Saturday, February 26, 2022


Developer:Paul Stephenson
Time:1 hour

Aztec seems like another generic action game from a no-name publisher and an unfocused developer at first. You have all the usual American platforms, screenshots for it look absolutely dreadful. Oh, it has an Indiana Jones theme to it, but that's not too unusual. This game somehow managed to get released on Japanese home computers. I'm curious if that means its actually good or if some Japanese company bought titles while Datamost was going bankrupt. Judging by their history it could go either way. Nevertheless, after briefly playing the X1 version, I decided on the C64 version.
It took a while before I was able to take a screenshot of the first part of this crawl on C64, curiously the X1 version has less spelling errors

A point I should make is that this isn't exactly like Indiana Jones. Its the more general kind of theme. There are no explicit Nazis and instead the player is going through a tomb looking for a jade idol, while dodging the inhabitants of that tomb, which include dinosaurs. Find important items in chests, and hopefully make it out in one piece.

In other versions there's a background, but this is honestly leagues better looking

The game starts up after the title screen with a wall of text explaining what's going on. In the C64 version it goes by too fast. Then there's new and resume game. The manual doesn't describe how to save so I'm not entirely certain what the purpose of this is. This game isn't complex enough to require it. Then you select difficulty, and the game has you press a key to start it.

The X1 version, note my guy, in the upper right corner, glitched out

After all that, I hope you've read the manual. The unnamed protagonist starts off walking down a set of stairs, as he has just entered the tomb. Because of the control scheme, he will, rather quickly, walk into a wall or some other object. At which point he will fall down. Be prepared to see this a lot, because its going to happen a lot. I can't think off hand of a regular-looking side-scroller where the controls were one of those overly complex wannabe simulation jobs. Walk, run, stand, crawl, turn left, turn right, jump, climb (as in stairs) and we haven't gotten to any fighting or interacting with things yet.

This place one hell of a bodycount
With the past few arcade titles I've been lucky. Sure, they weren't really classics, but at least they controlled well. Here it starts off bad and ends deceptively bad. Walk, run, crawl, jump and climb are all movement modes. Outside of jump, any of these buttons are how you're going to move until you press another button. Which means the player and the player character are working against each other. Climbing is especially bad, because you go up anything and I do mean anything. Stairs, chests, piles of stuff. And since the game is randomly generated you could end up climbing a set of stairs directly into another set of stairs, heading the opposite direction. Meaning that the PC will try to ascend to a stair that doesn't exist and instead fall down.
I don't know how I got here

To compound all this, the game is randomly generated. This is not well generated. You may not be able to explore an entire screen, and paths may only lead one way. This isn't just me whining either, enemies get hung up on these issues. Sometimes they spawn in the walls because of this. It makes the whole thing feel unfinished.

Fighting nothing
So, how about that combat? Well, I didn't get to do much of it thanks to the game not giving you anything at the start. There's a machete and a pistol you have to find inside the maze. Oh, you need to find the bullets separately. There's also dynamite, but that functions more for destroying walls, and I could never use it. I guess I needed to find a lighter somewhere. It doesn't seem that useful for the most part, since its better to just avoid any enemies to begin with rather than actually fighting anybody. Even seemingly unavoidable encounters can be avoided.
Apparently I died so hard I disappeared
The majority of my deaths in this game were due to various death traps. Pits that either crush me or drown me. I could never escape from one, since I couldn't blow up anything. There was a water trap I could "climb" up, but I could never get out of the water. I also had one of the traps fail to activate on me, leaving me trapped in the pit without any way of escaping.

Unfortunately, this combination of awful controls and randomized level design makes the whole game insurmountable to play. I'm never quite sure if the game is broken or if I screwed up, which is not a good thing for a video game to do.

A very simple machete and pistol. 1/10

Interchangable wildlife. The end result is the same, they walk back and forth, and if you enter their space, you get hit. Some follow you from room to room, but this doesn't change things too much. 1/10


Randomly generated garbage. 0/10

Player Agency:
I'm starting to really loathe these games where humans act like vehicles rather than humans. 1/10

Confusing environmental items the player has to open. 1/10


There is a distinct readability issue going on. Its not obvious at first which piles of bones are searchable and everything is flat grayscale colors...until it isn't. Other versions are not much better. 1/10

I found who first entered this tomb. Multiple times. 0/10

There's a song on the title screen, and then its just generic blips and bloops. 2/10

That's 7.

Period reviews were glowing. I can't help but feel like if I played this while it was new I would only care for non-action games today. Even for the time it feels broken and confusing.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Ultima Underworld: Introduction

Once again we return to the RPG sphere for the second big outside influence on FPS titles, Ultima Underworld, beloved RPG and debut of Looking Glass Studios under the name of Blue Sky Productions. Looking Glass needs no introduction, owing to the beloved nature of System Shock, Thief and indeed this. And the story goes that John Carmack, after having heard about this game having texture mapping, added it to Catacomb 3D, believing he could do better.

Its also the combination of several famous and not-so-famous development staff. We have Richard Garriott and Warren Spector, two Origin employees and the most famous of the bunch. The actual meat of the engine, a 3D world with texture mapping, was done by Paul Neurath, Doug Church, Chris Green and a host of other programmers, mostly known for later work.
The engine itself was combined from work on previous Origin space simulation Space Rogue, and Chris Green's code from the Lerner Research* game Car and Driver. The end result was apparently a very Wolfenstein 3D looking game. As with many Origin games around this time, they went the extra mile, and went for ceilings and floors of different heights, and a bit of trickery, but no true room-over-room. An approach that one has to love, and hate, Origin for.
*Who would apparently go on to merge with Blue Sky to form Looking Glass Studios proper. I don't actually know what effect that had in practical terms.

Now that I'm a little bit wiser, I'm not nearly as impressed with this as you'd think. Considering that the journey to this started in 1982 with Wayout and that we've already seen floor heights, true room-over-room, and even texture mapping done before this. However, we are going to see it play smoothly, and we're going to see texture mapping and floor heights together, which is what counts. Cool technology is starting to wear out its welcome when there are half a dozen with floor heights and TROR, and dozens of Wolf-clones. They are interesting, but it is not a mystery why few play them to this day.

Perusing the manual, its mostly about information for this newfangled 3D RPG thing. How to perform actions, assuming you're a complete fool, telling you what to do starting out. I miss when this information was in manuals and not told through a mandatory in-game tutorial that takes six hours. The important part I'm reading in here is that this doesn't control how I'm used to in the slightest. Keyboard controls are an afterthought and mostly for hotkeys. That is, no Wolfenstein-style keyboard controls, not even the funky keyboard movement and separate mouse aiming I've seen quite a bit of. Pure mouse moving and aiming. Hopefully I'm missing something or they added something.
There is also a document detailing the backstory of the location I am about to enter, but per my usual behavior, I don't really care for out-of-game story documents. It doesn't even tell us the events leading up to the game. Through osmosis I understand it'll give me a few hints once I'm in-game, but I think I prefer to find out myself.

The game starts off surprisingly silent, before the title screen and then an intro cutscene. Its fairly involved. The player is the Avatar, the reoccurring hero of the Ultima games. He dreams of a strange man speaking of treachery and doom from his brother, before getting whisked away into Britannica, the setting of the series, into some bedroom. A cloaked man wonders who you are, before mentioning his dead brother, and saying you will be a worthy scapegoat.

It seems an ogre has run off with the local baron's daughter, and you are naturally suspected of assisting with the kidnapping. The baron's men died trying to save his daughter, and to prove that you are the Avatar, the baron sends you off into The Stygian Abyss. Those doors aren't being opened until the baron's man hears his daughter. Cheesy, but effective. Before I can begin I have to create my character.

This would probably make more sense if I had seriously played an Ultima game before

Character creation is incredibly simple. Select a class, which hand you use, and three skills. I chose sword, and appraise. Hopefully that won't screw myself over. The game begins, and there actually is keyboard movement. SZXC move and AD turn, which is just fine. Otherwise it controls like most games did before mouse aiming, except we have a bunch of adventure game options for interacting with things. Options, speak, pick up, look, attack and use. Its a bit more complex than I'm used to, and controls weirdly even for this kind of thing. You have to hold right click to pick something up.

Finding a note in a pack on the ground

Speaking of picking something up, the inventory is weird. You have 8 slots+4 items you can hold. Fair enough, but you also get bags, which give you more inventory space. Also fair, except, getting items out of the bags is a bit of a pain. To do so properly you have to drag the item to the bag icon. Left clicking uses an item, and considering that most items inside a bag are food items, not the best way of getting used to the controls. Food remains an unknown.

Combat music plays whenever you have the sword out, which isn't annoying at all
The magic system seems confusing at first glance. To cast a spell you click on the bag of runes, that is, an inventory item, not a separate thing. At first, nothing will be in the bag, because you need to add the runes. Some are on the ground. These are very difficult to distinguish from the dirt floor. Black on brown is very distinguishable. Hopefully that will change at some point. All the spells, at least I hope all the spells, are described in the manual.
A lot of these HUD elements are superficial, those dragons animate and I'm not quite sure why

Nearby there's a giant rat. He's not hostile, but the nearby pieces of food belong to him, and taking them would result in him becoming hostile. (food is a concern in this game, but we're just starting out) The game's manual takes pains to tell me I don't have to kill him. This is part of the big selling point of the game, violence is avoidable. If I really want the food he has but don't want to kill him, I can just take it when he isn't looking. Which is useful knowledge for if I need to take something from someone sentient, and that I can't crush like a bug with no repercussions. Fighting is fairly simple, hold down right click while in attack mode, release, and you attack something. Its not interesting, but it works. A bigger issue is that with the GOG version I have no sound or music. Which is funny, since that's usually where there isn't such an issue.
After getting a different version, and hearing the intro with music is quite a different experience. To this I should relate that so far I am reminded heavily of Shadowcaster, or rather Shadowcaster is very obviously a partial product of UU*. We have the same control scheme, the exact same sound framework and the save system works the same way. The controls are better in Shadowcaster, but the music seems better here. Sound is a joke here, no doubt using midi for sounds rather than digital effects. For a game credited as being the first immersive sim, this sure is lame on the environmental factor.
This whole intro section reminds me a bit of Tomb Raider's. That is, trapped inside a strange cave, fighting wildlife. Well, just the rat anyway.
*One might say that Shadowcaster is Ultima Underworld in Wolfenstein 3D's engine. Or an action spinoff of Ultima Underworld. In either event while it isn't a clone of UU, its very closely related.

Inhabitants of the Abyss are certainly verbose
After a bit more exploring, mostly finding items and unlocking doors, I find a man wandering around. This is also mentioned in the manual. Compared to Midwinter 2 and Galactic Empire, there's a sentence for you, its more straightforward. You say something precisely, he returns it with a wall of text. The gist of it is that I'm not to first person the baron cast down here, and that the Abyss is a dangerous place. Firstly we have wildlife, worms and spiders. Then we have the sentients, two tribes of different colored goblins, humans, and then "mountainmen". No idea who the mountainmen are. He also tells me to grab everything I can that doesn't belong to someone. Which sounds stupid, but this is a true RPG, wherein I can actually buy things.

A curiously 3D object situated in a gap
He tells me where I should go to find the other humans, but I don't pay too much attention to that. If the level design in this game is anything like anything else I've played, it won't be too difficult. It seems that the area right next to him was where I needed to go, because he was talking about jumping over a pit. You do that, exclusively to my knowledge, by pressing J. Speaking of Tomb Raider, the PC has an impressive vertical leap. However, I go down first, suspecting that there's a useful item down here. I also find a bedroll...which reminds me that I didn't know how to naturally heal myself yet.

I didn't fully realize I was being attacked until I checked my health
Jumping over a pit into a wall, which damages me, probably more than falling down would have. After trying a door, not unlocking with my key, (which I had previously used, but you never know with keys) I then jump across a river. Oh, I'm getting attacked by a worm. Joy. You look up and down with 1 & 3. I don't think there's a mouse command for it, but it doesn't matter. Its all awful. There's a lack of feedback to fighting that makes me question if I'm doing damage or not, but I am. Its a rotworm. The rotworm was guarding a lever that opened the door.
That's very curved compared to what the sprite of my weapon looks like

Inside is another section much like this one, but with more water. A red bat attacks me. A red bat...? I'm poisoned and this guy is annoying. Very annoying. He's hard to hit, flying away when I attack and then chasing me when I'm not. Combined with the game's poor feedback, makes fighting him annoying. I beat him and then check the manual for a cure poison spell. I'm missing a rune and its probably too high level for a class that doesn't primarily use magic anyway.

"Mildly poisoned"
I'm dead. There's a cool little animation for this, showing a bunch of skulls. I hadn't saved for a bit, but that doesn't matter, because not much time has passed. Nevertheless, this seems to be a fairly solid block. It seems a safe assumption that the upper level also leads here, and thus within reach of the red bats. Clearly, I must go somewhere else first.
So...not friendly then
That was the western area from the entrance, but luckily there's another door, closed by a chain, that leads to two doors locked by the key I have. South leads to a silver sapling, the area I start in if I die in combat. Sort of like System Shock, but north leads to a goblin. At first I think, since this is Ultima Underworld, he's not going to be hostile, but he shoots a sling bullet at me. Oh, well, stabbing time. I charge him. He switches to a sword and backs away. Huh, I guess that's consistent. I back away when he's about to stab me...he switches back to his sling. I...wasn't expecting this. He's actually smart. As I deal more damage to him he starts running away completely. After I finish him off it occurs to me this might have serious repercussions.
As I search the things he dropped, including having to type in how many gold coins I want to pick up from a pile, I ponder this development. I haven't seen an action game with AI like this...ever. I guess Shadowcaster had enemies fleeing. This feels genuinely smart, and yet it can't be that advanced. Its gotta be more simplistic on a technical level than things I've played before. Like, enemies have had melee and ranged attacks before, but it doesn't feel like they're switching between them, just that there's arbitrary conditions that chooses which one. This feels like its choosing it in response to my actions somehow. Perhaps I'm exaggerating things, but that's what I felt after finishing it off, a genuine sense that this game is amazing.
Whatever do you mean, game?
I end this session after a rest, since I don't have the runes for any healing spells and I probably can't cast it yet anyway. I see the man from the intro again, this time without a voiceover, saying I should seek out the civilized inhabitants of this place. Considering how intelligent the uncivilized ones are, I shutter to think how clever they'll be, or perhaps they'll just be more walls of text.

This Session: 30 minutes

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Time Pilot

Name:Time Pilot
Genre:Top-Down Shooter
Time:1 hour

Here I am, thinking that 1982 doesn't really mean much, and here's a game that actually is something. The debut game of Street Fighter II producer Yoshiki Okamoto, who also by some convoluted means, is partially responsible for Red Dead Revolver. Nevertheless, while this man is famous, and this game did make Konami a lot of money, it doesn't exactly have a pedigree.

Time Pilot is a side-scrolling shooter that looks and plays remarkably like a top-down space shooter. The player is a time-travelling fighter pilot who goes through several eras of flight before...returning home...? Outside of Sinistar these endless loop video games don't really make snese when you try to think about their story.
What makes Time Pilot interesting among the arcade titles I've played is that its on the easier side. Even though the plane can take only one shot before dying. There aren't a million things on-screen and everything isn't going at 90 miles an hour. Now it does get harder later, but I can't help but feel like I'm incapable of being satisfied with the difficulty in these arcade titles. Just because its easier doesn't mean its amazing. Its sort of bleh.
Your plane moves at a constant speed, you only control how you turn and when you fire. Firing occurs in bursts. Enemies attack you with bullets, bombs and homing missiles. Anything that isn't a bullet can be shot down. The homing missiles are not the most accurate or swiftest of things either. Then enemies, you have planes, stronger planes which move horizontally, and the bosses that occur whenever you shoot down enough planes. There are also men in parachutes you can pick up for points.
The plane controls pretty well. There's an arc to the turning radius, which takes a bit of getting used to, but generally works. There's no real trouble cutting down enemies, but you do only shoot facing forward. I was disappointed by how despite the time advancing theme the game has, the ship stays the same throughout all the stages. Really, this whole thing is just a fancy coat of paint with the odd new enemy or attack.
This game is deceptively easy. And what I mean by deceptively easy is that it doesn't feel like a very hard game. Its very easy to take down, well, anything, enemy craft, bosses, other shots. Its easy to dodge, even the homing attacks aren't a guaranteed hit. And yet, I died quite a bit. Less so than your hardcore arcade titles like Sinistar, but enough that you can expect to put in some coins if you want to see all the game offers. It felt like all the times I died it wasn't quite my fault somehow, like the game changed the rules on me. Perhaps its just self-deception.

I never thought I'd have to hammer down the shoot button for an automatic weapon. 1/10

You have five types of enemies, spread out over five stages. You can put these into two categories, dudes who fly around/chase you, dudes who fly left-right. Its actually a good strategy to fly down and up on stages when these guys show up. 2/10


There's not really much to distinguish one endless sky from the next beyond what shows up. 0/10

Player Agency:
It works. Its nothing special either way. 3/10


Another endless fight game in an endless expanse of something. 0/10

Its okay. The ships move around smoothly, but I didn't like the palette of the player's ship. 2/10


Generic shooting sounds. 1/10

That's 9.

Curiously, this is one of the 1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die. I don't really feel like that's true. I don't really feel like this is distinguished enough from any other arcade title to be deserving of that much attention.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Red Scorpion

Name:Red Scorpion
Developer:Ian McArdle
Time:30 minutes

Ian McArdle released two FPS titles in 1987, one called Catch 23 and this one. Both are broadly similar, vaguely sci-fi games released exclusively on British computers, with both being released on the Spectrum and CPC, while Catch 23 was also on the ST. I have played Catch 23, and found it unplayable, with a Silent Hill level of draw distance with a basic wireframe that barely shows what's going on. This does not put me in a good mood for Red Scorpion.

The story is the player has just been selected to join the Terran Confederation Star Commandos, owing to bringing great dedication and stamina at his old sanitation job. Hey, some of that famed British humor I've heard so much about. I didn't get it at first, but when I did, yeah, pretty sweet. His first mission, to defend the Bombyx Moons from the Necron Empire, who wish to steal Talanite from the people of the moon. We on the other hand, will give them pulpburgers and synthocola. To accomplish this, the player takes control of the Death Scorpion Mk.IV. This, I should warn you, is the only part of the game that's actually good.

This wouldn't be bad if this were a strategy rather than reflex game
 I'll be playing the Speccy port, because that's what I can get running, and its another one of the annoying titles on the system. What are the controls? Hope you have the manual! Y & H move forward and back while OP turns and J shoots. The row between the shifts acts as a bunch of special functions. Once you get that down it becomes even worse! Using the controls is a battle of itself. You don't have smooth turning, you slowly turn to one of 8 directions. It very noticeably stops once a turn is completed. You have a sort of momentum when you move forward or back too. This is a very awkward game to control.

Let's go over those functions, from left to right.

  • AP missile. Armor Piercing?
  • CB missile. Cluster bomb? It destroys enemy buildings at least.
  • Manual aiming. Never, ever use.
  • Sonic blaster. The default weapon...?
  • EW system. Press 0 and 1 until you get the right pattern to destroy a missile. Its magic.
  • Identify object.
  • Various view options. 

Usually when I get one of these screens I'm just messing around, not doing what I normally do!
Now, the big problem is that your enemies do not have the same limitations you do. So you have to hit them while you're turning. It works, I can shoot them, but in a way I can't explain it just feels so awful. Like...oh, I got court-martialed. This bodes extremely well.

Manual aiming and trying to deflect missiles, fun things to do at the same time

Getting past the early game difficulties reveals that the game suffers from several poor design choices. The first enemy is behind you. Some distance away, but you have to turn around. Which takes 5 seconds every time the game starts up. Second, you can and will hit something you're not supposed to. Especially if you can't see it. And at some point someone was shooting at me, and I shot them...and the game was over. This happened several times.

After destroying some random obstacle
I should give this more of a chance, but every fiber in my being, when I play this, screams out to not play this. This game is just so unappealing to play any motivation I had to play it was zapped away. It has aged extremely poorly, if it was ever fun to begin with. Having to distinguish wireframes is a task I don't really care for and the draw distance. I'm harping on the draw distance, but its bad, and its unwieldy.

Basically a selection of different weapons for different targets. 2/10

One-hit targets, some move, some don't. 1/10

I guess there are some? They're not very helpful and might be hostile to me. 0/10

There was effort put in, its not just some random mess of stuff, but it sure feels that way. 1/10

Player Agency:
Controlling everything was a confusing task, and even when I had it figured out it was just so slow and poorly thought out. Shooting in the center of your movement cluster is just such an awful thing to deal with. 1/10



Simple wireframes and a pathetic excuse for draw distance. 0/10

Doesn't really matter once you start it up. 0/10

A bunch of clicking noises that don't really seem to be connected to anything. Could be the emulator itself, even. 0/10

That's 5. Been a while since I had a properly awful game. Considering that other people have gotten much better out of the ZX Spectrum and Spectrum-like machines, this is just embarrassing for everyone involved.

Period reviews were mixed. And by mixed, I mean even the most favorable review towards the game still criticized the controls. Nobody cared for it.

I would say that's it for 1987 and earlier, but I just keep finding more games from the period. Now there's a few titles from the TRS-80 Model III, CoCo. I didn't even realize there was something interesting on the system.

Saturday, February 12, 2022


Publisher:SuperSet Software
Developer:SuperSet Software
Time:1 hour 50 minutes

Something that occurred to me, while researching this game. Despite 1982 being the time of those simple, stupid arcade games, I have seen more games with independant aiming than I have without. Perhaps its confirmation bias, since I have been cutting games I don't think will reach 10 points. I wonder how things are going to go once arcades experience their first death.

Give them credit, if they went with CGA mode this would be uglier
As to Snipes, it is roughly in line with that arcade-style of moving and shooting, despite being on DOS. Early, primitive DOS, since its 1982 baby! The bottom of the barrel. And yet, also, the most complex title from that year. In addition to being pretty fun to play it might have the claim of being the first LAN home computer game. SuperSet Software seems to just be the name the developers of this game took, as the company behind the technology is Novell, a big company in networking hardware and software, at least during the '80s and '90s. I'm not entirely clear on the how and what this would entail though.
Stalking a snipe
Starting it up and its simple. Numpad moves, while WAXD shoots. Diagonal is done by pressing two directions and moving diagonally is seemingly faster. You can also speed yourself up with space. You wander around a maze, shooting at a few enemies who have spawned in, who sometimes shoot back. Then you destroy door things which turn out to be portals and you win. That's when things get interesting, because from here you select a letter and a number and this corresponds to the level of difficulty of the next level. You can also select this via typing in the letter and number with the game's command file.
Missing a snipe, my snipe hunt is going badly
Higher numbers increase how fast they spawn in, how many portals, and decrease your number of lives. By increasing the number the difficulty increases in the simplest way. Meanwhile, the letters bring in things that are less tangible, possibly because there are 26 settings. (I am not sure what B does, for instance) These do things like causing enemies to somethings turn into the spearless enemies after dying, allowing one to destroy the walls and electrifying them. In addition to increasing attack speed and how quickly they notice you. I should point out now that while destroying the walls doesn't sound like much of an issue with how its a maze, bullets loop and you can shoot yourself.
I'm dead, and but I still had one live left
Each level is the same concept. Wandering around, at the start and at the end, trying to find the portals. This is the least interesting aspect of the game, because, look at it, and the levels loop. Need I say more? Its really nasty if its just one enemy, because there is no way to spot them. Like I said, there's little sound. Fortunately in the early game there are no enemies yet, they take a little while to start spawning in. If you're lucky, you can take a few out, more on the higher numbers.

Blocking off the snipes movement with bullets works better if snipes aren't already past them
Then after a few portals are destroyed, disaster strikes, a portal surrounded by a horde of enemies. You can kill more of them than they can you, but its a long way to the portal. The game does have a limit on the number of enemies that can spawn in, but its the kind of number you aren't going to like. Especially at higher levels, where for every enemy you kill, another pops out to replace him. Especially bad at the last portal, where you can get into an endless loop of just killing dudes over and over again.
My bullets have warped around the level, as bullets do

The regular enemies in this game are deceptively hard to kill. It looks like they take up two spaces, but they really only take up one, while you take up 2*2, meaning you're a big target. At the levels when the walls are deadly, this can result in some tricky situations. They're really good at dodging too, though perhaps this is just a matter of an endless number of enemies eventually succeeding in doing something that looks impressive from a player's perspective.

As you can see, I'm in a great situation, and since I'm on A, I can't just shoot through the wall

The spearless enemies are quite a bit of a pain. They rush at you at a fair pace, and they dodge bullets. Thankfully they don't appear until the higher letters, but when they do, they're very tricky. They don't hurt you unless you walk into them. Unless you can get them into a situation where all paths for them lead to a bullet, they're going to dodge. Or you can just hit them diagonally, because they're not prepared for that.

Once you get the portals destroyed its a long haul getting rid of the snipes
Difficulty is a bit mixed, because the earlier settings are a joke, while the latter ones are quite intensive. I came across a pretty good strategy for winning, though even this doesn't work too well, so I must be missing something.
At the start, if you're not next to at least one portal, start over. If you die once before all the portals are gone, start over. Individual enemies are not so important, go for the portals. Always put yourself in a situation where you can't be hit. Shoot through walls, but make sure you're about to hit the right area beforehand, getting hit because of that is annoying. Don't worry about the spearless enemies if you can help it. The last portal is going to be surrounded by enemies, so you will have to do the respawn song and dance. Finally, just because there are no more portals doesn't mean the rest of the game is going to be a cakewalk.

It all sounds silly, but I enjoyed it. It has no obvious redeeming qualities and yet, its a lot of fun. I can't dodge squat in this game but that didn't mean I didn't try. Simple, but fun. It does have a degree of annoyances in it that prevents it from being as fun as say, solitaire or Tetris.

A simple but effective blaster. 1/10

Two enemies with very different approaches. 2/10


The amount of ways you can have the game play are pretty cool, but ultimately its a featureless looping maze. 3/10

Player Agency:
Very simple, very smooth. Dodging is not very easy though. 5/10



As simple as possible, B&W text. You can spot the difference between things, at least, but my eyes hurt after playing. 1/10

I don't think there's any.

A few PC speaker effects for destroying portals. I understand why they didn't go more in depth, but I feel like there could have been just a little more. 1/10

That's 13, about average for 1982 so far.

Speaking of 1982, I have 34 games left for the year, and very few are interesting at a glance. We are seeing improvement over 1981's stuff, but its still just high quality arcade titles. Nothing with much meat on it. Foreshadowing for a major event in gaming? Hmm...

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Pathways into Darkness

Name:Pathways into Darkness
Time:10 hours 50 minutes

The progenitor of the big Mac-exclusive FPS titles, a humble but complex Wolfenstein-clone. For me, it was one of the FPS titles left in the '90s with a pedigree that I had yet to play. The first title of Budgie, arguably the biggest FPS company people can name. And despite being an early effort, it has NPCs to talk to, RPG elements, and a quest to keep an elder god dreaming. Things that modern games rarely put in, let alone something released months before Doom. I was not disappointed.

Promotional picture for Minotaur, not sure if its playable today

Originally conceived after programmer Jason Jones saw Wolfenstein 3D* as a sequel to Minotaur: The Labyrinth of Crete, A top-down multi-player only RPG. However, that wasn't working for them, so they tried alternative plots. Imaginative plots. Their first attempt involved the player being a member of a group of immortal Roman soldiers, who went into a pyramid to get the water that makes them immortal. This was their compromise between simple and imaginative.
*Sort of how like Carmack got inspired to add bitmaps to his walls after seeing Ultima Underworld.

The story is that an alien race has contacted the US government. Seems there's a dead god in a pyramid underneath the Yucatan Peninsula, in the southeastern-eastern point of Mexico, facing Cuba. Only, he's not truly dead, just dreaming. In a couple of weeks time he will awaken and that's bad news. Because it took a lot to take him down and he's the kind of god that needed to be taken down. They're getting here as fast as they can for a permanent solution, but that's going to be a few years. We need to drop a nuke at the deepest point of the pyramid we can reach which should buy us some time. Apparently they said a lot to the government, but nothing much trickled down to us going into the pyramid.

You play as a member of the team who got lost in the trees after a parachute malfunction. Your ammo is somewhere else and your M-16 is broken, which is apparently a huge problem with the team's M-16s. As a result, You enter the pyramid later than your squad. Now you have to survive by scavenging ammo and weapons off those who died before you, and find the bomb and hopefully radio beacon in time to save the universe. Because of course your comrades in arms are dead. Its Sunday morning, and you have until Friday, 2:00 PM. Good luck.
A typical situation in the early game
So begins the most unorthodox FPS of the era. Oh, it seems like it controls like your average FPS, but once you get past shoot, space/enter, and move, arrow keys, with Z & X sidestepping, you've got a lot of weird stuff.  You have secondary weapons in the form of crystals. Press tab and something will happen, from talking to the dead to an earthquake. You turn around slowly, but with the shift key you can look 90 degrees to your right or left. You still move forward, you just shoot like you're in a driveby. This is of limited utility, since its awkward to use. Otherwise, you're slow and you turn very slowly.

The way the game looks is different too. You have four main windows and a couple others:

  • The main game window, which is just the game world and the gun you're wielding.
  • The status window, which has health, crystal charge, points and skill rating. You won't be checking your skill rating to often, as I'll explain later.
  • The message window, which is self-explanatory.
  • The inventory window, also self-explanatory. Double-clicking uses an item.
  • You can bring up a map window by pressing M or the map button.
  • Pressing underscore brings up a statistics screen, at least in theory, but I could never get this to work.

Anytime you have a window other than the main game in focus, the game is paused. This is valuable, because later on there are items you can use in the middle of combat, which you'll need to survive. You'll mostly be using the main game and the inventory windows.
I should point out that there's the option to use the mouse for moving. Not modern mouselook, but old-school "use the mouse like arrow keys". I didn't use this, but I'm sure its awkward as hell to use. You can select different windows with Alt/Command+1/2/3/4, which is useful in some situations. If you know to use it.

But what about those items? Well, you mostly just pick them up by walking along. If there's a corpse or a rare hiding spot, you press G and take what you wish. There's no practical limit to the number of items you can have, beyond simply scrolling through them all. The game has a weight limit, but its not actually hooked up, so it never plays a part in anything. Beyond weapons, crystals and ammo, you have treasure, which after a certain amount gives you points, potions, which do a variety of things, and other items, mostly relating to puzzles.

Helpful advice from a friendly German fellow
After a certain point in the game you can talk to people. Not so much people as, *ahem*, Previously Living Sentient Beings, or dead people. Talking is weird because everyone dead has been loosing their mind. This is 100% necessary to win the game, because while some info they have you could glean from context, a lot of it you can't. Its a keyword based dialog system, ask someone about "gold" or "ingot", and they'll tell you about the gold ingot. They're mostly who supply the in-game part of the story. I wish they said more and that there were some people who weren't part of some expedition or another.

The majority of the people with things to say make up a Nazi Germany expedition and a probably communist Cuba one. Your own fellows, when you meet them, have very little to say outside of "I got killed by this massive thing, watch out!" or "I'm Jason, don't you recognize me?" The others explain what's of interest inside the pyramid and finding out why they came here adds a bit of depth we don't see in most FPS titles. Sometimes you have to read between the lines, as not everyone is happy to help you.

Note my inventory, I have a ton of ammo and I'm still using the knife, almost to my death
There's a sort of quasi-survival horror aspect to the game. You can't save everywhere, it uses save points. For the first half of the game, ammo is in short supply, so you need to stab enemies. You need to stab a lot of enemies. Enemies in the early game can be divided into ones that can be stunned, and thus should be stabbed with your knife, or ones that can't, which you should try to figure out a way of stabbing anyway. This isn't as bad as it sounds, but I can imagine for some this is a deal breaker. By the time it changes...well, you'll be very thankful.
They're not all as considerate as this
Combat itself is fairly simple. Most enemies move towards you at about the same pace you can run away, and shoot some kind of projectile at you. Some are faster, some are slower, but on the whole this is what they do. This combined with the slow movement speed sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I was never bored in combat. There's a constant sense of paranoia. Enemies respawn, but not in big enough numbers to be a problem. Just enough that when you return to an area you have to be careful. Sometimes they even spawn behind you, in a room no one could possibly enter.
Outside of a knife, the weapons you start out skilled in never make a play, so you scavenge the ones from previous explorers. In total there are five weapons, a knife, a pistol, a MP-40, a grenade launcher (which is more like a shotgun) and an AK-47. This marks two important milestones. The first, meaningful use of magazines and reloading. The second, multiple ammo types. The last two weapons have multiple types of ammo, which a big deal of difference. Unfortunately, one of the game's issues is that you can't really easily switch between different ammos, whatever's higher up on your item list is what's getting loaded into your gun. You wanted to kill something with a HE round? Whoops, you have a fragmentation round loaded. You're not really going to know which ammos are worthwhile when you first get them, and might assume that one ammo is an end-all be-all solution.
A weapon is reloaded even if you switch to another weapon in the middle of the animation
Its in this respect that the game fails the grenade launcher. Like most players, I would assume that it fires explosive rounds. I mean, there's a HE round. But no, it doesn't cause any explosions, with any of the three ammos it fires. Instead, the HE grenade does the most damage out of any round, and can kill some enemies the others cannot. But because those enemies don't come until later, one would assume that the fragmentation grenades are better, since the decreased damage is worth being able to take out multiple enemies. While every item has a description, it rarely tells you anything of value, which makes sense for a random crystal I found in a weird place, but not for a military weapon. I'm supposed to be the best of the best, I should know what a grenade does!
Mysterious treasure, what is it? What does it do?

Weapons tie in best with the RPG elements in place. Finding and picking up important items will increase your score, and thus your health, but actually hitting anything requires using weapons. I'm not 100% certain it increases damage or just accuracy, but its very important. Especially for the automatic weapons. I like the way it plays out. Fire your gun until the magazine is empty? You hit practically nothing. Short, controlled bursts are the order of the day. Trust me, some of those later enemies need that kind of firepower. My only complaint is that I didn't have a big enough arsenal.

The bigger fights, like this one, are usually built up
The whole game is under a time limit, its in real time except when you rest, which doesn't take that long either. Its about 5 days. Even if you don't know what you're doing that's plenty of time to win the game. Assuming, of course, you can hit things, as melee later on becomes a good way to lose health, thus every few enemies you'll be resting, which will cause you to lose. I didn't find it too troublesome, but then, I restarted a couple of times thanks to poor ammo conservation, and not knowing that the crystals shatter.

The big issue with most of the game's flaws is that you can't really fix them without altering the game in a way that changes the way it plays for the worst. Yeah, its slow, but if you move at a reasonable pace, the game would be a cakewalk. One of the developers even commented to this effect. The limited supplies of the early game define it to the point that making it better would make it generic. And the latter game, when ammo is no longer a problem, well, health suddenly becomes a much bigger one. If you could save anywhere the final three levels would be completely trivial.

In darkness like this, you never know what's lurking out there
Where can Wolfenstein-clones go from here? Obviously you can improve upon how this game plays, but I don't think we'll see that pop up anytime soon. You need a combination of design talent and a willingness to make a game that basically exists as blocks. When Doom comes out, even if you wanted to make something as simple as that, you were going to make something like Doom, because nobody wants to buy something that's noticeably worse. Outside of a few competent modders, its just unlikely to happen.

Nice, simple progression, and at the end a few weapons with multiple ammo types. Very satisfying to use. 6/10

Despite superficially having the same abilities as one another, there's some decent variety in the enemies. They also did a good job making them look creepy and Lovecraftian without making them feel over-the-top. 5/10

They don't really affect anything in the gameplay, but they have plenty to tell. 2/10

While it gets close, it doesn't really fall into the trap that a lot of other Wolf-clones fall into, that is, endless mazes that don't really come off as anything but mazes. These levels aren't really anything either, but they're not bad. There's clearly thought put into this, into how enemies respawn, how they're placed, and how you progress the level. 9/10

Player Agency:
Awkward, but not unworkable. There are a few controls dedicated to making the Wolfenstein-style controls work better, but if you lived with that, you can live with this. The real problem is the unwieldly nature of going from gameplay to messing around with items. 5/10

The only time I interacted with the environment is when I searched for something, or when I pulled a chain, which happened twice at the start. There's no use key, move next to a door and it opens, secrets you can just walk into. There's more going on with the items than anything else, which has some pretty clever things going on. 3/10

There's a definite aura of oppression going on in this game. The time limit, the limited view distance, and the dead going insane. Dying doesn't get you the traditional fall to the ground and a message, just a message in a pop-up box. All in a very Macintosh-style game window. 8/10

There's a real comic book vibe to the artwork here, and I have mixed feelings. At a distance it doesn't look bad, but when you get close, like when you're walking against a wall or stabbing an enemy, you can see that its very low-res stuff. Otherwise we also have the factor that its very much a Macintosh game. 5/10

Part of the fun of the game is deciphering the events that went on before you got here. Even by the end, there was still questions I didn't have answers for. 5/10

Dead silence in the music department. The sounds feel early Windows to me, that is, it sounds like it should, except they're really low bit. One real positive is that when you get a new weapon, you get a nice sound effect. There needed to be more feedback, as the knife weapon creates dead silence. This is a bigger problem for me, playing in a Mac emulator, because the sound keeps cutting out. 2/10

That's 50. The 4th best game I've played by some measure. Its flaws mostly relate to issues nobody foresaw back in 1993, like a vastly different control scheme or difficulty in playing Mac games on non-Mac platforms.

Reviews of Pathways are overwhelmingly positive, but mostly period. Its a bit tricky separating the Mac reviewers genuinely enjoying this to Mac reviewers patting themselves on the back for having a superior title or because they didn't play anything else. While its not true that its the system's first FPS, serious competition wouldn't arrive until Marathon next year or ports in '95. Sales figures are also tricky, but they sold at least 100,000 copies.

While it is worth playing today, Macintosh emulation is not the only option. (this I should point out, is not as hard as you might think it is to setup) In the Marathon source port, AlephOne, there's an unofficial port to there. I'm going to have to check that out after finishing Marathon. For Macintosh users there's an official port on the AppStore. Its free and I have no idea what it plays like. Perhaps one day this game will have a multi-platform source port, but until then, there is a surmountable barrier to playing.

There are about 19 FPS titles left in the '80s and about 19 left for the early '90s. While I do plan on rewriting some of my older reviews, I'm confident I can get a good chunk of these done by the end of the year.