Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Commander Keen: Episode 2 (1990)

Name:Commander Keen in "Invasion of the Vorticons" - Episode Two: The Earth Explodes
Number:164
Year:1990
Publisher:Apogee
Developer:Id Software
Genre:Side-Scroller
Difficulty:4/5
Time:2 hours
Won:Yes (60W/56L)

The shareware episode of Commander Keen is a beloved classic, generally spoken of in pleasant tones. Nobody much talks about the episodes you had to pay for in contrast. One could simply argue that because the first episode was free so more people played it, which is true, but Apogee made a lot of bank on the series at the time. Surely someone should have something nice to say about the commercial episodes.

Firstly, a good deal of what I have to say is the same as in the original Keen...so you should probably read that entry if you haven't already. Why is this its own entry instead of an addition to the original? Well, let's just say I think its a good idea for each game to have its own level category.

I think the background there is a Commander Genius issue, should be black
Continuing from the last game, Keen has gone to bed after returning home, and after he's sure his parents have fallen asleep, goes back to outer space to stop the vorticon mothership. A surprisingly similar setup would be used in Keen 5, which I remember more of. Straight down to the open ship layout of the map.
The first level starts the player off small, a simple level with one of the new enemies and a lot of points. The new enemy is some kind of red thing that sticks to whatever surface its on, it merely moves you as it walks into you. Its not even as powerful as the gray robots from last time, jumping doesn't even shoot you away from the thing. You an even walk on them.

But make no mistake, I think as I load up the second level, which may very well be one of your later ones, this gets hard. I say as I have to deal with a flying robot tank and a horde of vorticons at every turn. Except that the flying robot is easy to predict and the horde of vorticons now die in one shot. What gives? Well, I dunno about the former, but the later is explained in-game as a combination of these vorticons being posher, no, not a joke, and Keen using a better weapon. I forgot to mention, but Keen scavenges his weapons from Martian/vorticon forces throughout the first trilogy, its in the second trilogy he builds his own.

Now the only issue with vorticons is that they jump, which depending on their location isn't much of a problem. While the robots look and sound menacing, they constantly move in one direction even as they unload their designated four shots. As a result, the first few levels I played were considerably easier than later levels.

I know what they were trying to create, but the elites just look silly

The first sign this isn't all going to be a simple points hunt is when I enter a level that doesn't seem like it has a path forward. So I walk around the points, trying not to get the little red guys out. Then I realize two things, point items prevent them from moving, and you can use them to climb to places you couldn't otherwise. That's genuinely clever, I wasn't expecting that kind of puzzle here. Id isn't generally the kind of company to exploit their engine like that.

Then I encounter two new enemies, a small blue thing that runs around. The wiki tells me these are vorticon youths. They don't hurt you, but they are annoying. Then we have the elite vorticons. These take the place of the regular vorticons from last time, but these shoot at you and only take 3 shots to kill. The vorticons here are guarding devices that are about to take out important Earth monuments. And they put the guy you have to take out in a really annoying place. I couldn't do anything to him.

So I think to myself maybe there's something I can do here to get past this guy. Firstly, I notice some interesting things regarding enemy behavior. Firstly, the youth tells to find himself outside the boundaries of the level if you leave him to his own devices. Not sure if that's an issue with the original game or the port. Secondly, sometimes the flying robot here stops facing a wall. Thirdly, if you shoot the elite vorticons, they stop jumping around. That last factor is very much a problem, because it prevents you from attacking it. Really, this is the first time having an extended view has done me wrong. Finally, enemies can shoot each other. I'm sure this was a factor in the original, but here its very noticeable.

This is actually the first time one of these levels has given me difficulty, simply because of how long it takes to set up this confrontation and the constant losses. I even take the chance to beat two other levels. Eventually I win, but it doesn't feel like I did it right, since I just run past the elite vorticon. This is the start of a theme going on with my victories in this game.

Then we come to the armory, a level that allows extensive exploitation of the way the game's engine works. See, whenever you die, you're spit out to the map screen, and everything in that level is reset. In most levels, this bears no thinking about, you could get enough points to farm lives, but that'd be an incredibly tedious process and you might very well run out of ammo. In the armory here, you can very easily farm enough points for another live, and get enough ammo to make up for the high number of enemies you face here. Its not even a question of getting to the level exit, the game just plops it in the upper right. But actually trying to seriously play through this level feels like cheating.

There's also a vorticon elder who functions like the statues in the last game. This one tells me that vorticons don't jump in the dark. I guess the intent with the switch from a few levels back was to help me solve this, but one of the few flaws in Commander Genius is that things go completely dark and thus its more dangerous for you to try it this way.

They can't even reach this area!
In-between attempts at beating that level I take on a different one. Its a curious design, because you have a downstairs area where the only possible threat to you is from a monster from above falling on you; And an upstairs area where there's close to a dozen vorticons and robots. All for a very low point reward. At the end there's another machine which is guarded by a half dozen elites. This would undoubtedly be a fraught battle if I wasn't given enough space to jump over them. Its not like you get points for killing them, its just for bragging rights. This becomes a consistent theme throughout the later parts of this episode.
The game tries to recapture the magic of the first game's maze, to some mild success. I wouldn't have anything to talk about if it weren't for a vorticon elder telling me about the Grand Intellect, which is apparently an Earth creature that somehow got brainwashed to lead the vorticon fleets. I'm not sure what exactly is going on with this plot, this isn't the kind of game I would expect to reveal a true twist, but it implies I should try to stop the brainwashing somehow and not kill it.

Optional areas continue to be the game's real source of difficulty. Its strange. This final armory level was a nice, big maze that felt equal to the one in the original, and yet it was completely pointless. By this time I already had more shots than my screen could display, so it wasn't like I needed the ammo. The biggest source of ammo was in a hard to escape from room on the right, which you need to travel across multiple moving platforms to reach. And I just couldn't get away from it. Meaning despite my skill at the game, there's still something missing.

Friendly fire seems to work on Doom rules, they'll never hit each other
And then this level happens. Yeah, that's 5 elite vorticons in front of a death ray and thus the exit. No way for them to get out of my way. Once again this is only a problem down to my use of extended game resolution. In proper resolution, you just walk around to the back of the area they're in, shoot the machine, and hopefully get out of the level without incident.
All those red glowing tiles and the ones with electrical current? You can't touch those
The final level. Yes, this is as difficult as this looks. Its very much possible, but because of the quirk the game has involving Keen's jumping, you can't really dodge laser attacks. Meaning trying to dodge is a terrible experience. Tedious, but possible is the motto of the level. Trick some enemy to stay outside of your reach so you have a chance to shoot them. Carefully jump around so you don't fall or land in some electric device. Exploit the AI of some enemy. I don't feel like I won this level as much as I got lucky.
Aren't these guys sentient?
Anyway, after this, we get an ending cutscene in which Keen now has a pet Yorp and muses about his plans to deal with the vorticons on their home world of Vorticon VI.

Weapons:
Same as Keen 1. 1/10

Enemies:
The game gets a lot of mileage out of what amounts to four enemies. Using them generally in clever ways. But there are still only four enemies. 4/10

Non-Enemies:
In a sense, the little red robots are very much something that works with you rather than against you. The times they worked against me were honestly as much as the times in other games where real, proper allies also would have. So, kudos. 1/10

Levels:
Up until that last level, while I didn't have anything bad to say about the game, I did feel like the game was just kind of there. The last level felt like an exercise in tedium that puts a damper on the whole thing, and I played in a sourceport that made things easier. Playing the original engine would have been a nightmare. 3/10

Player Agency:
Same as Keen 1. 6/10

Interactivity:
You get a few switches you can press throughout the game, using the pogo stick button. Few of them do anything interesting though. 1/10

Atmosphere:
For the first half, things were fine, but having to replay some of these levels felt tedious, like work. I wasn't replaying these levels becaues I genuinely got caught, but because the game needed to be longer. 1/10

Graphics:
Mostly same as before, but those elite vorticons look silly. 2/10

Story:
I feel more confused than interested in the twist that someone else is guiding the vorticons, but don't really have strong feelings about it one way or another. 1/10

Sound/Music:
About the same as last time. 1/10

That's 21.

While Keen's debut game sort of felt like more than something I could rate fairly here, this one was very much one of those DOS games that bore you to tears as you try to play it. This was not a game that should make you repeat levels as much as you'll probably have to. And musing to the future, that's very much on-point with a lot of shareware DOS titles from this era. The sad thing is that even with this padding it didn't take me that long to finish this.

I just realized I didn't check reviews for the last title. That's okay, since its what started off the PC platformer trend you more or less know what you're going to get out of it. And now looking at reviews there doesn't seem to be much depth here. And for the most part, people paint this with the same brush that they would the original. If you're a PC gamer this is the best game ever, if you're a console gamer this is undignified trash. Otherwise my assessment isn't too far from everyone else's thoughts.

In the meantime, I really want to take a break between this episode and the third. Episode 3 is where most of my reservations about this trilogy come from and I want to be nice and ready for it.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Commander Keen: Episode 1 (1990)

Name:Commander Keen in "Invasion of the Vorticons" - Episode 1: Marooned on Mars
Number:163
Year:1990
Publisher:Apogee
Developer:Id Software
Genre:Side-Scroller
Difficulty:3/5
Time:1 hour
Won:Yes (59W/56L)

If PC gaming ever had a mascot, it would be Keen. Despite having only 4 or 7 (depending on how you consider the episodes) games over a short period of time, Keen shifted the landscape of PC platformers from slow and annoying fair to something rivaling console titles. Its arguable that every platformer on PC owes something to this game, and its certainly true in the '90s and '00s.

The story of how this came to be is pretty well worn, and I'm not going to say anything new. While working for Softdisk, the boys at Id made a fancy, smooth, side-scrolling engine that they sent to Nintendo. In their only act of mercy, Nintendo doesn't sue the hell out of them, and just tells them to knock it off. Scott Miller of Apogee calls them up asking for a game, and the rest is history.

The story of the game is fairly simple. A child genius dons his football helmet and becomes Commander Keen, savior of the universe! Using a spaceship he cobbled together from household goods (mother isn't going to miss her vaccum cleaner) he goes to Mars. While he goes off exploring, the Vorticons have stolen key parts of his ship and he has to get them back together.

I'm playing this in the Commander Genius sourceport, akin to Zdoom, for the Keen games...and Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure. This is nice, but to a certain degree breaking intended parts of the original game if you want it to. Its buttery smooth, at least as much as the game will allow, and my viewport is completely ideal. I'm sure there'll be chants of heresy, but I've beaten this twice, I don't mind making my third a little fancier. The sequel episodes...are interesting, and we'll get to those when we get to those.

The game takes place in two sections, an overmap, in which the player moves around and selects his stage. By activating Keen's spaceship, he can see what he needs to find. Also, the one issue I have is here, in which the border is overwrited by the item sprites. Entering a stage is as simple as pressing the jump button near a settlement. There's some non-linearity as the map opens up. Some areas are required because they're in the way, others are required because they have important items, but others are optional, and only serve to offer up points and ammo.

Keen is controlled with the arrows for movement, the ctrl key for jump, the alt key for pogo stick, and space for shoot. Okay, its space for shoot in sourceports, originally, you had to press ctrl and alt together. This is a problem for modern games which are run in OSes that dislike you pressing the ctrl and alt keys. You can redesignate any key, of course, but that's what I'm used to, so that's what I'm going to use.
The first map is a pretty good intro to the game. It gives you some time to get used to Keen's unusual jumping physics, because you kind of have to work to find yourself against a real threat. Pressing jump doesn't jump, not right away. You get a delay. Its deceptively realistic. You get very little air control, but if you time things right you can pull off jumps others might think of as impossible. Keen, however, cannot jump down, so any climbs are one-way. But as long as you're walking on a floor that has a missing tile, you can climb back down. Enemies work the same way, for good and ill. Trust me, Id knows how to be annoying here.
You don't get your gun right away, you need to find ammo for it. Its simple rules, left or right only. Enemies here are basically non-entities, these simple green guys can be jumped on, stunning them and they only push you. They don't kill you like most other enemies. You have to be in a bad spot for them to be a threat to you, be it pushing you into a deathtrap or a pit. Shooting them, as I've done, is a bit of an overreaction. Later enemies will eat up shots from this thing. Other items are basically points, outside of the odd key.
Each level is exited via a convention door marked by an exit sign. This is the basic loop of the game, avoid touching enemies, don't fall down and get points just in case. Simple, but effective.
There are also these short mini-levels, where you get messages and items.
The second level I reached introduces quite a few of the game's more annoying enemies. Firstly, the gray robot. These guys slide along platforms, and unlike most others, they don't jump or fall off the platform. They're annoying to get past, but an effective hazard.
We also get these guys, the bigger version of the little green guys. They can kill you, but they can't jump. Getting on the same floor as them causes them to rush towards you. They're mostly ineffective, usually when they guard something important you can easily dodge them, when they guard something like points, well, you don't really need those.
Then we have these guys. These barons of Mars. These are the vorticons, and they're a pain. They take four shots to disable, jump around like maniacs and aren't even bothered by locked doors. I actually died and came back to this level later because of this guy. You really have to motor when they approach, and they guard the exits to a lot of levels. The most effective method of dealing with them is to simply never fight them at all. Because they walk around and have a decent jump height, most barriers keeping them in aren't very effective. As long as you aren't in a location they'll walk to, you can simply stay on the same screen as them and wait for them to leave.

The rest of the mechanics merely add things. Keen gets another life every 20k points, which is slightly pointless in a game with a save system. Really soon in, possibly before you reach the second level, you can get a pogo stick, which about doubles Keen's jumping distance. Press the alt key and the pogo stick activates, causing Keen to jump continuous. If you jump as the stick touches down, you can get about double usual jumping range. Press the pogo stick again and it deactivates. Mastering this is key to mastering Keen's platforming. Or just speeding up navigation.

The last regular enemy in the game are these robot tanks. They're one of the more annoying enemies. Touching them isn't a problem, they just push you, but everything else is. They function a bit randomly and can't be killed. They shoot, then turn around, but when they shoot is quite random. This makes dealing with them in some situations pure luck.

That's more or less the lot for the light side of Mars. More hazards, like a tile you can walk over but not touch the bottom of. Level design is simple and doesn't offer a lot to talk about. Its a bit non-linear, but in the end, the level exit is somewhere on the right and you're going there. Doors you need to find a key for add a bit of back and forth, but its not as tedious as Catacomb was. This simplicity works, although you'd be hard pressed to remember the specific details of a certain level later on.
Then you travel to the dark side of Mars. The ice side. You know what that means, ice tiles. I can't say I've ever blogged about a game that contains those, but you probably know the drill. Ice tiles are slippery. And since one of the two ways of killing you is pushing you into deathtraps, the game naturally takes advantage of this. Ice tiles come in two varieties, ones that carry momentum and ones that simply remove your control until you leave them, either by falling off or jumping. One particular section I liked was when you had to deal with these in addition to gray robots dancing around. It was just for points and didn't truly get dangerous, but the thought counts.
There are also these cannon things, hazards rather than real enemies. They shoot a constant barrage of snowballs. The problem isn't these things as much as the noises they make, which quickly get on my nerves whenever they're on-screen. I don't remember how bad this was on PC speaker originally, but I'm sure it was horrendous. In theory its something you have to be careful of, but in practice I found I always got past the thing easily.

Then we have a giant maze. Unlike other levels of this nature, it works. It doesn't feel like a similar Wolfenstein 3D level would, annoying and tedious. This is down to the ability to actually see and deal with threats in such a way that I can actually react to them in time. Its that, combined with how surprising good the platforming feels, even with something as simple as climbing an area, that makes it work.

The final level does a very good job of being grand and then just feels disappointing. If you've kept more than a couple of shots before now, you can just travel to the final boss, a special vorticon, and shoot the block above his head. Then you walk past him to the ending. Even if you go through most of the level's content, its just a small amount of points with very little in the way of tricks impeding your progress.
Huh, I won in about an hour. I died a bunch and its not like I remembered what I played very well. Come to think of it, I definitely beat it the first time within a single afternoon too. Even within the realm of shareware, this feels...short.

Weapons:
A straight-forward ray gun. 1/10

Enemies:
A nice balance of enemies, ranging from mostly unimportant threats to terrifying foes. 5/10

Non-Enemies:
None.

Levels:
None of the levels will stick out for very long in my mind, but they're fun, they're short, and in general they work well. 5/10

Player Agency:
Keen's movement is deceptive. At first he seems very clunky, but as you grow to use him more, you realize how much of a cleverly designed character he is. Commander Genius helped in sanding off the rough edges with visibility and not having to press multiple buttons to shoot. 6/10

Interactivity:
None.

Atmosphere:
Keen, above all else, has a very fun atmosphere. Its simple and effective. Its just a lot of fun to play and its short run time means failure never sets you too far back. 5/10

Graphics:
This game isn't very attractive, fitting the mental image many of us have of the EGA era as ugly. Its not distracting at least. Commander Genius improves this a little but not by a noticeable amount. 2/10

Story:
Simple, not terribly important, but provides enough reason for some levels to be optional. Not that you know these levels are optional in advance... 1/10

Sound/Music:
Some simple but effective PC speaker sounds brought down by some very annoying usage of them at times. 1/10

That's 26.

Befitting its more secondary status as a shooter, its done slightly worse than expected.

That was the first Keen episode, short but sweet. As a shareware title, perfect, priming you to want to play more of it. The question is, do the followup episodes work? We'll see.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Dragonriders of Pern (1983)

Name:Dragonriders of Pern
Number:162
Year:1983
Publisher:Epyx
Developer:The Connelly Group
Genre:Side-Scroller/Strategy
Difficulty:3/5
Time:3 hours
Won:Yes (58W/56L)

The Dragonriders of Pern series is one of those series I must admit to having no familiarity with. I have a spotty reading of sci-fi and fantasy canon, and Anne McCaffrey's work is one of those missing spots. I even have one of the early books I picked up...somewhere, probably for a small sum of money.

Its just a series about people riding dragons, and fighting each other, right? Wrong, this is a science fiction series masquerading as a fantasy series. As the introduction to Dragonflight tells us, Pern is not the native home of humanity in this universe. Instead, its the colonized planet of a group of people who desired to return to a simpler life. Pern has no resources to speak of, its only plus side is its a green planet capable of supporting human life. This is not reason enough to care in the Pern universe, which I find interesting.

Pern is cut off from the rest of humanity thanks to a surprise from a wandering planet trapped in the orbit of Pern's star. A red planet, containing a lifeform dubbed the Thread. The Thread eats a cow in seconds, and is incredibly hostile to other life. The colonists fend off the Thread, but the cost is high. Realizing the gravity of the situation, they take advantage of their advanced genetic engineering to create dragons from local lifeforms. They are to bond with humans who have high empathy and innate telepathy. Also, dragons can teleport apparently.

So over the centuries they build up a medieval lifestyle, forgetting that any life exists beyond their planet and that of the red planet. Dragonriders become knights, and society revolves around ensuring they can defeat the Thread. The sort of rulers are called Weyrs, who get tithes from the everyone else, since they can't exactly dedicate time to something other than thread. You've got things like guilds called craftshalls, led by master craftsmen. Craftshalls are at least in theory supposed to give goods and services neutrally. Then there are various other holds of gradually decreasing holds.

Oh, yeah, holds. Because there's a limited area the dragons can defend, people are limited to various holds. These are carved out of solid rock and metal, a rare occurrence thanks to the planet being chosen for its limited resources. (apparently that extends even to iron) They do this during the Long Intervals. A 200 year period of peace in which no Thread falls, as the Thread falls regularly during a 50 year period. The first novel starts with a period of peace nearly over, but uh-oh, people have started to believe that the Thread is a myth.

Unfortunately, there's only one Weyr left, and a scant 200 dragons. Humans are more numerous compared to the days of old when there were six Weyrs, so they're really in a bad place. Even the discovery of a woman who was the hidden child of some noble bloodline bonding with the new queen dragon doesn't help. (queen dragons are the only ones who can lay eggs, this is incredibly important, both the dragon and her bond) But the woman and her dragon can travel through time to the point where the old Weyrs disappeared and all is well.

If this sounds like a lot of backstory. There are ten pages of this backstory in the third novel, and I'm not even getting into the plot of the second novel! (this all seems to be in the manual's backstory too) The second novel gets into the politics of the setting. Especially now that a bunch of people from the past are clashing with modern, liberal craftsmen who are still getting over their belief that the Thread was a myth. They resettle the southern continent, which was left because it was unstable. They find fire lizards, which are like dragons, and ground grubs which undo the damage caused by the Thread in the soil.

Pern is credited with rehabilitating dragons in the eye of pop culture, something I can't rightly comprehend considering what I just read. Its easy to make a cop out and say this is Twilight for boomers, but the twists this story takes make Twilight look subdued in comparison. Pern is also better written, at least when you get past how incredibly dense it is. Its only natural that someone would make a video game about it, since it was apparently a huge deal back then. The game takes place around the second novel. Political intrigue between the old Weyrs and the modern, liberal lords of the holds. Fire lizards and the southern continent are discovered during play.

You are given a variety of options, but the most important part is game mode. You have regular, no thread fighting and thread fighting practice. No thread fighting just makes the thread fighting automatic. So I guess I better talk about the thread fighting from the practice mode.

Thread fighting is one of the most brilliant bits of combat I have ever encountered in a game. The sheer tactical depth boggles belief. The adrenaline-pumping action leaves you on the edge of your seat as you duck and weave in and out of the falling threads, burning as many as you can. You can hear the screams of the men below you as they're ripped apart by the threads you fail to fell, urging you to fight better...

...which is what they would have liked people to say.

This is the only screenshot I took of the action game, befitting that there really isn't anything worth seeing

In practice, the fighting is a bizarre trifecta of simplicity, bad controls and being too easy. Thread fighting has a depth option, which before you understand what it means, you'll be using it with one, and dying thanks to the weird controls. You attack with the fire button, and move up and down with up and down on the joystick. Left and right, meanwhile, change what direction you're going, left, right, inward and outward. This makes turning around very awkward, but thankfully the screen wraps. This is about the only praise-worthy decision the game offers. Finally, by pressing the space bar, you teleport, which you should be doing after getting hit by the thread, lest you die. The only sound is that of your fireballs.

As you can see from the video, the game is easy once you get this down. Laughably so. Depth makes the controls less bad, but its a really slow process moving from the different depths. There's also not a good difference between the thread at the two deeper depths, one thread just feels slightly longer than the other. It does feel complete compared to lower depths, but there's seemingly no reason to select a higher depth. Its fun at first, but rapidly it becomes just as interesting as the lower depths.

Before I talk about the strategy section, I'm going to point out that The Wargaming Scribe is also going to be covering this. As he knows more about strategy games than I, I'm sure his coverage will be considerably more in-dpeth than mine. I'm not sure the game really deserves all this extensive coverage, but its too late now.

What about the strategy game? The overarching aspect that was supposed to make this a whole? I note that the game offers multiplayer. You know how a lot of crappy games are said to be fun with friends? Dragonriders is not fun with friends. Playing this with friends back then would have been torture. You don't even need to bring someone into it to know its going to be bad. This is a game where you spend a lot of time looking at menus extensively.

There are 6 Weyrs, of which 4 may be player controlled. The objective is to be the first to get to 20 Victory Points before 20 holds become infested by the thread. To get Victory Points, a Weyr needs to enter into an alliance with a lord of a hold (2 VP) or craftsmaster (1 VP). You select the length of the game in turns/years, each of which consists of 240 or so days.

Strongest supporter might not mean much, I've seen them have an attitude of indifferent despite being there

So let's look at the obvious problem. The way the strategy game controls. I've played a lot of strategy games. I'm not very good at them, but that's neither here nor there. Strategy games have learning curves, even in modern strategy games. Modern games generally don't shorten this, as their benefits in easier controls and tooltips don't necessarily come with easier mechanics or GUIs. To say nothing of games getting more complex. The problem with Dragonriders is that the system is incredibly simple, its just presented in such a way that makes it awful.

I'm sure there was a reason this happens, but it really just seems random
There are 16 lords and 6 craftsmasters, along with some minor holds unimportant except as fodder. Each ruler has feelings towards each Weyr, general attitude, attitudes towards dragons and thread. Thus you have to manipulate him in the best possible way. I have no problem with this, its basically how the relations between characters work in most strategy games. The issue is that this game puts across this information in the most obtuse way possible. These names don't really matter, because game to game and sometimes turn to turn they change into completely different people, even discounting deaths. Yeah, characters can die in this game, for all that matters.

This game is played in real time, you set the speed at the start. From slow to lightning fast. This, I guess, was done because its a strategy game for action players. Who I'm sure already left when they realized how absolutely boring the action game was. When you press your key or joystick button, you can select one of eight options. But since you don't know what any of the rulers feelings are, you have to select description. Because every time you do this the game stops for a moment, this ruins what little momentum the game has.

Crom is apparently a coal mining town, though I believe its food for the dragons here

You have to mentally figure out your plan of attack, and only menus stop the game. Meaning looking at the description of a lord happens while actions are going on. Usually, pressing an action button stops the game before entering a menu. In a multiplayer game this might be something of an advantage, since a friend can't mess you up with information you wanted to know. Although now he too, knows the info you wanted and might just try to take the prize first.

Negotiating with rulers seems to primarily rely on the right attitude from yourself, along with potentially a guildsmaster offering assistance. Once I got past my initial test runs, I figured that getting into an alliance with the Harper's Guild would be best, because he tends to work best with improving relations. All you can do after performing an action is wait. You can only do one action at a time. You get two events you can use to improve relations with multiple people, dragon hatching and wedding. The former happens with some regularity, while the latter only happens occasionally. Dragon hatching only appeals to those that like dragons and I'm not quite sure about the latter. In either event, you want to strategize your time so that you aren't wasting time approaching people for either that long ahead.
Shields are Weyrs, blocks are minor holds and the white h shapes are major holds
Every so often, the waiting stops to signal that Thread is falling somewhere. You decide if and how many wings you should send to each thread fall. The issue I noticed is that you don't necessarily know where a hold is and if its one you should be caring about at this moment. You just know if its going to be falling on your own land. Not if the hold is allied with you, which applies to every other hold on the map. There is no way to see this map outside of the locations of holds either, and I'm not sure it really matters.

Eventually you get the results of your negotiation back, and if you think you've gotten enough done you can try for an alliance. This seems kind of random at times, but I note you need to have a successful tone and to be held in very high regard. That seems to work most of the time. Even against lords allied to other Weyrs. Yeah, you can do that, and so can others. Though I note that the AI tends to not go for yours.

Then there are conclaves, for both dragonriders and lord holders. I wasn't really sure what the purpose of the two were. I noticed the lord holder one happen a few times, preventing me from interacting with the hold lords. So I tried it with the dragonrider one, which caused everyone to stop what they were doing. All this did was cause one of the wounded Weyrs to be rid of his wounds. I feel like this is only good for two things, screwing over other players plans, and helping someone who isn't in the lead.
I'm never even sure why other Weyrs duel, it just happens
What does duel do? Why, you duel someone. You don't actually get to duel them, it happens off-screen. Whoever loses get injured and can't do anything for a period. Or maybe they did. I feel like this is the most insulting aspect of the game, even amidst all its crap factor, it isn't even offering you another action section. With that in mind, it feels like rolling the die against someone far ahead of you and hoping it lands favorably to you...and then I realized you can do it against people who aren't other Weyrs for...some reason.
In-between these, random events happen. Someone dies, someone finds a clutch of fire lizard eggs. My least favorite, because the game always directed it against me, someone decries you, which has a pretty noticeable effect on reputation. Meanwhile, the events that deal with how many dragons and dragonriders you have seem to have more vague effects, even as exact numbers are given.
This is the end of the first turn, because no holds are infested
At the end of every year you get the scores of everyone, and then each player in turn fights...one thread section, assuming he contributed anything. Its just one, for good or ill. Performance makes some difference. Its not major enough that none of your dragonriders die or that you even prevent all the threads from reaching a hold. But it does mean you can survive for a little while longer.

After failing to make any progress whatsoever, a thought occured to me. An evil thought. Rather than being self-interested in my own holds, I'm going to be aggressive. I'm going to sent my wings to the holds the other Weyrs are going after, and I'm not going to kill a single thread. I'm just going to let it fall. In a way, this tactic adds some depth to MP. (the AI is too stupid to see what you're doing) Mutually assured destruction, you don't sabotage my holds, I don't sabotage your holds. At least I think so. This is what you get for not including dealing with the setting's big enemy as part of your victory condition. I note its more fun to dodge the threads than it is to fight them.

Of course this more or less seals that I'm not getting in an alliance with the holds I do this too, but considering they'll be not complaining about much in a few years it seems a small issue. The guy I was courting didn't seem that ticked off at me. But something weird happens, and I don't know why. One of the holds I do believe I was letting thread fall on suddenly decided I was a great guy. Huh? Both in game and out, my atrocities broke him.

Unfortunately, this plan doesn't work, I end up losing 5 to 9, but that's just because I only played 3 turns. Though, I think this is a better tactic for the long game. As I'm not sure the overall effects of thread fighting, I decide for my next game to do a little test. What happens if I do what I'm doing here, but instead of using minimal wings to not fight the thread, I maximize my coverage of thread fighting?

No, if anything, I do worse in the long term, because somehow the opinions of every towards me are constantly falling. I think I discover why though, it turns out that despite killing every single thread on-screen, because I've been sending one wing of dragons, they've still been getting through in some holds. Ouch. I technically win this one, by number of victory points even if the game says I don't. So...the actual idea is to strategize which holds I defend so I can form alliances better and hoping the game doesn't decide to let too many through.

This basically makes actually getting anywhere near the maximum possible length impossible, unless you play as 4 Weyrs. Four people are not getting together to play this for 99 in-game years. Not unless its a Desert Bus for Hope kind of situation. I feel like there are better strategy games for that kind of torture anyway. It does reveal that my other plan isn't going to work unless I was about to lose anyways. That's starting to feel less like an aspect of the game that matters and more like an aspect of the game they hastily tacked on. Threads just don't matter until everyone loses the game.

So I play one final, big game. Things go well at first, I manage to get the Master Harper into negotiations, then get into an alliance with him, all within 100 days. I even do well with my first hold, but the alliance doesn't go through right away. Because of this, I end the first year in third, behind the two players that managed to get a hold to ally with them. Now onto the thread fighting and everything...
Did Telgar lose men despite not contributing anything? Weird
...is awful, somehow. That's 14 infested holds, if you don't want to do the math. I, despite doing perfectly, apparently caused 4 holds to become infested. Suddenly I don't think I'm going to win.
There are holds sharing the same name as all the Weyrs, hence how Ista is holding a wedding at a different Weyr
Still, I'm going to give it a good try. There's a Lord Holder Conclave in the beginning of the year which prevents anyone from doing anything with them for a while. I push forward on negotiating with one hold until they hold me in high regard, then forming an alliance. Despite some other Weyr using the Master Harper in his own negotiations, thus preventing me from using him, I get two holds. Muahaha. This means I can now invite people to a wedding. I'm not sure if this is something that actually helps more than just bruteforcing things, but I might as well do it so I don't end up having to work against a position of absolute hatred later. I also end up inviting the craftmasters to a dragon hatching on the same logic.
And at the end of the year I'm now in the lead, with two holds and one craftsmaster. I see that there are only two thread infested holds now. Do the things the game says matter matter in this game? Do words have meaning here? I don't grok it. 12 threads get through this turn, four from me, 10 from Ista Weyr, because they really screwed up, actually losing a significant number of dragonriders. I still have no idea of any logic in this game's decisions regarding thread, because I repeat, I fight perfectly.
I start off the third turn trying to ally myself with the Master Farmer...and then I see Lord Rautha die while also starting a duel against the Master Harper. Nice, that's great, he's trying to screw with my allies while I myself basically have no option of retaliation other than dueling him again. Not that it matters, since both end up wounding themselves. At least Lord Rautha is going to be out of commission for most of the year. And that Lord conclave happens again. Still I make the most of the interaction, getting the Master Smith too. A lot of people tend to be more happy to see me this game, so I guess my strategy actually is working?
Still, I end up with 11 points, far ahead of everyone else. And there are 3 infected holds. So ten thread let through equals an infected hold? Seven threads? Unfortunately, I only protected one hold this turn, since I anticipated more. Instead the AI lets through a ton, 38. They're not trying my nuclear strategy, because they lost dragons in the fight.
As stupid as this sounds out of context, in-story its a creature that protects the soil against the thread
The fourth turn turns out to be a diplomatic blitzkrieg for me. Boom, you're an ally; Boom, you're an ally. By the hundredth day I had two more holds and a craftsmaster in my alliance. Either weddings work a lot better than I thought or doing perfectly at the thread fighting completely breaks the game. The only thing slowing me down is one of the AI's decisions to negotiate with one of my holds, along with an alliance failing to form for once. And then the Weyr High Rchs engages in a duel with me.
Someone really didn't think this through
This goes poorly for me...but not as poorly as it did for him. I wonder what would happen if I die in a duel, but I don't wonder enough to try it. This basically puts me out of commission for the rest of the year and most of the next too. I'm not so sure this isn't a net benefit for him though, since he doesn't get delayed in the slightest. The new Weyr starts right away.
...not that any of that mattered too much, as my idea of a long game was apparently 4 turns. One might say that I got lucky, but this was feeling like a beatdown they were never going to recover from. Maybe I lose one and another guy gets another. So what? I'll just keep plucking away at one guy at a time before regaining my place.

Weapons:
It is nice that you can aim the fireballs to a certain degree. 1/10

Enemies:
This is curious because the two different modes of the game have vastly different objectives. The thread is a joke the game glosses over, while the other Weyrs are worse at this game than I am, somehow. Its at least interesting in that any lord not another Weyr can be won over to your side. 2/10

Non-Enemies:
...but at the same time allies in the strategic game basically only ever contribute victory points and maybe help with negotiations. I never thought I'd be sick to be negotiating in a supposedly action game, but here were are. 1/10

Levels:
I don't really think this qualifies here, its not what they were trying to do, is it? 0/10

Player Agency:
The combat section generally works, if a little confusing at first. The strategy game section also works, except it feels like a struggle to get anything done. 2/10

Interactivity:
None.

Atmosphere:
There's a distinct C64 children's game vibe to the game. That picture book-esque game where it tries to paint itself as a fantasy romp...but its a bit miss whenever you're waiting for something to happen. 2/10

Graphics:
There's not a lot of real effort applied here, but I like the places they tried. The combat background looks nice and the animation is well done. 2/10

Story:
All the words I wrote regarding the story don't matter, all the story of the setting basically doesn't matter. 0/10

Sound/Music:
A few simple sound effects. I like the musical cues, but I feel like they're preventing me from playing music during this. 1/10

Subtracting one for not being a good combination of strategy and action, that's 10.

This isn't good as an action game. It also isn't good as a strategy game. Its just not good. The action game is simplistic bordering on being a programmer's first action game; The strategy game has a desire to over complicate simple matters in a way that makes it all annoying. Further, it feels like you're missing quite a lot of possible actions, while those related to events are confusing to figure out.

I think the problem this game has is that neither element of the game is all that connected to the other element. Its possible for a game to be an action/strategy hybrid, but the combination has to let a player lean on one over the other if they so desire. No amount of skill at one aspect is going to help you with the other. I struggle to think of a proper title, but Mount and Blade works to this somewhat. This is just a stitched together monster. Its a decent enough distraction for me, compared to some of the other titles from 1983, but if you actually owned this then, I can see this as being disappointing. Doubly so if you actually liked the books.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Shadow Knights (1991)

Name:Shadow Knights AKA Budo: The Art of Ninja Combat
Number:161
Year:1991
Publisher:Softdisk
Developer:Id Software
Genre:Side-scroller
Difficulty:5/5
Time:2 hours 50 minutes
Won:Yes (57W/56L)

So, I was debating whether or not to get to this now or save this for a later. Of Id's platformers, Shadow Knights, is an outlier. Its got a Japanese theme, it had no sequels, its not really a shooter, and the game isn't on any internet stores as of this writing. An odd omission, considering the company. There are a few paragraphs of text in a readme, but its not really more complex than, you're a powerful ninja, save the shogun from the evil dudes. Id, as we all know, wasn't big on story. People on the internet allege that this is Id's attempt at making a Ninja Gaiden like game.

If it was, they failed.

I have not extensively played any Ninja Gaiden games. I have played Revenge of Shinobi and some of the other games in that series extensively. The two games have different playstyles, but the general characterization of what they're trying to do is consistent. Ninjas should be deadly, ninjas have a variety of weapons, and ninjas violate the laws of aerodynamics. Shadow Knights fails.

Two of the regular enemies, the clubsman and the bowman
This is apparent from the very beginning, your character can take a lot of punishment, but it takes two shots from his sword to take out anything. Enemy damage is determined by what frames the enemy can attack in, so while you're okay against just one, multiple ends badly. Your guy jumps away, but rarely. Ranged attacks require magic, you have a shuriken which kills any enemy and a "panic" attack which costs four bars of magic, but shoots out a bunch of shurikens in all directions. You can also heal, one point of magic for one point of health. You restore magic by finding floating orbs. There are also varieties that restore health and increase lives.
But I get ahead of myself.
You get this screen before every stage, in this case, the highest it'll ever be from this point forward
Despite mostly being the same game, there are minor differences between the original game, Shadow Knights, and the later rerelease called Budo. The original gets a cool title screen, while the rerelease just dumps you in the first stage. I think the cheats don't work in Budo. And make no mistake, this is the kind of game you need that level select code for, you aren't saving anything. Not that there's a score. Its C+T+Space for level warp, and C+T+enter for magic. In-game, not on a menu. I also note that you can get more health and magic by just warping to a level, each new level restores health and gives two magic.
A dog, just randomly flopping down
Stage 1, Village, introductions the concepts and central gameplay in a relaxed environment. There are three enemies that make up the majority of fighting time. All have a back and forth movement path that is only altered when you land on the same level as them, or slightly higher or lower. A red samurai, who you fight like a demon from Doom. Wait for an opening, attack, then retreat. A blue ninja bowmen, who has a long wind-up time for a ranged attack. You can kill them without them ever releasing an arrow if you're lucky. Dogs, which are annoying and just chew up health. They jump up and attack you. I never took out one without it hitting me. You're not even dodging it, it'll rapidly hit you should you even try.
Visually the game looks nice, but its not as nice-looking as Dangerous Dave was. I really like the trees though. Sound still hasn't advanced past PC Speaker, and feels it. I don't think the stepping sounds are linked properly to running around and everything else is questionable. Meanwhile our hero controls...okay. Its characteristic of these early Id games in that it feels stiffer than it should. There is a difference between tapping the jump button and holding it down, but its minor. There are no great gaps you can jump. Using ranged attacks has an overly long wind-up, meaning you have to already know an enemy is there before using it. A problem considering enemies become alert slightly off-screen.
An opening so subtly deadly

Stage 2, Approach, is where the game goes off the rails. You are put in a position where you need to rapidly perform actions lest you end up dead. Those red samurai ensure you can't just rush to the bowman just off-screen, who can and will shoot arrows at you. Jumping over these two results in you getting attacked by a dog, along with another one, just off-screen, but below. What you have to do is throw shurikens at the two samurai, then jump over the first bow shot, throwing another shuriken, followed by aiming a shuriken in a jump, something you haven't done before, finishing off by throwing a shuriken at the final dog before he's alert and then running off to him. Of these situations, you have had to maybe time your attacks against bowmen and maybe figure out you can do the last shuriken thing. There was no jumping and throwing shuriken.

And this is just indicative of the kind of level design this level has. You can go up a tree to get some magic, but samurai and bowmen guard it, and the combination here is deadly. So you have to attack the samurai in the direction they aren't facing while jumping from a lower branch. Then you can just hammer the bowmen and repeat until he's gone. Then you can actually advance through the level!

To advance here, you need to get past the bowman up there, and take out a dog. (off-screen) This is much harder than it sounds.

Its at this point that I realize a problem with the game's design. As in many side-scrollers, there are spikes. This isn't a problem, but it does expose it. Enemies can walk over spikes without problems. There's one section here where you can only attack a samurai as he walks over one. So I attack him, and I get hurt despite me not getting hit. Why? Because when your sprite changes it registers the sword's area as you, so you can hurt if you attack spikes.
I complain, but this is actually the easiest section of the level
This is to say nothing of the actual parts you have to go through. An area where you have to jump up to a dog, which means you have no good means of attack. In the final area, all of a sudden enemies drop from the sky. Its not a difficulty jump or anything, just surprising. This feels like aggressive padding, because otherwise this level is 5 minutes long. You have to go through the first level to beat this level no matter what, you just aren't going to survive some sections of this otherwise.
Stage 3, Ascent, actually a good level. Considerably easier than the nightmare that was Approach. I have no idea why. Outside of the game's constant desire to have you attacking dogs from down below I actually feel like a ninja for once. Its nice, it flows well. While I enjoyed my time with the level, I do note that the whole jump below a dude is getting somewhat tedious.
As it turns out, its very hard to get a good screenshot of a bat, its to the right of the dog
Stage 4, Graveyard, now there are bats. To Id's credit, they're not as annoying as they could possibly be. They have a distinct pattern that's easy enough in isolation to defeat. The real problem are the skeleton warriors. They're not bosses, and they respawn every time you walk over their tombstone. They require at least two shurikens to take out and melee combat is a fool's errand. They follow you too. And then it gets worse.
A low number of skeleton warriors midway through the level
The level is simply not designed to allow you to get past them easily. You have to jump down multiple ledges and the ilk. Its just a slow way to move around, assuming jumping down even works. And you need to jump down because the ledges which should offer you some safety from the skeletons have dogs by the dozens, sometimes even another skeleton warrior. This is not a level you win, this is a level you get by on luck.
I think its a shame that this didn't get a modern reboot, because I can see this thing getting a majestic and gory introduction
Stage 5, boss battle, Guardian. The first time I played this I got sucker punched. I get the feeling that's pretty much universal. I should stop giving this game the benefit of any doubt whatsoever. The only mercy this level offers is that your foe doesn't have a ranged attack. He moves fast enough that it isn't that much of a mercy. You have to hit the middle section of this bad boy. The problem is this guy moves around in such a way that I don't think there IS any way to dodge him. You just have to hope the number of shuriken you can put out is enough to put him down. As such, luck is becoming an increasing concern.

Stage 6, Castle. This level encourages the player to go around enemies for once, lots of big groups of enemies guarding magic, with chandeliers. Pretty sure Japan didn't have those until semi-recently, but I'm willing to bet the historical accuracy of this game boils down to someone watching a ninja movie the night before. It straddles the line between being good and being annoying. Its a clever situation, but it feels like its been copy/pasted a dozen times. Each floor has a dog, about 4 guards and 2 bowmen. This combination is effective enough at getting the player to want to avoid them, but going over them awakens the higher floor earlier, making it so you have to deal with them earlier.

So this means you have to figure out how to deal with these guys in a way that maximizes the amount of magic/health you have while minimizing damage. I notice on this level a troubling issue, I can't climb down a floor while being attacked. The game knows this and takes advantage of it.

Id tends to be somewhat lazy and always have the safe area be the middle
To top it all off, you have to fall down a pit while avoiding spikes. A very nerve-wracking experience after the ascent to this point.
Stage 7, Dungeon. Bats attack you. At this point its less a gotcha and more annoying. Now the level design is all about falling down to a group of enemies. Its not any easier, especially since the game hides all sorts of nasty things below your vision. There are also objects that seem like they're in the background, but actually hurt you. What's interesting is this shift in tone. We saw a little bit of it earlier, but now its getting dark. I find it funny that they managed to get out this game, when with Dangerous Dave they had to hold things back.
Yes, that's five enemies, I already killed another five stuck down here
This one requires precision on your part to win. Enemies are just packed into each floor, and worse yet, they can take more damage. Some guards now take three hits, and you barely get any space to move around. I even think the area out respawns these guys. There's a new enemy, rats. They scurry across the floor and generally be annoying.
Cell space must not be at a premium if they can afford to keep skeletons hanging around
Stage 8, Depths. Starting off with three guards and a bat. Yippee. Rats falling from the ceiling, skeleton warriors, and best of all, falling down dozens of holes in which you have no idea where you're going until after you've done it. Woe be to him trying to win this level without the level select cheat. This is a maze full of one-way paths designed to wear you down to the point of nothingness. I've also noticed that the game doesn't let you attack if you get hit at the right moment.
This is nothing, the game is fully prepared to throw six of these guys at you
There are multiple locations on this level where the strategy is either run away, never be there, or hit the panic button. This is actually the first time I've used it in a situation which didn't result in my death. And the bad news is that situation led me no closer to winning than I was before. No, the way out is a long crawl down, then a final ascend up, requiring you kill two skeleton warriors. I just thought they respawned infinitely. Guess I was wrong.
Level 9, Sashika, the final boss. No, you aren't getting past this level without some measure of pain, but its less brutal than previous levels. Kind of. He's just a supped up skeleton warrior, he can hit you one floor up, but he only does so if you're within striking range beforehand. And those two health orbs up there amount to four shots, he takes out half a life bar in one hit. (you can survive without any bars in your life meter, but the next one takes you out) This is simply not the kind of game where what the game expects you to do is fun.
Both are capable of being said in Japanese, but they still feel wrong to hear
He goes down to about 20 sword strikes, or 10 shurikens. Thankfully, for this you get a nice scrolling shot of the scenic Naipusan countryside. And the team at Id thank the 5 people who can beat this game.
Yes, you are actually in an unwinnable situation if you end up here
Through all this I more or less had tunnel vision concerning the game's difficulty. Like past Softdisk titles, it revels in it, but unlike past games which generally did one thing well, this felt unsure of itself. If this is a beat 'em up, why is combat discouraged outside of cheesing enemies? If this isn't, why is the primary method of fighting enemies is melee? I don't feel like I'm playing this game well, but I cannot see how anyone could do any better.
One might say these problems are because the player is a ninja, you have to avoid enemies. That works to a certain extent, but you're not going to win the game running away from enemies. Bats and dogs can't be run away from. You're not carefully avoiding enemies like in even a mediocre stealth game. You just sort of get lucky. One might say that ninjas fight in an underhanded way, but that only works in the first half. When you fight enemies that take 3+ hits it gets tedious. This is sort of like the usual JRPG criticism, to deal with one encounter you have to spend like half a minute. This is the action version of that.

Weapons:
Everything about the attacks were just user hostile in the end. The sword only works half the time; The shuriken requires a windup and aiming in the air is tricky; And the panic attack is only useful in very rare situations. 1/10

Enemies:
I like the variety in theory, but all they tend to either take too many hits or require you to hit them at a very precise moment. It feels like busywork. 2/10

Non-Enemies:
None.

Levels:
A lot of the levels, once you take out the gotchas at the star, have genuinely clever moments in them. It feels like they really knew the capabilities of their engine. However, it feels like they expected you to know the exact ins and outs of every aspect of the game, which doesn't quite work in a game that constantly fights against you. 4/10

Player Agency:
At its most basic, a side-scrolling platformer, the game feels stiff. When it comes to combat, there are multiple issues that compound on top of it, like attacks not working, hitbox issues. All designed to put you to a dead stop. 2/10

Interactivity:
None.

Atmosphere:
There's some subtle horror here. The game starts off with a typical, happy opening section, before gradually turning into a horror game. Fits with the descent into insane difficulty too. Were the game more modern I could see this getting very bloody, and I don't think that would be a bad thing. 4/10

Graphics:
Animation feels limited, and there's a bit too much purple, but otherwise it looks very nice for EGA. It is obvious its EGA though. 3/10

Story:
None.

Sound/Music:
For some reason the sound on this just feels noisy, even for PC speaker. 1/10

That's 17, the second lowest Id Software game.

While the game does have issues in knowing what it wants to be, the most damning issue of all is that you're constantly fighting the controls and the tedium of it. For once, a computer game lacks the speed and style of its console counterparts. As I suspect this was made on a short time span, it is impressive, but outside of the context of its developer, it simply isn't worth talking about.