Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Commander Keen in Keen Dreams (1991)

Name:Commander Keen in Keen Dreams
Genre:Side-Scroller Shooter
Time:1 hour 5 minutes
Won:Yes (70W/60L)

Keen Dreams is the weird entry in the series. It doesn't obey most of the rules and conventions of the series. Instead of some small scale space opera Saturday morning cartoon, Keen Dreams is a fever dream. It also represents one of the last games Id made for Softdisk, making it one of the two titles to not be published by Apogee. This is because Id technically made the original trilogy using Softdisk's resources, and this was one of the ways Id paid back that debt. Id took this time to build up what would become the general design for the second trilogy...with a few alterations, of course.

Wait, rubber cement? That sounds like a bad material to make your spaceship out of...

Taking place after the first trilogy, Keen has defeated The Grand Intellect and now is facing his worst mission yet; his mother's mashed potatoes. Yeah, he and his mother are arguing about this, and he's sent to his room. The takeaway is supposed to be "Keen hates vegetables", but I'm really just getting from this "Mrs. Blaze can't make mashed potatoes". In my experience potatoes don't really fall under the same umbrella as broccoli. The kind of people who hate mashed potatoes are not the kind of people who hate broccoli.

As he falls asleep, he's brought into a strange world with sentient potatoes, wielding spears and wearing helmets. They say he's now a slave of King Boobus Tuber and he fries them with his Vorticon Hyperpistol. Then a young boy rushes up and says asks Keen to save all the children kidnapped by King Tuber. Keen accepts and the nightmare begins. It's a strange premise, which, if the story of the series mattered much, would leave many questions.

Using flower power against a tator trooper.

Dreams's premise is thus very simple, kill King Boobus Tuber. How do you do that? Find some bombs, as many as you can. You're going to need it, because Keen's regular weapon is a weak and ineffective arcing weapon, called Flower Power, each shot transforms whatever it hits into a flower for a few seconds before turning back. This doesn't work like a typical blaster either, the flower power flies in an arc, bouncing off any walls and after landing remains wherever it landed for a few seconds before disappearing. This, combined with the strange designs of the enemies makes the whole thing a fever dream.

Outside of the first level the game is very nonlinear, you could go directly to the boss were it not for that little snag involving the bombs. Can't enter his chamber until you have 12. What makes all this weird is that because not all levels have the bombs, some places feel quite unnecessary.

Keen mostly controls well. Being used to the later 3 Keens instead of this one is kind of ruining the game. This basically plays like those would, except instead of having a pogo stick, Keen just throws the flower power. It's a bit awkward playing a Keen game without a pogo stick, especially after the awfulness that was Dynowarz. Keen's jumping feels...wrong somehow. So the biggest improvement is now Keen can shoot up, which I wouldn't have thought to do if I didn't get incredibly frustrated in The Melon Mines. And for the first time, the game now allows you to save mid-level. This is much appreciated as the game goes on.

Keen also gains the ability to go up and down poles. Down is faster than up, but you can speed things along by rapidly jumping and holding up. This was told to you in the manual of Keen 4, so it's hardly a secret, but it's not explained anywhere in this game. You can also shoot up and down. There are now keys, generic keys. All in all, the controls aren't terrible, but still feels somewhat alien to the later games. It's not primitive like the originals, just strange.

There are a few other strange pieces of the game. For instance, there's now Adlib sound, but no music. This, and I suspect an issue I have with Catacomb 3D, is that Softdisk has a strict size limit, one floppy disk or about 640k kb. This explains the rather small size of the game along with that. One little fun fact about this is that were Id's plans successful, there would be an actual song with lyrics. Just an ode telling Keen to eat his vegetables, but interesting nonetheless for the sheer balls it would take to do something like that on a floppy disk. Then we have the menus, which are strange and something I can't say I've seen before or since. It practically feels like some bizarre OS GUI.

The enemies are where this whole fever dream thing come full force, because most look like some sort of demon tormenting a child about his vegetables. They feel unsettling, perhaps that's just memories from what I played it as a child. I'm surprised nobody tried to write some mediocre creepypasta about these guys, it feels like the kind of thing that would inspire someone with more time than sense. Hey, someone wrote a creepypasta about Skittles for some strange reason!

  • Carrot Courier, these guys run around and jump over gaps and ledges. They don't harm you themselves, just pushing you around, but where they're running, there's sure to be a pit around.
  • Tator Troopers, slow ground enemies. They remain rooted on whatever piece of land they're on, walking towards you whenever they see you, and trying to stab you with their spear. Alone, not very troublesome, in numbers, good luck.
  • Melon Lips, they spit, what I guess is supposed to be seeds. Basically turrets, which normally I would have no issue with, except the aforementioned mechanics makes dealing with these guys annoying. You can't hurt them, but they always seem to be in an unshootable place anyway. I don't care for melons, myself, but I question why they're here in a game about vegetables. Not like they ran out of them, you still have brussel sprouts, turnips and bell peppers as members of vegetables people hate.
  • Tomatooths, jumping crazies. They jump around, trying to get you. Remember how I said your weapon arcs? It's not terribly annoying with the more ground based forces, but against these guys? Good luck.
  • Brocolash, like the Tator Troopers, but slightly faster. Instead of attacking you with a spear, they try to whack you with their head. Guess they're krogan brocolli...
  • Apels, these guys can climb up and down the poles. Not left and right, but this is the sort of thing that just doesn't happen. They're hostile, but because there's not much point in placing them somewhere poles are not, fairly obvious to spot and avoid.
  • Asparagusto, these guys just run. Because of the short screen view, unless you already know where one is, it's easy to get jumped.
  • Frenchy, french fries, these guys walk around and shoot at you. I might add these guys have the same reach you do, meaning you better come at them mostly level or you've had it. You know, come to think of it, why are french fries the villains in this game? What, does Mrs. Blaze suck at making french fries too?
  • Squasher, weird things, they don't leave the ground until they're sure they can jump onto you. They're not unbeatable, but they're much more cleverer than the rest of the enemies.
  • Sour Grapes, crushers, walk a certain distance from them and they fall down, before going back up. I find it amusing that in a game full of creepy enemy designs, the enemy grapes have nothing on the background grapes. What gives, Id? Also unhurtable.
  • Pea Pods, which are so rare I did not encounter the one that exists. Apparently it shoots little creatures at you, but is itself harmless.

In general the level design here really reminds me of Shadow Knights. There are a lot of levels here that are either outdoors and involve climbing up cliffs or inside a stone interior. It's not bad, but it really feels like the nadir of the team's not strictly block based games. I'm guessing what happened was this wasn't just both the testing ground for the general concept of the next Keen trilogy, but the entire game was some sort of test on what didn't quite work.

The Melon Mines are an interesting level. This is possibly the first level you'll play after the intro, at least space-wise. On the surface, it's a fairly easy level, albeit with some out of the way treasure, but this level has two trickier factors in it. The first, there are bombs here, and they're buried deep. You have to make a jump onto a moving minecart lest Keen lands on radioactive railings. This is followed by a wide hallway full of platforms, the blocking kind. Oh, and there are a ton of those tomato enemies. Which, in this tight space is kind of an annoying thing to deal with.

Spud City is a weird one. This was the first level I encountered the french fry enemies with any real frequency, and the game doesn't let up when it comes to these guys. I swear every single time these guys come up here it's done in such a way that you have no way to attack before Keen is already dead. It's a long walk, frought with these things. And that's to get to the end of the level. To get the bombs, you need to climb up one particular flying insect that looks different than the others, then do perilous platforming above the area you probably narrowly made it through.

Rhubarb Rapids, I would be remiss in not talking about one of the more annoying bomb locations. Outside of being one of those outdoor levels with waterfalls and precarious cliffs to jump on, apparently Id loved this kind of level, it's not bad. If you just walk to the exit. There's a Squasher to avoid, but that's not much trouble. But if you want those bombs, you have to jump down a cliff to get a key and then return through a jump you can just barely make. No wonder little Morpheus never had the patience to beat this game, platforming hell in addition to annoying combat. Then it's a labyrinth where you better have figured out you can shoot on poles or you're going to have an exceptionally bad time.

These things practically look like they're about to say, "Who, me?"
Grape Grove, full of sour grapes. This is one of those annoying levels. The grapes come in pairs, which you think would be difficult, but it feels more like padding. Depending on the height, it might not even be a problem, you can just walk past. When you're forced to exploit the ability of the grapes to drop, however, is when things get tedious. Because you have to be ever very close to getting hit by the grape or actually in danger of being hit. So when there are two you have to activate the first one, rush past it as it climbs back up, then activate the second. Did I mention these make a crying sound each time they activate? Thankfully the bombs on this level are basically just above the exit.

Squash Swamp. No, I didn't edit that screenshot. The game really does that to you. This level wouldn't be worth talking about if it weren't for that, on account of how mundane it is afterwards. Even the bombs are just guarded by two asparagus you can figure out are there quite easily. Then you just sort of walk over to the exit.

Interesting, that gargoyle there is an appearing and disappearing platform, something I don't think I've talked about in a game before, sadly, it's not very important here.

With that, I completed all the levels except the final castle. Which is divided into two parts. The first is a large tower climb. It's pretty good, but I do have to complain that despite seeming non-linear, you have to go pretty much over the entire map, some parts twice, because you need two keys, the only such level in the game, and one of those keys is above a steep drop to the start of the level. Hope you didn't box in all the tators there on the first floor. You better not forget both of those keys too, because the exit path is just brutal.

Eyes like an old potato grows roots, apparently.

The King himself is a terrifying creature who is capable of great leaps, chasing you all across the final level. You could be in for a truly horrifying fight, or you could just spam bombs at him when he first enters the room because you can actually do that. Assuming you have enough bombs to do that. Despite finishing all the levels I somehow only had 18, guess some levels had 6 bombs as opposed to only 3. This is the only level you can use the bombs, so no being clever and using one on a particularly annoying enemy.

I find the end of this paragraph funny, if you die or wait around long enough, Keen falls asleep anyway, such a bizarre thing.

Continuing what I said earlier, Keen Dreams feels weird and low-effort. I don't necessarily think the game is quite bad, but I struggle to think of a way to improve it without radically changing what it is. On one hand this is a fever dream in which psychotic vegetables try to kill Keen. On the other, it's a bog standard platformer with a few neat levels.

I find the difficulty curious, because outside of the gotchas the game is really quite subdued. It's either putting things to 10 or being quite standard. It's just enough to make completing the game something of an accomplishment, but not difficult for that to really make the game harder to play through than a little over an hour, apparently.

I dislike the flower power weapon on every level, from how it's aimed to how it functions to the stupid looking thing it turns enemies into. The bombs aren't too dissimilar, beyond that whole killing the final boss thing. 0/10

The variety is nice, but it feels like more than a few are just slight variations on each other. 4/10


Ups and downs aside, it works. Beneath the recycled Shadow Knights sections, I can see the Keen I really loved beneath the surface, waiting to bubble up. And even then, recycled Shadow Knights isn't the worst design choice in the world. 5/10

Player Agency:
Despite the weirdness of the not quite Keen control scheme, I mostly like this. My biggest issue is that I couldn't look down. I don't know if that's because of my keyboard not quite translating to Dosbox these days or if the game genuinely lacks one. I particularly like how I can shoot up and down, an oasis in a desert of games that don't let you do that. 6/10

Doors, I guess. 1/10

This game is weird, befitting a game with dream in the title. I'm guessing this all is Adrian Carmack expressing his disgust at working on Keen as best he can, which would have worked if the game wasn't so subdued the rest of the time. 4/10

It looks nice, but sometimes the backgrounds are extremely low effort. Ah, just green blocking my path, or endless stones that look the same behind Keen. I could have sworn some of these textures were reused in other Id games, either before or after. 5/10

It works, fever dreams are weird. 1/10

Decent, but not notable. 2/10

That's 28.

Somehow that's higher than the original trilogy. I guess that's right, but whereas the first three are an awkward attempt at trying to make a genre work on PC, Keen Dreams is just broken in places it shouldn't be broken. I guess the awkward weapon doesn't truly negate what Dreams does right.

The next game may not be covered for a little bit. I've got some personal issues going on which consume more than the usual amount of spare time and these issues affect how well I can write the rest of the time. It hasn't been a very pleasant month and this one doesn't look to be much better. I may just try to get to the end of Star Fighter 3000, which I already have some idea of how I'm going to talk about, and all that really remains is to play some of it. I want to do something for the fifth anniversary of this blog. Failing that, I think it might be interesting to jump ahead a bit and play the mod based off the unproduced sequel to this game, Commander Keen Meets the Meats.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Dynowarz (1990)

Name:Dynowarz - Destruction of Spondylus
Developer:Advance Communication Company
Genre:Side-Scrolling Shooter
Time:1 hour 40 minutes
Won:Yes (69W/60L)

Power Rangers is something a lot of people are familiar with, thanks to basically being a mainstay of children's TV since the '90s. Not as many people are familiar with the series it was based off of, Super Sentai, or the other series in the same vein, like Kamen Rider. The entire genre is called tokusatsu, at least to its western fans, inside Japan basically describes any sort of special effects driven work, from those shows to Lord of the Rings to Star Trek. Like everything else, it has its share of unrelated but clearly inspired by something more famous.

I bring this up, because this feels like something that should have been a license of something. It feels like a cheapo licensed game for some forgotten tokusatsu show that never made its way outside of Japan. Instead, it's original, and it was only released in North America according to every bit of info I can find. So, why the hell does a game released before Power Rangers hit the States feel like it's ripping that off? And make no mistake, I bring up the whole licensed game information because this is a game that plays like every mediocre licensed title you've ever seen.

The game just throws you into it after the title screen. No intro, no explanation, no nothing. Just you in a room full of spikes and two floating dudes. The D-pad moves left and right, along with a crouch function. This isn't the most necessary function, as the game is kind enough to give you three shots from your gun, one straight ahead, and one diagonally up and down. It is slightly difficult to hit things. Jumping is delayed, but your guy has some reach, half the screen up, but much less side to side. And you'll need it, because those platforms go up and down. It's hard to reach those, you can go through them, but not to worry, the spikes aren't lethal, they just hurt a little bit. I don't think I ever managed to get past these without falling. A sign of things to come.

This first stage is very easy in terms in enemies, you just get these floating snake things. They don't shoot you, they just float around. They're really easy, they die in one hit, whereas you have considerable health reserves. Sometimes they drop items, like energy tanks. It's more dangerous picking it up off the spikes than it is actually getting one. What is worrying is that you can only have one set of shots on-screen at once.

After an insultingly short time, the masked hero approaches his mecha, a giant dinosaur. The screen shows a fancy, well-done background, triumphant music plays. This is going to...

...suck. The dinosaur stage here is an incredibly simple left-to-right situation which is just a general platformer. You start off with a fist, which sounds like it might be troublesome, but most enemies only hurt you when they touch you, the biggest enemy are the pits. The dino has a worse jump, which hurts most horizontally. Even ranged enemies don't do much damage. They're all dinosaurs, some have the aforementioned ranged ability, others take multiple hits. Sometimes they drop weapons.

First, you get fireballs, these are useful, but you can only have on-screen at once. Then there's the throwing fist, it's basically a boomerang and it sucks. There is no way around it, it sucks. It doesn't go all the way to the edge of the screen, it's slow and it has the most bizarre arc I've ever seen. You get upgrades for these, but it takes a while to get another power-up, and if you get a different weapon power-up, it's back to the first level. Upgraded, the throwing fist is tolerable.

Of course, the game is designed around screwing you over by forcing you to take an power-up dropped in an ill-killed enemy's place. Remember, you basically have no horizontal ability here, it's a sharp drop from the top. Let's take this part of the level. That little blue area is a landmine, step on it and you get knocked back, into the pit. Seemingly, because the game has no real challenge from the enemies it tries to do hostile level design...and I'm grateful it's failing.

We soon have the pterodactyl, something I thought was a boss at first. It starts in the sky and swoops down. Then it just sort of flies back and forth. It's annoying because you can't hit it standing up with the throwing fist, and if you crouch it hurts you anyway. What's the point then? I'm just fighting an enemy in a way the game makes intentionally awkward.

Afterwards there's a weapon that would have been useful against the pterodactyl, and nothing else, the bomb. The bomb is basically a grenade that launches up at a high angle, then has a horizontal travel somewhat better than the player, and then misses whatever you were aiming at. 99 out of 100 times, this weapon is next to useless. No one would willingly use this weapon if they had a choice in the matter, it's truly awful.

It's okay-ish against the boss. Not ideal, but he moves slow enough that I'm not crippled here. You're basically in the same situation no matter what weapon you use, you hurt the boss, he walks faster, you get hurt. You can't jump over him, not enough height let alone distance. He has a low enough health that it isn't too troublesome beating him though. This leads into another human section, still on the first stage though.

Now there are turrets, which is fine at first, except they take more damage, and the game is already throwing them in awkward places to shoot. Look at this crap. You don't get knocked back if you're on ground or a platform, but you need to jump to hit either of those, and it's just as annoying as it sounds. I did get a power-up for my gun, but all that did was increase the amount of shots I could have on-screen to two.

Apparently I was in an invincibility frame here.

Then, there's the boss. Mama Head, no doubt. Why does this feel like it's trying to crib from Metroid? It feels bizarre, and they're stealing the least important aspect of it anyway. The boss is fairly easy, just climb up, and then jump and shoot the thing. It's harder to kill his compatriots. He dies and...the game continues. Nothing is happening. Guess I have to return to the start.

Another sequence starts and I almost think I'm at the next stage, only, the game takes me to where I killed the dino boss. Only now there's a platform. I jump onto it and my dinosaur floats away. If you had this game as a child, my condolences.

Stage 2 doesn't start off with much interesting in the way of changes. It's still the same cheap game, only now I can sometimes get a barrier item, basically more health, and the dino boss from the last stage is now a regular enemy. I think it's slightly easier but I could be wrong. The game is not not even pretending to not give me the worst of the weapons, only the throwing fist and the bomb are on this stage, and the bomb is every bit as impossible to use against the regular enemies as I expected it would be. The relative speeds, along with them constantly jumping, is enough for the bomb to be completely useless.

Yeah, this game is just obsessed with screwing you over with a crappy weapon selection. No joke, you're better off with the punch than the bomb. Maybe the second level of that bomb is more useful. I'm not about to find out. I do get the second level of the fireball attack, which just adds a fireball aimed upward diagonally, and a beam attack. It just shoots a beam which goes through everything.

The boss is like the previous pterodactyls, except now it tries to be smart and just execute hit and run tactics. That said, it doesn't do a lot of damage, so the real trouble is hitting it. It playing smart and it having no pain state means I'm not sure if I hit it. Guess the bomb would be useful against this boss.

The second stage part on foot is kind of a joke. There are a total of two parts, one with a now familiar layout. Despite the new dude who looks like the bounty hunter Princess Leia dresses up as in Return of the Jedi, the real trouble is the land mine in the upper left and that freaking turret. I cannot seem to hit anything while jumping to save my life, which I suspect the game is going to exploit quite heavily. And that ends stage 2, surprisingly.

Stage 3, basically, the game at this point consists of trying to avoid enemies that you know drop useless power-ups, it is that consistent, and basically just trying not to die. Health is saved between stages, and while there is a password system which restores health after reloading, I just prefer to use save states in this case.

The rest of the dinosaur part of the stage is the same old, same old. Even the boss just feels like I've already killed him before, and this is just getting sad. The on foot part is similarly uninteresting now. Oh, sure, now the game is forcing you to get onto those tricky platforms, but having to make precise jumps because the developers screwed up the collision physics isn't new. I guess there are falling platforms, but meh.

I can't really tell if the increasing difficulty is because the game is genuinely difficult or if I just do not care about winning this beyond being able to say I won it. Stage 4 is curiously heavy on fireball drops, don't tell me the developers thought that was the worst weapon? Hahahaha. This stages looks nice. It's never a bad-looking game, but the animation feels lackluster, probably just a NES thing.

The on foot half of the stage is just entirely lazy. The same kinds of rooms I've been through before, only now the boss is placed behind some convenient cover. He can't hit you, and I see no reason not to take advantage of this.

Stage 5 happened and I was there.

Stage 6 was an ice stage, no, that didn't affect anything, it just looked icy. Oh, and the boss was a brontosaurus, quite possibly the easiest boss I fought. It doesn't even constantly shoot at you as much as try to take pot shots at you. No, the on foot stage here isn't noteworthy either, it's just long. This, beyond the general crummy feel of the game, seems to be the game's big problem. The levels are broadly copy pasted, but just changed enough that I'm still playing new content, but have nothing to talk about. The same locations are there, just in a different order.

Stage 7 does something new and exciting, there are a lot more platforms. It doesn't change the gameplay by much, now you slowly walk up and down a lot more. The boss is a brontosaurus again, this time not so easy. And the on foot section surprisingly is, not worth talking about. Seriously, at best each new one of these sections maybe includes a new variation on the platforming jumps you've already done and a new boss screen, which isn't anymore interesting than the last few boss screens.

And that was the end of the game. Nothing special happened, just the same thing that happens every other stage. I guess the bosses were a little harder than usual, but I was floored when I saw the credits screen. This feels cheap in it's cheapness. It's a game that should have that annoying, cheap kind of difficulty, but because the developers were never that competent to begin with, it just canceled out. You can continue after every death, so while I'm sure playing without save states would be slower, it'd probably at most increase the playing time an hour. Mostly due to the on foot sections, the dinosaur sections were mostly a matter of annoyance with various weapons.

I also note that the collision detection, invincibility frames and damage knockback are all janky. Nothing really works the way it should work. You only get knocked back by certain enemies or if you're in the air. Meanwhile invincibility doesn't work in a way I can understand. I also think you can jump on enemies. It's inconsistent. The good news is that when you need to deal with some enemy you want to walk past, it's not really a problem.

The on-foot sections are workable, but are weird, owing to starting out with a triangle shot weapon, and getting rapid fire with each upgrade. The dino sections are annoying to deal with. You have three upgrades for about 4 weapons, some of which are good, like fireballs, some are okay, like a flying punch attack that you can only have one of, and bombs. Bombs are terrible and you cannot hit anything with it. Unfortunately, getting a new weapon makes your previous weapon's power disappear, and weapon powerups become like landmines, and the enemies who drop them are to be avoided. 1/10

A bunch of robot dinosaurs, which have varying personalities, all of which seem centered around slowly walking towards you and shooting at you. Bosses, meanwhile, are bigger versions of regular enemies. There are also turrets, landmines, and in the on foot sections, generic soldiers and flying robots who sometimes shoot at you. Can't say they don't give you variety, but I don't think it's all that special. 2/10


Seven stages, both in a dinosaur robot and as a man on foot, which mostly play the same way. 1/10

Player Agency:
The player moves very awkwardly, the walking speed is somehow less impressive than either character's jump. Everything feels forced on the game's part. There's a noticeable delay before actions that happen when you press the A or B button, to the point where you have to know where what you're going to press a second beforehand. This is a problem considering half this game is about platforming over bottomless pits. 2/10


A dreary sequence of the same stages doing almost the same things seven times. 0/10

I like the full-screen graphics. I also like some of the level backgrounds and the way the dinosaur enemies look. But, animation is poor and the game, like in every other respect, gets boring fast. 2/10

Whatever story there is, it's hidden in the manual. 0/10

There's sound and music. I don't actually hate it. The music, while very limited, didn't get on my nerves and neither did the sound effects. I note, however, that the pause button doesn't also pause the music. 3/10

That's 11.

This is not just the kind of game I usually play where I don't really care for it and ultimately dislike it, no, this might even come from a place of hatred for the game. I am worse off for having played it, and you are worse off for having read about it. It's boring, it's hard, and janky, the trifecta of bad game design.

Fun fact, the people who made this were the same people who made the legendary Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde NES game. That's right, they made more than one game. Quite a lot.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

1983 in Review

In many ways, 1983 was over very fast, in others just long enough. I started with 96 games and ended up playing 22. Which is roughly 1/4th of what I wrote down. What happened? I start more aggressively culling things I had no point in talking about. After all, we're now right in the middle of the industry going on an economic downturn, most strongly affecting consoles and action games. For every game released this year that feels like some incredible leap, there are a dozen more that have rightly remained forgotten.

Could you tell this came from 1983 without checking?

So, I don't really have a different opinion on the games of 1983 than I have for proceeding years. That said, we are getting to the point where the standouts aren't just merely good for the time, they're getting to be fun period. By the same token, being old is becoming a lot less of an excuse for getting a low score. Games have reached the twenties, a trend I foresee becoming a lot more common soon.

Any other suggestions for things you think should be in this kind of chart, feel free to make them, I lack the middle management gravitas towards charts.

I have prepared this handy little chart. Doesn't really tell you much you didn't already know. 1983 was better than 1982, but only because I pruned out a lot, sure, it did get a better high score and a better average score, but only just. The same number of games might even have resulted in a lower score than 1982. The cause of a partial gaming crash and all that.

It's not necessarily the systems themselves that are creating a score of retro shooter black hole of quality. Outside of maybe the Apple II and the Atari 2600. We're not really seeing the best these systems can do most of the time. Obviously with strategy and adventure games there's more leeway with making games that are not as smooth to control, but I don't think we've seen the best these systems can do. Ironically enough, the best these systems could do seems to all be from the early '90s, which is exactly the worst time for them to work to their fullest. Although there is always the chance that these later games prove to be cases of style of substance; most games from the '90s and onward definitely look good in screenshot form, but nobody rarely are their gameplay virtues discussed.

Game of the Year  -  The Dreadnaught Factor
The game I ended up enjoying the most this year is also a game that basically nobody has ever played. The Dreadnaught Factor is a game about fighting against a squadron of dreadnaughts, posed to take out your home planet. To accomplish this task, you have a series of starfighters, each with lasers and bombs, who make attack runs against these dreadnaughts, until it is destroyed or you are destroyed. Time is a factor, but you can increase your chances by taking out engines, the game's party piece. Each ship is big and consists of many independent parts, some which shoot at you, some which are important to the ship's function. Some components are vital, others decrease the ship's fire rate or engine speed.

Underdog of the Year  -  The Dreadnaught Factor
Not really much point otherwise, The Dreadnaught Factor is both obscure and the best game by a large factor.

Technological Advancement of the Year  -  Encounter
Encounter is a surprising game, just another Battlezone-clone at first glance. But this is 1983, a year when a fast paced FPS is unheard of, especially on home computers. It is outrageously primitive today, yet practically witchcraft even considering someone released a FPS just as fast the year before, just, you know, without any enemies. It's worth a short trip today, if only to see what the Atari 800 was capable of doing, before the constant one against one fights on slightly different planets becoming repetitive.

Let's update the games of note...

Good Games:

Historical Games:
Asteroids (1979)
Berzerk (1980)
Castle Wolfenstein (1981)
Defender (1981)
Robotron 2084 (1982)
Wayout (1982)
Encounter (1983)

Personal Favorites:
Bosconian (1981)
Night Stalker (1982)
Sinistar (1982)
The Dreadnaught Factor (1983)

Rather short this year, but oh, well.

Unfortunately, 1984 has quite a lot of games, and I have already culled it of any obviously awful titles. Its all "quality" from here on out. There's not a lot I recognize, to the point that what I'm holding out hope for are licensed titles. Yeah. I've barely played anything from the year before this, just Elite and SunDog. I think that this year will take much longer to get through than past years, not just because there are many games, but because I'm going to take more breaks from the current year. When I first started this I expected the more annoying end of the scale to be populated by shovelware FPS titles and now unappealing flight sims, not what I've gotten.

That said, I expect stuff to start hitting the 30 point range next year. Impossible Mission seems to be a really beloved title and I'll be replaying F-15 Strike Eagle on a proper platform rather than a lazy DOS port.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

TeddyBoy Blues (1985)

Name:TeddyBoy Blues
Genre:Side-Scroller Shooter
Time:50 minutes
Won:Not possible

Games related to real music are always weird. Most of the time it seems like it's not so much that people license the music for a genuine idea as much as licensing it to sucker in fans. Especially in the action sphere. It's always either some super popular band/artist everyone knows or some literal flash in the pan nobody would remember a year after the game was released. To say nothing of how every one of these games feel like some bizarre fever dream. This isn't limited to old games either, modern phone games are just as liable to be a series of bizarre situations as ye olde console/computer games.

TeddyBoy Blues is nominally related to singer/actress Yoko Ishino. (translated as Yohko Ishino on the title because that was how they did it then) Singing the song Teddyboy Blues, of which the game takes it's title from, is how she got her start, before becoming an actress and "media personality", which I presume is code for famous person who appears on shows because they need a famous person but also want to not spend too much money. Of interest outside of Japan, she holds the dubious fame of being in Godzilla vs Destoroyah.

Why do I say her music career is only how she got her start? Well, based on my knowledge of the Japanese music industry, if you aren't selling a ton of CD/vinyl albums, you're a failure, and she only has two albums. Even today in Japan, heck, even today in the world where streaming is king, a lot of these so-called famous musicians seem to make Yoko Ishino look like Davie Bowie.

Her backup band consists of most monsters in the game.

The game's attract mode has a pixel version of Ishino playing an instrumental 8-bit cover. This also plays throughout the game, I think. It's awful. No getting around it. The actual song is no real prize either, but there's actually something to it, the game's music is just all noise. I'm sure with someone else as a singer the real song could be something really nice, but Ishino just feels bland as a singer. We also get some of the monsters as musicians...for some reason? And get a good look at her now, because this is the best she's ever going to look in this game.

The ice blocks here don't make you slide, rather, you can shoot them to destroy them.

Now, what I can say about the game itself's a side-scrolling shooter. You shoot, you jump, and you move left and right. No aiming beyond left/right, no crouching, no double jump. Your firing rate is only tied into how many times you press the fire button. Almost everything dies in one hit. The game does nothing really, to distinguish itself here.

It's kind of hard to get a good screenshot of this in action, so here are the jelly enemies.
There are basically two gimmicks in this game, the only thing that really makes it unique from what would be an otherwise wholly unremarkable game. Firstly, the way the monsters spawn and how you deal with them. At the beginning of each stage, there are these dice, which, over a period of time, depending on the stage, spawn monsters. Once you defeat them, they turn into a baby form of themselves and you have to grab them before a set period of time or they drain your time meter. Once they're babies, they're out of the game as far as fighting you goes.

Secondly, the levels loop. Not like in a lot of games where there's a lot of real estate before that happens. No, on a lot of stages you don't even get a complete screen. You could call this game Claustrophobia and it wouldn't be inaccurate. This basically feels like the real appeal of the game. It's not unusual for a game to loop around, but it doesn't happen as often in side-scrollers and never in all four directions. It's very disorienting and if you're not careful, you can find yourself just completely lost despite the practical area of the game being really small. Remember, everything can fall in an endless loop.

There might just be all the enemies in the game here, but good luck getting there.
Now, you're not given free reign to deal with this as you please. No, you have a time limit. It's generous enough for most stages, but if you aren't quick on capturing the baby enemies you can run out. Then if you camp somewhere, the game shoots a fireball at where you're standing. This doesn't hurt you, but does destroy the floor beneath you. Or the air beneath you if you keep jumping onto something. This isn't uniformly bad, you can exploit this to take out a floor which is going to inconvenience you or is getting in your way.

The enemies I fought in the game, which I suspect consist of most enemies most players will see, are as follows:

  • Blue Ninjas, they walk in one direction, jumping whenever the situation calls for it. As such, they're the most basic enemy to deal with in this game.
  • Bouncing Worms, a series of individual segments that bounce around. Depending on where you shoot it, it make break apart into two worms. They don't often bounce enough to get over walls, so if they're in a tight spot with no way to enter it can be tricky dealing with them.
  • Bouncing Men, like the worms, except they're either weird men or crickets. They have a higher jump, but mostly the strategy is the same. They usually don't get stuck like the worms though.
  • Black Teddy Bears, these guys jump around quite aggressively. They can take you quite by surprise if you aren't expecting them.
  • Worms, they crawl along the walls until they get over you, and then drop straight down. Their AI is intentionally a little stupid, so they don't check if there's another floor between you and them.
  • Snails, like the worms, they crawl along the walls, but unlike the worms, they more or less just crawl everywhere. Even against the backdrop. These guys are really annoying, because if you hit their shell, as in their flesh part isn't facing you, they just retreat into their shell and become invincible for a certain period of time after you stop shooting.
  • Jellies, these guys are the only enemies, that I encountered, that take more than one shot to kill. They move around slowly, jumping over obstacles, and only stopping whenever you shoot them. They're pretty annoying to beat.

This is the kind of image you would get if someone was holding a gun off-screen.
The game occasionally offers one of two mini-games, chosen the first time it's available. A shooting gallery, and a treasure hunt where you play as Ishino. The treasure hunt is the better of the two, if only because I feel incredibly bored by most virtual shooting galleries. First, you get an image of Ishino that, were I her, I would sue the hell out of Sega for.

And she doesn't look much better whenever you don't find something...
Then you have a small period of time to find 42 treasures. The total is just something you find over the course of each time you enter the mini-game, with each further time having a shorter period you can check for items. Basically, you need to approach certain edges of each object in order to get treasure. Some objects have multiple treasures, others might have none. I didn't get all the treasures so I probably missed something. I feel like the game just doesn't give you any time on later returns, which is just one of those many ways the game seems to encourage the player not to play the game.
Yes, this is the first thing any player will see on this stage.

Now, that's a weird thing to say, you might be asking. Well, the game really wants to screw you out of your lives. This is the first arcade game that pulled the cheap gotcha of having an enemy spawn when you start. In an arcade game, I feel less like that's a cheap move and more an outright greedy move. You barely get any lives in this game to start with, and you get no continues. I know that you get more lives, but even for an arcade game it's tight with them. And this game knows how to abuse its systems to get those lives.

A basic weapon, you don't even get an autofire button. 1/10

It tries to do something clever, but with the constraints placed on the game itself, the enemies don't really excite too much. 3/10


While erring too much on the difficult side of things, the unique gimmick does create a very interesting series of levels. 3/10

Player Agency:
It's a very basic side-scrolling shooter. 4/10

You can shoot some walls, and the game can occasionally destroy other, otherwise invulnerable walls at it's desire. 3/10

Whether or not the developers intended to make something that plays like a cutesy nightmare, they succeeded, perhaps too well. 3/10

It's okay, nothing special. 2/10

Apparently the story is that you and Yoshino are lost in some nightmare labyrinth and have to get out. In game there is nothing. 0/10

I feel like if I just randomly played this then found out that the music was licensed, I would be surprised. It's all just noise after a while. 1/10

I'm going to take away a point because the game just got boring after a while, so that's 19.

Not really a lot to say about it. Beyond the novelty of the music connection and the weirdness of the looping mechanics, it's kind of a boring game.

Big news, I'm finally done with 1983, I couldn't get the game I designated the last game of the year running. It was a game I thought was going to be fun, but nevertheless I'm not unhappy that I'm done with the year. Expect to see that summary, a maximum of one game in the future.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Encounter (1983)

Wait, if Novagen was formed after selling the game to Synapse, how are they the developers in the title?
Publisher:Synapse Software (original release)/Novagen Software (Amiga/ST)
Developer:Paul Waokes
Time:1 hour 10 minutes
Won:No (68W/60L)

Encounter, at first glance, is yet another Battlezone-clone. There are two things that seperate it from the pack, it's the best looking first person game so far, which doesn't mean a lot now, and more importantly, it runs like a dream. These two combinations are very much a winning combination at this point in time, because games are still trying to do something interesting and to do something fast.

Paul Waokes, if you don't know, was basically the developer of Novagen, a British software house known for Mercenary, a game I haven't played but look forward to. It's an interesting story as the the development of this game and the formation of Novagen. Waokes was a member of a local computer club, who, coincidentally worked for a newly formed software store owned by Andy Krouwel, who would help Waokes form Novagen...later. In the beginning, he merely encouraged him, like everyone he knew, to get the game published.

This resulted in the first of the game's many publishers, Synapse Software, an American company. Unfortunately, while the game sold massive numbers for the time, Synapse only paid him once. This company somehow ran out of money in 1985. It's a bit weird that I've already covered two games released in the '80s by Brits who got scammed by their publisher. I assume a lot more people got scammed, but it's kind of weird that I can cite two examples off my head like this now. (The other being the boring sub sim The Hunt for Red October)

Now, I should point out that while Encounter is a very impressive game from the get go, being a more impressive version of an arcade game, Waokes is a genius. Not just because he developed an impressive game, but because that's just what he can do. One thing you wouldn't notice just from this is that the Waokes developed a way to make cassettes load much faster than the usual speed at the time.

I tried out the original Atari 8-bit release and the 16 computer releases. Unlike a lot of games, the technically inferior Atari 8-bit version is still a very solid game. Because of issues getting the more advanced systems working during this time, I played that original version. The only real thing I'm missing is slightly nicer graphics and an intro tune.

A portal, bringing in an enemy.
It works like you expect most early FPS/"tank sims" work. Functions like any pre-mouselook FPS, minus the ability to sidestep. That it, it works, but you're liable to get shot from behind. It works very well for the time, but as could be expected that missing sidestep ability and the length at which you have to take to turn around are annoying. You're basically helpless against some enemies if they come up behind you. The gun is very nice though, very good rate of fire. Everyone dies in one hit, be it you or the enemies.

The game has several difficulty settings, which basically just affect the speed of things. I played on novice, but there's also advanced and expert. No matter what you do the game is going to more or less stay the same. You against a horde of flying saucers with no Z-axis affecting things. They spawn in, one at a time, in an endless green plain whose only distinguishing feature are pillars. Your shots and enemy shots reflect on these pillars. You have to get lucky to take out an enemy with these, but they're very helpful. No, I can't say you can hurt yourself with your shots or enemies with their shots.

Not the prettiest flying saucers now, but passable.

Two types of enemies, one that wanders around before shooting you, and one that chases after you or drones. For the first kind, they pop in through a portal, then after a little while they start shooting at you, with the same gusto you can shoot at them. As you can imagine from the controls it can be difficult to dodge these bullets, so the most effective way of dealing with them is not to be that close and to take them out quickly.

Then, the drones, which the manual implies are missile drones. They run directly at you, and if they hit you, you lose a live. They're harder to deal with than the other kind, because you have to turn to face them with the game's turning arc. That's the real challenge, even though they zig-zag to dodge your shots. Both types of enemies are implied to have advancing AI as the game goes on, but I didn't see it too much with these guys.

This is about to end badly.

After killing all the enemies you're required to on a stage, you can then advance to the next one via a portal. Be quick or you can't reach it. This gives you a section where you have to avoid big planets. I kind of question it, but considering the entire game would be doing the same few things over and over again otherwise I can't entirely fault the logic. I found it more annoying. It feels quite random as to whether or not you have the kind of planetary placement that allows you to advance, sometimes I lose through no fault of my own. Dying here merely returns you to the last level, advancing takes you to the next level.

Come to think of it, the skyboxes might just all be palette swaps of each other.

Level 4 is where the game gets interesting. The shooting enemies are now very eager to start shooting, and this is where the pillars stop being a novel part of the landscape and an actually interesting part of the game. Now no longer an interesting, it's practically required to bounce shots off pillars, all while safely behind another one. It doesn't happen all the time, because curiously, the AI varies up to whatever level you're currently on.

As I get through these later levels the game starts really coming into that tank duel idea it seemed to be pushing, the shooter tanks more often start being clever, or annoying to kill depending on how you feel. Enemies fly around, taking potshots at you, and actually catching up to them can be as much of a challenge as actually shooting him. Conversely, despite the increase in difficulty, the game isn't actually more fun. I get the idea, but it turns out chasing someone around an endless void is really boring. I found myself too disinterested to continue at around level 6.

Decent fire-rate, but a generic blaster weapon. 1/10

The AI feels very clever for 1983, but unfortunately it has a negative effect on how fun the game is as time wears on. 2/10


A repeating grass plain marked by pillars along with the odd interstellar journey. It's okay. 1/10

Player Agency:
If it weren't for the eons it takes for the tank to turn around, I'd find this a good scheme, as it stands, merely okay. 4/10


Another game where you feel like you're against the universe, despite being a part of some sort of military organization. 1/10

I can see someone in 1983 being blown away by the way this game looks. Now it's kind of plain. I like the skyboxes though. 2/10


Simple but effective sound effects. 2/10

That's 13. Which might just make it the best of the very early FPSes.

That said, I look forward to future Novagen games.

I'm just going to put in an aside about Time Bandit. If you don't know what it is, it's another proto-Gauntlet kind of game, the Atari ST version being very advanced. To the point where if it that was a fair port of a 1983 game it would be so far ahead of everything else it would be funny. Except, originally, it was released on the TRS-80, in a very different state, one I don't wish to play. As such, while I may get around to it much quicker than every other 1985 game, it will be as a 1985 rather than 1983 game.

Also, Freescape/3D Construction Kit games. I played a bit of a couple of them and I realized that this was not really what I wanted to spend my time on. The engine was never really the strongest on the FPS side, and these felt far more like adventure games. I don't enjoy navigating through these games, so, I just cut them out. That leaves some Japanese stuff as the only remaining games for 1991, outside of replays.