Thursday, October 19, 2017

Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981)

In the mood for an RPG after my brief play through Loom, I at first considered finishing up my game of Lands of Lore (I am pretty sure I am very near the end), but wanted something turn-based that I could play at my leisure.  Might & Magic was tempting, but I wanted to start a new game.

Well it just so happened that I recently managed to get my hands on The Ultimate Wizardry Archives, a collection of the first seven Wizardry games released in 1998.  This is a set I had back in the day, but I never got really far in this series of games.  I had zero patience for mapping dungeons on graph paper back in 1998—by the time I had access to Wizardry, I had already played much more advanced titles such as Ultima VI and Pool of Radiance, and Wizardry just seemed too basic and boring for me to put any time into it.

It doesn't help that my previous exposure to the series was through the NES port.  While that is a fine port indeed, considering, I don't think as a kid I even understood the fact that you were supposed to be drawing maps of these things.  I guess I figured you would just memorize the dungeons by going through them over and over.

So now, with graph paper and pencil in hand, I launched DOSBOX, started up Wizardry and—



What are these colors!?!?!
I can deal with old graphics, but this color scheme is horrible.  Surely there is a better way to play this game.

Actually, this is what happens when you play these games on a VGA video card.  Configuring DOSBOX to emulate a CGA card gives us the following:

Much better! This is how the game would have looked back in the day on period correct hardware (more or less).

One of the benefits of playing the games from The Ultimate Wizardry Archives is that the first five of the games can be installed to hard disk (the original IBM PC versions would boot straight from the floppy disk), meaning there is no need to M)AKE SCENARIO DISK.  (This also means that you can easily keep a backup of your game as you play, simply by copying the save file after you are done playing for the day).

One part of RPGs that I simultaneously dread and enjoy is character creation.  If there are too many choices I tend to freeze up (with good reason, as you could easily make worthless characters in a lot of these games, wasting tons of time), and it's even worse when character generation has random aspects.

Character generation in Wizardry doesn't overwhelm you with too many options, and although there is some randomness to it, it basically comes down to, "Do I just take the average characters that the game generates for me, or do I keep regenerating until I get super characters." I have little patience for this stuff, so I ended up with what the game handed me: five average characters and one super character.

After buying equipment, I was off to adventure!

Wizardry has two types of screens.  When you are in the Castle preparing for adventure, it's a bunch of text menus.  The Maze is presented in wireframe "3D" where you see things from the perspective of your characters.  It ain't much too look at, but moving about is fast and responsive.  I found myself really getting into the game very quickly, and the B&W wireframe dungeon walls actually became quite atmospheric.

Before long you get into combat, and this is what you see.  I do like that your HITS are visible at all times (a complaint I had with Might & Magic is that you need to access a status screen to view your characters in battle).  You get a nice little drawing of all the monsters in the current encounter. I have to admit, I really like this art.  Unlike the grim NES art, it's kinda whimsical and friendly without being goofy.  

That UNDEAD KOBOLD up there appears to be doing The Robot.

At this point the combat is not very challenging.  Rather than fighting powerful monsters that require you to heal up after every battle, you are fighting large groups of monsters that slowly chip away at your HITS.  This makes the combat game more about resource management than tactics (at least early on).

Over the course of a couple days of playing 15-30 minutes a day, I was able to map much of the first dungeon level and gain a few experience levels.  The first dungeon level is very interesting because there are a lot of things to find (the use of which is unclear at this point), and even some early mapping puzzles/challenges, such as dark rooms (where you have to "feel" your way around the room by bumping into walls you can't see), a section with a bunch of small rooms with one-way secret doors, and even some teleporters!

There is something very satisfying about the simplicity of a game like Wizardry.  It's something that you really can just spend 10-15 minutes on when you have some time, thanks to how fast combat is and the snappy response when exploring.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Loom (1990): Final Thoughts

Well that was quick.

I had a great time with Loom, but I am positive that I would have been extremely disappointed if I had spent my hard-earned money on a game of this length when I was a kid.

All in all, Loom took me maybe a couple of hours total to get through the whole game without using any walkthroughs or anything.  Although I've played plenty of adventure games, I can count the number that I have completed on a single hand (Leisure Suit Larry, Shadow of the Comet and... errrr... now Loom).  I don't think the game would go by any quicker or slower depending on your skill at these kinds of games, because the game is so linear and the solutions to a given puzzle so limited, that you almost have no choice but to finish this game.

In fact, the greatest innovations of Loom—the unconventional approach to inventory even this early on in the genre and the lack of fail states—also serve as very restrictive limitations on what players can actually do in the game.  For all the unfairness of a game like Space Quest—in which death lurks under every rock and in every hole, and the player can easily reach a "walking dead" state where it would be impossible for him or her to complete the game without starting over—one realizes that allowing the player to actually make mistakes and his or her character to die only makes it that much sweeter when you finally reach the end.  In contrast, completing Loom makes you feel like you were able to tie your own shoelaces.

I enjoyed taking notes on the various spells I found and then looking through the spellbook to consider what spells might be useful in a given situation.  Unfortunately, this ends up being quite limited in practice because the game is so linear and you can only cast a few spells for the majority of game—it seems like you go 25% of the game with but a handful of spells, learn a few more in the middle, and then the rest at the very end (and most of the spells are generally just used in a single situation).

Having said that, I enjoyed the brief time I spent with Loom, and I wish they had followed up and make a longer, more difficult sequel.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Loom (1990): Initial Impressions

Loom is a game I have always wanted to play, but have never gotten around to doing so.

What attracted me first to the game was a really intriguing ad I saw for it in Game Players magazine (a magazine that I subscribed to as a kid that covered console and computer games).  Like many ads back in the early 90s, it had a few screens from the game and a bunch of text.  Boy, how do I miss ads that didn't completely insult your intelligence.

What attracted the game to me was, of course, the beautiful graphics, but also the unique interface that featured what seemed to be a long branch with a musical staff under it, and then a box on the right with a zoomed-in view of whatever you were looking at/selecting.

I never got around to getting this game when I was young, but that doesn't mean I can't fire up good old DOSBOX and give it a go now!

The first thing that will likely strike a first time player of Loom is the music, which consists of parts of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Loom also happens to support the amazing Roland MT-32 sound synthesizer, and while it certainly sounds wonderful on it, the MT-32 is used far, far better in many other games.  The problem, in my opinion, is that the MT-32—while amazing—is just not really suited to play classical music (especially strings, which are featured in the first real song you hear in the game).  It sounds better than the Adlib version of the soundtrack, but just a little.  I would not be surprised if someone told me that the game was composed for Adlib and converted to MT-32.

The second thing that will likely strike you is the gorgeous EGA graphics.  This game does more with 16 colors than most games do with 16 million.  When I first saw the screens in that ad I mentioned above, I just assumed the game was running in 256 color VGA.  However, seeing it in person is another thing altogether.  Dithering is done with restraint—and even more than that, the limitations of the EGA color palette are expertly used to suggest things and create mood.  It reminds me a lot of how an excellently shot B&W movie can look impossibly deep.  One example is that a lot of trees in the foreground are simply black against the sky; with a richer palette, I have no doubt that these trees would just be a darker shade of brown (for proof, see the VGA remake of Loom).

The only downside to the graphics is with the close-up portraits you get when you talk to people.  Now, they aren't bad at all.  The issue here is that, while EGA is very suited for drawing somewhat surreal backgrounds (in the right hands), it is not suited at all for depicting people due to a lack of skin tones.  Skin ends up having to be either pinkish-red or reddish-brown, and neither look good no matter what skin color you are trying to depict.  The art itself is quite nice, but it's just an unfortunate reality of the EGA palette.

Finally let's get to that interface that so intrigued me back in the day.  Basically, instead of an inventory, you have a book full of spells.  Only the book of spells is actually a physical booklet outside the game in your hands.  Objects and people throughout the world will play four-note songs to you, which you need to write down and then, through interacting with the world, figure out what spell the song represents.  The spell booklet that comes with the game lists all the spells, but leaves the notes blank for you to fill in as you find them (and the spell notes are randomized each time you play).

The genius part of this is two-fold.  First, the game doesn't tell you what song is what spell.  You need to figure it out by watching what happens or just through trial and error.  Second, some spells can be reversed (by playing the song in reverse).  Loom is not a very difficult game, but it forces you to observe, take notes, and think outside the box.  That really brings you into the game.

All in all, I am extremely impressed with the first hour or so spent with this game.  I'm sure I would have loved it as a kid, and it's a shame I never got around to getting it back then.  Definitely looking forward to finishing this one (and from what I understand that won't take very long at all).

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994): Initial Impressions

This is one of the few series where I actually started with the first game!  A friend of mine had recommended it.

Him: "It's like Doom but like dragons and wizards and stuff, and you can go anywhere in the world."

Me: "That sounds like a pretty big arena."

Him: "There's actually no arena."

Even though the game lies to your face, what can I say? It was like in those movies where the worker tells his rich fat cat boss what's up and the boss goes, "YOU SURE GOT BALLS TO SAY THAT TO ME" and all the suckups and yesmen fall silent but then the boss goes, "GIVE THIS MAN A RAISE" and then looks at that one slimy yesman and fires him, then they all dance to some Rolling Stones song or something—fade to credits.

I eventually tracked down a copy at a retail store, brought it home and installed it, played it for a few minutes and got killed over and over in the surprisingly long and winding intro dungeon, and lost all patience with the game.

FAST FORWARD many years and I decided to revisit this one since I have played (but not finished) every other game in the series.  You could download the game for free for a while, but my copy came from as a free gift when I bought some other games.

Initial impressions: this game is amazing and I was a fool for giving up in frustration back then.

The game opens with some frankly amazing music (if played through a Roland Sound Canvas or CM-500 in mode C).  Like all great video game soundtracks, the music in Arena is both atmospheric and catchy.  Many of the tracks are minor or major variations on the same theme; for example, all the town themes are generally the same, but with different instrumentation depending on the location or time (one nice touch is the sleigh-bells added when it snows in the game).

You get a short summary of the story in text on some scrolls (the elder scrolls?!?!!??!) and then are given a choice on how to create your character.  I'm lazy and just decided to choose my race and class and be done with it.  There are a lot of options here, and you get to tweak your attributes before setting out on your quest.  Ah, the sweet sound of clicking buttons when tweaking your stats—just one of the many little pleasures when playing RPGs.

The entire game is played from a first-person perspective in real-time.  Although combat is all based on stats, it plays like an action game (just because your sword looks like it hit something, doesn't mean that you actually hit).

The first dungeon is actually a lot of fun.  Imagine your first day on the job you walk in wearing underwear and tripping over every bump in the rug.  You spill the coffee all over yourself and pass out.  Someone from HR brings you back with smelling salts.  Fast forward 8 hours later and you are wearing a magical Armani suit that protects you from skeletons, kicking down office doors and giving stirring business speeches.  Instead of driving home you just charge your power up, leap into the air, and fly home.  That is what it feels like when you get through this dungeon.


After using the manual to answer a question to prove you legitimately own the game, you are in some town.  The game gives you a lead on what to do next but otherwise you are on your own.  The world is MASSIVE.  Unfortunately it's also BORING AND MOSTLY EMPTY.  Other than the towns and main dungeons, the entire game is basically randomly constructed.  What this means is, while you may be tempted to walk around and explore the world, this is not that type of game.  Instead, you are supposed to talk to people, gather information, and then use your map to select locations to instantly travel to.  Although it sounds dull, I actually really enjoyed gathering information in this game.  When you talk to a person in a town you can ask them for directions to various places.  If you are too far away they will usually give you a direction to head in, and then you basically just keep doing this as you get closer and closer to your destination; at some point, a person will just write down the location on your map and you are good to go.

In this photo our hero asks a friendly bikini babe for directions to the nearest wizard.

All in all, a very enjoyable game so far, as long as you are in the right mindset.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress (1982): Initial Impressions

I have been a fan of the Ultima series since I played Ultima Exodus on the NES.  Once I learned that it was actually a port of a computer game (and there were two games before it even!) I was desperate for more Ultima. Luckily, Ultima Quest of the Avatar came out shortly on the NES, and then I found a copy of Ultima VI: The False Prophet for my C64.  It probably goes without saying that that horrible port soured me on Ultima for a while.

Once I got a PC I eventually got back into the series with Ultima VI: The False Prophet, Ultima Underworld, and Ultima VII: The Black Gate.

I also eventually got the awesome Ultima Collection on PC, and finally decided to give the older games a try.

I started with Ultima I, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, playing it to the end.  I even did it the old fashioned way, jotting notes on the world maps and mapping out dungeons on graph paper.  With evil wizard Mondain defeated, I was excited, then, to move on to Ultima II.

Ultima II begins with a painstakingly detailed—nay, photorealistic—depiction of a happy dragon.  You start by creating a character, selecting from several races and classes and boom there are you just standing there in some field.

It is immediately obvious that Ultima II is a classic top-down RPG, and you know you are gonna spend the next few hours at least smiting foes and devouring their delicious experience points, exploring the land, and chatting with townspeople for clues.

However, there are some unique things about Ultima II. It is played in pseudo realtime.  The game is turn based, but if you do nothing after a period of time you will automatically end your turn and the game will update one step.

Also unique: the game takes place on planet Earth and you start in the midwest USA in 1990.  There are time gates that appear from time to time to take you into the past and future (helpfully noted on the map that came with the game).  One of your earliest tasks therefore is to get an idea of how the time gates function.

Once you get a good understanding of that, it's time to gather information—but before you can think of doing that, you need to establish a safe "system" for survival.  You have two stats to monitor: your HPs, and your food.  HPs work like every other RPG, while food constantly depletes and if it reaches 0 you are gone.  Your character must have some kind of condition, because he is constantly eating.  Just walking from the town gate to the local McDonalds (for real) and back will consume several units of food.  I like to imagine the hero as this Conan looking warrior, his pockets full of trail mix and jerky, his cheeks stuffed full like a chipmunk.

What this means is that you need to find a reliable location where you can purchase food and healing easily.  Once you get to this point, you get excited to go figure out what to do... but this game is nuts.  Instead of useful hints, townspeople are all 100% insane and just babble nonsense at you.  I'm not talking about "Welcome to South Town! It is south town." stuff.  I am talking about "UGH ME STRONG" and stuff like that.

So this is gonna be one of those games where you blindly stumble around until by luck you find something I guess.  There are dungeons and towers all over to explore, but somewhat infamously, you never have to even set foot in one to complete the game.

The early game is therefore pretty much awful.  Until you get a good survival route in place, you have zero leeway to actually explore.  I had the benefit of having played this a bit on the C64 previously, so I knew pretty much where to go immediately to at least be able to survive.  Then, you need to get a somewhat rare item that is randomly dropped by a certain monster, so that you can get a ship and have a bit more freedom in exploring.  How anyone could have had the patience to figure this out back then, I will never know.  Incidentally, most walkthroughs (even the "official" one) recommend that you just steal everything to skip the tedious first few hours of the game.

From what I remember, once you get the ship the game is pretty much won.  You are basically invincible on your ship so you are free to massacre monsters and gain gold and items with impunity.  From there it's just a matter of getting a bunch of other items that are randomly dropped, then uncovering all these items hidden in ridiculous areas no one would ever be able to figure out without a hint guide or just dumb luck.

I'm going to try to enjoy it though as I would have as a kid... which means I will be exploring the dungeons and yes the other planets—all of which are 100% meaningless and pretty much empty.  Sometimes being overwhelmed by a giant computer game can be fun, and I think that is the best attitude to have when playing this one.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Legend of Kyrandia (1992): Final Thoughts

I was perhaps a little hasty in singing the praises of The Legend of Kyrandia.

Although the first half of game (with the exception of the senseless gem puzzle) was just as fun as I remembered it, the second half takes a very noticeable dive in quality.  The difference in quality is so great that I wouldn't be surprised if two completely different teams were in charge of them.

While none of the puzzles in the first half are particularly clever (the maze puzzle comes close in how you have to figure its rules out through experimentation, then apply those rules to safely get through the maze [instead of just save-reloading your way through it]), the game is good looking (and sounding) enough that simply exploring the world and seeing what comes next is enjoyable.

Sometimes in a game you get stuck and no matter what you try you can't figure it out and have to look the solution up online (or, 20+ years ago, you asked your friends if they had any ideas [or maybe dialed into Prodigy]).  You can tell a great puzzle from a poor one by how you feel after reading the solution.  With a great puzzle you will think, "why didn't I think of that?!" and you respect the designers and promise to yourself that you will think harder next time.  With a poor puzzle you think, "huh" or "..." or "what?"  It makes the rest of the game seem worse and you lose motivation to solve anything on your own.

Sadly, the second half of Kyrandia is like that.  I would say that there are four major puzzles in the game.  The first is the awful gem puzzle (in hindsight not so bad... more later), followed by the decent maze.  That is the first half.  The final two are a totally ridiculous alchemy puzzle and the final area (which is one large multistep puzzle).

The alchemy puzzle is just bullshit.  The only hint you get is "get me a blueberry" then the hint giver disappears. 

I remembered the solution vaguely from playing through as a kid, so I checked online figuring, there has got to be something in the game somewhere that at least gives you an idea.  Maybe some book or note I missed.  Nope.  The lady is gone for good, and you are supposed to figure out that you need to mix several potions, then combine those potions to make new ones, in order to solve a couple of puzzles.  You can place literally anything in the cauldron, and of the things you actually have to mix, half of them randomly generate way back at the beginning of the game.  After mixing them you then have to travel to yet another location to the place to mix the potions into new potions. 

Come on.  Left to your own devices, how long would you have to spend going back and forth and back and forth—literally across the entire game at this point—and figuring this out purely through trial and error?  The worst thing about the puzzle is the total lack of feedback.  You do get a different effect if you mix the wrong thing vs. the right thing, but nothing more.  There is no thread connecting the puzzles you need to solve with the potions you need to make.

This could have been a GREAT puzzle.  Make the player go have to find pages from an alchemy book listing potions, ingredients, and effects.  Hell, even put it in the manual as a form of copy protection.  You could read the effects, and it would make your imagination run wild as you consider all the stuff you haven't figured out and how the potions would fit in to it all.

To be honest, this potion puzzle completely demotivated me.  I got sick of fooling around and wasting my time trying to mix potions completely randomly to create some unknown effect that I could somehow use on something, so I just looked it up and got on with the game.

But it doesn't end there.  The final area looks great, and could have been great.  It's a giant puzzle basically, and while some parts of it are really cool, others are just pixel hunting for junk you don't even know you need.

I really hate to say it, but Kyrandia is just not a good game.  The atmosphere is great and the graphics are wonderful, and I even liked most of the characters and generic fairytale feel.  But the actual game—exploring and puzzles—is a total letdown for at least half of the game.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Legend of Kyrandia (1992): Initial Impressions

The Legend of Kyrandia (or, as the cover would suggest Fables & Fiends The Legend of Kyrandia Book One) has a very special place in my heart.

Growing up, I was a Commodore 64 kid.  I have tons of great memories playing a lot of great games on that machine.  Pool of Radiance, Questron II, and Demon's Winter are just a few examples, though there were plenty of others.  I never saw the C64 as a computer... more like just another video game console that played much more complex games; the RPGs on the C64 were obviously much more complex than anything on the NES for instance.  Even though the C64 was an excellent platform for action games, I eventually settled into a groove of playing action games on the NES and RPGs on the C64.

At some point my mom ended up getting me an IBM PS/2 computer, likely to replace the old unreliable word processor I had been using throughout middle school.  I just saw it as another game machine though, and just kept on using that word processor.

Once I got my hands on a PC the poor C64 went in the closet, and I went shopping for games.  I remember my first few PC games very clearly: The Legend of Kyrandia, Quest for Glory III, and Ultima VII.  Used to simply booting games from the floppy with my C64, I had a LOT to learn...

Kyrandia starts with a beautiful title screen which seamlessly transitions to the introduction story.  The animation in this introduction simply blew my mind.  I was used to stuff like the admittedly impressive cinemas in Ninja Gaiden, and while the C64 version of Ultima VI was a great attempt, nothing until then could even come close to what 13 year old me was seeing here.

This part is particularly impressive.  As he writes the "camera" focuses on his (animated) hand while the rest of the scene is slightly out of focus.  Noticing something is awry, he stops writing, and the "camera" focuses on his face, putting his hand slightly out of focus.  The "camera" then focuses on the window in the back.  Even now this attention to detail is impressive.

After the amazing introduction the game starts proper.  So what is Kyrandia?  It's a pretty typical point-and-click adventure game, where you explore a "3D" screen space, collect items, and solve puzzles that generally come down to using the right item in the right place.  It is very similar to the games Sierra was doing at the time.

In fact Kyrandia is very similar to Sierra's King's Quest in that both games/series feature a somewhat fairy tale-like spin on the fantasy genre.  There are dragons and wizards and jesters, and both series are overall innocent enough to be enjoyed by pretty much anyone.

The first thing you notice is how beautiful this game looks.  The game was developed by Westwood, which was well-known for its extremely detailed and colorful house style of graphics.  There is not a single boring scene in this game.  I went mad with power as I took screenshots and I could post pretty much any shot I took and it would look great.  In fact, the screenshots are definitely what convinced me to buy the game in the first place.

The second thing you notice is how great the music is.  Coming from the C64, which is legendary for the quality of the music it can put out, I have to admit that my SoundBlaster clone at the time was a bit of a let down when it came to music.  Kyrandia though, whether due to its excellent compositions or clever music programming, sounded amazing.  I am playing it now with a Roland CM-500 synthesizer (the game was composed on a Roland synthesizer) and the quality of the music is simply unbelievable for 1992.

So is this game perfect or what?  Although I really like it, there are some things that aren't great.  The main character, Brandon, is pretty boring (though I have to admit that the voice acting in the CD-ROM version for the character helps to make him a lot more likable), for instance.

More importantly, there are some illogical puzzles that end up just being trial and error.  Shortly into the game you need to combine some gems in the correct order, and you are given a clue saying you should start with "summer" then go in order by birthstone.  Since the character made a point of saying "summer" and there are four slots, I figured there would one for each season in order... so, summer, fall, winter, spring.  I looked up birthstones, went through the gems I had collected, and everything I did was wrong.  Turns out you need to find a "sunstone" in a very unfair location and start with that, then just save the game and restore as you work through all your gems.  This made me feel ridiculous for overthinking the problem, but also annoyed that the clue—though very useful—hinged upon finding an item in a pretty unlikely location.

On the other hand I loved the mapping puzzle that came shortly after that.  The Internet hates this part, complaining that it requires trial and error and slows the game down to a halt.  I disagree.  Mapping puzzles have been a tradition in these kinds of games from way back, and as long as you are mapping the game (though the game doesn't really require it except for this part, it's a good habit to keep with these kinds of games anyway) there is no problem at all getting through this part.  Note though that this hardly qualifies as trial and error if you map it—there is one part early on where you need to decide between two choices and the wrong one kills you, but after that the rest is a purely logical mapping puzzle.  This is no different from any other game where death is a possibility... just save before you make your choice.

This is what happens if you make that wrong choice, by the way:

I am cheating a bit with this one, as I finished Kyrandia back around when it was released.  However, it's been 24 years or so and I have forgotten much of it, so here we are.  Kyrandia is a beautiful looking and sounding game, and is a lot of fun to play.  It's not afraid to kill you when you make a mistake, and the limited inventory means you can't just pick everything up without thinking of it.  And the bad guy is a cool villain (moreso in the CD-ROM version thanks to some great voice acting).  I'm really enjoying my second play of this, and will definitely see it to the end.