Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Shadowcaster (PC-98): Introduction

As I am often wont to do, I sometimes screw around with releases not on my immediate schedule. On this day, it was checking a few PC-98 games, you know, the Japanese computer. Back when I first started emulating the system, I didn't realize the hard drive files there were designed to make your life easier, and tried installing games on my own. I failed. Shadowcaster was the first game I was interested in trying out, because, hey, its something I know. Well, now I'm back at it. I've wanted to replay Shadowcaster for the blog, but was originally going to hold off until after playing Raven Software's previous title, Black Crypt.

It did take some wrangling to get it running, but less than you'd think. I just had to use the right emulator with both a HD image and a HD boot floppy. Lo and behold, Shadowcaster...with some good music? I'm familiar enough with the game's music, but usually just the basic flourishes the game has, not the general music. It works and its actually better than I remember.

I'm not going to translate the intro text as that takes too much work and I'm not entirely certain I'd get it right. I'll try to summarize.

Kirt and his grandfather are not of our world, and they're not human, they're the People. A race of shapeshifters, who, when granted a form by a non-People race, can shift into it and vice-versa. Not all members of the People could get the ability to shapeshift, so they turned to dark gods and became heretics. A great war happened, almost wiping out the People, but the People won.

Despite this, the heretics remained, and they and their leader Veste grew in power. The future looked bleak until the birth of Kirt. His birth caused a shadow across the future, for no one could see his. So Kirt was taken to our world, to grow in strength until the time was right to return.

Before Kirt's grandfather is carried off, he tells Kirt to find obelisks, to seize his destiny and to find a shrine. In that order.

Two notes before I actually talk about the game. We have a video of the original game's explanation:

Firstly, that is so much better than the CD version's even if the animated intro was the greatest looking thing ever. (Its not, to be clear, but if it was I'd take the one that explains the backstory) It just has so much more explaining what the game is that its honestly sad.

Now, differences between the original and the Japanese version. There is going to be a certain degree of me screwing up the translation, however, regardless of this, the dialog is different. Kirt's Grandfather places a lot of emphasis words in there and speaks quite formally. In short, his character is grand and formal. A definite difference, but one I'm not sure I care about. Also, there are indeed references to heretics/heresy here. I just felt that was amusing. I also got the impression from the text that Veste was an evil god and not the leader of the heretics. (rather than the opposite it was in the original game) I don't know if that was me, or if that was the translator.

Unlike a lot of these ports, Shadowcaster only has music over its original counterpart. Even if I did get the music running on DOS, this just sounds better. There are better CRPG ports, especially debut entries in series like Wizardry and Might and Magic, but I have a good memory of this game. This will be the fourth time I've played it over the years. I think this combination is one that works well in terms of being able to understand what I'm looking at and being able to finish the game.

I wonder how many people wandered into this game only to get slaughtered by this guy
You start off straight in the action, about to get hit by this thing. But first the GUI. We have the menu, which allows you to save and load, along with changing the difficulty setting, new and quit game. Map, which isn't great, but hey, few games had them yet. Most of the following actions are performed by selecting them and then clicking on something. Left hand and right hand, which when selected use whatever it is in that hand. By default you punch. The last two are special actions. For Kirt's default form, he can jump and kick. The kick does more damage than Kirt's fists. You can use those options in addition to one hand by pressing J or K. You can also use things if you click on something whenever you don't have something selected. That last part is very important.

This thing is an enemy, and while I have to admit this part is annoying, its not the worst thing you could deal with. He has slightly longer melee range than you do, so if you don't know what you're doing, you will die. But once you get the trick, its not that hard to win. At least at this stage. He said, having won this game three times before. Even on the hardest difficulty you have enough health to win this fight. I've gone through this fight a lot more times than I have beaten this game, so I know.

Guess I should go over that difficulty setting. Difficulty in RPGs is weird, because they're the easiest genre to screw up difficulty with. Done badly, and instead of making it a challenging game, you've made it a boring game where you whack some dude for hours on end. Stats in this game don't really get high enough for that to be an issue, even on the highest difficulty. Helped by how the game gives you more experience points on higher difficulties. More points means Kirt levels up quicker, which means more health and power/mana. This is the only thing leveling up gives you, although there's slightly more to it than that. You get better at combat through a mix of player skill and items found in the game world.

"Inside yourself you hear your grandfather's voice: 'The form of the cat tribe warrior Maorin is given. Pass by the temple and the graveyard guards, the four-handed monster arrives.'"

Touching this obelisk gives Kirt his first shape to shift to, the Maorin, a four-armed cat warrior. I'm surprised the Maorin's name managed to transfer untouched. I'm definitely going to have to check the names of some of these things later. This brings us into the real overarching RPG aspect of the game. Each form of Kirt's, including human/People form, has its own experience meter. For Kirt, this handles health and mana. For the others, this increases health. Everything you kill increases score, if you're in a non-human form, its divided between that form and Kirt's base form*. Changing into a form and staying in that form drains mana, as do most special abilities in those forces. Jumping doesn't cost anything and neither does a base attack. Succeeding in this game is all about successfully managing how stats increase in these forms.

I'll get to what's special about the Maorin in a bit, but for now, items. Around the obelisk are a fire wand and a health potion. "Fiayaa Undo" as its called here. (a phonetic spelling of fire wand) Its shoots little fireballs. The health potion heals. Items are used by placing them in a hand, either by moving them over or left clicking on an item from the inventory. Each form has its own inventory, something that's only useful at this moment.

The attack motion depends on where your hand is on the screen, lower right gives you an attack that looks like Kirt is reaching out, but I guess its a palm strike

I'm going to be repeating a lot of this when the summary comes, aren't I? Oh, well. The first real monster you encounter are these fire plant things. As long as you're looking at them, they don't move. If you look away, they slowly sneak up on you. Hurt them enough, and they'll run away. A few run after you no matter what. The interesting bit is that they react somewhat intelligently to you, if you're very powerful they'll run away, if you're hurt they'll just rush after you. They're not very troublesome even on this difficulty. They drop flower seeds. Uh, guess that is the kanji for flower seed. These will come in handy in a little bit.

Then we have these things. These are quite possibly the nastiest enemy in the game, if only because they attack you at a weak point. They only appear on this level, but their impact is keenly felt. They're your basic enemy that shoots projectiles, but it hits pretty hard at this stage and I actually died underestimating him. More or less works like the fire plants, hurt him enough and he'll try to run away.

So, basic attacks. I said that Kirt's kick was more powerful than his fist, which is true. I think it does more damage via numbers, this is a RPG, but it hits twice whereas the fist hits once. Kirt can also do a jump kick, jump then kick, which I think does a lot more damage, it certainly killed things faster. The Maorin just has its claws, and can jump, but no combo. These claws do about as much damage as the kick I think, but attack faster. However, the Maorin has slightly more health, which makes it a better choice at first. Thing is, there's no reason to use him after a few level ups with Kirt, and unless you're missing the manual, you know this because there's a rock golem later.

Kirt is such a sharp shot with a fire wand he can aim perfectly with his eyes closed

Next on our little tour of the opening level is a floating chest next to a pillar that obviously needs some kind of item. I usually use the fire wand on this guy, but now that I think of it, there's no real reason to. This guy gives you another flower seed and the key that pillar needs. By this point even if you've been stuffing your character with these, you can't pick up any more of them. The key area isn't somewhere you want to enter yet.

At this point, you get two options for advancing, north and south. This is where things can get very dangerous if you aren't careful. And more realistically by this point, you will be in bad shape. How do you heal? You wait. Bring a book or something else you can do in-between battles. You're going to need it. This crap takes a while. A long time. Based on my experiences last time, I assumed the game would be fine so long as I was writing, but I guess that's a positive change the CD version gave. Its the game's big weakness and I don't think the game offers any way of speeding this up. At least right now, and later options then make you wait for mana to recover.

Different forms have different max healths, but I tried using the Maorin form for a while and nothing changed. It even has a lower max health now, 35 compared to the base form's 75.

So there are two things I really like about this stage. The first is how the various enemy types take advantage of their abilities against the player. There are two closed doors, each leading to a room with melee enemies. You look around, there's nothing there. You enter, and while you're attacking the melee enemies, you get sneak attacked by one of the ranged enemies. Its just out of range from when you're standing at those doors. Its a subtle thing, but it makes this stage that much more memorable.

The second bit is the game's first real puzzle, one involving the flower seeds you've been picking up. Depending on where you go, you'll find one of these flowers on top of muddy water. Attack it, and after it dies, the item you would have been able to pick up turns into a piece of ground. Walking or swimming on this water hurts you, so this is obviously the method across it. Its a simple puzzle, but it sets itself up beautifully.
That does not look great in screenshot form
In contrast, afterward we get what I think is the only use of the Maorin's special ability, a special sight power. You can really get past this without using it by running through the center or right side, if you don't mind waiting to heal. This for a shuriken, which is indeed what it was called originally. It functions more like a boomerang though. The game gives you a series of floating medallions to test it out against, before pitting you against three of the ranged enemies. The fun thing about the shuriken is that you can attack after it leaves your hand, thus allowing you to quite rapidly attack something.

This gets me a giant stone head, which will come in handy later. And this more or less marks the end of the level, because I picked up another fire wand from a side area earlier, and found the exit to the next proper level. But first, a level you have to work to uncover. Remember the stone triangle and the statue? That opens a gate to another level.

A watery dungeon. This is a tricky level to just walk into. You get these bats on the ceiling. Not too difficult of themselves, you can't hurt them unless they attack, run away when they're close to dying. What is annoying is that because Kirt starts this level swimming, you can't punch or kick them. So you have to either use the limited charges of your fire wands, or the shuriken. Hence why I waited. Its also annoying dealing with them running away. Now, despite this being a water level, Kirt is in no danger of dying from just swimming, you have to go underwater. Kirt cannot hold his breath for anything.

He's guarding some very important treasure. A magic sword, another stone head, some Maorin armor and a mana potion. Or power potion. Armor works weird in this game, as long as you have it in a character's inventory, it should work. I've never been too sure its actually effective, but part of this is down to how I rarely use the Maorin for long enough to figure out if that's a good choice. The sword generally proves to be effective though, although the strategy guide suggests the Maorin gets more damage out of it.

With that done, its time for the graveyard...or at least what the game seems to be calling a graveyard. Various skeletons with spears stuck through them lie around. Approach them, and another skeleton warrior activates. Its at this point that my previous knowledge fails me. Wait a minute, why is it taking so long to cut up this guy? Does the magic sword not work against them? Using the shuriken or the jump kick does much more damage. Does the Maorin really get that much of a boost with the sword? Well, it seems like they cut things down about twice as fast as Kirt does. Huh.
This area also has these guys, imps, though they probably have a fancier name. They're not very interesting. The main section of this level are winding paths. Follow those paths and you'll eventually reach where you want to go. Don't follow those paths, and you'll probably reach there much quicker.
The first area these lead to is a pool surrounding a pillar containing many statues. Some of the statues of missing heads, four. One is here, two I already picked up, and there's another one on this level. This is where this whole section ends, because up until the point you enter there, you can return to almost any part of the previous levels. This is about as non-linear as the game gets, unfortunately.
The second is an obvious trap. A key, which when you pick up is revealed to be broken. Not before you're surrounded by spikes and a horde of the imps come out. I forgot it was imps. Its not much of a trap, because unless you really screw up your positioning, you can easily defeat these guys one at a time and they're not terribly deadly. After this its smooth sailing through another series of skeletons and the final stone head. This raises the central pillar back at the lake. Next time, the temple it leads to.

Before I end this, a few things. I picked up an acid wand and an ice wand. Interestingly, they're printed in a way that actually uses the English word as opposed to the Japanese one. The potions don't. I wonder why? Despite the music, I'm not sure this is strictly better than the DOS CD version, because I'm assuming there were changes there that this version didn't inherit outside of the bleh final levels. Regeneration in here is SLOW. I was very wrong to assume I would get through this game quickly. Because I know this game, this feels less like the usual let's plays I do and more like a guide that just so happens to be in a version I've never played before.

This Session: 1 hour 20 minutes

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Commander Keen: Episode 2 (1990)

Name:Commander Keen in "Invasion of the Vorticons" - Episode Two: The Earth Explodes
Developer:Id Software
Time:2 hours
Won:Yes (60W/56L)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same as Keen 1. 1/10

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

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

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

Player Agency:
Same as Keen 1. 6/10

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

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

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

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

About the same as last time. 1/10

That's 21.

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

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

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

Friday, January 20, 2023

Commander Keen: Episode 1 (1990)

Name:Commander Keen in "Invasion of the Vorticons" - Episode 1: Marooned on Mars
Developer:Id Software
Time:1 hour
Won:Yes (59W/56L)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A straight-forward ray gun. 1/10

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

That's 26.

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

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

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Dragonriders of Pern (1983)

Name:Dragonriders of Pern
Developer:The Connelly Group
Time:3 hours
Won:Yes (58W/56L)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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