), it was not stereo. After we realised this, we had to RUSH it back before K-Mart closed. The monitor was returned and we got our money back. I am not sure why we had to rush. I think it was because we assumed they had a stereo monitor in stock. They didn’t.

K-Mart failure.

So we had to put up with the TV for a few more weeks/months.

On the way back from my uncle’s property in Outrrim (Gippsland, Victoria), we made a stop at the K-Mart in Cranbourne. All I remember is sitting in the car for 10-15 minutes and then seeing my dad come out with a big box.

An Amiga monitor.

The 1084s.

It might have taken a few months for to get our hands on one, but it was completely worth it.

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More Atari! Inflation and freedom.

by on Jul.10, 2013, under Second Generation, Short updates

Image from http://walyou.com/

Image from Waylou

I asked my parents about their thoughts on their first console.

They worked out that they bought the 2600 before I was born, so at least as early as 1980. Apparently it cost about $500 AUD when Dad bought it. This was at a time when average wages were $250 per week. Doing an estimate, the PS4 costing $550 AUD is MUCH more affordable than the Atari, or indeed many other consoles from times past.

Having the Atari 2600 gave my parents the freedom to choose what the TV screen showed them which was rare for that time. It was also something they could interact with. There was very little else at the time that could replicate this level of interactivity, especially something that could make use of the television.

It’s a strange world to think of, where the ‘modern’ entertainment was so limited. Remember this was an age when my parents (and many other people) had to stay up past midnight to watch Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who. VCRs were still fairly rare in 1980. Conventional wisdom would always put gaming consoles after video tapes, but it was not the case. It is interesting to think that my parents were indeed avid gamers, and my Dad remains one today.

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Mark of the Ninja. Where were you twenty years ago?

by on Jul.05, 2013, under Modern, PC

As usual, I’m a few (9) months behind with games. One of these games I got to late and spent a long time playing, was Mark of the Ninja. I think I started it in March and finished it today! Slow is me.
Mark of the Ninja has you controlling a tattoo covered anonymous Ninja, through a series of fairly open ended 2D platform levels. The beginning has your ninja and his companion repulse an attack on their ‘secret’ hideout and then seek revenge against their attackers. I’ll say now, this is the game I had always dreamed of back in the early ’90s.
Stealth is the name of the game and avoiding confrontation is encouraged. When you must kill, you can hide bodies to remain undetected and continue your infiltration. All successful, stealthy kills, must be done when the target is unaware of you. This is not a fair fight.
From the steam page

Traps and tricks are available to you in your mission (some traps also stand in your path), meaning any one obstacle can be dealt with in many ways. Enemy guards can be distracted by a noise, killed by a spiked trap or (my favourite) terrorised by poisoned dart causing them to shoot wildly, often killing their fellow guards and leaving your hands ‘clean’. Unlike the Thief series, you are not heavily penalized for killing those in your way, but you do receive a bonus for letting everyone on a mission live.

The plot is clear and easy to follow, with fewer than six named characters. The art style is very reminiscent of Samurai Jack or the older Clone Wars cartoon. It’s that angular, kinda jerky and super colourful ‘New American’ style. Sound is also a triumph, reminding me again of Thief, my favourite stealth game, which is a ‘GOOD THING’ in my book.
Related somehow?Reading some reviews (always a mistake) I was amused by some reviewers finding some of the puzzles too difficult, and wanting the game to feature normal face to face combat. Ridiculous and it would defeat the purpose of the game; Staying to the shadows, not waltzing in and fighting everyone in a mêlée.

 

I’m definitely going to try the new game+ mode. I doubt many of the reviewers tried that out, poor dears. Edge magazine gave it an 8/10, the lowest score of any major publication. Oh Edge, will we ever agree?

 

The game is $15 and will last between 10-15 hours on your first play-through. One of the best from last year.

 

Mark of the Ninja 10/10

 

 

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The Dawn of Time: Atari Twenty Six Hundred

by on Jun.21, 2013, under Second Generation

Atari 2600!Members of Generation X and even younger Baby Boomers would remember the Atari 2600. A simple machine by today’s standards of course, but it laid a foundation for the consoles of the future.

There are a large group of people, to whom the Atari 2600 is their first and only experience with playing video games. Everything else after it is regarded as ‘oh I’m too old for games’ but the 2600 was played by everyone! This console holds some of my earliest video game experience.

Previous articles of mine have focused on specific Atari 2600 games, especially River Raid II. I want to look at my Atari 2600 collection and decide if it was a good one or not. Readers be aware, I bought only a few of these games. Most were bought before I was born! Here is a short review of all my family’s 2600 games.

ASTEROIDS

Ahh, now this is a classic, not a bad version of the arcade original either. I played this heaps, but I remember Dad said you shouldn’t fly around and just stay in the middle and only use teleport to avoid asteroids/UFOs. It was good advice! 7/10

Chopper CommandCHOPPER COMMAND

I remember buying this from K-Mart in the LATE ’80s! The game was at least six years old, but K-Mart still had it new. It was $20 and fun. It got too hard though and my tiny brain couldn’t cope with this defender clone. 7/10

COMBAT

I believe this was the Atari 2600’s pack in game. The tank v tank levels were so much fun in what was a two player only experience. With wall bouncing bullets switched on things get tense and you are screaming in delight when your shot hits home. 9/10

Cosmic ArkCOSMIC ARK

High concept, unique control system and unforgettable sound effects. Rescue stranded aliens and defend your mother ship against meteors? Yes please. Apparently it was the first ever console game sequel. I never owned the previous game, Atlantis. 10/10

FREEWAY

This game is getting your chicken across a road. It is a big road, a multi-lane freeway to be exact! This is a bad version of Frogger, with no side movement for your chicken. Just forward and back. Also you don’t even DIE when you’re hit by a car, you just get pushed back a bit. Amazing car effects though. 3/10

GORF

I played an Amiga version of this, but the 2600 version I bought never worked. Oh, a score…  ?/10

Laser Blast!LASER BLAST

Amazingly repetitive game (aren’t they all) but with some very satisfying combat. Control a UFO and laser enemy tanks. Best part is that if you get shot down, you can crash into them! Very satisfying if you get an extra life from that. 8/10

PITFALL

I always walked the wrong way, apparently. I was terrible at this game and never appreciated it for the technical and design accomplishment that it was! 6/10

River Raid 2: A busy cover!RIVER RAID II

Terrible compared to the original River Raid? I don’t think so. Complex and with a hint of sim, this was a very enjoyable shooter. My Grandfather agreed! I loved how you could raise and lower your altitude! SUCH REALISM. 8/10

STARGATE

Defender clone. I remember liking it, but being really bad at it. Isn’t that life? 6/10

Control pad! For one game only!STAR RAIDERS

Complicated space combat simulator. You needed a keypad (sold separately) to manage the hyperspace map. Goal? Shoot down the enemy spaceships before they destroy your starbase. Imagine Wing Commander, but primitive in every way. It was ambitious for the far superior Atari 8bit computers, so when it was converted to the Atari 2600, it was a pale version of the original (which I never played). I would stare at the cover art, wishing for a game to look like that. There was one, it was called Freespace 2. Bah, my copy didn’t even have that sweet overlay! 6/10

Aside from a few other games, there you have it, my (parents’) little collection! I am surprised at what I felt I should give the games. My rating isn’t from playing them again, but more reflecting on what they contributed to my game playing experience and to a wider world of games. Cosmic Ark as a result, stands out as a true classic and as a great experience for me. Check out this sweet commercial for Laser Blast!

Check out…

AtariAge and Atari Mania

 

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