Friday, March 29, 2024

Elm Knight: Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Starting off this session, Rick is on foot, with slightly different controls. Instead of all the complex mecha controls from earlier, Rick gets a gun and a knife, Z/X respectively. I can't help but feel like Rick's combat abilities are mimicking Chirico Cuvie from Armored Trooper VOTOMS, but that doesn't make sense. People wander around the area, and they talk to Rick if he touches them. First guy asks if Rick is a spy.

These scenes are all animated, but no voice.
Doors function much the same way. Here's Doug again. He says something about riding on a "landmover" which I saw last time, but I assumed meant random. I assume by context that it means the mecha. Apparently he thought that Rick was a scouting party. And then I hit upon a problem. Some of the more complex characters are so scrunched up in this game's tiny font as to be unreadable. They formally introduce themselves to each other and Doug suggests he repaints his, as it's painted in the imperial colors.
Another door, someone else to kind of talk to. Cam, I think. Not talk as much as Rick comments on his massive size and Cam comments on Rick's tiny size. Rick leaves and wonders what kind of people they're raising. Something curious about this. The game was setting itself up as a RPG/FPS game, but there is zero RPG to this. This base camp is basically a straight shot with optional talking to NPCs.
Sofia's in the third door. Rick, the paragon of intelligence, asks her about the dangerous giant man they're keeping. She says that's Cam, he's not dangerous, he's a friend. Rick asks if she's sure he isn't going to eat people, might even be something about how he heard they do that. Evil empire says alien life forms are dangerous, film at eleven. Sofia talks about how they found him on the street when he was a baby and protected him. He might very well still be a baby, since they talk of him being a good playmate and a child.
More talking to people. This time it's a guy named Rondo Aima, who I mentioned before as being a possible pun. He's in a building that looks like a hanger, according to Rick. They all have the exact same graphics. He's the information officer, and Rick infers he was in the imperial army at one point. Rando found it too strict. The room is said to be a correspondence room, but he seems to be jamming MPS here, which means it's some sort of sci-fi radio room. And that also answers something about MPS, it's something you can jam. The jammer only works in a short distance, which seems to me like something an enemy could easily exploit. Rick also asks what does he do if the magic user isn't human. The answer is Doug gets sent out.
This is Riru, which is supposed to translate as "Lill". She's a doctor, probably magical doctor, who can heal you so you're a-okay. Rick finds something offputting about her. So either she's the type of doctor who seems like she'd violate medical ethics with her patients or she's going to turn out to be a traitor later. There's also a cook, Moradi. I don't care about Moradi at all.

After some wandering around, thanks to the radar on the GUI being confusing, I meet Bea. He's not happy to see Rick. I guess he's a radio operator, because he's more concerned with the rumor that Rick is a spy. I just can't bring myself to care about this little subplot. We're missing the part of the game where it's explained why Rick betrayed the imperial army or even the part where he was in the imperial army.

At this point, I'm lost as to what I can do. My radar seems to point to a location down a "door" path, which in theory should change rooms. The problem is I can't go down it. And people can box you in, though you can unblock them by talking to them, which isn't annoying at all. At least it seems like I can talk to people again, even if they have nothing of value to say the second time around, or I can't talk to them at all. Elf, which I'm just going to ahead and assume is a magical elf in Rick's head, seems concerned about one room for some reason. Though as you'll see in a moment, seems quite useless.

At this point, I'm getting ready to file this away under Japanese obtuseness and play another game, but I check Youtube, and oh, look, I missed a door. Considering that a ton of these doors aren't enterable, that's annoying. It's Serena, and oh, look, Rick just accidentally peeked at her changing, it's PG-13 at least. It is of course, the most elegant dialog ever made, and if I translate it, you will die weeping tears of joy. More wandering, until I hit a random tile.
If you feel this all is excessive, reminder, this is the 130th screenshot I took this session out of some 400.
More dialog, this time involving an old lady. She sells food to the rebels. Apparently she does it because she won't forget what Sofia did for the "Sarian King's daughter". Presumably her, and now she gives them food. I like her, Rick doesn't, because she called him boy. She goes off and Rick muses about Serena, calling her a princess sarcastically. It must be out loud, because she hits him in the back of the head. They argue, trying to get to some sort of understanding. I don't care about this relationship whatsoever.

He asks about the old lady, and she says that in older times people believed that magical powers were the result of people consorting with demons, even if they know this is superstition now. Not believing her, Rick asks Elf, who seems to just say that they didn't go halfway. Serena, it seems, can't hear Elf like Rick. Rick ticks her off by saying something like "halfway time. Hungry." And then we get a glamour shot of her because...Rick is hungry for her?

Night. Rick muses about how strange this all is for him and how it would be if he were back at school now. Guess that confirms my one theory. He decides to take a walk. Yes...because what we needed was another hour walking around this camp. Oh, a scene transition happens without any input from me.
Cam approaches, the giant man. His dialog is interesting, since it's done differently and is simple. Rick asks him to answer him honestly about a you think we're tasty? He answers with, "eat, not, flavor, not understand." Rick doesn't understand his answer and asks him about it. He answers with the similarly understood "unlike, human, eat, not." This seems to get through to Rick. Cam follows up by saying Sofia would get angry. This seems to convince Rick, who then asks if someday they could become friends. Cam agrees. Rick says he'll go off the bathhouse. Oh, good.
The bathhouse is also the cafeteria, at least the building I thought as the cafeteria. Apparently Cam was following him around, as he leaves as Rick approaches. Only, I can't enter it. It turns out I'm supposed to go to Rondo's place. I didn't realize it at first because Rick sneaks a peek...through a freaking sliding door. What the heck? Turns out Rondo is probably a spy. Wait, they weren't just suspicious of Rick just because he was an outsider, there's an actual spy? I should probably tell this to someone, shouldn't I? But most of the doors are unenterable. Bea is asleep and while Serena is in the hanger, the conversation is pointless.
Another scene transition happens without any input, this time it's Doug. He basically just tells Rick to go to sleep because otherwise there'll be rumors. Then Rick has either a strange briefing or a dream. It's confusing, apparently they recived information that a special vehicle is heading towards the base. Find out how likely it is that it'll approach. Rick and Doug will deal with it. Rondo tells them this despite the spy? And tells them it might be the precursor to a larger force. Then it's the game again, only there's more dialog. So much dialog between Rick and Doug that Sofia yells at them.
Combat, holy crap gameplay again. Reminder, since I started this entry this has been the first time I've gotten actual gameplay. That's well over an hour of nothing. As far as playing the game goes, this might genuinely be a problem because I'm rusty at the actual shooting part. But gosh, when I can actually play this, it's fun. There's just something about ducking through trees shooting missiles at enemies that's a solid game loop. It's just not so good that it can help hours of downtime.

The basic idea is unchanged from the first encounter, there are more enemies than you have reasonable firepower to deal with. At least in theory. I did not use my missiles very effectively. I think they can only make one or two turns, with some of my missiles just dying off. Also, there are trees you can smash, so indicated by a different color block on the minimap. Great design.

More dialog. More dialog. Let me play your stupid game! Sami, the robot's voice, informs me that the point we're heading towards is nearby. Rick says I have to cut it down since it's a MPS jammer. Then there's a cutscene. Apparently Roy, Rick's brother, is there or something, because Rick starts musing about him. Sami says something about a launch, and Doug calls in saying it's a trap. There are too many of them, we have to escape. More dialog, if this were a trap they would be pummeling my corpse now. I don't really care anymore. Another cutscene, Doug is yelling at Rondo, as Rondo is accusing Rick of being a spy.

Different area, more dialog. Elf suggests that Rondo is the traitor. A very shocking implication that matters a great deal since he's done four things in this game and two of them are suspicious to me, the player. We should hurry, says Rick before talking more. Finally, combat again. This area is suspiciously clear of enemies...and oh, damn it, more dialog.

Someone's attacking me? Who's attacking me? Ah, damn it, I'm dead and it wasn't a plot loss. I don't need to worry about saving apparently, dying puts you back at the beginning of the stage with full health and ammo. Which does diffuse the tension considerably. Stealth mode? Stealth mode. Holy crap, there's just some massive missile spam going on in certain sections. If I was reading the dialog at the time I would have known that though, so that's my fault for making sure I could read this crap later.

I find the path leading towards a pillar, and now there's more dialog. Rick meets a Donaku Ramon, the leader of the rebel army subjugation force. He's captured Rick, somehow. Now Rick is in a jail. Donaku is the interrogator. It's novel seeing these words (relating to an interrogation) in this context, but they're not especially interesting. Rick says he won't tell them anything, so you'll have to kill him. I believe him, his character archetype wouldn't let him do that. Donaku says if he tells him one thing he wants to know, he'll help him die. Wow...I have slightly underestimated the writing here.
This dialog's weird. Right after that Rick says money cannot help, which confuses me, but Donaku asks what he means and then asks if he won't think about the rebels' base. Is he playing mind games? Is Rick? Or is this just some complex Japanese-ism I don't understand? He then says he expects something good from him in the morning. Well, Rick then goes to bed, but stares at the ceiling...
And his brother shows up. It's been a while, and they get a long greeting. And then he says he's going to help Rick escape. Roy's going to die horrible, isn't he? Rick doesn't quite understand at first, thinking he means the rebel army is going to try to get him out in 2 or 3 days, but no, Roy says the rebels are going to make a surprise attack tomorrow. The imperial intelligence network underrated them. It takes Rick asking him if he joined the rebel army to figure it out that Roy's on his side. Then Rick asks something like "the rebel army's leader, the Sarian king's daughter". Which I guess might mean Sofia, judging by past context. Then Roy mentions Bloom, which is Sofia and Serena's last name, and then it clicks for me.

A realization that I had earlier but dismissed in favor of a vague Votoms allusion I wasn't sure of. This is a Star Wars knock-off. Rick is Luke Skywalker, Serena/Sofia is Leia divided into two people, one containing the polite upper societal aspect, the other containing the rough and tumble tomboy. Doug is Han Solo. Cam is Chewbacca. Rondo is Lando. Elf is Obi-Wan. Sami is probably one of the droids, maybe both assuming no other droid candidate comes up. Some of these feel like stretches to me, but enough of this comes off as right that it's no coincidence.

Anyway, Rick mentions a "Neeku ruler", which is just more stuff I don't recognize. Roy just says they'll see. The next day there's more talking, and Roy does his little breakout. He's coming with, guess his position was compromised. Seems that the Neeku ruler is someone the rebel army should be aware of. Judging by the way they talk, it might be that Sofia or Serena should be the Neeku ruler. Talking about how they'll escape, Elf talks to Rick but inside his head so Roy wonders what's going on.

Rick says he'll explain later, and then Sami tears open the cell. I guess the robot is sentient? Neither is exactly interesting. Roy then reveals that it was all Rando's fault, by himself he made the action. Now we're outside, in the mech, and there's still more dialog. Roy has his own mech. They talk about how they're going to get out and then Rick notices a jewel under his seat. Roy admonishes him for the delay, gotta stop Rondo, but first Sami needs to say a wall of text just telling us that Rondo was the spy. Roy says something about how strange his computer is, before saying they need to put down Rondo.
But before we can escape we need to take out Donaku, after the long dialog. In a boss fight since he has a truly giant mecha. There's a boss fight. It's okay, you basically just try to avoid being in the direct line of sight of a 2x2 size mech. While this is interesting in theory, since you should be drained from the previous fight, in practice if you're lacking for missiles you'll probably just die anyway and the resurrection system will kick in.

More text after the fight. Rick is concerned about Roy, but he's fine, guess his mech was damaged. By how concerned Roy is with Rick's computer, I assume there's something special about Sami, but we can't worry about that now because of how many enemies there are. I sure am glad that this is being shown via text box. Doug shows up, I guess he killed enough. Doug's been looking for him, something about him being stupid and a spy, possibly a stupid spy, possibly he's been stupid about the spy thing. Roy's introduction is quite casual. He just casually brings himself up and says he'll be coming with, when Doug realizes he's here, he asks who he is and Rick tells him he's his older brother. They argue of course, but they arrive there at base camp.

This game is shaping up to be incredibly tedious. The game itself is fine, there's just so much talking. I wouldn't care for the amount of dialog and the speed if this were in English. I hope this changes soon, otherwise I might cut this short. My time-period standard for this sort of presentation and story over gameplay, Traffic Department 2142, was not this wordy to my memory, especially not in-level. I also figured out how to save in-game, but who knows if that'll prove necessary?

This Session: 1 hour 50 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours 50 minutes

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Tomb Raider - Anniversary (2007)

The title changes depending on where you are in the game, which is kind of interesting.
Name:Tomb Raider: Anniversary
Publisher:Eidos Interactive
Developer:Crystal Dynamics
Genre:Third-Person Shooter/Platformer
Time:18 hours 30 minutes
Won:Yes (84W/67L)

This generally assumes you know what I said about the original. There are a lot of comparisons between the two and it won't make much sense otherwise.

Video game remakes are usually worse than the games they're remaking and even in the best of cases, they don't replace the original. Resident Evil is a case of the latter, for instance, since even the first remake is so different from the original that playing either version is a pretty different experience. Later entries are so different as to be totally different games even if one is supposed to be a remake of the other.

I think the ones that stick out the most in my mind are the various remakes of Sierra titles. The original King's Quest is the strongest. Originally, it was released on PCjr using a graphics mode which wasn't EGA, but did display more colors than your average CGA game at the time. For the time, it was mind-blowing on any system. Later ports to true DOS would change things around, but most of us didn't realize it when we played them and it affects the sequel more than the original.
In 1990 they made a true remake of the game, putting it into their new fancy engine, and giving it new fancy EGA graphics. People hated it. Depending on the kind of person you are, it can be hard to see why. Its got nice shiny EGA graphics, the ability to use the mouse for movement, and it even adds a few puzzle solutions that should have been in there before according to many.

The thing is, remakes are products of a franchise, original titles are not. Debut games are rough around the edges, because they're not made with ideas already set in stone. Even the most edgy of edgy people who get put in charge of a franchise with the sole purpose of shaking things up cannot do more than the original author setting it up. A remake knows full when what is going to happen.

So there were no more official King's Quest remakes (unless you count console ports), but there were more unofficial ones. Eventually, King's Quest was turned into VGA by fans. VGA being logically better than EGA since it has more colors, and naturally it also uses a fancy mouse cursor and actions for everything instead of a parser. I myself bought into this at the time. Graphical interface over parser, VGA over EGA over not EGA.

The issue is, I eventually realized, is that some of those EGA artists and even CGA artists, could do some pretty clever things. The best EGA artists could make you question if what you were seeing was really EGA. There's a character to EGA that not a lot of games brought over to VGA, with Sierra games and fangames not bringing that character forth. By the same token, parsers and graphical interfaces do different things, there are things you can do with a parser you can't with a graphical interface and vice versa.

And this is what is wrong with Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Its a VGA game imitating the world of an EGA game, its visuals are unquestionable, but it lacks the character the original had. Its controls are a graphical interface awkwardly imitating a parser. If it controlled well, anyway. That's how this is going to go, its a hollow imitation of the original.
I only took the one because I could easily replicate it.

Controls are quite strange. They've kept the weight of actions from the original, but otherwise they've gotten worse, often in ways that seem contrary to what I've seen said about the game. I was expecting Lara to be floaty, but basically glide everywhere and have a decent camera. Lara is quite easy to control here, when things are working, but often that isn't true. Were this a video review I would now show a montage of the many, many, many times I did everything right only for the game to decide against it. Collision in this game is awful. Every step in this game is risky. Walking does nothing, it's only with the grab button pressed that you're some situations. Often I would complete a jump for Lara to then phase through the floor. This frankly, is an absolute point against the game. Why play a game centered around platforming when the game will often arbitrarily decide you failed?

What makes this worse is that outside of the game breaking or a few objects that are difficult to aim Lara off, the game is basically a cakewalk. And this is with automatic grab off. With it on, such things would be more jarring. Its bizarre, its almost like the developers knew it was too easy, and rather than fix that, just programmed in an element that randomly decides if you're having too much fun and knock you down if you are.

Basically every piece of equipment in vision can be climbed upon in some way.
The designers also loved to give you more buttons and abilities than you will ever need. We get stealth, despite never needing it, walk, despite never needing it, crouch, of which we actually need but only rarely. Grab, use and shoot are all bound to different keys because we really needed them all to be separate. Use speeds you up when on ledges and underwater, but frankly it should have just been faster underwater and speed on ledges is unnecessary. I don't know how to get shoot and grab together, perhaps a holster button? That allows Lara to pull out her guns at a time the player wants to, rather than just shooting from nothing.
Certain tutorials are fairly obvious.

The swimming in this game is the worst I have ever encountered in a while. Its just awful. The movement keys move Lara around as if she was in 2D space, crouch and jump move down and up respectively. This is just completely counter to anything I've played outside of sub games, which is a somewhat amusing comparison to make. Now that Lara is no longer a tank, she's a sub. Next stop, Resident Evil. But what really makes this annoying is the camera.

While I understand why people dislike the original's camera in the sense that it can cause problems on occasion, I don't understand why this is the superior choice. You are completely limited to a more or less horizontal view, even while still, unless you press the aim/look button, which still restricts your vertical view more than the original. Its not very fast and it takes a noticeable amount of time to turn it around.
Further still, using this camera in ways the developers didn't intend completely breaks the game. Lara falls through objects. I couldn't believe it when I finally spotted it.

Ultimately, the problem with these controls is what the developers are trying to do is a fool's errand. Even if the controls weren't broken in such a way that movement breaks whenever the camera moves as you go onto a pole or something. Which isn't often, but happens enough to be a problem. This is just the kind of thing you need left to mean left and right to mean right.
Combat is worse than the original. Just replace autolocking shooting and jumping around with rolling around. The game offers the illusion of depth with enemy rage mechanics. Shoot them enough, they charge at Lara, at which point you have to dodge, time slows down, and you can do a highly damaging attack. Thing is, this adds nothing outside of one or two boss fights, and those boss fights it adds something to don't really work when the rest of the combat is just busywork. Worse still, enemy AI tends completely shuts off whenever Lara is somewhere they can't reach.

Worse still, combat tutorials are next to useless. They literally stop the action, which isn't very helpful know, combat. It took me way longer than it should to understand dodging and how I can deal a super high amount of damage. There's another mechanic, in which some enemies grab Lara, which isn't explained, and when I did the obvious thing, press buttons until Lara gets out, nothing seemed to happen. Instead it was just tied awkwardly to movement.
Perhaps the problem is poor implementation, the level design in this game is aggressively bland. There are basically two types of rooms, which frequently function exactly the same as some room you previously went through. The go around a room clockwise or counterclockwise, and up, and the hallway. The rare exceptions are either directly copying a room for once or a very rare attempt at doing something original.

After finishing the game, you unlock, among other things, commentary from Toby Gard, who was the director of the original and Jason Botta, who I guess was the new lead. There are three issues with this commentary:
  1. Neither really have much insight into the design of the original, and don't have that much to say about this version either.
  2. They are clearly uncomfortable recording this commentary.
  3. Tomb Raider was a team effort, and survived without Gard. Further, later interviews state that Gard had zero input on Anniversary. So we have one guy who is just here for a paycheck and one guy who doesn't really know what he's talking about.
This certainly isn't any bigger than the original even if it's more realistic.
Throughout the commentary the two talk about how the new game is about x2 bigger in a lot of places. I don't know if that's true or not. Lara was supposed to be taller in the original, which would throw things off. Some rooms are still clearly bigger in the original, but these are off-set by rooms which are now completely gone, some of which contributed to those areas being bigger. I suspect if I wasn't stopping to write things down I'd be finished in 8 hours. Well, 6, because I probably wouldn't finish this if I wasn't reviewing it.

The game attempts to be more realistic than the original. This is not necessarily bad, though with something like Tomb Raider you really shouldn't be attempting to make it like reality entirely. Tomb Raider consists of many larger than reality locations, and this should be reflected. Anniversary fails on both accounts. It reflects neither reality nor the larger than life locations you could reach, instead feeling like many 6th gen games, a failed midpoint.
With realism, you have to ask yourself, how would a normal person get through here? In some cases, how would people go through here without the damaged walls? The answer in many cases is, they wouldn't. There's also that problem of scale. Abstraction works when the game is on some level abstracted. The City of Vilcabamba is five or so huts in the original, but its so big and abstracted that it doesn't register. Here, it's still five huts, only now it looks realistic. Instead of a forgotten city, it looks like the love shack of a character from a Robert A. Heinlein novel.
This is basically half of the valley, there are no side areas.
They keep talking about how Lara is more agile in this game, which may be true, but it doesn't matter when you're basically going through something that might as well be on-rails. Comparing the two valleys, for instance, while the new one looks better, but it doesn't even have the pretense of the openness the original had. If you break away from the rails it's clear that there isn't anything to it now.
Gard, talking about the Coliseum, says the the original was just two keys and you go around, and Botta chimes in with top right, you go around the top right. This is said in a somewhat dismissive way. While this isn't entirely fair to this Coliseum, it's not a good comparison for the original. While both are largely linear in actuality, the original isn't linear until you know what you're doing. The design of it is very clever in how it cuts back onto itself, especially with the outer columns. Side areas here are just distractions until you get back to the arena itself.
I liked this part because it made sense for an industrial area to look like this.
I could go on, but you get the point. It's not necessarily that linear games are bad, but in a game like Tomb Raider, in which I should be searching around for something of value, it's laid out too obviously. While you could see where you could go in the original, everything was a possible ledge. Here what you can interact with is obvious and what you can pick up glows. When everything is a ledge, it's not the same thing as when the only ledges around are visually distinct.
That said, it could also be said that the game excised what was the best linear part of the game, Atlantis. Sure, technically Atlantis is still here, but the two are so different as to practically be different areas. Here, Atlantis is no strange alien world, it's a random ancient ruin someone dropped a few alien eggs in. Instead of the series of challenges that the original was, this is mostly just a single shaft up that in the original served as a sign you were making progress in the level.

The updated visuals are fine for the most part, if a bit washed out. Lara's face is weird, but otherwise she's fine. I think there's some deformation going on in the clothing, which is something I rarely see and is nice. Animations are pretty good, except they don't always play nice with the environments. The wetness effects are interesting, her clothing changes color when wet, but not her hair. Curiously, this results in a minor change from the original game, she was wearing shorts over a one-piece swimsuit, not a sleeveless shirt, knit, judging by how it looks in-game.

I think the biggest problem the game has visually are poor lighting effects. Whenever the in-game lighting changes to something bright, bloom is either used to show adjusting to the light or just used in general, and it looks goofy. Then there are the shadows, specifically Lara's. It looks disconnected from Lara and the game, some bizarre shadow puppet that seems to follow Lara around.

In the audio department I don't have many real complaints. The music is fine but not particularly interesting. Keeley Hawes is fine, but slightly off. The sort of casting you would approve of in a live-action adaptation, but not as a voice actress. Still, slightly off is better than some characters get.
Quote from man who got shot.
But I don't have the same level of acceptance towards the story. We don't need a complex story. Lara does not need a personal connection to the artifact, her father does not need to have been looking for it or even an archaelogist. Lara should not be musing about her father as she goes through an ancient tomb. And, I can't stress this one enough, Lara should not be making any sort of statement about blood on her hands. It's pretentious, because it's not believeable. In every other game Lara is gunning down so many people that any attempt at moralizing about it is absurd. The reason why the concept of Angel of Darkness worked is because we can absolutely believe Lara would murder someone.

I have been harsh on this game, but it does feel like this game has no point in it's existence. It doesn't add much to the original and takes away a great deal. Supposed improvements are questionable at best and a great deal of what was lost was pretty fun.

Despite four weapons, it plays like there are only three. Heavy damaging slow shot weapon, middle-of-the-road and rapid fire. The magnums increased damage is hardly important in a game where you don't need to reload for most enemies. 2/10

It feels like what little variety the original had has been taken away. In retrospect, where a level in Tomb Raider would have 2 or 3 types of enemies, this has 2 at most, practically 1. With the second variety being a mini-boss. Most bosses, meanwhile, while interesting, are usually ruined by QTEs. 3/10


It's fine. I expect more out of Tomb Raider is all. The occasion treasure in an alcove, but mostly a straight shot. The few times it manages to be interesting feel wrong, but I shouldn't complain. Outside of one Atlantis level. 4/10

Player Agency:
When it works, it's okay, when it doesn't, it's a nightmare. Whether this is a problem with the PC port or if it's this bad on consoles, I don't know. 3/10

While the game does have a lot of stuff to interact with, it is just that, stuff you can interact with, what you can't will be set in complete stone if it makes any logical sense or not. Also, no bullet holes in glass that isn't explicitly breakable. 2/10

Manages to keep some of the isolated feeling the game has, but comes off as more mystical, if that makes sense. 7/10

A bit washed out, with some period graphical crutches that look crappy in retrospect. But these are nitpicks for an otherwise good-looking game. 8/10

I feel infinitely worse off for having known this variation on the story, but it is a story. 1/10

Nothing memorable, but an overall solidly sounding game. 8/10

That's 38. I'll keep it there.

While that's a good number here, for Tomb Raider that got 58, and I can't imagine anything before Chronicles going lower than that. Secondly, it's mostly in an audiovisual departments, and if that were the sole basis for judging a game's worth, I imagine you would not be reading about a man getting frustrated with games from the '80s.

This is a controversial opinion. For many, the changed controls are far better. Discounting how I view the original's controls as better on the face of it, thanks to actually working as advertised, I question this reasoning heavily. Were I to put myself in the shoes of someone who hated the original's controls, this wouldn't be an improvement. Rather than being a slow game where you slowly jump to different ledges, it's a slow game where you jump across objects in a circle until you reach the next room. Only now there's a lot of clipping through the floor.

Another point against this game is that the only reason we got it is because Core were originally going to make a more faithful remake, but Crsytal Dynamics got wind of it and turned it into a competition. Eidos being Eidos, screwed over Core again after being responsible for the massive failure that was Angel of Darkness. After forcing them to put one one game in the series a year for 5 years, which proved quite detrimental to the later entries, when they tried to redeem themselves they were basically killed off by a game they didn't even make.

In the near future the only out of chronology games I plan are playing are related to adventure games, with an eventual trip to the Acorn Archimedes port of Elite. But for now I'll keep at Elm Knight.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Elm Knight: Introduction

It's time for another episode of "Early Japanese FPSes we never got, and aren't really much better than the ones we don't play." This time its Elm Knight, from Microcabin. I had a debate about this one, it's technically a mech game and I divide mech games from regular FPS. Still, better now than later.It's another one of these Dungeon Master-style games, grid-based, but you can be in-between spaces.

We went to all the trouble of doing a FM Towns release for these graphics. Hey, at least the music is pretty sweet! And it actually plays while I'm playing the game, I don't have my media player awkwardly going on in the background. Huzzah! Anyway, training is a lie, because this just goes through the entire character data of every character in game, I presume. No skipping, god help you if you accidentally press it. I guess character introduction must mean training then. No, it crashes the game. Goody. Maybe. I have no idea, this menu is the jankiest thing I've seen in a while.

Anyway, it seems as though the protagonist is a Rick Chandler, he has a brother named Roy. That's about all I'm going to get from the "training", there's a lot of text and a lot of characters I lack context for at this stage in the game. I don't know who Rodia Baahamu is and I'm not reading a wall of Japanese text to find out. The basic gist though, is that Rick is in some kind of military school, and its found out that he has magic powers. Back to that menu, it's very broken, it seems, moving doesn't properly register and pressing a button seems to do nothing.

Training teaches you movement. Basically you get the numpad, 8 goes forward, 7 & 9 turn left and right, 4&6 move left and right, 4 moves back. A trick of the game's movement is that the player will automatically move left or right if he's going forward, over one tile differences. This is fairly simple, and the game has its tutorial quite well, making sure you understand what it is you are doing. If you fail it teaches you it again.
Until we get to the afterburner. The concept is simple, what the game is asking of you is bizarre. The text is a just slow enough for me to understand, which makes it crap when I press the A key again and the game STARTS THE TEXT OVER AGAIN. I eventually figure out, more through trial and error than reading the actual text, is that it wants you to try to cut a precise path through a sidepath rather than just slamming into the trees. This follows up with silent mode. Press S and you move silently. I hope there isn't a stealth section. I'd hate a stealth section.
Shooting. You have two attacks, Z & X. Z appears to be any number of weapons from a fist, to a heavy cannon to various missiles. X is just a light machine gun. There's a nice firing rate to it all, perhaps too aggressive, its very easy to run dry if you aren't careful. Enter enters the weapon menu, and its still janky, but as long as you make sure you're on the right item by pressing left or right before pressing Z or space, it works.

After the missile training, things get weird again. It wants me to pick out a weapon consisting of some four kanji, a landmine after checking. Fair enough, but I have five options on the weapon menu, none of which have kanji. Which is also weird, because I have six weapons. I have no ammo either. None of the names sound like a landmine.

I discover the issue, I'm missing a key that a FM Towns would have, which is a "transformation" key, translated from Japanese. See, something I didn't notice before now was that you could switch weapons with some function keys, because they're labeled P*F keys in-game and in the manual. At first I tried another emulator, Tsuguru, but that didn't work. Then I noticed that Unz has the option to rebind keys even if its a bit hidden. Ten minutes later after having figured out how to change the region and language in WINE, and I have it set up how I wanted. (Because by default it shows the same thing every non-Japanese computer shows, despite having said fonts installed on my system) Turns out it was the convert key, which I definitely don't have.

Discounting the fact that I don't have the key, this is actually pretty badly thought out. The HUD in its present state can only show three items on each side, of course, but the weapon menu has no such excuse and neither do we for just selecting a weapon. We have 10 numbers on the keyboard, use them. Anyway, mines work like you'd think, they're clever, but knowing me this will have been completely useless outside of situations where it really hits the fan. This is followed up with a stunning mine, another mine which I guess damages radar, and finally remote explosives.

Next up is flares and chaff. F and D respectively. They work like in flight sims, missiles heading towards you, press both keys and hope you didn't just screw up. I still don't know how you're supposed to know which you're supposed to use.
Use the "Non-conversion key" to detect mines. Good thing it was bound to the non-existent non-conversion key on my computer or I'd never find it. Its a toggle, so I can show you what it shows. Movement is fast, so it is tricky avoiding least until I discovered you could punch the mines. Cool.
Now jump over some missiles. You jump by pressing space. You can't jump over the walls or anything, at least not yet. Something tells me if the game expects me to do this on the regular I'm not going to make it to the end of the game.

After this there's a game of chasing three enemies with your fists, then a regular fight. Before all enemies were weaponless. First observation, don't get close, being far away is key. Hit them with missiles, never be within their sight. And that ends the training.

Let's not talk about some of the frustration going on here. The GUI is very effective, telling you everything of value at a glance. Half this stuff I didn't even need the training and manual for, its just that intuitive. We got a compass, energy draining on the right of the game screen, and a timer on the far right. Flashing lights indicate where enemies are if you missed them on the mini-map and radar. Oh, it looks very nice. Only problem is occasionally keys stick.

Now, the game itself starting with the intro. Wow, this has some smooth animation. Almost takes me away from how long and unbearable this opening cutscene is. So, yeah, let's talk about that. It's basically just a series of sprites over backgrounds, with said sprites probably being larger than what you can see on-screen. Sometimes it goes as fancy as to have three sprites on-screen at once, on background, one primary and on over-screen.
The intro is divided into three parts, an animated sequence showing two characters entering a cave, Rick in a mech, and another one called Serena coming in through another way. It's not exactly clear to me what's going on outside of Serena getting chased. They seem to at least be friendly to each other considering it ends with them pointing their guns at one another without shooting. Then we get a credits sequence, much like a typical anime. Finally, dialog returns.

After Roy and another character talk about something related to what Rick and Serena seem to be searching for, we get a mysterious character and we return to Rick and Serena. I have no idea what they're talking about. I can read most of it, but it isn't on-screen enough for me to comprehend. They introduce themselves to each other though, that much is clear and then the game begins. I'm kind of not caring that much since this story doesn't strike me as particularly important, it's trying to be one of those animes with the goofy comedy bits to break up tension. You probably know what I mean.

The game starts up rather suddenly. Serena talks before it starts, saying something about escaping from and possibly fighting the imperial army. I was under the impression that Rick was with the imperial army, I don't know why he isn't when his brother clearly still is, and I don't know why I'm going to do anything at all for a woman who just called me an idiot. And then they start arguing about it. What the hell, game? I don't mind playing some kind of traitor to some evil empire, but not for some woman who comes off as a total bitch. This goes on for a good few minutes. And then someone named "Efuru" joins in. Elf? Based on the manual, it's a magic voice inside him.

I've seen games criticized for taking less time to get to the gameplay taking too long to get to the gameplay. This is seriously annoying. Getting to regular combat is such a relief. You start off with fairly low stores, most missiles gone and relatively low ammo, along with being seriously outgunned. Training helped a great deal, using the missiles to safely take out enemies, then switching to a heavy gun, to using the mines and finally just the afterburner and taking a tactical retreat. This game can easily screw things up, but that was fun.

More dialog. I've played this for little more than an hour, counting practice sessions I didn't write down, and I already hate dialog in this game. Something about a magician.

Quite possibly not that far off from my face at this time.
Another animated cutscene. A scientist lady and another military dude are talking, and then they call in a mercenary. The game returns. I move a little, more dialog, another person in my "in-game" view, Sami, this is the mech's computer. The mercenary, Doug calls us up. Blah, blah, blah, you will die, there is no escape. Sure there isn't, just give Serena and Rick twenty minutes to converse over this shocking revelation.
I don't have a lot for this fight, just a couple of mines and the hope that I can shoot the guy enough times before he missiles me to death. Quickly, a conversation starts, he asks us to stop. Rick is shocked by this. Damn it, Rick, don't make me like you. Doug seems to like the cut of Rick's jib. And then the screen switches to a cutscene with Serena. She thinks he could be convinced to join the rebel army. Rick says maybe with a threat. I keep seeing MPS in this game and I have no idea what it actually is. Doug adds in that Rick's magical powers are great, and he either understands it or is joining up.
Another cutscene, Serena's sister, Sofia, talks to us, along with a guy named Rondo Aima. She's glad that he could make it. She calls their group the "Rebels of Riidaa", your guess as to what Riidaa means is probably better than mine. Rick is the first of what she hopes are many pilots who will join up with the rebels. At least I think so. Something I noticed while she was talking was that Serena, her sister, kept making funny faces because her character is to be as obnoxious as possible. Rick is smitten with Sofia because Sofia's the beautiful one, at least by this game's anime standards.

She then has Rondo escort Rick around. During this conversation they talk again about MPS. I don't know what MPS is, and at this point I assume I'm not going to find out, besides it either being magical powers or something important we have to find. And this is the end of the intro cutscene. Next time, base camp and playing as Rick on foot.

I am not particularly worried about finishing this one, I'm just interesting in making my way through enough of it to make a fair judgement. I like the general concept, but Japanese titles make me nervous, they're either pretty good or pretty bad. I don't seem to be able to save in-game, so as long as save states work I'll probably keep on trucking.

That said, based on how this goes, it may be hard for me to keep track of things. I'm going to have to read the dialog after the fact, it's just not feasible for me to do so in the middle of things. I'm going to make the assumption that the story is roughly as follows, Rick leaves the imperial forces at the start, meets with Serena, then fights his way out. The guy I called a mercenary, is actually a member of the resistance, and his fight with Rick is actually proving that Rick can join the rebels.

Further recap, imperial is in the sense of empire, no language trickery. Basically Star Wars, but with mechs and anime stuff.

This Session: 2 hours

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Conan: Hall of Volta (1984)

Name:Conan: Hall of Volta
Developer:SE Software
Time:2 hours
Won:Yes (85W/67L)

Conan the Barbarian is a character who needs no introduction. Despite having a pop culture presence that mostly just apes a fourty-year-old movie, Conan is well-regarded as the archetypical barbarian character, strong, fearless and violent. This is in contrast to his book character, who is both smart and strong, only barbaric because he is foreign.

It was only natural that games would be made involving the character. Especially since, due to a weird quirk of US copyright law, he was technically in the public domain long before he actually should have. Once upon a time, you had to renew things so they remained in copyright, and Conan's original stories weren't. (Lovecraft has the same issue) Trademark is a different issue, but considering the fast and loose nature of early games, who knows? Unlicensed Star Trek games were common up until the '90s. I'd guess it was official, that logo is from the movie, at that point you're playing with fire.

Hall of Volta was originally released on Apple II, and was ported to Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64, along with various Japanese PC ports. I'll be playing the Atari 8-bit port, the C64 one is apparently quite poor.

Playing the game, Conan controls smoothly but not perfectly. He moves at a nice pace for a screen of this size. Sprite size is good, small is better in something like this. Animation is a bit janky, but captures the barbarian feel. Jumping has a very meaty feel to it, I like it. You do need some windup to get any real horizontal reach though. For a weapon, Conan gets swords, which function like boomerangs. Left and right only. If it returns, you don't lose it, if it hits anything its gone. Conan starts with 10, in addition to 3 lives. Conan dies in one hit.

The first screen is a nice introduction. Moving around, especially climbing up ladders. The sole enemy is this bat...possibly eagle, flyer. It goes in a set pattern, and it dies with one sword. The bigger question here is this big jump. I keep falling down just before the ledge. Eventually I assume I'm doing something wrong and check a video LP. Wait, he just jumped past it. Oh, I get it, I'm hitting the little jutting bit, I have to give it a bigger wind-up.

Second screen. This is simpler than the first. Clouds roll by, but they seem to do nothing. A creature flies, but he doesn't get in my path. Conan doesn't get hurt by fall damage. Nice. It was basically a straight shot for me, get the key on the right, then some careful jumps. When's the other shoe going to drop?

Third screen. Damn it, I hate when I'm right. So this one, this one is tricky. Conan can't hurt the scorpions assuming he can aim at them. He also can't jump over the lava. Examining the area, I can spot a gateway briefly appearing a couple of times in the upper area, then a couple of times in the lower area. A gem (key, basically) is up there. Figuring it out is the easy part, because this is a tricky bit of movement. You can't just go up there, because between the two portals there are two scorpions and a bird constantly stays up there. You'll die if you reach there while the two are up there. So you have to get lucky while they're downstairs.

Fourth screen. This changes the game away from its previous find out the trick bit. Because you can just jump through the waterfall to the key area, but without some gems, you can't get the key and can't get out. This one has some animation to it. A platform falls quickly, and a platform rises on that geyser. Land on it without the platform there, and Conan dies. This is all about getting any items that randomly spawn here, while dodging what appear to be mushroom men. More swords drop, helpful, but more importantly, gems.

This proves to be a bit more difficult than I was imagining. Its easy to end up in a loop of just avoiding the mushroom men. If too many end up on-screen, the game starts slowing down. Personally, I would have thought that you'd design a game so that didn't happen, but meh. I'm also not really sure what the randomization process is here, but sometimes it takes a long time for a gem, others it doesn't. If I had to guess you need a certain number of swords.

Fifth screen. There's a massive pile of gems one floor below, but no easy way to reach it. You need one to get out of here. Oh, why didn't I grab a spare in the last room? Its shifted entirely into a matter of luck in getting past here. Fire pops up and goes in random directions on the bottom floor, and now jumping and shooting is sticking in bad ways. Dragons continually spawn in, which makes it all worse. They shoot fire, and while you can shoot it down, its a losing fight.

Eventually, I take them all out, they don't spawn indefinitely, only five. Swords respawn and you can get a second gem at least if you need it. But the top floor provides a difficult puzzle, because I have no idea how to get past the lightning going between the two orbs there...and it turns out the first "door" isn't actually door. Not a good move. This is more generous than I thought, but if I weren't using save states this would be incredibly frustrating.

Sixth screen, a boss fight of sorts. An annoying bossfight. Its tricky, but there is something to it. Two kinds of enemies spawn, with the central orb there being invincible. Shadowy cloud creatures, these are invulnerable too, and an eye. Kill some eyes, and a ladder appears to the very top, where you can shoot the rope holding the chandelier, destroying the orb. Swords respawn at the bottom until you take out the orb.

Seventh screen, unfortunately I didn't take a screenshot. Gems fall into the upper left area, something turns them into birds. The birds then go in through the hole on the right, where you come in, and follow a path in the bottom area. Not just any birds, because some are invincible, the ones that turn red/pink. Do this a couple of times and a neat little animation plays of the bird up there getting freed, dropping that guy off in the lava, and then carrying Conan to the exit.

The end. Abrupt but hard fought. Even using save states I wasn't sure I was going to win this one.

A simple, boomeranging weapon. 1/10

Rather simple, often functioning as an extension of the level itself. 2/10


The game gets a lot out of seven levels, each requiring you to do something clever to advance. Nevertheless, this is very much a game you need an emulator for, without save states some of these levels are immensely frustrating with only a chance of figuring things out before going back to the start. 4/10

Player Agency:
When it works it works, when it doesn't it is frustrating. Jumps can stop for no apparent reason and while I understand the reasoning, this was not the game to give a standing jump zero momentum. I never got to the top of a ladder without jumping, so it has that going against it. 4/10

Simple item placement. 1/10

Its not very Conan-esque, but it lives up to the ideals of the 8-bit era. A simple action game with a subtle character that just spending five minutes on would never reveal. In this regard this belongs with the greats of the era. 4/10

If you take Conan out of the equation, everything is nice, but simple. Well-animated. Eye-searing colors, sadly an Apple II staple even in a port like this. 2/10


Your usual bleeps and bloops, with a background track. I should hate this, but for some reason I don't, but its still not very good. 2/10

That's 20. Respectable, but not amazing.

Most reviews I found were for the C64 version. Curiously, despite this one being inferior, it still mostly rated highly and everyone seemed to beat it. The issues are mostly the extreme variation between screen difficulty and the short length. Outside of flickering I didn't have to deal with. That's a fair observation, especially the former, in a time when you only had one game for months, but I think the less is more approach works better at a time when that's not really a problem anymore.