Sunday, April 30, 2023

Dark Ages (1991)

Name:Dark Ages
Developer:Scenario Developments
Genre:Side-Scroller Shooter
Time:2 hours 30 minutes
Won:Yes (68W/59L)

Dark Ages is one of the few Apogee titles I haven't really played before starting this blog. All I really know is that a long time ago they released this one as freeware and it was the last game Todd Replogle did before Duke Nukem. It's distinctly a side-scroller, but in this case I remember it being just PC Speaker sounds along with big player sprites and a somewhat ugly look to it. Imagine my shock when I fired it up, and while ugly, there is just an absolutely incredible Adlib tune playing. This is legitimately impressive. Like right away I can tell this is going to be one of my new favorite soundtracks.

For some reason this all looks considerably worse than in-game footage.

The story is, you're the prince of the land. The evil wizard, Garth, guess you're Welsh or English, sent you away to a peasant family so he could obtain power over your lands. He built an army of evil undead creatures to solidify his control. One thing he didn't predict was that the peasant you were to be raised by was once the greatest warrior in the kingdom, and taught you the ways of the sword and magic. Now go forth and save the kingdom.

The heart almost looks like a sci-fi gun at a distance, probably not what you want someone to say about it.

Yeah, you can see why Apogee wasn't too confident in continuing to sell this in 2009. You're offered a limited amount of customization, but the base setting is ctrl jumps and alt shoots. Arrows always move, with arrow up interacting with objects and the NPC. You only have one weapon at a time, which you just hammer the fire button for. I didn't realize this straight away, but the amount of shots you can have on-screen varies with however many green orbs you have. Enemies have varying health. Jumping works like you'd expect from a decent platformer, hold it down longer and you go higher, with the shortest tap giving about 2 tiles. Finally, to restore health, you need to get varying amounts of coins. I chose medium, so I had to get 20 to restore a health point. There's no reason to do this, just choose easy, you regain health at 10 coins.

Movement is interesting, because despite seeming a lot more like a free platformer, that is, one where you aren't tied into tiles, this is actually something of a tile platformer. For instance, you can't turn in the direction of a wall you're pressed against, and when aiming for distance, you jump while both feet are still firmly on a tile. There is no scrolling up and down, it's just a side-scroller.

To restart a level you have to press escape and then restore, depending on the level save first. It's very obtuse.

Soon after I fall down a hole and die. This is a terrible introduction to it, for two reasons. Firstly, I barely went anyway. Secondly, dying on the first screen doesn't tell you that the game has a weird continue system. You save at the start of each level, naturally, but you can save at any time and when you die for some reason. This merely records the state you were in when you entered the section you are in, noted by a change in music and a wall forming behind you.

Here, enemies have mostly the same abilities. They walk, turning around on encountering a wall or possibly just a ledge, and repeat endlessly. Their momentum isn't carried off-screen but their position is. It's more about avoiding them and dealing with seeing things over the tall grass. The primary enemies are birds and giant spiders. Despite their smallness and the inability to crotch, there's no difficulty in hitting them. Considering that even if this isn't basically the second major DOS platform shooter, we're still early on and someone already knew that there were going to be problems with that kind of crap. The same can't necessarily be said for NES platformers.

On each level, you need to get an item to give to this old man. Then he opens the door out. That's basically each level. It's an unusual package straight from the get-go. Nice EGA tiles and excellent music underscored by a comically bad-looking hero.

These guys have a weird aura to them, much more interesting than what they actually are.
Level 2 is an underworld level, with all the usual hazards, collapsible blocks, spikes, falling spikes, dripping acid, lava and secret passages. Not a lot of secret passages, and more often than not they're fairly obvious. Webs in the corners which damage you...for some reason. We have these tall dudes who stand still if you aren't either horizontal or vertical to them. And there are falling boulders, which function like other enemies, except they fall off ledges. You can and probably should shoot them if you can. Adds a bit of variety to things, but it's all still pretty basic. Despite being somewhat nonlinear, it's not nonlinear enough to be all that interesting.
There's not really a good way to figure out which tiles you can walk through and which are blocking until you move into them.

The game demonstrates some level of interactivity on level 3, shoot a switch on the wall to open a door. It has potential, will it pay off? There are signs of genius under the surface. For instance most levels have had a switch in the music track midway through, sometimes multiple ones. Whenever the track ends though, that's just the end of the music for now.

Level 4 only has one interesting element, beyond requiring you to pay a lot more attention to the grass, hands which come out of the ground. If they touch you while they're fully extended, you're stuck until you jump. It's only on level 5 that this becomes some kind of challenge, as they're in places you're likely to be now. More annoying are the witches heads, they pop out of the ground, stay there, and shoot you, you can only shoot them while the head is shooting or about to shoot you. Now the game isn't playing around.

There are also several fun new things I discover. There are water spouts through the second half of the level. I would think, based on past experience with these kinds of things, that walking into them wouldn't hurt, but apparently it does. This game is going to be damned if it isn't going to extract it's pound of flesh. The training wheels are off.

Level 6 demonstrates this quite finely, throwing as many birds as it can to start off with, and after a while, followed by a tightly, but not impossibly packed together set of skeleton hands. Hearts are rare, the game says, before giving me one on each level in a row. You need it too, because I died on this level twice before getting to it. There's a new enemy, which jumps up from the ground, dive bombs in your general direction, and dies. It doesn't seem like you can shoot it, instead you have to dodge it. The game's first demonstration of this seems to be intentionally pathetic, just to show you this thing exists.

This level is just brutal, even though it gives the player a new weapon, which replaces the old one, and I have four green balls, it's brutal. So much platforming over collapsing blocks, so much precision in jumping over pits. Just look at this example. I have to time this so I jump over the water spout, in-between the dripping acid and the hand popping out. Oh, and there are two of the bird enemies over there. I don't think you can get past here without losing health. There are three episodes and this isn't that far in, I think. What does the game have next? For now, another replacement weapon, this one shoots a constant stream of lightning from the player. In practice, more rapid-fire than the previous weapons, not requiring taps from the fire key. Not that it helps me much.
Everything written here is true.

The game really expects you to constantly make death defying leaps and avoiding these hazards in-between. There are harder games, but this is brutal enough. I do figure out that new weapons aren't tied into random, but hidden, power-ups as much as it seems like jumping in the middle of a statue changes your weapon. I eventually make it past the final obstacle, collapsible blocks next to the water spouts, and I reach a scroll. That was the end of the episode. That seems short, perhaps I misplaced a level number? But for a final level that was very fitting, and it did last quite a while. I note there was no boss battle. Is this a trend that will continue?

You can't just jump across that gap, you need to drop down and shoot the guy on the bottom; you have just enough time to do that.

The first level of episode 2 is positively quaint in comparison. The primary source of difficulty are the weird-moving dudes and all sorts of enemies preventing you from jumping where you should jump. I'd say this wasn't hard if I didn't somehow manage to die twice. The big problem is that after an episode of having at least 2 shots on-screen at once, getting reused to one shot is difficult. I'm very grateful when the game gives me a green ball. This is a very long level and there aren't that many gold coins here. There is a heart, but it's only obtained through some difficult platforming.

It burns, it burns...

After finally getting an item and passing through a door...the scenery changes to almost exactly like it was before except there's a waterfall. Is this still the same level? I know one thing for certain, this is a painful level to play, because those are waterfall tiles, white and blue animated in the most eye-searing way possible. The trick here, outside of having an intense experience merely because I'm desperate for coins and health, is that you have to go to the right first, then go to the left. It's a one-way trip and if the old man at the start hasn't opened the door you're really screwed.

These guys only pop up if your within their firing range, but they don't fire right away, so in places like this, they're not too troublesome.

The next level is "merely" a series of events designed to trip you up. Either you can advance slowly, being prepared to run away instantly, or just memorize everything. It's very tense when everything kills you, but thankfully there's a heart in a side area, very difficult to get, but ever so useful. On the second part of the level, there's an interesting series of tree pillars. This doesn't quite work how you'd think, there's a distinct "top" piece to the trees, which you can step on, and enemy birds bounce off of. Here, sometimes it's at the top, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes there is no top.

It starts throwing a lot of nasty stuff towards the end. Like a series of pillars with the skeleton hands. This episode has been nice about collapsible blocks, so far, but now it's throwing it into the equation. Like with blocks over a pit of spiders or a single one placed precariously as a jumping point over a bottomless pit, where there's acid at the end. And that's also the end of this episode. I guess that means level ends are the music transition points? Huh. That was really short. I am going to see a boss in this game, right?

Episode 3 doesn't screw around. First, two hidden paths, one which doesn't lead forward and one that does. It's not that hard to figure out, but it's an interesting sign of the future. Then collapsible blocks galore, one alone with no path forward until you step on it, then a pillar of blocks, which seemingly leads to nothing, but is a level transition. Then a lovely floor of them, along with a horde of bats. It's easier than 2 since it gives you a green ball soon enough, but it's still difficult. It's not a fair difficulty, often you have to be able to both predict that something is going to happen and perform some kind of impossible dodge.

Like here, about level 5. You have to make a jump of the tiniest power to get over that acid, while there's a spike above you that hurts you, and even if you manage to do that, you still need to watch out for the acid dropping and the skeleton hands. Think that's precise enough? This one loves putting spikes above skeleton hands, which is something I've been instinctively jumping over. The game is trying to play you against yourself. I'd be impressed if I wasn't mad right now.
I think this is too easy, stick some acid pipes here too!
The level after that is quite brutal, primarily because I'm down to a silver of health. I wouldn't appreciate this first section if I had everything though. Just drop a boulder on the player the second they walk through the door. Then just shoot a lot of spiders. I still only have 2 green balls, and now I have the boomerang attack, which depending on the situation is either a slight reach advantage or a speed penalty, because you have to wait for missed shots to return to you. But the exit isn't that far, in fact very shortly after. The level still continues, which makes me certain I should go through the rest of it.

Make no mistake, the game is going to penalize you for doing this. First you get a series of jumps over crumbling blocks, over them, as there is still solid ground. Watch out for the hands and spiders! Then you have this! Just walk over some falling blocks over acid and under dripping acid. Oh, and at the end there's one of the witch heads, you can walk past those without getting hurt, but come on! You get a heart out of this and nothing else. It's enough of a reward, but it's a sad reward.

The next one, another gotcha. There's even a skeletal hand where you start this level. I'm really starting to dislike these levels where the developer pulls a gotcha like this and I never liked them to begin with. It's a relatively subdued level otherwise, at least as subdued as a level where you have to deal with a wall of bats and death-defying leaps can be. It's just not special at this point. Especially not that the game gave me another green ball.

The next level isn't so bad, but has a lot of single pillars you have to jump off half your jump distance, then return so you don't get hit by a bat. I hate it. It also demonstrates why this game isn't so good as the simple run and gunning of other games, it's boring here.

I feel like I can hear someone back in 1990 say "Let's see them get out of this one!" before laughing. I guess to avoid this you shoot the monsters, then jump up before the boulder can hit you, but this is some pretty precise stuff for a level introduction. You can't really rush off the right because those are the falling spikes...and there are enemies over there, of course. It's just a standard hallway, full of spikes and monsters. Not too difficult, practically a tutorial level with how this game has been going. At the end is a heart, and a lightning pedestal that gives me 16 green balls.
Just casually hanging around down here, not really doing anything...

After I try continuing onward fruitlessly for a while, I check a let's play. Turns out I missed the boss. Because he just sort of hangs out at the bottom of this pit, which is not an acid pit, it just has dripping pipes and a ton of spiders. Those really, are the big threat here...considering I missed the boss the first time. He just sits there and takes it. That's the end of the game. I have to admit, I was expecting either the game to not have a boss or for the boss to be an actual threat...not a dude who just stands there and eats lightning until he dies. But I guess considering how hard most of the game is, there's no reason why the boss wouldn't be like this.

Basically just a race to get a lightning bolt. There's a wise situation to use either advanced weapon, I just wish you had to option of changing it. 2/10

Enemies have technically improved since Monuments of Mars, but only just. You've still got the basic enemies who move left and right depending on certain rules, along with a few wild cards, and then some enemies who function more like obstacles. It's not bad, but it's not very noteworthy. 3/10

Not really any, as even the old men you have to give objects to turn into hostile, and indestructible, bats, after being given a key. 0/10

This is definitely something that'll be compared to in the future, for both good and ill. It leans very hard on the platformer aspect, to the detrimet of everything else, but take away the gotchas at the start of some levels, play it on easy, and you have yourself a very hard, but solid platformer. But with that, and the myriad parts where you have to be precise as heck, jump halfway off the screen and back so you don't get hurt, it's worse than it should be. 6/10

Player Agency:
It mostly works like a regular platformer. You can't crouch, though I'm sure the game would find some way to make that annoying. Instead your shots are sort of in-between the two tiles your character is on. They put in a lot of little bits like that to ensure the shooting wouldn't be some nightmare. I am annoyed by how you can't turn into a wall though. 5/10

You can shoot some switches. It's more busywork than anything else. 0/10

For a game about killing the undead hordes of an evil wizard, this just feels like a generic '80s fantasy film. I don't mind that, I just feel the story, such as it is, is at odds with the game. 3/10

The background tiles are okay, as are the enemies, but the PC just looks ugly. They even go as far as to include a sprite for changing direction, as if that was what this was missing! 3/10

Basically ignorable. 0/10

I genuinely think the music in this game is amazing, even if the game feels a bit too long for the amount it has. I'm not even sure there's a commercial game with better music at this point in time. It's just that the sound effects feel outright amateurish in comparison. How do you have music this great and sounds that are...not? 6/10

That's 28.

It's got some good points, but it just has a bit too much working against it. It feels basic, not so much so that it's limited by technology as much as just a very simple game. Realizing this, and that the game is very short, Teplogle tried to work make what little he had here work extremely well. I think it works in that regard, but this mostly just feels like a historical curiosity as the first proper Apogee side-scroller.
I note that Blum is credited as the artist, who would also go onto doing Duke, but according to bits and pieces on the internet, someone at Softdisk also worked on the sprites for this game. It might be Id, I didn't find a specific answer. If it is, I can't tell what. The PC seems like the work of William Fisher (of Last Half of Darkness fame) while everything else doesn't seem too tied into a style I recognize.

The next title in my little side mission of Apogee and Epic shooters is Duke Nukem. Which is another one I haven't played, but I do have some idea of how that one goes. Will Todd Replogle continue his surprising growth in quality or will the game buck the trend?

No comments:

Post a Comment