Friday, April 29, 2022

Star Maze

Name:Star Maze
Number:120
Year:1982
Publisher:Sir-Tech
Developer:Eastman Computing
Genre:Top-Down
Difficulty:5/5
Time:30 minutes

One of the interesting things about 1982 is that you have half titles from randos whose only notable contribution to gaming is Space Defender IV, and another half are people who were absolutely vital to the creation of gaming as we know it. Today's topic is a combination of those two things, we have Gordon Eastman, author of Star Maze and something I'd describe as an arcade money grabbing game, and Robert J. Woodhead...who if you didn't know is The Mad Overlord Trebor of Wizardry fame. Though he's only credited as coming up with the original design.
The story is, in 2891, explorers have discovered an alien artifact of immense value, inside something that was called the Star Maze. Many valuable jewels, power sources, but guarded by vicious aliens. So, being that the people of the future are lazy bums*, they built a time machine and published a simulation of the Star Maze for computers of the 1980s. Now, they await the high score in Softline magazine. Seems like a silly gimmick, but what do I know?
*even the back of the box calls them wimps.
Anyway, once I start up the game, my objective is clear, find 9 power jewels in each of the 16 levels in the Star Maze. Or more precisely, take flashing crosses back to the point I spawned from. Preventing me from doing this are various enemies, and my own limited fuel supply. You'd think people in 2891 would have a better one, but then they aren't even doing this themselves. You'd also think that this fuel would lower as I thrust my ship in some direction, but it just steadily goes down. To prevent these enemies from killing me I have smart bombs and a laser gun.

The various shapes that make up the enemies are actually quite interesting. You have your asteroids that break up into smaller pieces; Two different enemies that shouldn't be attacked because they'll cause more problems after they're hurt than before; and the standard shooty enemies. If this were a well designed game this might actually be an interesting selection.
Carrying one of the cross objects
Sadly, there are many problems. Level design is randomized, so that 16 level advertisement is pointless. We've got physics! My ship and my shots bounce off walls and speed is consistent until you press another direction on the joystick. Thing is this all feels awful. The engine feels weak, which might just be my own bias towards these games, but I do notice weird things happening with my shots. But none of this compares to how the game feels.

This game is boring. Death in a game should produce frustration, or rage, or something. If I felt anything, I would say it was resignation. You start with three ships, and losing all three means starting again. It was annoying, and I wasn't about to use a save state for a game this tedious and this boring. There's just nothing interesting about it. I wonder if the man the future wimps kidnapped was as bored as I was?

Weapons:
Meh. 0/10

Enemies:
By far the only interesting aspect of the game. 3/10

Non-Enemies:
None.

Levels:
Random garbage. 0/10

Player Agency:
It works, I guess, but its not terribly exciting. 2/10

Interactivity:
None.

Atmosphere:
None.

Graphics:
More offensive than nothing. 0/10

Story:
None.

Sound/Music:
Your typical blips and bloops. Hitting the walls and getting a bouncing sound was a nice touch though. 1/10

That's 6. An embarrassment. Stay far, far away.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Slaygon

Name:Slaygon
Number:119
Year:1988
Publisher:MicroDeal
Developer:John Conley & James Oxley
Genre:FPS/Adventure
Difficulty:2/5
Time:1 hour 20 minutes

From the team that would bring you Day of the Viper and the publisher of Fright Night comes another weird early FPS title. This one has a very legitimate claim to the adventure label, unlike Delta Man. So much so that if this weren't connected to Day of the Viper I probably wouldn't play it. I would be willing to bet that neither TAG nor Renga in Blue will be covering this one ever.

The way outside
The player is the operator of the super robot Slaygon, an invulnerable robot. The mission? To stop the evil corporation Cybordynamics from unleashing a virus to destroy the human race. Cybordynamics is a controversial business that replaces humans with robots and other automations. To do this one has to overload their reactor in their automated lab. I wonder if this is satire, because this feels like it could be intended to be satire. It sounds like it could go either way. British games so far have a noticeable tendency to be satirical.

A door, what does it contain? Something good, hopefully
Starting it up and we're in a lobby. Not sure why since this is supposed to be automated, but I suppose this doesn't really need logic in it. The game is entirely controlled through the mouse, including movement, which is annoying and slow. We've got six functions down below, two of which are for combat; Scanner reveals a set area around you; Plotter maps as you go along, plus it shows your location; Sensors show what state the enemy is in, and I didn't really use the cloak function. Though the game tells me it makes Slaygon invisible to all enemies except the base commander, but uses a ton of energy.
Rounding out the interface, we have 8 boxes for items, the buttons above the plotter button control inventory, with the question marks telling you what an item in front of you is. Above the save/load buttons we have an energy bar, which drains on the use of all functions and acts as health. In combat, it drains considerably more if you don't have shields up. Arrows move, and basically everything else is self-explanatory. It works, I don't have any complaints about that, but its slow and feels awkward to use.
Combat, these things only show up if you open the door, you can tell if one's inside by the color of the square above the arrow button

Combat is a boring affair. There are doors in this game, and some contain these Cylon-looking fellows. As soon as you see one turn on your shield and then start firing your laser. There are seemingly no tactics, just exchange fire with the enemy until someone is dead. How much the enemy will take before it dies varies, but you can tell based on what they look like, and you can't just ignore the harder ones since they may have a valuable item behind them. Given the manual's hyping of the robot's abilities, I'm quite disappointed in how weak the player really is.

Some static object one has to use an item on to advance
The adventure aspect is very simple. Scan an item before taking it to discover what it does, and then the item will usually be used as you walk along. There are upgrades to the weapon and the shields, but you just use these, you don't need them in your inventory. Keys and various trap nullification items work automatically, while things like interfacing objects and health (energy in this game) items require use. The problem is that by the end of the game you're juggling quite a lot of items, and you can't really afford to drop most of them. The keys can be dropped after you've unlocked all the doors they correspond to though.
Only five more numbers to go!
Its not explicitly told to you (unless you look at the part of the manual they tell you contains spoilers), but the objective of the game is to find 5 numbers for a code to blow up the reactor. To figure this out you need one device that gets the numbers from one type of machine, and another device that allows you to type in the code into the reactor. The thing is, while I got 4 out of the 5 numbers needed, I was still missing one by the time I got to the reactor. I had to find two more key cards before I could get out, and I had already got around the map. So basically, in the last stages it turns into more of a maze game than anything else. And once that's done its a fairly easy trip back outside.
The end
I should note I played on the easier skill setting. The manual says that the harder one randomizes the location of some key items, but I suspect it increases the map size too. I barely had any map on my screen when I finished, seems like there was room for a lot more. Which I have to say would work quite poorly in this game's favor, because already by the time I finished it I was finding the whole experience boring.

Weapons:
I feel like just exchanging fire like a generic strategy game is one of the saddest combats I've ever seen. 0/10

Enemies:
Its kind of cool slowly figuring out the graphical differences between stronger enemies and weaker ones. 1/10

Non-Enemies:
None.

Levels:
It was shocking to discover that the game isn't randomized entirely, and that the level is pre-set to some extent. 0/10

Player Agency:
It works, but so much feels awkward and slow. 2/10

Interactivity:
I can't really think of what else to describe this game as besides an adventure game, but the amount of interaction you get here is pathetic. 1/10

Atmosphere:
None.

Graphics:
Very simple stuff. Everything looks as it should but nothing is terribly impressive. 1/10

Story:
The manual's story doesn't really have much effect on the gameplay, and doesn't entirely fit with what happens in-gameplay. 0/10

Sound/Music:
Really basic sound effects, which was quite annoying to see in an Amiga game. 1/10

That's 6.

Feels like a harsher statement against the game than it should be. Its not as horrible as that implies, it just doesn't feel like anything more than a demo. The sort of thing that shouldn't have escaped into the wild. Which is a funny thing to say about a game that was published and presumably put on store shelves, but I remain hopeful for Day of the Viper.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Fort Apocalypse

Name:Fort Apocalypse
Number:118
Year:1982
Publisher:Synapse Software
Developer:Steve Hales
Genre:Side-Scroller
Difficulty:5/5
Time:40 minutes

Like with all popular titles, Choplifter has its knock-offs, though its sort of hard to tell since its vaguely inspired on its own by Defender. Fort Apocalypse is one interesting in a few ways. Firstly, Synapse would be bought by Broderbund not too long in the future, as previously established in my Shamus review. Secondly, this is another early example of set level design.
The game itself is credited to Steve Hales, someone who would be credited for quite a few games as an audio driver programmer. The plot, such as it is, is that aliens have kidnapped some people, and we can't take the fortress they're in with a direct assault. The player, in his rocket copter is to save them.
The game starts, and I'm low on fuel, always a good sign. Fortunately, there is a fuel depot near the start. One can think of Fort Apocalypse as controlling (and animating) the same way as Choplifter did, except by someone who doesn't understand why it worked. The most obvious is that there isn't a proper turning animation, one moment you're facing right, a few later you're facing center, and a few more and you're facing left. This particular bit is unfortunate, since there is considerable reason to attack downward. This is what you're trying to play from moment one, a knock-off.

Note the neat little map between fuel and score
What then struck me as interesting were the enemies. You have a random floating thing you can shoot, and your usual tank enemies. These are actually incredibly annoying, the missiles/bombs they fire seem to be homing attacks. I'm torn between annoying and clever, because they're hard to kill and their attacks are almost impossible to shake off.
Moments before death
Then we get to the real interesting bit, enemy rocket copters. They don't move as intelligently as the player, but they do function the same in every other way. Thus one is treated to the spectacle of the AI trying and failing to take you out, either by shooting below you because they're moving, or just hitting a wall. Other enemies don't have this same problem.
I'm dead, probably because the hitbox for these blocks activated before they showed up
Now, the big problem with all this is that the game respawns enemies at inconsistent lengths. In the opening section there are tanks beneath a large number of various flying enemies, which can rarely be enemy rocket copters. One tank and one rocket copter together are basically unkillable, one or the another needs to be dragged off. Take out the tank, and you'll get shot, take out the copter, and you'll get a bomb in the ship.
And with 8 freed hostages I have won the level
Once you take out those tanks and copters, and the barrels blocking access down, you can enter the underground section of the game, where enemies are much less of a concern and you can start rescuing hostages. Its here that the primary threat ships to a series of lasers and blocks that go off in a sequence. This is nowhere near as hard as the opening section, we're merely down to tricky. The real trouble is getting back should you miss. Its at this point another problem because obvious, you get destroyed if you touch most things. This wouldn't be a problem, except that there's the illusion that we can safely land on the ground, we can't, we just touch the hostages.
...and Plexar can finish it
While the first level is doable, the second one tested my patience too far. The opening section of the level is basically the same as the last one, except this time the objective is getting past a series of blocks. The slow speed of the copter's downward movement plus the number of blocks one has to get past was simply too much for me to continue. I can't say I'm too disappointed in failing.

Weapons:
Generic weapons. 1/10

Enemies:
A strange variety of enemies, including an early attempt at a copy of the player's abilities. 2/10

Non-Enemies:
Rescuing hostages. 1/10

Levels:
Well, its the thought that counts. 0/10

Player Agency:
Like Choplifter, but measurably worse. 2/10

Interactivity:
I don't think the barriers in this game really count as destructible environments. 0/10

Atmosphere:
None.

Graphics:
Bland and uninspired. 1/10

Story:
None.

Sound/Music:
Generic sounds. 1/10

That's 8.

With this title, I have finally officially reached the halfway point on 1982. That is, I have played more games than I have remaining. Owing to the nature of some games being impossible for me to find or just obviously unplayable, the true number is probably lower.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Ultima Underworld

Name:Ultima Underworld
Number:107
Year:1992
Publisher:Origin
Developer:Blue Sky Software (Looking Glass Studios)
Genre:RPG
Difficulty:2/5
Time:14 hours 45 minutes

What can I say about Ultima Underworld that hasn't already been said? One of the greatest RPGs of all time. A technological marvel and important milestone in gaming history?
Meh.
The reception of the game, which is practically unavoidable, is that the game is flawless save for technical issues owing to the age of the game. A small price to pay for the first...3D Ultima. There's a lot of you had to be there said of the game, which I guess is true, but speaks of a game that has aged more heavily than people frequently give it credit for. And after playing it, I'm not sure that the game would have been flawless even back in the day. First, let's talk about how it aged.

The control scheme of the game has more in common with the games that came out beforehand, even games released one year later are much smoother. We've a quasi-standard control scheme, SZXC moves, W moves forward faster, A & D turn. Its mostly okay, but moving backwards always feels weird. Oddly slow. It works, barely, but its enough to be very noticeable. One nice feature here is that you can only walk off a ledge if you walk forward. Something that does work for both you and the enemies in-game. The real issue is looking up and down, which uses 1 & 3, with 2 to center. Its such an awful selection of keys to use in this case.
Underworld uses a somewhat adventure-style interface, meaning that you have the standard adventure actions of look, use, talk and take, along with options and attack. Which is interesting in theory, but awful in practice. The function keys select these actions, which is the ideal way to use them, but they had a habit of activating twice with each keystroke for me. The menus also worked awkwardly in of themselves, I nearly saved over an old save when I meant to load multiple times.
Also, the whole package is very awkward to use compared to games that came out afterwards. The adventure-style interface is more of a hindrance than a help. Picking up items is a troublesome experience. To say nothing of just how interacting with the environment is a bit tricky. NPCs, like in most RPGs, are fond of walking away when you're trying to talk to them. However, here is a feature I've never seen since, you can just walk into them to get them out of your way. More RPGs needed to take this feature of all things.
One of the first of many platforming sections
We are also regaled with jumping, which uses the J key, and depends on a skill. Jumping is awful. Really, really awful. Part of this is down to the collision physics, which will shoot you back if you hit a wall, and believe me, you have a very unusual collision box that guarantees this. The other part is that the developers designed the platforming parts in the most annoying way possible with this in mind. You will absolutely fall victim to the collision. Its just a question of whether or not you're going to hit the ceiling or the walls.
The slaying of vermin, a common sight in Ultima Underworld
Combat is easier, but suffers from numerous flaws. Underworld has three attacks depending on the mouse location or button you press and you hold down the attack button and then release. At first fun, but it doesn't have much tactical depth, most enemies should be dealt with one particular attack. All attacks have to be held down for at least a second, there's no jabbing. Despite being a RPG, spells and missile weapons are only useful as a self-imposed challenge rather than an actual tactic choice. Further, becoming skilled in a weapon other than a sword is intentionally crippling yourself, but that is more a timeless issue.
Its really hard to get the distortion across in a screenshot, unfortunately
A big issue in this game is the 3d engine itself, which has a constant visual issue at the sides of your view. Walls look weird as you walk past them. Eventually one will get used to it, but its very noticeable and very distracting at first. While you should be using the look action at most walls anyway, most secret doors are supposed to be visible without that, meaning anything other than a thorough search is in danger of missing something important. There are also numerous other visual glitches.
One of many friendly NPCs with a quest for me to solve
However, the worst issue of all is a two-edged one. There are too many quests for a game without a journal. Let us talk about me personally, someone who is generally willing to give a good game a chance. I have in the past made maps for multiple games. I have in the past made notes for the puzzles in a game. I have not, and I do not think I ever will, made a journal for a game. This is ultimately too much effort for what is supposed to be fun; I don't make notes for novels unless I have an important reason, I mostly just make notes for actual information books. This game requires those notes, because by the end of it I had no clue how to find one important plot item despite nearly being done. Its too much like actual work.

Those are all the features that aged poorly, however, I do not think the flaws of this game lie exclusively in the game's age showing. There are some aspects of the game that were always bad.
The first shrine I found...on the second level
For a RPG, the RPG aspect of the game is incredibly weak. While level advancements happen normally, in order to raise a skill you need to find a shrine and find the mantra for the skill. Which is just busywork. I'm not opposed to the idea of a specific location or person being used to train up your skills, its just that Underworld's approach is unnecessarily complicated. The system for this is vague, but that's the least of its problems.
Some of the skills themselves are of questionable use, to some being outright useless. I briefly touched upon it with weapon skills, but there are a lot of utility skills without much point in using. Swimming is a skill, but all the skill governs is how long you can swim without losing health. There's lockpicking and something to do with traps, but every door has another way of opening, even if brute-forcing it, and I don't remember any traps a skill would help with. Bartering skills, but bartering I'll get to in a moment.
Further, there's a level-gating approach in-place. That is, if you aren't at a certain level, enemies are basically invulnerable. Its only in place to prevent players from just steamrolling over everything right away, because most enemies, once you get to that level, aren't much of a problem. I have never seen this used well in a game and here its no different.
While the game supposedly offers a wide variety of classes, because some skills are useless and the game heavily biases you towards melee combat with a sword, there's a clear tier system. Being a primarily spellcasting class cripples you in three ways, there is a minimum range, and while you are faster than enemies, you don't always get enough range to use spells; Mana is limited, and while it does regenerate, that takes time; Finally, there is a level where you are drained of all mana. Ranged weapons are ineffective and utility skills don't help with combat, and there is a ton of combat. And these lead to the magic system feeling heavily underused.
A shot from the intro, where the player is forced into finding the baron's daughter, something that doesn't really affect the game until 7 floors down
In story, there's not really any reason for me to believe him, at least until his dead brother, who has appeared in visions at the start of the game, tells me the whole thing is real. At which point I am to take the eight items of virtue inside the Abyss and cast them into the lava pit the demon is on-top of. Unfortunately, the game failed to spawn one of them, resulting in all life on the planet dying. When I say I'm supposed to take those, I'm also supposed to figure out I'm supposed to use those and the lava in order to win. I also had no reason to find all eight items of virtue until this point. The main story of this game seems embarassing for such a highly acclaimed RPG.
Further, this whole thing leads to a massive pacing issue in the last part of the game where you're finishing up whatever sidequests you left hanging in the hopes it reveals where some important item is, in addition to the final level just being a general slog.
This is the first goblin you see, you cannot be friends with him
This is one inside the settlements, as hinted by banners, he is always friendly unless you stab him, like most NPCs in RPGs

Something that sort of is a complaint more about what people say about the game, but there's a certain infamous magazine review where someone dissing Doom in favor of this complains that you can't become friends with the monsters. I want to point out it isn't true here either. While some of the friendly NPCs are indeed more standard monster races, you can't just talk to a random goblin and become his friend. There's no diplomacy or anything, enemies are always enemies. Its basically your standard RPG except some NPCs are ogres.

I used this system so seldom that I used a screenshot from repairing a plot item instead of actual bartering!
There is a bartering system, but there's no real reason to get very good at this system. With skills or actually thinking about things. There are enough spare items hanging around that any item you really need from someone is easy enough to trade for. One of the early characters makes a big deal about items and survival, but that's simply not true. Further, you have a limited carrying capacity governed by your starting strength stat and carrying around all those trade goods, or even gold, takes up quite a bit of it. So quickly the ideal way to barter is to ignore all the gold and just carry about some gems in case such a thing is necessary...except that people actually want gold in exchange for some services. Some of which are absolutely vital to solving the game.

Now, with all that said, one might ask what is good about this game? Or if you are one who greatly enjoys this game like many do, a moment to cool your jets before going into a rage of some kind.

Origin, the publisher and at the time of development the company that Blue Sky was effectively a division of, used to have the label "We create worlds". It was only the motto of Origin, but a strong undercurrent of this went on throughout the '90s. While it is annoying that they spent so much time on the backstory and not the main story, it does create a pretty nice atmosphere to the game. There's a distinct feeling when the game begins that you are being thrust into a strange world. That you are just one player among many with their own goals and objectives. It doesn't quite live up to that opening feeling, of course, but it keeps the illusion going for longer than most games.
For instance, on the 3rd floor there is a NPC who is mad and deeply afraid of the dark. So he is someone who trades for light sources and food. Being that at this point you probably have plenty of food and a magic spell that creates light, well, he isn't really worth trading too. One floor down another NPC mentions that the crazy NPC went into their camp and stole everything he could, including a candle that never stops working and is one of the plot items you're looking for. There's the distinct feeling that most NPCs are actually important to the game itself since so many turn out to be vital later.
A screenshot I took of the map fairly early on
The dungeon design itself is wonderful for the first 6 levels. While the motivation for exploring is a hollow one, I don't feel cheated here. Exploration feels rewarding here, you even get XP for it. There are enough nooks and crannies filled with treasure or plot coupons that it all feels worth it. Even scouring the walls for secret doors. I can't say that much about most actual FPS games.
And while I do criticize those last two levels, its because of decisions that affect part of the level. Level 7 has three mazes in it and a good chunk of the level just moves awkwardly; Level 8 comes after killing the villain you came to the dungeon to defeat, when you're at the final character level. It shoves you against an absolute swarm of enemies, which at this point just feels like busywork. If the game situated the game's main villain here as opposed to the level above it, this section would be more tolerable.
This is possibly the first enemy in the game, and you have to attack him first
While the controls have aged poorly, even in comparison to other games of its control scheme, there's no denying they set it up in such a way that even a rank amateur should be able to get used to them. Even discounting that the manual contains a tutorial designed to introduce people who didn't even use mouses to the game, the game is just designed in such a way that allows players to easily get used to the game. Not just an area free of monsters, but an area with all sorts of items the player has to pick up to get used to the game, and interact with in all ways the game is going to use over the course of the game. I feel like a big flaw all of the games that use this control scheme in 3D afterward do is have enemies start near enough the player that he has no chance of getting used to the game before dying. Something that is incredibly frustrating.
To add to this, the game is also easy compared to those titles. This is not necessarily a bad thing in this case, because the game isn't really built for something hard. This makes it a perfect title for those getting into pre-mouse look RPGs and some FPSes. Assuming, of course, one is even capable of playing a game without mouselook without turning into a blubbering wreck. Hey, I still have trouble keeping planes up in the sky.
Fishing in a dungeon
There are a lot of little things the game does really well in a way that hasn't been replicated much. Being able to push NPCs out of the way as I mentioned. The in-game map, while an inventory item, is one of the smoother ones I've seen, and works incredibly well for 1992. There's a fishing mechanic, where you can get fish via a fishing rod you find on the 4th floor. Unlike many other games, where this would result in a poorly thought out fishing mini-game, this just gives you the fish or it doesn't.

Ultimately, Ultima Underworld is unique. (except for its sequel) For all my comparisons to various games over the course of my playthrough, it isn't any of those. They're only like this game in one aspect or via obvious technological heritage. None of them ever fully got the appeal of the original game. I don't think its ever possible to get that appeal ever again. Even today nobody's gotten a real successor to it, despite many chances to do so. I think that of itself makes it worth playing.

Weapons:
Like usual with RPGs, the different weapons weren't very different from each other, although there was a noticeable power difference between end-game weapons and skills and starting weapons and skills. Ranged weapons and magic are more or less in utility roles and are not effective for actual combat. 1/10

Enemies:
A limited variety of your standard fantasy enemies. Very few are unusual or require special tactics. A big problem here is the readability of characters, you have to use the look command to see if an NPC is hostile or just wait until they decide to attack you. 3/10

Non-Enemies:
While a great source of information, they don't contribute anything to combat, and indeed get in one's way. At least the developers realized this and allowed you to move them out of the way by running into them. 2/10

Levels:
The first 6 are incredible, a true masterpiece of level design. Then we get level 7, which is constant mazes, and then level 8, which just feels tacked on. 8/10

Player Agency:
While I am more open to the combo of the keyboard doing all the movement and the cursor doing every action, this tested even me. There was a distinct habit of the game to have button presses and mouse clicks happen twice, often enough that I suspect it was the game's fault rather than my keyboard and mouse. The adventure-style interface also hindered rather than helped the gameplay. 4/10

Interactivity:
Despite the adventure game interface there isn't a lot to do. A small selection of scenery items are actually interactable, though anything can be destroyed with a fireball. Otherwise, items work like they usually do in RPGs, though you can throw items in lava and water to destroy them, something useful if you're playing the original version, but nothing terribly exciting. There are puzzles, but the only difficulty is in determining that you are actually in front of a puzzle, since most are straight-forward or something you need to find a solution for elsewhere. 3/10

Atmosphere:
The game does a good job of making you feel like you're trapped in a desolate dungeon, moreso than it actually succeeds in making you trapped in a desolate dungeon. The short draw distance, the somber music and the way all the NPCs speak of the past in nostalgic ways all contribute to this. I particularly liked one NPC, longing over her lost love, stares wistfully out at a river of lava, because that is the best she can do. 9/10

Graphics:
I know I've said its hard to do dungeon graphics in a way that doesn't look boring, but something doesn't sit right with me about this game. Its not just that the engine basically forces a fisheye lens on you, the whole thing looks lifeless. Character sprites look flat and just about everything feels like it was someone's first attempt at making VGA graphics. 3/10

Story:
For a game that has such a rich and complicated backstory, very little effort was put into the actual story. 3/10

Sound/Music:
Everything is done via sound card, including sounds. While I used a Roland MT-32, which had the better music, sounds were...not great, since they were just musical notes. That said, despite being very obviously limited, music was very nice. The much vaunted dynamic music simply amounted to the music changing depending on if I was walking around, had a weapon out or was in combat. 5/10

That's 41, but minus one point for having so many game-breaking bugs, so 40.

The obvious comparisons are to Dungeon Master and Shadowcaster. And I would say, of the three, Ultima Underworld is my personal least favorite. On a regular 5/5 scale I would give Dungeon Master a 5, even if it would be lacking on any genre-encompassing scale. It is just absolutely amazing as a dungeon crawler. Shadowcaster is a game I grew up with, but in several ways it works better. It controls better, combat is more interesting, and while it has worse level design, the atmosphere is still top-notch.

I do recommend Ultima Underworld, however, be aware of its flaws. Many people say this is one of the greatest games of all time. I don't think it quite lives up to that. It occupies an awkward middle ground between better action RPGs and better "role-playing" RPGs. As of now it is in the top 10 of all the games I've played on this blog, but that's something that will very easily change, since I'm still firmly stuck in the 88-93 period.

This is one game that could stand a remake. Unlike with other games that had significant issues but mostly solid gameplay, the part of this that is great is the dungeon itself. A transplant into a completely different engine with some changes to gameplay, akin to the early attempts with Blood or some attempts with various Elder Scrolls titles, would do wonders for the game.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Buried Bucks

Name:Buried Buck$
Number:117
Year:1982
Publisher:ANALOG Software
Developer:Tom Hudson
Genre:Side-scroller
Difficulty:4/5
Time:40 minutes

Here's something a bit different than usual for 1982, a game where the player is trying to take buried treasure. Developed by Tom Hudson and published the type-in magazine ANALOG Software, an Atari 800 magazine. Both are more well known for being involved in the debut games of text adventure legend Brian Moriarty, Adventure in the 5th Dimension. Unfortunately, Hudson seems to have only worked on games for ANALOG.


After a jaunty intro tune and an animated title screen, the game begins. The objective of the game is to drop bombs on the various piles of gold and then extract them to your base while not touching the dirt, either the stuff already in the ground or what's being airdropped by some dude flying by the place. Don't know what his problem is, but as you blow up the dirt he comes around to fill in the holes. There is a ammo limit, but you can return to the base on the left side of the screen at any time to reload your bombs. You can also destroy the bucks by destroying all the dirt underneath it until it reaches the bottom of the screen.

Its not very complex game, but the change of objective from the usual games from this year made the game more interesting. It becomes quite a bit about baiting the overhead plane by bombing areas without the bucks. There seems to be a limit on what he does, though I'm not quite sure the specifics of it. Your helicopter is not very swift, so those slow descends to the money are fraught with danger. Better make sure the dirt is all clear, because hitting any of it, or getting caught in your own explosion, will kill you.
The game increases the difficulty by firstly, increasing the number of layers there are underneath the player, and by adding water. Water ruins the cool terrain destruction thing the game had going for it until now, because it completely changes the game. All your bombs are harmless against it, and trying to siphon it off just creates more water. You can't even tunnel to the bottom of the screen. It is entirely possible to screw yourself over completely with this stuff, and the game doesn't even have the politeness to end the game for you. You have to manually run out of lives. At least The Alien Island 3D had the forcefulness to tell you to end it.
By the 4th level, this seems to create an environment that's seemingly impossible to beat. I suspect this was done in order to create an unwinnable situation so the player wouldn't write-in to complain about a lack of a real ending. Its a shame because the game is actually pretty fun, it just needs a smoother difficulty curve.

Weapons:
Simple, but effective. Though I feel like the nature of this ties in more to the environment. 1/10

Enemies:
A single plane, constantly flying around and upset at the environmental destruction. It was very satisfying to outsmart him. 2/10

Non-Enemies:
None.

Levels:
More randomized levels. 0/10

Player Agency:
Standard joystick controls. Not the smoothest, but it works well enough. 3/10

Interactivity:
Nothing quite like a game that freely lets you destroy everything. 3/10

Atmosphere:
None.

Graphics:
Nothing exciting, but it does depict everything well. 1/10

Story:
None.

Sound/Music:
Your standard blips and bloops, plus a strange intro tune. 1/10

That's 11. At this point, fair to say its definitely above average for 1982 and worth a look if you like the time period. The immense difficulty the later levels reach are more worth defeating if you aren't playing games the same way I do.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Ultima Underworld: Lost

Changing out my boots for something sweet
On my way back down to the seventh floor, I meet with both the tailor and the magician, in the hopes that the items they're building for me are done. Seems like if its taking this much time its probably important. I swing by for the boots first. Yep, done, have enough food. They're lava-proof too. Okay, I next head towards the ring room. Okay, I remember the sequence. NW, SE, NE, and then SW.
Uh...nothing happened. I try it again. I reset it and then try it again. I continue this for several more fruitless attempts. Is this a glitch? Its not mentioned anywhere. Did I get the wrong sequence? No. Wait, I have a ring in one of my backpacks, maybe this is it? I should throw it into the lava to see if its the one. And it sunk. Is that not it? No, its a ring of jumping. Well, I could do a couple of things that would take a very long time and not actually solve my problems, or I could cheat...if that were possible. Sadly, it doesn't look like the work for that is done, despite there existing several level editors for the game. How one doesn't exist for such a beloved title, I do not know. I just have to hope that resetting it and then leaving the area and returning will work.

More useless yellow rocks
Back up, I feel motivated to explore the sections near the empty bits of the map. How did the lever to open that one area work, just use the wall until something's different? Okay, and secret door inside the secret door. The ultimate sign of what kind of game you're playing is the reaction you have upon doing that, and its necessary to win, disgust or joy. Only this doesn't actually give me anything, there's a door here next to two switches, undoubtedly a puzzle I have no answer for yet. And a pile of money, but who cares?

I never did figure out what this was for

Returning to the ring place, and no, it doesn't work. Either I have to wait longer or the game is screwed. I did have a ring on me, but its a jumping ring, not a special ring. But I found a flute, which means I can be tought the song by the one ghoul. I guess that'll come in handy soon. Continuing my downward descend, I look throughout the lava river on level 6. I can see an area up beyond my reach that just so happens to be near an area I didn't think there was anything in. After a search later, I have the Book of Honesty. Seems like I may have gone out of order slightly, but whatever, now I only have two items left.
Finally back at level 7 I'm not too sure where I can go. Oh, sure, I'm clearing out enemies, but I don't have a path forward that isn't the previous trap I fell into or the steps downward. Well, I can try the waterways, but the poison lurkers are a pain to fight and kill. One poisoning, even at full health, will kill me if I don't make it back to the fountain on the 3rd floor, the nearest fountain there is. And I have to wait out the poison, something that makes Shadowcaster's wait times look paltry.
I guess I missed something in the lava rivers down on the 8th floor then? No, I actually did explore everything that I could. What else is there? There's a key I don't know if I tried on every locked door in the northern section of this level, but that doesn't work either. I try sleeping in the trap room, but nothing happens. Time to look it up in a walkthrough.
Okay, the walkthrough isn't quite clear on how to proceed, but I get enough to advance. They all assume you're going to be sneaky and use the medallion, then bribe the guard who talks to you after entering the trap. Rather than engaging in brute force. I admit, I wouldn't have thought to bribe him without checking the walkthrough, because money has been useless outside of one time. Now its been useful twice, but this case is more brutal because you can easily screw yourself over.

Dead things turn out to be even more vermin
Inside the prison are a lot of locked doors I have to break open. Good thing the Sword of Justice doesn't wear down or I'd be forced to punch all these doors. Prisoners, more talking. Oh, great. The important part is that there's an escape route out of the dungeon; A dwarf gives me a crystal that does something in the tombs of the dead. I think dwarven tombs of the dead, not the ones I saw earlier.

Lava's coming from somewhere
The escape route is over a lava river. I suspect I would be dead by now if I didn't have the lava boots or the jumping ring. I spend some time exploring the lava part, finding a map of an area that's full of traps. After finishing up down there I just walk into an area with an obvious secret door, that leads back to before the final goblin checkpoint. I guess so the player isn't stuck, because this is also where the locked door leads.
I have a bit more of the area to explore from here. There's a temple-looking room that seems impressive, but really only has a stairs down and a troll.
Secrets are getting hard, but not impossible to find

Since that's a dead end I start going back through the maze, I absent-mindedly check every wall. Because this game does pull an actual secret off at times, and the Wolfenstein method of pressing space on every wall is still important. Naturally, this reveals a secret...graveyard. Can't people put these in a normal place? What the hell? There's nothing of interest inside, but there is a secret door out. And I need to find where I dropped a rock hammer, because a giant rock fell on the path back in.
The remaining length of the lava river's no good, its just swarming with fire elementasl, so I guess the other stairs down is the way to go. After some more monster clearing, I find another stairs up. Seems like these last two levels are very interconnected, because there's nothing here really, beyond these two stairs up. I hope this means I'm close to being done.

Was this the party the baron sent?

This leads to a small enclosed area where a man died with a key. A key to a different one than the one locked next to him. Something about the evil dead. Another secret graveyard, or is it just a locked one? Well, its not impenetrable to my sword, and the ghosts inside aren't either. After I clear that out and start exploring the other side, I notice my health is very low despite not having taken any hits...and then I die. Huh, I guess I shouldn't go through there. I decide to check if the door near the start is unlocked by the key I just got. It works. This seems to be the area the map is for. Maybe I triggered a trap? Not quite, there's another maze that also has traps in it and I didn't even notice at first. Doesn't even seem to lead anywhere I can do anything in.

Endless fun
Guess that means I have to clear out the fire elementals. And you better believe these things are packed densely, usually two are visible at a time. Their melee attack isn't much, but their ranged attacks are murder. Funny thing is they're guarding some random door down here. Its locked, but that key works, and wouldn't you know it, but it contains another set of stairs down. How many are there? Game has been starving me of these things and now all of a sudden there are four of them. And oh look, its another small room with a set of stairs up.
The grey part will kill you pretty quickly
Here I meet a talking imp. At least the game tells me its an imp. He tells me in rhymes that he's a thief who stole a magical crown from the evil wizard. He tells of a crown that is smaller than the others and I need one eye to see it. At first I think he's talking about a red jeweled crown, but only one crown here is unique, so I take that one. The golems nearby don't attack me so I must have gotten it right. So...what's special about it? Hmm, secret door, which leads right to that maze.
I dunno, if I made it here chances are I'm no joke in the combat department

Ah, it leads me through the maze. Directly to Tyball. Uh...that was fast. He needed the baron's daughter because he needed an innocent to sacrifice. Muahaha, he's going to kill me. Anyway, I kill him and a cutscene happens.

Didn't you bring me here?
He needed the girl because he needed to put a great evil, The Slasher of Veils, into an innocent body. Why he's decided to tell me this after I've kill him is a sign this guy is incredibly stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. All life will be wiped out, yatta, yatta, yatta. If someone could have been bothered to tell me this before I fighting me maybe we could all have been alive right now. Well, there is no telling that I would have believed him, because every generic bad guy says that he's actually doing the world a favor. He drops a couple of keys, another medallion and some thread.

By waving my sword around until my problems are over? I don't think that's wise
With the orb rock I picked up from downstairs I can destroy the orb, restoring my magic. With one of the keys, I can open the door the princess...wait, I thought she was a baron's daughter. Anyway, she tells me she's going to inform her father, since she has an "Amulet of Free Travel" and that I have to save the world somehow. With that, she disappears and I have to figure out what to do. Does it involve the eight artifacts of virtue?

Probably some kind of humor I don't get
Entering the dead wizard's study I see a lot of stuff that sounds important. Lots of scrolls and books that seem like they're of value to someone earlier or just important for this quest. More worryingly, I see a book on resurrection and a scroll from Tybell saying he'll resurrect someone. Uh-oh, don't tell me I have to pull this kind of crap? Rounding out his quarters is a secret passage into the southern maze.

Yes, the rat is in the lava, and yes, it did burn alive. This game can be clever at times

Finding a path downstairs, it is for once not a small detour. In fact, its a big, monster-infested dungeon. The question I have to ask at this point is...why? Why did the game need this? Not the whole surprise final boss bit, but that too. Why scores of monsters this late in the game? There is no way I could make it this far and not be at level 16, have great equipment, and know how to deal with enemies. This is just busywork because they made 8 levels.

I am curious about the logic of putting the Slasher into a maiden, but I don't think the man was too smart
Naturally, at some point I get hurt enough to want to retreat upstairs. Well, that's through a maze and basically four levels. Its becoming quite the journey. So I take a gamble and rest...this results in a vision from the guy seen in the intro. He's Tybell's brother? Huh. Anyway, I need to find his bones in the mines somewhere. More cleaning out of enemies, and a lot of bones. Just so many bones. None of which are labeled. All right, better look up the answer; The bones are nameless but don't stack up with other bones. Right, did that.

This does raise some questions about the ghosts I killed earlier
I take him up to the graveyard on level 5, since I figure that one's actually important. Takes a while but I find it. And then he becomes a ghost. That raises some questions I don't want to answer. He says we need to figure out some way to channel power to open a portal to take care of the Slasher, something pure, something connected to Britannica. I have to tell him what. Oh, the eight talismans. One of which I can't get.
Well, I guess I've lost. I'm not about to restart the game considering how much of a slog this last section has been. That was a disappointing experience.

Final Session: 3 hours 30 minutes

Total Time: 14 hours 45 minutes