Friday, March 31, 2023

Android Two (1983)

Name:Android Two
Publisher:Vortex Software
Developer:Vortex Software
Genre:Top-Down Shooter
Time:1 hour 10 minutes
Won:No (65W/60L)

The sequel, I guess, to Android One. I had very little nice to say about that game. Android Two at first glance seems considerably more interesting, until I realized it was broadly the same game as the original, just with a more open-ended level. At which point I was going to cross it off my list...but then I realized that wasn't necessarily a bad thing; that this is closer to a remake of the original rather than a true sequel.

The starting area, surrounded by red robots. No idea what the radar in the lower right is supposed to be, but just above it is a mine detector.

Rather than the straight-forward and rather boring design of the last game, we have a fancy-looking open-ended game of the same nature as last time. Oh, and this is being done on the pride and joy of Britain, the ZX Spectrum. It's actually a good game on the surface. The objective is to find five millipede robots, kill them, then return to where we entered and the process repeats.

Blue robots at the top, they have a path to the millipede through the upper right hall.

The controls are simple, but slightly obtuse. OP move left and right, Q1 move up and down. Space shoots. The gun has a range of about 6 tiles. It's not the most precise thing I've controlled, but it works well enough. It's at a weird point where it's not good enough to work perfectly, but just enough that successfully dodging a tricky enemy feels exciting.

So the complex you're put in is a somewhat complex looping place, starting you off at a teleporter. This is of course where you have to return. Stopping you from reaching your targets are two types of robots. A blue robots that moves around in any line, left-right or up-down, and can be shot, and red robots that are invulnerable, but move in a single line in a predetermined fashion. Also, mines.

Damage is weird in this game. The manual describes it as you having lives, but it's basically five HP. You don't spawn anywhere else, you just remain where you are. Red robots walk in the other direction, blue robots die, and the landmine you stepped on doesn't harm you unless you step on it again. Kind of weird.

The really lucky times there are three at once!

The big enemy, the robot millipedes, will eventually be found. It's not a big place. To kill one, you shoot it in the head three times. This surprisingly works really well. Spaces are tight and you have limited range. This means you can't just sit somewhere safely and shoot it three times. When it works, it works really well, when it doesn't, it feels like your usual coin muncher. They move like the blue robots, except when they are unable to move, they flip, the head appearing where the tail was. Except this can happen at any time, not just when they can't move period. It's also annoying dealing with them and they're butting heads with a robot in a corridor, because it'll slowly follow the robot until it can't anymore.

For the most part it's all fine and dandy. You can easily predict where an enemy will move, and more importantly where they won't move. In a wide enough space without many red robots, you're fairly safe. As blue robots and millipedes increase, even the widest space is best left alone. Fortunately, you can camp out somewhere safe and wait for something to come after you. Everything still moves off-screen. Which can also be a problem. You can only predict the behavior of things you know are there, and blue robots can be anywhere. If you go into the place a red robot just went into, thinking you're safe, only to get battered by the red robot.

While it is exciting to move past a red robot or even a group of them successfully, a lot of the time these feel extremely generous considering the controls. You turn before you move, which means if you're tapping a button lightly, like if there's a landmine, you turn before moving. There are quite a few locations where you have to move around landmines in addition to red robots. Making it tense for all the wrong reasons. Finally, the time. You have limited time, just in case you thought you could camp for enemies. This actually makes things worse than you might think, because it's very unreliable to track moving millipedes, as I mentioned, so you have to wait for them to move, lest you get put in a horrible situation. I understand why it was put in, but it feels considerably at odds with any actual game design beyond extending playing time.

I eventually managed to do what I thought was a win. Kill the millipedes and then return to the start. Then I discovered that there's a second area, out of three. With no saves and no ability to restore health, my chances of getting any further were nil.

Simple weapon. 1/10

Three enemies that despite their problems create very interesting tactical situations. 3/10


A somewhat interesting looping level. 3/10

Player Agency:
Despite the annoyance of both ZX Spectrum key placement and typical lagginess, it works. 4/10


Despite the system, genuinely tense as a game. 4/10

Garish but readable. 1/10


Very annoying sound. 0/10

That's 16. Better than its predecessor, good for 1983, but not a must play today. Just what games of yore aspired to be, fun and simple. As such, not a whole lot to say about this one.

It's the home stretch for 1983, with only 5, maybe 4 games left.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Hoverforce (1990)

Name:Hoverforce AKA Resolution 101
Developer:Astral Software
Time:2 hours 30 minutes
Won:No (65W/59L)

Astral Software is an interesting company, another British group like The Assembly Line whose best work don't fall under the umbrella of what I'm trying to do, shooters, instead creating clever little games whose actual genre is relatively unimportant compared to how fun it is. Unlike The Assembly Line, I think that Hoverforce might actually be good.

In preparation for this game, I tried out their previous game, Archipelagos. It was a good game, what I could play of it. Sort of like The Sentinel, a strange vaguely FPS game. You play as some kind of alien who came to Earth to restore its environment, which you do so by deactivating nuclear reactors. Stopping you are energy limitations, radiation emitting trees, and some other baddies. Unfortunately, the game kept crashing on level 15, and I don't have the time to just brute-force it. Worth a try if you like weird games first-person strategy games.

In Hoverforce you play as a cop in a future dystopia overrun by crime. "It's 2050 A.D., and biotechnology has created a new class of terrorist." Street crime is controlled entirely by mutant crimelords, called Alterants. They've created an addictive serum called Aftershock which turns those that take it into mindless killers loyal only to the Alterants.

To stop them a task force of biotechnically enhanced pilots called Red Wasps have been created. The hovercraft they're to pilot is so powerful that normal humans can't use it. The task force, really just you, will "interdict supply runs. Terminate Alterants." Absurdity of the story aside, gotta give the writer some credit, this is perfect for the sort of action movie they were undoubtedly trying to ape, I can just hear it being played in a trailer just because hearing, THIS SUMMER, SYLVESTER STALLONE IS...HOVERFORCE. There's also some stuff from the leader of the Red Wasp Unit, Sheriff Stone, which mostly talks about how bad Aftershock is. He doesn't factor much into the game despite appearing on the menu. Incidentally, moving around on menus is very awkward, no smooth movement, you have to hold down a key for a moment, the mouse feels completely unusable for menus. (it's not point and click)

All that backstory? Completely at odds with the game. The city looks bright, cheerful and GREEN. How much greener could you get? This place is better than a lot of major cities now, roving gangs of drug addicts or not. The glorious Roland MT-32's soundtrack feels like it was taken straight out of some cheerful life sim, and there's no sound. Which is probably good, considering I'm in a hovercraft, giving out bullets like I'm getting paid for every bullet I shoot. Infinite ammo too, so it's not like there's a penalty!

The controls are weird. I used mouse, surprisingly enough. Left click moves you forward, right click shoots your active weapon, move the mouse sideways and you move sideways. There is no reverse. Weapons are select from F1 through F3, with the first weapon you get being a machine gun. F4 opens the map, which I don't know how to read. F5 switches between tracking the boss or the nearest shop, more on that later. F7 switches between music and sound. Which I did not figure out until Level 4.

Everything about this is just arcade-y, goofy fun. You have to collect a bunch of red balls, which give you money. As with all money pick-ups, which seem to be the only thing that drops from enemies, you run them over. Sometimes when you destroy an enemy, probably one of the flying ones, a little video plays on the GUI of the main enemy of the section making a strange face.

Speaking of enemies, you have two rough types in this first stage. Less mobile, Dalek looking fellows who don't really do much besides take shots, and then swift, flying enemies which also shoot back. Finally, there's the boss, a hovercraft which takes a lot of bullets. You need to get the red balls before you can kill the hovercraft. The AI the enemy has is interesting, it might be my imagination, but I swear they're actively trying to dodge me and flank me. Enemies spawn in a flash of lightning, sometimes you can see this.

As the game wears on the differences become clearer. The Dalek fellows can be divided into immobile, stationary targets and slowly moving targets. Flying enemies come in many varieties, from red saucers, to green saucers, to black saucers. And some kind of weird gray saucer the manual describes as a tracking device. Everything outside of the black saucers is simple enough to kill.

While it's not really special in the level design department, I do like the set up. Each level feels unique, with it's own challenges. Enemies slowly spawn in as you move around, while some are spawned in predetermined locations.

I just realized they capitalized every word in the sentence, like an amateur.
Now, this isn't all perfect. I have no real idea of how much damage I've taken despite having something on the GUI to tell me my damage. I assume as this big red bar depletes I'm closer to dying. Going over water or over certain ground items also kills you. There's no penalty, you just restart the level and you have a save anyway. Really, this GUI feels way too busy. It took me a while to figure out that the arrow in the lower right isn't the exact same as the compass. Also, pressing F5 shows you where either the boss or the nearest shop is. The radar above the directional arrow tells you where enemies are.

I'm not clear on what the deal with shops are. I couldn't find a weapon shop, so everything else was just an item+defense shop. The only thing I could buy were the shields, everything else I apparently already had. Dunno if that's what the game is supposed to be like or if for some reason this is a hacked version. Considering how it can get on my nerves doing something with all the items, I'm not about to find out.

To win, you need to get the number of red balls you're told to and then shoot the boss, he's invulnerable before then. You have to take him out in-between buildings; they just pop out of existence before he flies in. There's a number of buildings he has to go to before he's completed his run, the point at which you lose. I get what they were going for, but it all feels silly. It's certainly a twist on the usual, do X thing to spawn the boss. 

After finishing off the first level, I realize I have a headache. Great, it's going to be one of those games. A lot of titles with that Wolfenstein 3D way of doing things now give me a headache. Guess it's the bright colors. Or in this case it might be the awkward-looking 3D. Moves well, but the way things grow and shrink in size is just completely beyond me. I am not expending the effort I need to see these guys so far away.

There's an enemy here, can you spot it?
Level 2 gets considerably harder than the more casual way the first level did things. You have to pay attention to the horizon and the little radar constantly to find enemies and items. Good luck figuring out there's a flying enemy in the distance when it's just a little blip. It's very hard to track down the big hovercraft, and I'm noticing that without any sound, only music, I can't tell if I'm hitting something. (I did not figure out the music/sound thing until later) Bullets just go through.

Every 3 levels the boss changes. That's right, you kill the same boss three times. The first three have Johnny Psyclops, a one-eyed fellow who used to be the bad guy's aide before he used more Aftershock than he should have. Wait, more? The manual implies he's not quite as brainwashed as an Aftershock user should be. I don't know if this contradiction is intentional or not.

These would make great reaction images.
Level 4 changes things up considerably. The black saucers now don't seem to die. I just can't get enough red balls before the boss completes his run, resulting in a loss. And apparently I do have limited lives...great. Not that it matters with the save system. Oh, and I figure out how to get to the weapon show, F1, because that was hidden further in the manual long past the controls to everything else. And when I get there my heart sinks. I don't have enough money to recharge my shield and get any kind of decent weapon.

I should explain. You can't move from side to side, so you're only way of fighting enemies is to fly behind them or stand still. You could do flybys, but that really depends on your ability to reacquire a target in a game which already has trouble doing that. So my strategy has just been to do what you shouldn't do in any other FPS, stand around and hope you kill them before they kill you. And it was working, it worked against most enemies that weren't the boss, which didn't matter much. Now if I try that with the boss I'm going to get slaughtered. I've also discovered what seems to be the reason why most of my navigational equipment is in the shop, because it can get broken. Guess we're in a libertarian utopia.

The issue with weapons runs fairly deep. With a shield recharge I can still upgrade my machine gun to the second tier...but that doesn't seem to be a noticeable upgrade. The other two weapons, a cannon and missiles, I cannot buy even the cheapest option. All weapons are just straight upgrades of the last, apparently. I can't help but think if you have the 28k necessary to buy the best missile you do not need the missile. Now, the third tier machine gun does work better, but I'd have to go to the shop twice, once so I'm not spending the whole time pointlessly shooting at things, twice so I don't die at the end. I have to restart the game at this point.

While I wasn't burning through money, I wasn't exactly saving either. I had 4k at the start of the fourth level, and playing again I mostly just managed to get 6k. This was the edge I needed to win, but it was hard fought, and I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up with this arms race. I got 2k after winning this level, but it's a stiff incline to the cannons and missiles.

Level 5 is deceptively easier, the number of red balls you need is now reasonable, but it's a tedious exercise getting them, enemies never seem to drop them now and never seem to be around anyway. I also discover flashing red saucers, no idea if they're special in any way; and the shop has thrust upgrades, 9 of them, each costing 1k. No idea why I'd want those since my speed so far is more than satisfactory. If I had an automated targeting system, or say, the ability to sidestep, yeah, then I'd buy that. But more speed?

Level 6 is misery. Twenty balls again, everything moves 100 MPH and doesn't stand still long enough for you to hit them. With the added bonus of a large water area, did I mention you die if you stand still in water for long enough? Or the silver balls that get dropped which kill you instantly. Now the game also throws at you enemies which are high or low, and I guess the idea is to shoot them with a certain weapon or from a certain distance. Otherwise you can't damage them. So, I decide to cheat, giving myself more money via a memory editor.

The thrusts don't do anything, but the missiles. Oh, the missiles. The missiles are glorious. At first they felt like a cheat code, because that homing aspect is just so useful in this game. It's not the I win button I initially thought, because somehow enemies aren't just crushed, and even with the best missile launcher in the game I had just enough time to win this particular section. I needed to rush to the shop, buy the weapon and a repair, shoot every enemy, making absolute sure to pick up every red ball, follow behind the hovercraft, since he also drops balls. And I only win this by chance.

Level 70. No, that's not a typo. The game broke. It wouldn't let me have a little bit of mercy, so it broke itself. How the hell changing money connects to the level number, I'm just left perplexed. Something tels me that despite seeming okay on the surface, the game doesn't have that great a codebase. It was stable though, despite appearances.

I like the ideas of the weapons more than how they work in practice. Machine gun for laying down basic fire, cannons for when you reach heavier targets, and missiles fire rarely. Missiles being a cheat code isn't idea, but with how the game works, is appreciated. 2/10

The enemies in this game come off as too smart. That combination of them being more agile than you, generally taking a ton of damage, and other variables I don't understand makes tracking them down a nightmare. If the game had a better difficulty curve, this would be perfect. 5/10


Each block of the city feels interesting, the design of them feel like the best cityscape that I've seen, chronologically. Their end result is tricky, because each level is in terms of enemies and item drops a highly evolving location that rapidly changes beyond geography several times over. Practically like an on-rails shooter, but with considerably more freedom. I would have liked it a lot more if I felt like I had just a little bit of freedom. 4/10

Player Agency:
In theory, the controls work well, mouse aiming, even if you can only move forward with the left mouse button. But it's all annoying, the function keys feel unnecessary when nothing below is used, menus don't work, the GUI takes a long time to get used to. 4/10


I kind of like the bright cyberpunk aesthetic they went for, but moving around in this game is headache inducing. 2/10

The sprites are nice, but the deformation going on in this game is just so awful for visibility. The 3D is fine, not great, but I've seen a lot worse. 3/10

Apparently the story shifted between platforms of the game, so it's just your token excuse plot. 1/10

One music track, no sound. It's weird, it's not a bad music track, but it doesn't fit. 2/10

That's 22. Or the fourth best FPS of 1990. It's interesting, but not a very good game when you get into it.

With that, 1990 is over. As I said back when I finished the '80s, the period of 1990-92 will have one best of list. Its actually funny, looking at these games. 1990 has some decent candidates for best, 1992 does too, but 1991 looks kind of dead. The games for the upcoming year are kind of...not great. Obviously we have the Id titles and Midwinter 2, which I'll be replaying, and then...uh...some Japanese games I guess. Most of the other titles are either really obscure or stuff I already covered and didn't care for.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Monuments of Mars (1990)

The only change between episode titles is the volume and episode name
Name:The Monuments of Mars
Developer:Scenario Developments
Genre:Side-Scroller Shooter
Time:2 hours 25 minutes
Won:Yes (65W/58L)

Monuments of Mars is another curious early Apogee title. Much like The Thor Trilogy, when the game was released is unclear. When the game was released for free, it was said to be from 1990, but everywhere else says 1991. People also say the game is called Monuments of Mars, but as far as I can tell the game itself uses The Monuments of Mars. Judging by the level of care everyone has put into the documenting of this game, I'm expecting something on the level of the last Apogee game. That said, browsing through the instructions and story options on the menu, there's a lot more put into the presentation of this game. I also love how there's a warning that this (CGA) game is too intensive for some CPUs.

So the story, such as it is, is that NASA has discovered structures on Mars, and all their attempts at exploring them have gone badly. You, THE LAST HOPE, are being sent in to see what happened to those that went before you. In addition to the Doom vibes this game gives off, I like the unintentional implication that NASA is pulling human wave tactics with this place. You're the last hope, but you also get unlimited lives. Maybe you just represent them sending more and more "last hopes" into the place, hoping someone will find something eventually.

Upon starting, I have to say, this actually looks good for a CGA game. Took a forgotten CGA title released after VGA came out, but hey, it had to happen sooner or later. This is a single platformer I might add, side-scroller is just what I tend to call every game with this perspective. Control-wise, the NUMPAD4 & 6 move, space jumps, the enter key activates whatever is nearby, and the left shift key shoots. All rebindable, but it works as is for me. My issue is that the combination of jumping and moving feels stiff. You have to jump up any slope. Shooting is fine, very Keen-ish in that you get small ammo pick-ups around the game. You get one shot on-screen and hitting anything hostile kills you.

You literally can't get a score as long as George has

While I was just starting the game, I noticed the score menu. I shot one alien is my score, although the real reason I got 2.5k is because I also advanced one screen. I like how there are references to other big shareware characters of the time. Guess Captain Comic was big then, even if Keen absolutely decimated everyone else. I find it amusing that Roger Wilco is number one, perhaps because of one interview I read not too long ago about how Wolfenstein 3D was nearly Sierra's game.

So after a few light levels we get the interior. Right away this game is more interesting than Thor, but I notice a certain someone made famous by another game. Yeah, that's one of the aliens from Keen. We also have floating robots and...the other alien. I saw a bit of it trying to get in, but it seems the focus here is on getting around enemies, that robot is basically useless as an enemy here. This introduces a couple of common elements, that thing under the Martian is a computer, which turns off the electric field. The square next to the other alien is a keycard, you can use that on the funny looking wall. Finally, that triangle on the right opens up access to the rest of the triangles and the gun bit. Perhaps I'm just starved for this kind of this, but I think the game works rather well.

Level 8 starts giving me some I Wanna Be the Guy flashes. You're spawned directly over spikes and you have to avoid falling on those. The path forward is walking behind that Martian and jump over him as soon as you can. Not easy with these controls. Or you could shoot him. Then climb up, shooting the robot and the other alien, at which point you jump into that pit and shoot the thing on the ground. At some point during this, some of the walls disappear. Walk through the lower hole and a pathway spawns to the card out.

It would all be least for a game released in 1985/86. In 1990, of course, its hard to argue with Keen, but there's a deeper issue than CGA/EGA. The controls and the way your location is calculated. The game does a whole bunch of weird trickery where you can get killed by something a floor above you or by a set of spikes you actually missed. The controls are not kind of stiff, they're very stiff. You get a very poor jump arc, about three tiles up and two tiles sideways, if you hit it right. This is more downward momentum than upward. You also stop dead and then fall down if you collect an item. Forget dropping down a hole, and turning around to hit something. It gets worse when the game starts adding in moveable crates.

This is partially down to the physics issues with the crates, and partially down to the game requiring you to be incredibly precise. By the thirteenth level or so the game turns into a series of actions you have to take or you have to restart the level. Let's take this one, level 15. If you push that block to the left, you've lost. If you fail to turn off the electrical field, you've lost, you need both cards. If you climb up to the upper left and fail to get the card, you can't get back there. And finally, this one's more of a trick, the computer at the bottom spawns some treasure items you can't actually use.

Level 19, this one's harder than it appears at first glance and easier than I thought it was. You dodge the first robot, and remove the points items you can against the second to obtain the first card. (shooting would remove precious shots and you don't know if you'll need them later) Then, shoot the third robot, turn off the top switch, and then carefully press the second one, possibly shooting the other alien and taking the second card. Now, with the platform on the left activated and the electric field disabled, you can shoot the robot and activate the final computer, so you can leave the level. (I assumed it was harder because I didn't realize the button did anything) Then, after shooting the final robot, you have to carefully jump over the spike pits. This is very obtuse why I assumed the electrical field on the left couldn't be disabled, you have just enough space to jump over those pits. And then restart because you realized that cards don't stack.

Level 20 is the final level of the first episode. Its still hard, but compared to the last one it's a lot better. The big issue is getting those blocks down in a manageable way so you don't get overwhelmed by the robots and the turret. The one three tiles from the top on the right side of the blocks. They've always been annoying things, but they aren't unmanagable until now. You destroy them by shooting a radar dish, in this case below it. After this, it's simple to deactivate the electric field and free the astronauts. The first part is over.

Episode 2 is called The Pyramid, because you enter a pyramid on the second screen. If you thought there was any chance of the game easing up, you'd be wrong. As soon as you enter the pyramid its pretty much the same think the last game ended on. But special shoutout to Level 7 for doing exactly what I Wanna Be the Guy would do, require you to figure out where to fall so you can get even play the level. Man, this game is cruel.
Level 9, another bizarre mess. At first it looks like you need to press both switches to get out, moving that crate up top onto the one on the right. But that's not it, no, the issue is that to get the card you need to push all four crates below it. Or I guess you could try perching one carefully over the level. Then there's that dripping pipe. Haven't brought them up before since they haven't been quite as annoying as this episode has had them. Basically every level so far has been centered around putting the player in a trap with them. There's only one droplet so you can detect when to go down, but its annoying hearing them drip constantly over a place it can't properly spawn.

Level 12 is interesting, not because of what you have to do. That's easy, activate both switches and open the door when the robot isn't heading there. No, what's tricky is what you need to do to get that ammo pack. On the last stage I had to burn through my last shots to advance, meaning that pack was necessary. Timing dropping the crate is a bit tricky, you need to have the robot on the right otherwise you'll have to waste a shot on him. But for once the game doesn't seem to treat my character as existing in multiple squares at once as I push that robot into the corner, that turret shooting at me all the while.

Just so you don't think all levels in this episode are some neverending nightmare, level 14 is something of breeze. It looks like its hard, but you can get through here without taking a shot easily, at least outside of the top fellow, didn't see much point in not taking him out. Yeah, even the ammo is easy enough. You just need to jump onto higher platforms whenever two are at the edge of the screen. (unfortunately, I didn't take a picture of the right levels between 12 and 18)

Level 17. After what amounts to a points level which you can skip without any penalty whatsoever, we have this annoying level. It looks simple enough, get past that alien on the ceiling, grab the ammo, shoot the top alien, then walk down to the buttons...which you can't reach. So I do what I always do in this game, walk over to any parts that seem like the game might activate something for walking over, in this case the top left. That removes all the X blocks on the left side. The thing about that is, it does this slowly and you can't do anything until its over. And that is a very thin hole to fall down into. It activates when you're just about to hit the right area, meaning you're over the field and its very easy to overcorrect and hit the left field. Worse still, when you reach the bottom, its possible for that alien to be under you and you can't shoot him until he's past the button on the right.

Level 18, oh, wow, I think. This is going to be a nightmare. Well, at least I don't need to worry about taking out these aliens. So I shoot the one on the right and then prepare myself for the worst, pushing the bottom crate out...and it comes out quite easily. I don't even need to take out the left alien. I...wasn't expecting that.

Level 19, astronaut level. I thought the commercial episodes had more levels? This feels very deceptive, what evil plot is lurking here? What you do is grab the card, shoot the alien and robots, and activate the computer. The astronauts are freed and the floor beneath the blocks disappears. The floor above the astronauts are still there, so you can just walk out to the final level. Which is just walking past some robots. Yeah, this game pulling some really evil levels just gives you three easy levels at the end of this episode.

Episode 3 is called The Fortress and starts exactly where the last episode left off. And outside of a tricky jump to get a pack of ammo and the first real level dropping you in an unwinnable situation if you don't have advance knowledge, is fairly simple. This strange mercy continues until level 9.

Once again, I didn't take a screenshot of the right level, so here's one of the really easy levels
Level 9 at first seems like some horrible puzzle you have to unfold, until through brutal force it becomes clear its just a test of reflexes. Really? After all this time you want to be a regular platformer? You've got to jump quickly up, making sure you can create a gap in the crates you can escape from. Then you just have to be quick on the draw against the robot. And then it just sort of goes by.
Yeah, this episode went by without much notable stuff happening. It all feels like this should have been episode 1 rather than episode 3. This encounter isn't as easy as episode 2's, but it still feels too easy for the final level. As the next level is one repeated at the beginning of episode 4.

Episode 4, The Face. Creepy. Continuing on the same track as episode 3, I just breeze by it. Glad I didn't try to stretch this game out to multiple entries. Its not that I dislike these levels, these feel far more like what the game should be trying to do, I just don't have anything interesting to say. What you see is what you get on many levels. Like even this, level 8. You have to shoot the alien, activate the computer and then the rest of the level falls into place easy, just a bit of tight squeeze falling into that corridor above the spikes.

Level 9, seriously, were the episodes mixed up somehow? When I saw the pillar of crates I assumed this would be some tricky level, but then the robot just topples them over for me. This absolutely should have been in the first episode. This feels like a subtle tutorial level, the game itself activates some part of the game world, now you know that's a thing. I look at this and I'm just left perplexed.

I somehow managed to take screenshots of all levels in Episode 4 except two I was talking about, wow
Then the follow-up, again this feels like the game introducing elements and how to defeat them. There's a radar dish all along and the turret is in a place where it'll never ever shoot at you. If they mixed up the episodes, this wouldn't be the last time. Halloween Harry got renamed into Alien Carnage, and the level order got changed around. Something I think really screwed it over, because you then got two episodes (out of four) without ever paying Apogee anything.

Because as I continue through here, I can't shake that feeling. Level 17 gives me some trouble, but again, its not because of any real difficulty as much as the game's controls not working as well as I'd like. Its not even that these levels are bad, I just found the harder ones to be more enjoyable. This engine doesn't have the ability to pull of a regular platformer.

And the game just ends, unceremoniously, with the player walking past a statue, without any answer or idea of what the heck just went on. Just a short paragraph saying I'm going to report back to NASA. Unmentioned, what the heck was going on with the aliens and the robots and this whole complex. It just happened. Why were they even captured if there's no other sign of it happening?

That was interesting. In some ways I think I liked this more than Keen, even if that's generally the more superior choice. Keen is more interesting to look at, has a more favorable intro episode, isn't brown, and has a more charming personality and atmosphere. This, meanwhile, just feels like it's about to break with every jump and every crate.

Despite this, Monuments feels like it was made by a better developer who was severely hampered by the poor quality of his tools. Difficult though it may be, the most is made of a limited and simple toolset, and I think the end result, while far from perfect, is an interesting product. It's just that the product doesn't compare very well on the fun action gameplay of other platformers.

Your standard weapon. 1/10

The "alive" enemies act more or less the same way even if the robot doesn't require any ground. Still, that combination plus the strange turret creates an interesting combination. 2/10


At worst, a collection of decent levels with some very bizarre difficulty spikes; at best, a clever game hampered by the limitations of it's engine. 7/10

Player Agency:
There are many, perplexing design issues with the way your character controls, but it's functional at least. 3/10

A considerable amount of environmental changes, but what you can actually do varies greatly from level to level. 3/10

A very strange aesthetic. A dark and very brown take on Mars, which does feel fitting. 2/10

Its nice for CGA. Different colors are used sparingly, I don't feel like my eyes are burning. Conversely, its not truly great. 2/10

I feel like despite having more story than The Thor Trilogy, what story there is has left me utterly perplexed and confused. Not great for a story that isn't very important. 0/10

PC speaker sound effects. They can get very annoying if something is supposed to be shot out of something and the place is blocked. 1/10

That's 21, or equal to the weakest of the original Keen trilogy.

The next title on this little tour of DOS shareware is the first from Epic, ZZT. Now that's one to watch out for.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Shadowcaster (PC-98,1994)

Publisher:Electronic Arts Victor
Developer:Raven Software
Time:7 hours 40 minutes
Won:Yes (63W/58L)

I said the last time that I played Shadowcaster that it would be the last time, unless I played the PC-98 version. Guess this really is the last time I play this game. I can't say I regret that. It's a good game, it just has some issues. Yeah, I played the game for under 8 hours, but counting time I just had the game running in the background, you could double that.

The game unceremoniously tosses you into combat, a bit of a theme.
If you're unfamiliar with the game, you can think of it as Ultima Underworld by way of the Wolfenstein 3D engine. You have a fancy save system like UUW, a map system that puts most used in Wolf source ports to shame, and a fancy control scheme. I don't really have anything bad to say about any of them. The controls are the kind of game where turning and moving is ideally done without the mouse, as that functions independently of the gameworld. Like UUW, its better than it sounds. I do note that when I played the CD version, that had a glitch with the save system that this didn't have. Bug added by the CD version, or bug fixed by the PC-98 version? Considering that the infamous glitch from UUW was only fixed in the CD version, not the various ports, I think the former.
The third and last time I used this guy.

The central concept of Shadowcaster, playing as one of the last members of a shapeshifting race, is interesting. Running around being able to change into different forms for different situations is interesting, its just that this combined with the RPG aspect of it is kind of awkward. Each form has its own experience and is implied to be its own character independent of the human one. The player has three metrics which are improved by increasing score/XP. Mana/power in the base, human form, health in all forms, and in one, the amount of time some relatively unimportant spells last.

This incentivizes you to use the human form as much as possible, to ensure you have the highest possible mana. While XP gotten in non-human forms transfers over a little to the human form, you don't get much out of it for most forms. Let's take the first form, the Maorin, a cat warrior. There is only one place you really get something out of him, and even that you can sort of just rush through. While he does do more damage, there's not really any reason to use him over the human form. Sure, its harder now, but later you'll really appreciate it when you have a ton of mana.

Meanwhile we have the Caun, an old-school elf or brownie-type. It is actual suicide to use this guy in melee, he's a pure special purpose form. Except most of his spells are useless. Hiding from enemies is pointless, stunning enemies is pointless, and reaching in the distance nearly so. You do not get anything from avoiding enemies. Instead the creature's only purpose is to cast healing and light spells, and jump over a few obstacles. This is also the only creature to actually get non-health advantage from XP, the strength of some spells increase as it levels up. You'd have to be dedicated to give it more than a few. You don't really get anything out of this, short of an increased length for its light spell.

Enemies can get stuck like this, and it absolutely is intentional.

Then the forms become useless or of limited utility as you get later forms. The Opsis is good for a little while, as it can fly and cast fireballs, iceballs and some other things you don't really need, its useless once you get the much faster Ssair, which only has a fireballs attack but can actually survive in melee. Nothing you'll fight at that point won't fall to one of its two attacks. The resistance each enemy has to various kinds of attacks does vary, but it doesn't come up much. Very few creatures have a high resistance to a combination of physical and whatever magical attacks you're likely to use. I had an issue last time trying to drive up as much XP to the base form as possible, which can only use physical attacks without items.

These red cloaked fellows absorb your health, making them one of the most dangerous enemies in the game.

Now, that said, combat isn't necessarily as straight-forward as I describe. Certainly, despite some forms having multiple physical attacks, you're going to focus on certain ones, at least before you get a sword, but I did find myself in some interesting fights. While you can blindly melee fight a good chunk of the fights, I found that some of the few sections that worked a fun reprieve from the more troublesome sections. I've been dividing things by physical and everything else, because that's more or less how it functions. Physical attacks don't cost any power, and even the physical ranged weapon, a shuriken, is infinite. Magical attacks either cost mana, on top of the usual maintenance cost for being in a different form, or are from items with a limited number of charges.

With the enemies you can't brute-force, you have an interesting variety of attacks. Obvious attacks usually come in the form of a special item you just got, like a silver sword against a werewolf, or the form you just got having special attacks that work against this section's enemies. If an enemy isn't swift enough, you can pelt them with the shuriken and avoid their attacks. Still, it feels somewhat underutilized. You don't really need to shift between a lot of forms if the terrain doesn't force you to.

Fighting a flying enemy with the shuriken, something I'm forced to do as I don't have a form with a ranged attack yet.

Moving back to not being able to brute-force, should you not have the option of a special attack or worse yet, run out of mana, you can run away. Its part and parcel of playing the game, unfortunately. Like most RPGs, you can heal when you're away from combat. As this is built on the Wolfenstein 3D engine, this works in strange ways. You just sit there and wait. No, no rest button. Yes, I do think the game should have had a rest button. Unless you're building a game around a lack of resting ability you should have one. You just wait some fifteen or so minutes every time you need to heal. I'd even be okay with it having an ungodly high amount chance of enemies spawning.

I'm torn as to whether or not this was a conscious design choice or one forced on them. There's a strict number of enemies throughout the game, for instance the base form can only just reach level 8, at least I think, I got to level 7 here, and the XP required increases quite a lot. Because there are no or very limited respawning enemies, you have to track all their positions as you sleep, in the Wolfenstein engine. Even just the alert ones would be annoying. I can see the design choice being that they thought was a cool idea, "you're always in danger", they think. Good luck, I'm hiding behind 7 doors.

Two of the items I have here could be ignored without any penalty whatsoever
And that leads into the game's items. I don't really think there's a good sense of how they should be paced out. I ended the game, me, an expert in the game supposedly, with quite a few more items than I needed. Health and mana items are a hard thing to get a sense of, because you can get to be very good at running away in this game. The only time they're truly needed is at the end of the game. Damage items aren't much better, because the enemies you want to use them against are bosses, who are introduced with little fanfare. Sometimes they even just look like every other enemy. And of course, using them too freely puts you in a bad place against the final boss.

This all gives the impression I don't like the game. I do, but it feels unfinished in the sense it feels like its missing something. Its not like a lot of games where it feels like they gave up near the end, rather, they managed it so it feels like some of the middle sections are lacking. The game basically has twice the running time it should have thanks to that regeneration system. Is that why it was added? It just feels like there could be more, more levels, more ways to take advantage of each characters forms. With games like Dungeon Master, Ultima Underworld and Pathways into Darkness, I know what it could be.

Fighting a lava monster as a dragon over lava, what could be easier?

This is in part because the game does some things very well. It didn't occur to me until this particular playthrough that Shadowcaster does something very rare for a first-person game of this era and technological limitations. Every section is unique. Not something you see in every dungeon crawler or FPS from the time. Quite the opposite. Even games that succeed at making levels interesting tend to look very samey. And to this day games can struggle with succeeding at this, both professional and indie titles.

A lot of the game feels just right, and its not necessarily an opinion I just got either, when I think back to my memories of my first proper playthrough, in many ways it felt well-balanced. Perhaps on the easy side in that you should be able to figure it out the first time you play through the game. I made fun of some of them, like a puzzle that consisted of a rope along with putting boulders on pressure plates, but it is hardly enough to put a damper on the experience.

An aspect of the game that works out surprisingly well is the game's visuals, specifically the fog. People tend to dislike anything that reduces visibility because we shouldn't have anything. Once again, I think this is an intentional choice, and it works. The thing about fog from a player perspective is that it only matters if it impacts you in a negative way. Like you can't shoot someone or you get shot at. Because Shadowcaster is primarily a melee game, that's not an issue. It does a lot for the game, causing some encounters to sneak up on you and improving the mood of the game.

This game does more than you would think at first glance. Its by no means a must-play, but I think the game does enough interesting things to make up for its short-comings. Others will probably be put off by the long resting times. It always comes back to that. Some things are good, some things are pretty good, but none of it ever truly makes up for that stupid little design choice.

Melee is satisfying, but its rules are unclear. Ranged combat is very interesting, as I mentioned the item issue. Using them has a sense of liberation about it. When you can finally attack enemies from a distance is a satisfying as other games ultimate weapons. 3/10

The AI is subtly clever. Its hard to see. Enemies run away if they're damaged enough, but continue attacking if cornered. If they chase after the player and lose sight of them, they actually chase after where they last saw them. Not that you'd ever see that most of the time. Otherwise there's some surprising variety here. Even though you can broadly categorize enemies into ranged and melee enemies, they feel different from each other. A werewolf fights differently than a skeleton or a wereboar. 5/10

Some simple non-hostiles in one of the stages. 0/10

Each section feels unique, but not always good. The castle section, despite having a very mazey part of it, did a good job in creating unique situations and encounters that this wasn't a problem. There's also the factor that some of the less good sections might be suffering only due to poor choice of the player's form. 7/10

Player Agency:
I've never found the right words to describe the Ultima Underworld style of controls, where you use the mouse as a sort of menu in addition to having normal-ish FPS controls. It works, but kind of strangely. You basically need three hands, one on the numpad, on resting in the middle, and one on the mouse. I like how the inventory itself works, especially right click to rapidly change items, but not how I might have to change between 3 forms to give an item to a form that needs it. Or how dropping items and picking them up in some forms is more annoying than doing this. Otherwise its fine, no real complaints about fighting or moving. 6/10

Interactions are mostly limited to using a few scenery objects along with the odd destroyable wall. 2/10

There's a very good sense of travelling through the disused ruins of a once great civilization. From the overgrown gardens to lonely, abandoned areas, the game keeps a nice, dark mood. 7/10

Everything looks nice; wall graphics, even the more generic designs, feel like they belong together. Enemy sprites, while limited, are well-drawn. 7/10

A simple story, told primarily through two cutscenes at the beginning and end. The CD version was better with multiple cutscenes, even if those didn't age well. 2/10

The sound effects are nice and punchy, though I wish enemies made alert noises. Musically, it sounds nice, but its not anything special. 5/10

That's 44. Up 2 points from the last time I played. The difference, surprisingly, isn't just that I gave the sound category more, most things have jumped around. No pity point for non-enemies, atmosphere and story were a bit over rated, and weapons, enemies and levels were a bit under rated. Were it not for the increase in sound I actually would have rated the game one point less.

I still recommend this, but I have to admit, this doesn't really appeal to anyone. RPG fans, even those hungering for an old-school dungeon crawler, won't like how it has a smattering of RPG elements. FPS fans aren't going to like it because its very unusual. Even if this game uses the same mechanics as PS2 era action-adventure games, I doubt fans of that era would care. Those interested in augmenting their Japanese learning with video games are not going to care for a western game they could already play, when Ultima Underworld is right there. But yeah, for the two people out there for whom this sounds interesting and don't mind dealing with the awkward healing, its worth it. But perhaps I'll be proven wrong whenever the CRPG Addict ever gets to this.

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Thor Trilogy (1990)

The closest thing these games have to a title screen
Name:The Thor Trilogy
Developer:Scenario Software
Genre:Top-Down Shooter
Time:1 hour 40 minutes
Won:Yes (64W/58L)

In 1993 we'll be seeing the first FPS released by Epic, back when they were known as Epic MegaGames, a game which in a cruel twist of fate would provide longtime rival Apogee/3D Realms their primary reason for existing past the 20th century. As such, and because Epic tended to rip-off Apogee's earlier titles, talking about the two together feels necessary.

So to talk about Ken's Labyrinth, we need to talk about Jill of the Jungle and ZZT. To talk about ZZT, we need to talk about Kroz. I haven't played Kroz. Ever, so I fired it up. Apparently my assumption that the two were related is based in folly. Kroz is more of an Lost Tomb style game, minus a gun and with highly limited whips, whereas ZZT is a shooter. On a personal level, Kroz confused me for the two minutes I played of it before realizing it wasn't for me. It doesn't help that the approach to sound in that game is less...sound and more BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

Checking a bit, I find myself here at The Thor Trilogy, quite possibly the most obscure Apogee release. I also didn't get this one back when I was adding in games to my list, but I did get a few Kroz games and Pharaoh's Tomb, games which don't actually fit what I consider to be shooters. Funny. This doesn't even seem to have had a shelf life, even compared to other early Apogee titles like Monument of Mars and Pharaoh's Tomb. I guess ZZT was inspired by this, but even if true, ZZT was a lot better.

The story is simple, you're in the caves of Thor, find treasure, get out. The arrows move, space the direction you last moved...A activates a potion, which destroys enemies around you. D pauses, and C saves. I'm also told the game is non-linear, which is interesting.
After a screen showing what everything in the game world is, the game begins. And I'm on a timer, my health slowly runs out. Lovely. It more or less throws you into the thick of it. Enemies approach, and there is only the one enemy, but sometimes they come out of spawners you can destroy. Speaking of shooting things, the controls are horrendous. Firstly, the movement is stiff, you have to hold down the arrow for a moment for your character to move. Be careful you don't run too fast or you'll outrun the screen. It's neat to see a scrolling screen for a few moments, before it turns into a liability.

Your shots are stiff and awkward to pull off, press the fire button and a shot will slowly move out. Hold it down and a shot will appear in front of you. Because you can only shoot one shot at a time. And don't forget that you shoot where you last moved, so factor in the stiff controls in aiming. This means that something simple in another game, like shooting a line of enemies slowly walking towards you turns into a terrifying situation. There is one small boon, if you outrun the screen enemies don't move. Good luck controlling that though.
I kind of see where the author was coming from, as this means the player can't just spam shots while also ensuring he isn't screwed if he shot in the wrong place.

You're not as defenseless as I imply. You have health, which you're given a fairly generous amount of and find more frequently in the form of trees/food. You can also pick up shield potions, which give you 50 shield points which don't count down. (it also protects against the lava I mention later) Enemies are also not really dangerous despite the limitations of the controls. Only when they refuse to come to you from some angled hallway. Yes, the AI in this game is so simple it ONLY goes straight to you, it won't walk to the side of a hallway even if it would in any other game.

Destructible walls are also a thing. Nothing really major, but its neat regardless. Question marks on the ground indicate mystery items, walk over it, you might get a potion, you might get an enemy spawner.

With that said, the game is kind of designed around these handicaps. Its fine. Which after a statement that everything else is either simplistic or bordering on broken isn't a great thing. Its your usual key and door game and the whole non-linear design doesn't actually do anything for the game. I'd say it makes it worse. There are these giant water rivers throughout some of the areas you have to go through, and they're just a pain to move. Each arrow automatically moves you in a certain direction, and while you can walk against the current, its annoying.

The other big environmental hazard is lava, it hurts when you walk over it, but mostly its just on the side. The only time its really something you have to work to avoid is this lava area. You can walk through diagonals so you can enter it, but its very tricky since the author set it up so its very difficult to make any ground without getting hit. This immediately leads to...

Since I didn't capture the creature itself, it looks like a fancy T
The weird monster spawner. Is this the dreaded Thor Beast the instructions warn me about? Yes, but it just spawns monsters and changes the music. While shots kept flying that seemed to hit me, that was more my imagination plus a combination of the floor's bouncing walls, which are very annoying. No, this just takes a ton of shots to take out. Its just there.
Eventually I end up on floor G, with two of the artifacts you see on the left side of the screen with nowhere to go. I wander up and down, for a while, before restarting. There was one area I didn't unlock previously that I couldn't see all of, but surely that wouldn't win me the game? It leads to another floor, and it has the final artifact. Kind of feels like what the game should be, a mix of terrain and situations rather than a focus on one situation at a time. This does mean that the artifacts are required, and that it's possible to make the game unwinnable.

Before I get to the second two episodes, I want to point out that the sound is kind of strange. Its all PC speaker, but there's something kind of charming from where I'm sitting. Its all classic pieces and they're, not that bad. Not enough for the whole game, obviously, but good enough that I had it on for longer than I normally would.

The second episode, Realms of Thor, adds food limits and something that confuses enemies. That's not helpful. That's actively making the game worse. Enemies are faster and spawn quicker, but its not yet worrisome. I've hit upon an awkward flow which means I generally don't die to this things. I was going to say the game is sort of exactly the same as the first episode, right down to the annoying water level.
But we have an annoying lava level. Walk over these bridges. You only get damaged by lava when you walk over it. Enemies are plentiful on the bridges, but they're not that much of a problem. The game seems to want to keep putting you back here with alarming frequency. Its fine, its not great, there's just not much to talk about. There are occasional interesting bits, but mostly its walking down boring corridors doing boring shooting.
As I continue through this episode, I find myself unsure of where to go next. Not because I've done everything, but because I've gotten lost. Its becoming increasingly clear that the non-linear nature of the game is actively hurting the game. A level that pushes the player around and expected the player to come back multiple times is probably going to be on my hitlist next time.
Finally, Revenge of Thor, now we have breakaways and "intelligent" enemies. Breakaways are breakaway paths over lava. Temporary paths. Great. What are intelligent enemies? I dunno, I didn't see any. In seriousness, these are enemies that actually run around corners. Surprising new technology. This feels weird, did the guy upgrade the game as he went along but never bothered fixing the original episode? Whatever, its not important.
This is the closest the game gets to actually being difficult, but its just because the game overwhelms you with enemies and enemy spawners. Sometimes you just cut through slowly, others you can dodge, some are in lava. It just feels so boring. There's tension, of course, but I never died. Its more tense dealing with the large number of lava areas you have to walk around. But even that you can deal with if you're clever in managing the breakaway paths. The biggest difficulty in finishing this game is avoiding boredom.
When I finally won the last episode, after having managed to find the final item by luck, I was relieved. This final episode is just maze upon maze. It doesn't help the game seemed to mysteriously slow down a lot more this episode. That was not fun, and its very understandable why this game is forgotten. Its got more than a few half-baked ideas, like the slowly draining health, an item that allows your shots to bounce off walls and the things the game says causes confusion in enemies. I never saw that last one affect anything. Removing/fixing them wouldn't really fix the basic problem this game has, and I don't think anything would.

An awkward to use gun along with an interesting potion attack which destroys enemies within a certain distance. I do feel like the game never knew what to give out for the potions, I had just enough in the first epiosde, but too many in the second and none in the third. 1/10

Generic dude and generic dude spawner. The Thor Beast, the closest thing to a boss this game has, was basically an annoying bullet sponge. 1/10


A lot of the game is incredibly boring. There are moments its just there and occasionally moments it shines, where you actually have to navigate around the lava. Its just, its not very interesting 90% of the time. 2/10

Player Agency:
Its very stiff, controlling the main character often feels like an exercise in futility. Going any distance accurately is basically impossible, but at least the game manages this by making enemies ignore the player so long as they're waiting for the screen to catch back up. 2/10

Simple wall destruction. 1/10

It did a good job at building a mysterious aura at first, before squandering it in endless tedium. 0/10

Simple ASCII. It isn't the most attractive, but everything is immensely clear. 2/10


The sound here is interesting. You have the standard PC speaker of course, but you also get music. It isn't annoying music, which I find surprisingly good, for longer than I normally would PC speaker sound. I also didn't think the lava sound effect had any weight to it. 2/10

That's 11.

This game really feels like it was someone's first game. I can see where the author tried to fill in the cracks of where the game had issues, but it feels like it was too little, too late when the game would have been better off being redesigned from scratch. Irrespective of whether or not ZZT did rip off an Apogee title, it certainly did it better.

This was developed by future Duke Nukem developer Todd Replogle, and I'm genuinely surprised. Because I remember liking his future work, at least Duke 2. We'll see how his next game, Monument of Mars, stacks up soon enough.

Sidenote, the 1990 Psygnosis game Infestation is proving to be troublesome to get running right. The DOS version works, but the Amiga version doesn't. Which wouldn't be a problem except the save system is one of the most awkward I've encountered and I can't seem to get it working in DOS, so its likely at this point that I'll end up skipping it. Its basically another game like The Colony, except with that Psygnosis touch and a decent framerate. And no, I can't use DOSbox-X's savestate system, that just crashes the game because of course it does. If I can't get it working right, I'm just going to skip it.