Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Maxwell Manor: Skull of Doom (1984)

Name:Maxwell Manor
Publisher:Avalon Hill
Developer:William Maxwell
Genre:Top-Down Shooter/Survival Horror
Time:2 hours 10 minutes
Won:No (83W/66L)

If there's one thing that hasn't changed over the years in solo development, it's the habit for developers to include themselves in a game, usually as a fountain of wisdom or merely as some god figure. The habit seems inescapable for most, though it is better than obvious author stand-ins stating their opinions on the tax rate and the link between gum disease and heart disease. Maxwell Mansion does something unusual, a dungeon named after the author. But rather than being Maxwell's dungeons of the unforgiven, the unnamed figure who owned the mansion is dead, and it's up to you to ensure further deaths don't happen by finding the skull of doom.

No, no car travels down the road to my knowledge.
You are allowed to pick from 100 game situations and 10 difficulty settings for a total of 999 options. I picked game 000, because why not? Starting off, you're in the middle of a road. Near me are a gun and a shield. The joystick moves and the button does various things. A quick press uses the object in your hand. Holding the button and pressing left/right switches between items, the same with up looks and down drops. Screen movement changes between scrolling and "flip" scrolling.

At the start you get two options. South to the graveyard and north to the manor. The front gate of the manor is locked, naturally and there's no other way in. I looked all the way around. There's a vase containing bullets on the side for some reason. Vases tie into the time mechanic you see, every hour they respawn, not that you'll be playing in one session long enough for that to happen. It's a nice-looking game though, that dirt texture is top notch, and believe me, I know how hard it is to make a dirt texture. So, since that petered out, the graveyard.

When you die, you're brought to a place called limbo. Objects that you can't interact with appear as you reach a higher score. The first time you're here, you can walk in any direction and you return to life. Afterwards, one direction holds life, and the others result in the end of your game. Assuming you didn't know that S saves and L loads. Saving only seems to be good for the currently active game, as soon as you quit the emulator your save disappears. Possibly, it's just a weird emulator issue since this is a tape game.

I figure out the way in...eventually. If you go left or right while in front of the mansion, after a certain point you're sent down, back towards the opening area. If you go further left or right and then up, the door opens, and a path in through the back appears. I went in through the front door.

Three vases were here, each containing 6 bullets, and a hand popping up out of the wall shooting at you. I advance but a wall appears around it, so I assume that the hand is blocking the way out. The shield blocks bullets if its in the path, and you can shoot back, but not both at once. Shooting is tricky because bullets hit each other, and even if you do shoot it, it comes back. I noticed I shot one of the walls, and making a conclusion from that, shot the wall north. You can only shoot side to side, which is unfortunate, but you can destroy the wall. Or you can only take two of the vases and the wall never appears at all. Sometimes.

This isn't actually inside the mansion, no, it's a hedge maze or a path maze. I'm not 100% clear. Enemies occasionally pop up. This is annoying, because you have to be at the edge of the screen to scroll. No time to react, and you better believe this was designed with that in mind. You even lose a space of what little visibility you get while moving.

The first area I find through this maze is a mine. Inside the game changes into a sort of side-scrolling section. With jumping. Yeah. It's very awkward. The thing in the middle is a platform with two chains, climb up, then jump over to the other side and grab the key. Don't grab the treasure, because then a dart will pop out. I die this time, and after reloading I notice the key is gone. Uh-oh. So in-game saving isn't reliable either. Which is a shame, because this was really nice for 1984.

After eventually making my way out, I go through to the front door. Huh. I walk onto the mat and fall down. Oh, that old gag. Straight into a spike pit. Believe me when I say this is a game that needs to be played with save states. It's a good game, but it needs to move along quicker.

Inside are is a proper building. You can't go through the doors. So I go to the right, since I'd like to stick to this floor for now. Later, when I came back, I discovered that this is the only exit on this floor I can go through.

East changes the view again, to a room with a fireplace. Don't stand in front of the mask for too long or you'll get hit by an arrow, but do go in the fireplace. It has a cross, just be careful to dodge another pit, which technically isn't instant death, but more of a slow death. If I go right from here there's a dark room, which really just has a darker palette. I can't go far in there, or I die. Time to go upstairs.
Upstairs, actually downstairs, is more mazes, with more enemies. East of the staircase is this room, shoots some walls to get what I thought was an important item, but is just treasure. All while under threat from one of those wall creatures. This is pretty much what you get upstairs, each room has it's own gimmick. It's less survival horror and more one of those platformers with short but hundreds of levels, each a bizarre new challenge.
There's a creature that consistently pops up here, a spider. According to the game's hint book, a vampire spider. By the time I figured this out I didn't have the cross, opting to go from the front door directly to the basement again. Here after going up, then left then down, I find a candle, needed to enter that dark room. My way out is a tedious maze, finally leading out through the mansion's backdoor.

The dark room just has some vases containing ammo, seemingly all vases contain ammo. But the room next contains this vital hint. From reading the hintbook, the surprisingly unhelpful hint book, I knew I needed the skull to reach the graveyard. Rather than further explore the basement, I figure out that I have to use the key to open doors.

Northwest of the lobby is this. Yeah, this game isn't trying to annoy the player or anything. If you missed the platform, tough luck, you get shot when it reaches the end. There's a room after this where you just jump over a robot thingy, unless you want a treasure, requiring you to make precision jumping in this engine.

The skull. Uh-oh, I don't know how I can get this. The flashing stuff isn't something you can climb. I assume at one point that the object there needs to be shot. It can be, but that does nothing. So I try going down, this leads to a ledge, with an opening to the right, and to the left a series of platforms which end in a wall. Right eventually leads to a room with more of that particular object, which pushes the player up here, and a rope which is being eaten by something. I can't get up that rope, so at this point I have no option forward and the game is effectively over.

I suspected at this point that the correct answer out of the room would be to arrive from the top onto the little object and reach the skull that way, but the hint book says that you have to jump up to reach there. So I have no idea how you're supposed to win. Neither does anyone else seem to be able to, judging by what videos seem to exist on this game.

There's supposed to be a sword in addition to the gun, somewhere. Never found it, and frankly there's enough ammo for the gun that it isn't a problem. What is a problem is how the gun only allows you to shoot left and right. 1/10

A couple of gimmick enemies and then your usual allotment of melee enemies, all in the slow department. 2/10


The concepts for individual levels is well-thought out, albeit hampered in some respects, but between the important bits you get mazes. Mazes, mazes, mazes. With this screen-scrolling and the PC dying in one hit, this isn't very nice. 4/10

Player Agency:
The top-down controls are fine, but the platforming is truly dreadful. Selecting items isn't so easy either, especially since the game likes throwing arrows at you if you stand still for too long. 3/10

Depending on the room you can shoot walls, but mostly you just bump into things and hope that works, in addition to the occasional puzzle room. 3/10

Perhaps not truly scary anymore, but the game has enough surprises up its sleeves to unnerve the player in some scenes. 3/10

Some very nice tiles, but most character sprites have a really low number of frames or just don't look like much. 3/10

Your basic intro text scrawl. 0/10

Simple blips and bloops, but mostly non-intrusive and contributing somewhat to the atmosphere. 2/10

I feel generous, so I'll give it an additional point. That's 22.

A very apt comparison is to modern indie darling Faith, a kind of top-down survival horror game which does that whole retro-styled, but clearly taking advantage of modern features kind of game. It kind of looks like a C64 game, but it has way too much animation and sound, including the use of a voice synth for the C64. Both games involve arriving from somewhere else to deal with a tragedy that's already happened, the use of full-screen text to state something important to the narration, and not quite survival horror but perhaps it actually is gameplay.

I would have given a stronger chance towards reaching the end of this one if I could, but unfortunately time and an inability to make a proper save hampered my enjoyment of this one. This is basically the spiritual ancestor of those horror games you play once, enjoy then, then forget about.

I note that 1984 is shaping up to be a better year than previous ones. Not just on average or because I've been ignoring games I don't have anything interesting to say, but because with this game, 1984 has hit 3 titles over 20 points, which is more than any previous year. I've actually had enough to say about some games that it hits my usual goal for the bar minimum to say about a game, not just my early game target. 1984 is proceeding well, though I suspect progress will come to a halt once I get back onto 1992 FPS titles.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Commander Keen: Episode 4 (1991)


Name:Commander Keen in "Goodbye Galaxy": Secret of the Oracle
Developer:Id Software
Time:3 hours 30 minutes
Won:Yes (83W/65L)

And nearly 25 games later we're back with Commander Keen. When people talk about Commander Keen, this is usually the one they're imagining. Keen traveling through a strange world, with nice shiny graphics that are still somehow EGA. Despite being EGA, I suspect this one lasted longer than the first trilogy for longer thanks to how nice it looks. These days I can tell it isn't VGA, because shareware DOS VGA games had a habit of making sure you knew that they used all 256 colors on-screen.

The Goodbye Galaxy games are a duology rather than a trilogy thanks to FormGen, who during the development of this offered Id some money and got the final game turned into a retail product. FormGen as a company basically just sold the complete versions of Apogee games in stores, so how all this came to be seems to be quite unnecessarily convoluted behind the scenes. It's also why Keen 6 isn't sold today.

Curiously, there's a figure on the development team I don't recognize, Jason Blochowiak. Apparently, he used to work at Softdisk, and lived with the boys at Id. After Wolfenstein 3D, he left to work for Apogee and a few other companies, most notably on the game God of Thunder. His real crowning achievement was Apogee's attempt at the fighting genre, Xenophage: Alien Bloodsport. You know how people talk about how cool One Must Fall 2097 was and proved that the PC could do fighting games? Xenophage was everything that OMF wasn't.

The story is, Billy Blaze, who dons his brother's football helmet to become Commander Keen, has built a faster than light radio, which picks up a terrible message. A race of aliens called the Shikadi are going to destroy the Milky Way and remake it in the name of the Gannalech. Glad to see we've gone from "aliens are going to take over one planet" to "aliens are going to destroy an untold amount of worlds through unspecified means." This seems like a big job for Commander Keen. Shouldn't he be reporting to a Admiral Sharp for this? Or is this X-COM rules? In which case, Keen needs to do some delegating.

Keen goes to Gnosticus IV, home of the Gnosticenes, guardian of the Oracle. They owe Keen a favor. I don't know why, because I would remember a weird gnostic pun. There's some comedy I can't translate well here in which Keen stuns his mother and father.

Once he's on Gnosticus, a "council page" repeats the joke about Captain Keen from Dreams, and tells Keen that the council were kidnapped and taken to the Shadowlands. Now the game begins.

I'm still using Commander Genius. For some reason this adds achievements to the game. As annoying as some might find it, you have to admit it's interesting to see the spread of such achievements in a game. How many people actually bothered to win the game. And of course, as an amateur video game reviewer/sort of journalist, it would be be immensely damaging to my credibility if you were to find out that I didn't win the game. Or it would be if these were linked to an account and not just stored on my computer.

Unlike in the original trilogy, Keen 4 experiences a lot more jankiness with higher resolutions. The help menu was broken, and even in-game looks janky. So I'm playing this 100% as originally intended, just through Commander Genius.

Keen controls pretty well here. A bit slow if I'm honest. Jumps have a nice meat to them and decent air control. The pogo stick trades most of your forward momentum for upward momentum, but you have to press jump to reach the full height. Combined with Keen being able to climb up ledges and you can pull off some interesting moves. Momentum is weird and it can be very tricky to pull off some of the more complex moves, even with the tricks outlined in the help section.

If need be, you can look up and down by pressing up or down. Some ledges can even be jumped straight down from by pressing jump while holding down. Including moving platforms, some of which move, some of which don't until you find a switch and some which slowly fall while you're on them. This gets into a problem with the game's collision detection. Sometimes it doesn't work like you'd expect. Keen falls off much sooner than I expect, which feels like an overcorrection for games being too generous with how far you can be off the ground. Up activates switches and enters doors, everything else is automatic.

Shooting is straightforward. Keen can shoot left, right or up. If Keen jumps and points down, he can shoot down. It's as fast as you can press the fire button. It uses ammo, but it's so generous that you will never run out. In addition to the usual points items and lives at certain points, there are "lifewater" drops, collect 100 and you get another life.

I'll be honest, being able to save, mid-level even, combined with relatively generous water drops and point items makes the lives system pointless.

Other important bits include secret passages, jump into the walls to find them, and poles. Poles go up and down, up is slow, down is faster. The secret, so secret the manual explains it, is that if you hold up and jump you go faster. You can shoot up and down on poles.

Continuing the series trend of open overworlds, Keen 4 consists of 18 levels, one of which is secret, and about 6 which aren't required to win. You basically have access to the whole map after three levels.

The enemies this time around seem mostly focused on being hard as heck for the player to actually hit, assuming you can hit them at all. They are as follows:
  • Bounder, a bouncing red ball which looks a bit like a refugee from the last game. Technically a friendly, just jump on him and you can get higher than you would otherwise, even with the pogostick. Never required to get anything, thanks to how unhelpful they can be by accident sometimes.
  • Poison Slug, a yellow slug which moves slowly and occasionally...excretes a green puddle that kills Keen. Both kill Keen by touch, but the slug itself is no problem...assuming you're level with it. Which you aren't as the game goes on.
    Lick, a blue ball which goes around until its close to Keen, then shoots out fire. Fast up-close and tricky to hit, but if you're far  away you can avoid it.
  • Mad Mushroom, more of an obstacle, can't be killed and does a series of jumps you have to time your way past. I don't think I ever got killed by them past their first appearance.
  • Skypest, flying, hard to see pests. Often appearing mid-flight, these guys can't be shot, not that it would help considering their size. Instead, you jump on them with the pogo stick. Quite clever.
  • Blue Bird, giant blue birds. They fly or walk at their leisure. Quite nasty, as Keen can only stun them. Sometimes they're only stunned for a second. They only appear twice, lucky for me.
  • Mimrock, they're like those rocks in the foreground you sometimes see. Invulnerable, and only moves when Keen is looking away from them. They jump towards Keen at a certain point. Very difficult to deal with, but thankfully slow. You can shoot them, but only while they're walking. Shoot then turn around and you'll take them out.
  • Treasure Eater, sinister looking enemies which are entirely harmless to a sense. They take items. As such it's a very good idea to prioritize these guys when you can.
  • Wormouth, worms which appear as tiny green dots, until they get close. Technically stunnable, but good luck doing that, you can only do so as they attack, which gives you little chance to stop them before they do.
  • Thundercloud, it's a cloud, that shoots lightning bolts at you. Slow but invulnerable and basically completely ignorable. I think it popped up once, but I could have missed it.
  • Sprite, a little devil you find underwater. Moves back and forth and occasionally shoots at you. Annoying.
  • Dopefish, the legendary creature who has been an in-joke for decades. Unfortunately, only appears in a water level, so it isn't fun dealing with it. For starters, you can't shoot it, so you're running away. But you also need to get past them, firstly, you can try the risky move of rushing up to it, then swimming away, and when it opens its mouth you hope it eats one of the fish that follow you around. This doesn't work reliably. You could also just move it away from where you are by moving to someplace within its alert status, but it can't reach. It doesn't always work though.
  • Berkeloid, fiery creatures that shoot fire and can't be shot. They would be dangerous if they ever appeared in situations where you had no choice but to fight them.
Whenever Keen dies, he makes a face and jumps like that, if you're lucky/unlucky, it ties a combo together, causing him to bounce across the screen.

Most levels are generally pretty solid, though fail from being perfect thanks to constant reliance on killing the player with things they couldn't see. A lot of levels have those nice interconnected features, that while fun to play through, aren't really interesting to talk about.

  • Perilous Pit was the first level outside of the very easy first one I entered. It's like those Dreams levels where you're in a vast pit area with two walls and some rooms on the side and an important area under the main section. It's not bad, it just feels a bit samey after Dreams. (not that you would notice in 1991) The two big changes are dashing around the poison mushrooms, proper keys and most importantly the council. On some levels there are old beareded men in red robes, find all of them and you win the game.
  • Crystalus, and the game ceases to be a nice Sunday stroll. This one is the first I played with crystals, basically colored keys, except done in a novel way. It's a classic Keen labyrinth level, only harder than usual thanks to the introduction of the invulnerable blue birds. The final stretch in a narrow tunnel being particularly tight thanks to poison slugs below and a blue bird flying above.
  • Chasm of Chills, you get two paths through the level. Down below is full of enemies, mostly invulnerable to your gun. Up are a series of perilous jumps and if you miss one, you're falling to the path below, probably onto an enemy.
  • Cave of the Descendants, a lot of blind jumps here. Also, this is the second level that has the Catacomb 3D track, and it's getting on my nerves again. More importantly, this level loves its blind jumps. Spikes, mimrocks or even just shovels popping out of the ground, this will throw it at you. It's not too bad, but it comes off as cheap.
  • Pyramid of Shadows, the first pyramid I picked, of which there are three. The setup is obvious, you're in a pyramid area, with considerable interior areas. So lots of fun getting around enemies in tight spaces. Too tight, since the way through sometimes seems impossible. Dart guns pop up here, and unlike other trap type enemies, these kill you if you touch them. They show up again in Pyramid of the Ancients, another labyrinthian pyramid.
  • Pyramid of the Moons, hey, did you like those dart guns? Now there are twenty of them. Here, they're all shooting at you. Including a donut guarded by four of them. The real star here is an Arachnut guarding the exit, the key's nearby but if you drop down, it's right on top of him. But the key also opens a door in another area, with no way out...except there are a bunch of inchworms. Gather them all together and a foot appears, taking you to the secret level.
  • Pyramid of the Forbidden, this level really loves a poison slug and lick combo, there's four of each right off the bat. Then getting a jewel over a spike pit, as you drop down. Then putting a jewel next to a dart gun into a keyhole next to the dart gun. Kudos to those that can beat this level without needing to save, because I suspect that for a lot of people, they weren't going to win with saves. A very long series of mazes along with very dangerous platform trickery over boiling oil and you get the revelation that the Shikadi kidnapped the janitor too.
  • Lifewater Oasis, despite the name, not that much of a source of lifewater drops outside of a secret area I couldn't reach. It's actually quite the mundane level full of a bunch of new enemies.
  • Miragia, an annoying level. To start with, you have to wait for the level to pop in. Not kidding. Then it's full of all the annoying enemies the game has, in addition to those platforms that appear and disappear, you know the kind. This level is necessary, not because you need to pass it to advance or get one of the guardians, but because it has a scuba suit. See, Keen can't swim, so he needs this.
  • Well of Wishes, the level the Dopefish is from. An underwater maze in which you can't shoot anything and have to move giant stupid fish out of the way. How these creatures got so popular is beyond me considering how this level generally isn't fun. Keen moves slow and you have to hammer the jump button to move any faster, you can't look around underwater either.
  • Isle of Tar and Isle of Fire, the other two islands. I'd have a lot more to talk about if I didn't play them after the secret level. They're like extended sections of that level. Oh, no, I have to jump over falling platforms over a pit of boiling oil...again. Or fire.

After collecting all the oracles, we get a very joke-filled explanation of what the Skikadi are, where they're from, what they're doing and what they look like. We don't get to see what they look like, unless they all look like Keen. A subtle attempt to get you to buy Keen 5, as the boys at Id probably thought.

While I do like this game, I have to admit, there are aspects of this that aren't very good. On a few days I played this, I had a headache, and the game was no help. While the game is very detailed for an EGA game, it's still an EGA game, and thus garish. The music is 6 minutes in length, total. It doesn't sound that long. The shortest track is used in the most levels, which is sixteen seconds long yet goes on for some of the longer ones.

Your typical basic blaster. 1/10

A nice selection, but seems overly focused on breaking what little advantage the player has. 6/10

Kind of? In addition to the guardians you have to find, there are bouncing balls you can use to reach new heights and a random black lady in a few stages who gives you a hint. 1/10

A nice selection, brought down by over reliance on avoiding dangers you can't see and some reuse from Dreams. 8/10

Player Agency:
Easy to understand, difficult to master. I'm still not sure I completely understand how to use the pogo stick. 7/10

Very simple. 1/10

Cartoony, but sometimes leaning on it in a way that annoys me now. 4/10

Quite possibly the nicest looking 16 color game ever made. 7/10

It's simple, it's effective, and it's nice that we get a reminder of it every time we find one of the guardians. 2/10

The sound is okay, but 6 minutes of music for a game that is far far longer than that it an atrocity. 2/10

That's 39, higher than any of the previous entries. What Keen is going for is technically something I'm not necessarily rating high.

Before we once again break continuity for Tomb Raider: Anniversary, we'll see another 1984 game, probably Flyerfox.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Dimension X (1984)

Also from Synapse, the game this is an inferior copy of.
Name:Dimension X
Publisher:Synapse Software
Developer:Synapse Software
Time:50 minutes
Won:Not possible

Is it possible for a company to bootleg their own title? Today, this question doesn't seem so absurd, thousands of games have been released which feel like they only share the names of characters and locations, exasperated by thousands of phone games which come and go like dust in the wind. Indeed some franchises like Might and Magic have basically consisted of a zombie wearing what once was like a shroud, often for 20 years, and even then people weren't too happy about things.

But back in 1984 this sort of thing was absurd. That's why Dimension X seems weird. It's almost like Encounter, a game they published the year before. Quite infamously so, as the author of Encounter had very unpleasant things to say about old Synapse. Could it be a bridge to far to suggest that perhaps Synapse gave one last screw you to an unfortunate Englishman? It seems doubtful that we'll ever know.

Steve Hale, the author of this, also wrote Fort Apocalypse, a knock-off of Choplifter. Just after this, he began work on a series of text adventures with the author of Shamus, at the request of Synapse, before eventually getting published by Broderbund after their buyout of Synapse. This I suspect is both people's finest work, and ironically enough probably a knock-off of Infocom's attempts, by 1984 everyone else was chasing the text adventure with pictures train.

What's revealing about this long development time is that there aren't that many reviews of the game. One negative, two positive that I could find. No mentions in a lot of magazines that you would expect to like this, just silence. You'd expect a magazine exclusive to Atari computers, for instance, would be talking up the cool new game. Almost as if they know it's crap.

First firing it up, the game is a perfect storm of classic game confusion. What's going on? Why are people shooting at me? What are these noises? If you left to make a sandwich or something during loading you would die once. Menus are activated via the Atari's function keys, in this case just changing difficulty. The game itself is controlled exclusively through the joystick, much to its detriment.

You move around like you're in a rail shooter, but you're actually in a true proto-FPS. You always move forward just a little bit, forward goes faster, back goes backward. The button fires, one shot from the left, then one from the right, at an awkward pace. Speaking of awkward, turning. You awkwardly glide around if you go left or right, but worse, you have a crosshair. Go left it goes to the left, go right it goes to the right. It isn't visible while you have any button pressed. Saying this is awkward is obvious, the very act of shooting enemies is a complete pain.

Enemies are generic flying saucers. They take some shots, if you can hit them. You don't move faster than them, so you're basically at their mercy. I have no idea how you dodge, that's not clear. It seems like they home in on me.

Once you take out all the saucers in one section, you may now go to other sections. You get a map for navigation. It's not apparent right away, but this map shows where you are and in what direction you're going. One flashing area is where you are, and another is where you're aimed at. Why we needed this instead of a simple compass is anyone's guess. When your map is eventually damaged, you can navigate via the planet's twin suns, they're always off-set of north. Which direction is actually north is a questionable thing.

It's slightly better in motion, sadly the crosshair blinks in and out of existence here.
Once you go to your chosen destination, you now get to deal with a classic rail shooter session of going through objects that damage you. At first it drained my health and was boring, then it was boring. Where they approach is tricky, but by the time you can tell where it will happen you have plenty of time to dodge. You're also supposed to stay between two lines, but this is a non-entity in the earlier stages so by the time it actually happened I got a few nasty tricks.

That's pretty much the game. Staying alive is basically just a case of dodging enemy fire and finding enemy ships until there are no more. This is somewhat tricky because the "Altered Perspective Scrolling" as the ad says, really throws off my perception of how the shots approach.

So, let's talk about what I do like. I like the skybox. Objects get larger as you approach the edge, and there's enough of it for seemingly 360 degrees. This, not the ground area, strikes me as the most visually interesting aspect. We've seen a lot of games like this, but dynamic skyboxes are rare.
Something that you won't notice unless you let the game sit after dying is a quite cool quasi-title screen featuring a very nice for 1984 title song. And that's about it.

Awkwardly off-set generic gun. 1/10

Hordes of generic flying saucers. 1/10


Featureless planes and then tunnels you have to navigate through. 1/10

Player Agency:
Pretty basic, but loses points for dodging being more tricky than it should be. 2/10


Boring. 0/10

A few nice aspects dragged down by mostly ugly aspects. 1/10


Confusing blips and bloops, with one nice menu tune. 1/10

That's 7, the lowest score in quite some time.

Next up, Commander Keen after a long wait.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Gemstone Warrior (1984)

Name:Gemstone Warrior
Developer:Paradigm Creators
Genre:Top-Down Shooter
Time:3 hours
Won:Yes (82W/65L)

SSI was one of those early institutions of gaming that history has forgotten about. Known primarily as a publisher of wargames/strategy games back in the day, today more as a footnote in the history of Dungeons and Dragons, as the first proper adapters of the pen and paper RPG to gaming. The first official adapters.

As such a lot of the games they released aren't ones I talk about. I'm sure most of you have already read The CRPG Addict's coverage on their pre-D&D RPGs, some of which were interesting. Some of you haven't seen The Wargaming Scribe's coverage on their far more numerous and important games, like ones involving Hitler and Hirohito. Kidding, kidding, they released plenty of non-WWII strategy games, including a non-DnD fantasy wargame.

It was pure happenstance that SSI published Gemstone Warrior. The original company who were going to publish it, Sydney Developments, apparently had a relationship with SSI, and finding the contract with Paradigm Developments unsatisfactory, bought it out, at which point SSI scooped it up. Both actions very indicative of the early software era that Gemstone Warrior was made in, either on it's own would seem utterly bizarre today, both would practically be impossible.

Released on Apple II originally, then ported to Atari 800, Commodore 64, and Macintosh. Then sort of remade for Japanese audiences which I'll get to in it's own entry. Probably. It's probably janky in the usual way. The Atari 800 version is roughly similar to the Apple II, the C64 has some problems. I'm playing the hard to find Atari 800 version, but at one point I tried the other two basic options. Both were plagued by their own issues and this is the version I found the best.

The story is, in the beginning, the gods created the heavens, the earth and the underworld. The inhabitants of these places, including man and the evil demons; and the Gemstone, which intensified the Earth's natural magic, given to man. Things went well, but the demons were jealous. So they made a volcano from which they went out into the world to ruin everything for man. The powers of the Gemstone forced the demons back. So they gathered their forces and went after it, succeeding.

Chaos ensued, ills of every sort happened, magic became rare. Unfortunately for the demons, man's loss was not their gain, because the gods made it so only man can use the Gemstone. So they broke it up into 5 pieces and hid it in their lair. They went after the last sources of magic and now man was nearly gone.
Enter the player, you have to find your way into their lair, get the pieces of the Gemstone and return it to the temple. No pressure.

The controls are quite complex. More complex than I was expecting. This isn't some simple joystick game, this needs the keyboard. A double-edged sword, of course. Now, I'm doing a sort of weird hybrid, the movement is done via "joystick", while the rest is done via keyboard. It doesn't matter what you use for movement, it's simple tile-based stuff.

Moving is decent for such a system. Not great. You get some decent momentum buildup. If you really need to move quickly, you can press enter to switch to run mode, just move in a direction and that's where you move until you run into something or press another direction. To stop you press return again.

Then we have the items. You can find chests, dead enemies and various other objects in the game world. S searches, while space "search/take", but given that most items seem to be useful there's no point not to. I & O cycle through items, p places them, u uses them. I'll get to those in a moment.
Your basic weapons are a crossbow and a fireball/"bolt" attack. No melee. You get a weird selection of keys. F fires where you're facing. R & G fire along your front diagonals...but so do W & V. Why two buttons needed to do the same thing is beyond me. C switches between the two. The fireballs explode.

Each game starts with the player going past a temple, the same one they return the treasures to. Then you enter the main playing area in a safe section, allowing you to test out the game's controls to your heart's content. Once you leave, the timer starts. For the bonus.

Doors separate each individual area, you can go back at any time, not that you want to, and you walk into them. Waiting for them to open, then you make sure to push into the door, and you advance. There are a couple of annoying things about these doors. There are several designs, which open upwards, a passage between it. These are randomly placed, so you might be walking into the door one time, and walking between the doors the next. It's unnecessarily precise.

Getting into combat, the controls are playable, but unmistakeningly have that whiff of early '80s microcomputer jank. Movement is stiff. You switch between running and walking so you don't have to hold down the joystick for a minute, which an acceptable compromise for a game trying to be more than it can be. You can turn with a short push of the joystick in one direction, too short and nothing happens, too long and you move in that direction. Not great when you're trying to kill a blob of something evil.

Fighting back is interesting. While I played on beginner, the amount of time I spent in normal was much the same. Attacking is only done through some special items and your crossbow/fireball attack. Fireballs are rarer and destroy corpses, not something you really want to be using against a random skeleton or even a blob of something evil.

I have no complaints, well, beyond how nice it would have been to shoot in all four directions at once. Diagonal is tricky, since it's more of a front diagonal than a true diagonal, slightly offset in front of you. Aiming might be a problem, but when it comes to shooting things, it is quite simple. Firing rate quite cleverly gets around its jankiness. The action stops for your arrow, but the effect is so subtle I didn't notice it for a while.

Enemies are very diverse in their looks but mostly function the same. Big enemies, about the player's size, walk towards you. Some poison you, some pop out of coffins. Smaller enemies sometimes go towards the player, sometimes wander around. You get variations which explode and some which steal your items. Thankfully the latter have said items on their corpse. Enemies take a variable amount of crossbow bolts to kill, 1-4.

Now, this would be your typical high end selection of enemies from the era if it weren't for one thing. Sound. It's your typical blips and boops, except for one factor. Enemy movement sounds occur depending on where they are and how many there are. I want to call this environmental sound, but I think the actual term is dynamic. And it's just beautifully balanced too, even when a horde is around me it doesn't get too loud.

While in practice enemies are basically the same on beginner, at least in the beginning, in other difficulties this isn't true. Ghosts resurrect themselves, skeletons pop out of coffins, blobs of something evil poison you. As you go through the game, or perhaps just as time wears on, their special abilities activate more and more.

As I go through the maze, I realize something. These levels are pre-determined. Enemy placement and treasures aren't, but that doesn't matter too much. There's not a lot to the opening sections. They're boring.

There are three treasure items, which you look through with S/space. Crates, coffins and enemy corpses. They drop everything from treasure, points, to random items and then ammo. Coffins, as mentioned, spawn one skeleton after a brief period of time, so don't go rushing towards it straight away. Generally speaking, in terms of stuff, the aforementioned order is how much you're going to get.

Items are tricky, in the beginner game, their effects are always the same. In normal and kamikaze, they are not. This makes normal being the intended difficulty somewhat weird. Because otherwise normal is...well, normal. They have the kind of effects you'd expect them to have. Invulnerability, healing, kill everything on-screen. Then some weird ones, like ones that damage your health, one that changes your character into a skeleton for some reason. Then ones that serve as fodder for the higher difficulties. Like an "ancient black thing", which is cheap humor...not modern cheap humor, it's a floppy disk.

I note that health regenerates slightly on its own, not enough to be useful if you're getting killed, but useful enough if you can fight off some monsters before the next big fight.

After a long while of what can only be described as a series of looping tunnels with one way forward, you come to a great gate. You might not notice this at first, since there was a door that wouldn't open. Inside is a series of square rooms linked to each other straightforwardly. This is suspicious. It turns out to be an attempt to screw with the player, because rooms don't link to each other as they should and eventually it teleports me back to somewhere I was before but could somehow advance from?

The reason why it's screwing with the player is because this is it, the area where the gemstone fragments are. I'm of two minds. Yeah, it makes sense that the later section is more difficult, but at the same time, but consistent level design put it far above a lot of its competition. Find all five pieces. Oh, and monsters respawn now, so you have that to look forward to.

Now the demons start showing up. They randomly spawn on a level, but thankfully not too aggressively. Ugh. Hope you've been collecting those fireballs, because otherwise you're screwed. You can run away, but they're not easy to deal with if you get trapped.

Somehow I manage to escape the maze again, to the way out. This way back is very tricky, some enemies respawn practically after you kill them and coffins are more like clown cars. I actually like how some of these levels are set up, wonders beyond the usual generic caves and dungeons I've been through. Sadly, I can't appreciate it under the gun like this.

Eventually, I make it back. The absolutely final section is just the opening section again, only this time you've already killed the monsters. You walk back through the temple and place the gemstone back in it's place. All is well again.

Just enough to feel like you have a choice in dangerous situations, though I would have liked a melee weapon. 3/10

Despite some issues, clever enough. Each enemy is unique enough to require a minor change in strategy. I am grateful that the author never tried a ranged enemy with this system. 4/10


Functional, at first. Insanity, later. Then the final stretch is interesting, but you don't get much of a chance to appreciate this. 3/10

Player Agency:
The controls work around the game's limitations quite cleverly. Still, the number of keys you have to press, especially for how each keypress is your action for one in-game second, makes doing some things annoying in the heat of battle. 4/10

I guess? You basically just get a button dedicated to grabbing stuff, opening doors is an awkward process. 0/10

A nice intensity at the end, marred by early utter boredom. 2/10

Simple, samey, with poor animation. 1/10

Despite mostly just being a short story talking about the backstory in the manual, it does have a minor effect in-game. 1/10

I haven't heard anyone try this kind of dynamic sound before at this point in time. 3/10

That's 21. A point above the previous best of the year, F-15 Strike Eagle.

While the game is well-thought out, especially by 1984 standards, and has all the ingredients of a great game; it's kind of boring. As I take out monsters and walk through levels there's the sense that it's fine. The negative sense, where there's enough here that it's a playable game, but not enough that it's actually enjoyable. When it gets good I can hardly appreciate that.

You could make anyone with any amount of ability at action games play this. They might not necessarily enjoy it, but they'll be able to understand it and possibly even beat it.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Gryphon (1984)

Developer:Antony Crowther
Time:1 hour 30 minutes
Won:Not possible

I feel like I've played a game by Antony Crowther before, but what, I don't see. (I've heard of some, especially the infamous Potty Pigeon) I would certainly remember that name, it's the same as the original author of the legendary Adventure. The title screen gave me a little confidence, until I looked closer and realized this, despite it's detail, is badly drawn. A Gryphon isn't a real creature, but the elements that make up the Gryphon are from real creatures. This is some wonky anatomy. The horizon is also somewhat funky. I'm getting a bad feeling about this.

After a long period of loading, the game starts up. The music that plays when the game starts is...carnival music. I hope those of you who like the C64 will understand when I say that this whole subject has given me a bad feeling in my stomach. The screen scrolls as I'm on this menu. It looks nice, backgorund and foreground elements. This makes me worry about the game itself.

These worries are not quite true in the way I was expecting. The game itself is semi-nice to control. Left and right move at a decent pace, though you get a "middle" of the turn turn where you can't shoot. Shooting is fairly nice too, no worries about the number of shots you have on-screen, fairly fast. Flying is awkward but workable. You have to press up and a direction, or down and a direction once you start moving. It's more annoying that whenever you stop you make the middle of the turn and start going down. Another quirk is that your character moves faster in the air than on the ground.

This would be fine were it not for one issue. Collision boxes. You and the enemy sprites are quite small and you get plenty of time to react most of the time. I wouldn't complain too much about being a one hit kill, except that collision is based on a box around the sprite, which makes everything much larger than they should be.

Otherwise it's a fairly typical endless hordes of enemies. Three appear at a time usually, only if you turn around can more appear, usually limited to four. Their behavior is random, as is their spawns, so you can get bad luck with continually spawning enemies in front of you or enemies spawning below you. Get 10000 points, or kill 100 and you get another live. Very useful for obvious reasons.

It took me a while to figure out what to actually do on this level, since despite sometimes making it past the hordes of Caster the Friendly Ghost and his ten thousand clones, I kept dying at the level exit. Then I spotted that there was water there. Water was there earlier, but you fly over it. Because you can fly. If you hit the ceiling you crash down. But in a tunnel? Argh. Eventually, I figured out that you have to go back, picking something up with your mouth, then dropping it in the water. I later found out this was a gold horde the Gryphon is protecting. Huh.
Going back causes the endlessly respawning hordes to change into beach balls. How the hell did I end up playing a game with beach balls twice in a row? They explode, but because they're smaller than the ghosts, this is more generous. The real problem is that because of the way it's laid out, you have to avoid certain sections which may hide enemies.

It's at this point that I discover something annoying with the tunnel. See, I've died there a lot, but I was assuming that an enemy popped it's head up from below...but it hasn't. I've been dropping the gold bar wrong. That kills me. If you don't drop it accurately in the water at a point just past where you would think, in danger of dying by stepping a bit too far, that's where you drop the gold bar. He starts dropping it when you reach the water, a very annoying and deadly combination.
Doing it two more times turns the enemies into flying skulls and then insects. Not sure if the skulls do anything new, but the insects seem to have different behavior than the rest of the enemies. Sometimes they seem to match my height, others they stay at the same height for longer than the others. But, looking at video footage I've taken, the difference seems to be minute for the most part.

When I eventually reach the the second to last one, they change into bats. Hang on, is the author of this game under the impression that making the enemies smaller is making the game harder? As the game goes on, my only problem is exclusively the bit at the end. I only occasionally get unlucky with regular enemies. It's trying to fit that darn stone in correctly. Either I go too far or I don't go far enough. Late stones are easier to put it, but those first two are so tricky.

I took a video of some of this. You'll note how often I sort of rubber band back and forth, taking out enemies to grind for lives. That difficulty in placing stones is actually double-sided, by not taking trips back you lose out on score, and thus more lives. I also reached the final creature, flies. These guys actually took me out, but I'm not sure if that's bad luck or not. That happens a lot, sometimes good, usually bad.

A fine but simple weapon. 1/10

Despite being six or so variations, the differences are solely in size. Despite some thoughts that way they really don't change at all between them. 1/10


Despite the annoyance of the water trap and the foreground objects, they add a bit of depth to what would otherwise be a simple back and forth trip. 1/10

Player Agency:
A bit wonky by intention, but it works fine once you get used to it. The bigger problem is the player's generous sprite size and dying in one hit. 4/10

I guess moving rocks back and forth is interactivity. 1/10

Vaguely fun and weird fantasy-ish. 1/10

Very nicely animated and drawn in-game, everything is just nice. The title card is goofy, but I wouldn't say it drags it down at all. 4/10

If I didn't read that the title character was protecting a gold horde, I would never realize it. 0/10

Very Atari 2600. Not bad, outside of the carnival music menu track, moody background noise and the expected sounds, but I tire of these blips and bloops. 1/10

That's 14.

While I found this game mildly amusing, I can't help but notice that everything it right compared to other titles it screws up by making those aspects janky. The nice graphics are...nice, but the forescreen bits, by intention, obscure enemies, not great in a game where you die in one hit.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Strangeloop (1984)

I did the Jack Kirby style cover art/title screen.

Publisher:Virgin Games
Developer:Gang of Five
Time:2 hours 0 minutes
Won:No (81W/65L)

It's a tale as old as robots themselves, a robot factory (IN SPACE) goes wrong, and you're sent in to set it right again. Only this time it's from a pair of companies you can't mention in public anymore. Strangeloop seemed interesting to me, so I figured it might be a good game to fire up now that I've come back to chronological games.

This was released on Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MSX and ZX Spectrum. Of these, I played the C64 and CPC versions. Speccy is the original. Curiously, there are significant differences between the two in level design and the controls. The C64 version controlled absolutely horrendously, the CPC version less so. Trust me, the C64 version controls like absolute chaos, even when you understand how the system works, you're still fighting it every step of the way. It's a very complex system with a lot of weight and momentum to it, unfortunately should you as much as tap the joystick in either direction you always seem to go much further than you want to, to say nothing of bouncing off the walls.

Meanwhile, here the system is mercifully just a good but not amazing microcomputer control system. Awkward, you can really only do one input at a time. Compared to the C64 version mana from heaven, to everything else, crap with a capital k.

Owing to unavoidable technical problems, this image has some blurring going on.

Strangeloop is a single screen platformer masquerading as a shooter. One of those proto-metroidvanias. You go between screens via tubes, it's generally obvious which is which via the minimap down below and which tubes are in the walls. To begin with, and after every death, the player selects where he spawns. Note, it doesn't show where the traps or enemies are, and while you can use this to go around some obstacles, it isn't worth it.

Movement is done with the joystick. Left and right move left and right. Up jumps. Down does nothing. You move a bit too much even with a slight tap of either direction, which makes me suspect I'm missing something by using a keyboard joystick. Sadly I can't stick in an actual joystick at the moment, as I'm on a different computer than usual and despite having two good candidates for playing around with this, don't seem to work here.

When you jump, you reach a certain amount of distance, stop, then sink like a stop, be it whether you jump as high as you can or as low as you can. I hate this system, it feels like an artificial bandaid on something that never should have been a problem to begin with.

This is one of those things you can't shoot.

Shooting is tedious and boring. You don't shoot robots, anything that looks interesting tears you apart like a horror movie, does something else bad to you, or is what passes for a friendly in this game. Instead, you shoot bits of debris. You get about five shots on-screen at once at a good rate of fire, you'll notice but won't complain.

Instead, shooting is boring. These bits of debris pop up every other room. I don't know if the version I'm playing jacks up the ammo and health count, but I'm not going to complain. It's boring either way. Debris goes up and down, you aim at it in the right way and hope your shot hits it. Aiming up is annoying, you aim up, but you also jump. Taking out all the debris causes the room to become clear, leave even one and when you return it's back to normal. Undoubtedly a memory saving measure, keeping the room size down in memory. Just make sure everything's dead before you leave. Or just dodge them and never have the problem to begin with.

Finally, pressing P pauses, and you can save and load this way. Pressing esc or R quits, which is not very helpful. Since saving is to a tape and there doesn't seem to be a way to deactivate the pause, this isn't very helpful.

These are what you can actually shoot. Exciting.

You can also move around via the jet cycle, which is easy to find. It moves around in the air getting stuck on the environment much like you can. You never really have any problems with speed, this just means there's no tedious jumping around. This was basically how I played it for most of the time. It does reveal a major problem with the way this controls.

The player can very easily get stuck on some walls. Now, you would do this because this is the kind of game that puts the path forward behind a secret wall or door. You can only back out of the wall/ceiling/floor at this point. This doesn't just happen in esoteric situations, this can sometimes happen just getting out of an area normally. It's worse when you have to walk.

Getting to the HUD, we have mostly self-explanatory stuff. The mini-map shows the area around you, you'll need to get one off the internet or make your own for the whole game. Fuel is for the jet cycle, it slowly drains. Oxygen is technically your health, it reaches zero and you're dead. It's further decreased by leaks in your suit, patches slowly stop the leaks. Leaks are what happen when you get hit by debris or a robot. No mercy invulnerability.

The arrow is pointing towards the control room, what I believe is your ultimate objective. Finally, left is your inventory, opened by pressing space, which also exits it. Ctrl activates whatever your cursor is over, the player starts with the very useful item called "Exit Jet Cycle", which exits the jet cycle.

Not the most interesting of the traps, but without the jet cycle you couldn't get there.

To make things more interesting, the game has traps and hostile robots. You get crushers, acid pits, and beach balls which dissolve your matter stream or something. Mostly avoidable, except for the times they spawn right next to an exit. That's generally the rule this game's enemy placement follows. Conveyor belts move you in one direction, thankfully I had enough fuel for the jet cycle to avoid these for most of the game.

Despite the very boring general gameplay and lack of sound contributing to an atmosphere I would describe as wasting time and aware of it, there is promise here. I like the level, it's big, it's open, and there's puzzles to do. To begin with, I need to find welding equipment...oh, and something to shield my character's eyes, because just using the welding equipment kills me. Elsewhere, there's a puzzle where you bring a robot a fish, dunno why logic is suddenly entering into this.

But that really doesn't overwhelm the game around it. Yes, puzzles can be fun and clever, for instance, giving a very depressed robot a pleasure circuit, it's not really worth it going back and forth across a 10x25 sized map that's an endless confusing mess of pipes, conveyor belts and just everything. It feels like every bit of thought that went into this game solely went into the puzzle design, everything else is done randomly. Perhaps I would have tried to beat it at another time, but the time it came I'm just tired of busywork.

Basic weapon, better than most, but because of the chosen enemies, incredibly hard to hit anything. 1/10

Randomly placed and moving objects, with the odd thing that walks back and forth and probably kills you. 1/10

Technically, there are, but they function more like puzzles than character. 0/10

A big and tedious complex. Sometimes, effort is put in, but most of the time it's a mess of nothing. 1/10

Player Agency:
Workable, but with noticeable issues. Jumping anywhere, which is often, is something you have to fight to do. You easily can do it, just not quickly. The jet cycle is nicer, but fuel isn't infinite. The less said about the hazards getting in the way of movement the better. 2/10

Some nice puzzles, but done basically. Most items can only be used against the whole room, so there isn't a lot of strategy. 2/10

Tedium. You do many of the same things in the same places again and again. It's empty and I was incredibly aware of time passing. 0/10

Very nice. Everything is nicely detailed, computers look nicer than some games released ten years down the line. Animation is lacking, since your character seems to barely have any when he's walking and none when he's flying. The debris has a nice animation, smoothly turning around even as it disintegrates, but other objects feel rushed. 3/10

Basically ignorable once you get in the game. 1/10

Nearly dead silent outside of a few things like your gun or the crusher. Very Atari 2600 level sounds. 1/10

That's 12.

While the usual cheap methods to lengthen game time are here, there is a game here. Perhaps if the game was about half the size or something was done to the combat to not feel completely pointless there might be something here. Even with these time lengthening methods, you're not playing this for more than 8 hours. Even if you completely ignore making a map, possible but not ideal, the paths you need to take are more than enough.