Posts Tagged ‘1990s games’

Flashback to Flashback?

26 January, 2013

Welcome back to the jungle!

Well, this is an interesting development. It looks like someone has decided to remake the classic ’90s arcade adventure Flashback for modern platforms. And when I say “remake” I mean “remake”, not “re-imagining”. It’ll have posh new graphics but the gameplay and levels are, apparently, going to be the same.

It’s been such a long time since I played Flashback for anything more than about ten minutes that I can’t remember whether it stands up well or now feels very dated but its reputation and my memories suggest that this might well transfer quite well to modern HD graphics and I’m always happy to see something that might attract people to the joys of 2D gaming.

There really is precious little to go on at the moment so why not gawp at the picture off in the top-right there? Pretty.

Better Beholder

14 August, 2012

I’ve been playing this game for a long time. That’s my excuse for the piss-poor, derivative names of the characters in my party.

Of the number of first-person, realtime CRPGs that cascaded into the market in the years following FTL’s seminal 1987 Atari ST title Dungeon Master the best known is still probably Eye of the Beholder. This excellent title, programmed by Westwood Studios and incorporating the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons ruleset and world, proved extremely popular and spawned a sequel – Eye of the Beholder II – which many fans believe surpasses the original, as well as a third game which nobody does. Taking control of a party of four adventurers, the player entered the sewers under the city of Waterdeep looking for the troublesome evil that plagued the city, progressing through a mixture of combat and puzzle-solving. Taking in the aforementioned stinky sewers, spider-infested dwarvern ruins and dark elf lairs the game had the feel of a fantasy epic, despite taking place entirely underground, and continues to have a fanbase to this day. There’s only one problem: which version to play. You see, the two most popular versions are those for the Amiga and MS-DOS machines; the Amiga has the far superior sound effects but the DOS version has 256-colour VGA graphics which look much better than the 32-colour Amiga port. It’s a toughy – pictures or sound, daddy or chips?

“And the best thing is, they can do it with proper graphics *and* sound!”

The thing is, there’s no need to make that choice. There’s actually a little-known unofficial port of EOB which brings both of these together but, more crucially, adds something even more important.

You see, despite generally being very good and still offering a great deal to modern gamers, CRPGs of that late ’80s/early ’90s era tend to put people off for one very simple reason: the player needs to make maps to progress and because this in the era before games had automapping (largely for reasons of RAM, I’m guessing) which meant maps had to be done the old-fashioned way: pen and graph paper. What was barely tolerable then is intolerable now and only the most patient retronaut would bother to break out the pad of squared paper and get cracking when they could play something that draws the dungeons for them instead.

So, when mixing-up the graphics of the DOS version with the sound effects of the Amiga version they naturally threw-in an automap as well.

So enough background, how do you play it? Well, sadly it’s not a fancy-pants Windows port along the line of the one done for Dungeon Master that you might have expected. It’s actually a version for AGA Amigas which runs from hard disc only, although it works through an Amiga emulator too if you can be arsed setting a HD up on it. As for where you can get it, that would be here.

And now you can all run off and solve the great mystery of Eye of the Beholder: why this brilliant enhanced port is so obscure and why people don’t do things like this more often…

Populous II: Trials of the Peter Molyneux

4 January, 2012

If you take too long to conquer a world monsters from ancient mythology start wandering across the sea and land causing all sorts of indescriminate trouble, a nice touch.

Happy New Year for the Space Year 2012, I hope you had a good Christmas and all of that. Now, where were we…?

This is the first part of a story about two games I’ve been playing quite a bit over the holiday period. They both have the same designer (Peter Molyneux) and share a lot of the same DNA but are separated by ten years and represent very different evolutionary stages of gaming. One is Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods and the other is Black & White.

Populous II I bought from Good old Games for the distinctly un-princely sum of $2.99 (that’s less than two quid in real money) during their Holiday Discount period (it’s over now, you’ll have to pay a mammoth $5.99 for it instead!). I have a lot of good memories of playing the Amiga version in the ’90s and the PC version is largely the same only with higher-resolution graphics, a few new features on full-screen mode, one extra spell and (as was typical in the early ’90s alas) poorer sound. For those who aren’t aware of Populous II it’s a god-game (in fact I think the first Populous may have been the originator of that particular label) where the player takes on the role of one of Zeus’s many demi-god children and must fight numerous opponents taken from Greek mythology (starting with figures like Pan and other demi-gods and ending with the gods of Olympus themselves) over an incredible 1000 different levels. Each level is an individual world containing followers of both the player and whoever you’re up against as well as having a number of rules (eg in some worlds water is fatal and others not, in some worlds you can raise and lower land and in others not).

A wee man representing the army of your leader leaves his villa. Maybe he's been forced-out by Coalition housing benefit cuts (satire! Or if you will, since this is ancient Greece, satyr)

To complete a level you have to defeat your opponent demi-god or deity which means you have to wipe-out his population of followers either by slowly defeating them or massively outnumbering them, building up enough mana to use a godly power called “armageddon” and have everyone change into a mythical hero and charge towards a big ruck from which only one side’s followers will emerge victorious. There are other powers to help you win as well and these are slowly handed-out to the player as he or she progresses through the game. These include the “papal magnets” which provide a focus for your followers, various godly powers (including destructive powers like rains of fire and earthquake as well as subversive ones such as the fonts which change the allignment of any army which walks through them) and the heroes, based on characters from Greek mythology, who the player’s leader (identified by the tiny papal magnet which floats next to him/her) takes the form of and who then march into the enemy’s land to do mischief based on who they are (Perseus fights people, Helen of Troy leads them away etc). Your followers will build houses and cities based on the amount of farmland they have access to so you spend a lot of time manipulating the geography until its nice and flat so that your people can multiply.

Populous II takes ages to get going, so to speak, having so many levels and a gentle learning and difficulty curve. What makes it work, though, is that it’s plain fun and the range of things you can do means there are numerous potential strategies to win. For example, on earlier stages its easiest to just create farmland, have your followers settle it and build-up mana for armageddon, the computer being too slow and dozy to build up his own followers quickly enough. Later, though, the computer gets faster and more aggressive and starts sending his followers into your territory and using godly powers to trash your land meaning you have to respond in kind and can use godly powers, heroes or even just standard armies to invade and take-over his land and defeat him more quickly (speed brings higher scores, quicker advancement through the levels, and sometimes more experience). The Populous titles have often been criticised for being “land-flattening games” because, early on especially, this is what you spend most of the time doing but the fact that you end up mixing this up with a little warfaring, self-defence and godly wrath as the game slowly opens up its wide range of features means this is a simplistic criticism. Flattening the land is also, believe it or not, quite satisfying and nimble mouse-clicking makes for faster victory (indeed, Populous II is arguably as much an action game as strategy).

Whenever I return to this game I’m surprised by how well the gameplay has aged, how much fun it still is to play and how it manages to suck you in for hours despite the more rational part of your brain claiming that there’s not quite enough variety, largely because despite all the godly powers and no matter how much you might enjoy it you are still just spending an awful lot of time flattening land. Like Black & White, which I will talk about in the next few days, Populous II is a product of a starry-eyed ideas man but in this case his grand plans have somehow created an addictive, absorbing action-cum-strategy title which offers the player a great deal of potential strategies but ultimately has less depth than I think he imagined although is arguably better for it. Can the same be said for Black & White? Does it marry the enjoyable gameplay to real depth? Ooh, let’s see in a few days shall we…

Footnote: a data disk was released for this game called The Challenge Games which took place in Japanese, rather than Greek, mythology and had both a conquest game and a series of levels based around puzzles. As far as I know, this wasn’t released for MS-DOS computers and isn’t available on GOG, a shame.

Hydrozone – now available in freeware

18 November, 2010

Those of you out there with an interest in fairly obscure 1994 Amiga indie titles (and that’s probably most regular readers of this ‘ere weblog) will be delighted to know that Hydrozone, the demo of which graced an Amiga Action cover disk back in the days of John Major, Criminal Justice Bill protests and The Rednex, has now been released in full as freeware.

There’s a little story behind this good news. A few weeks ago someone posted to a thread on the English Amiga Board about tracking-down the authors of old Amiga indie commercial software to find if it could be published on the web as freeware and someone asked whether anyone knew where a full version of an old Skull Army Software game called Hydrozone could be found. A week or so later who should appear on the forum thread but the original programmer of said game, having been alerted by one of the thread’s other posters, who told us that he still had all his old titles on disk and, having transferred them all to PC for emulator-friendliness, he would be tweaking them, fixing them up and releasing them to the Amiga community as freeware. The first out of the door is Hydrozone itself now updated to V1.02 (only 16 years after the original release) and available by following the link on the forum post here. And as if that’s not enough he’s thrown Speed Racer FX, the sequel, onto the same disk.

Hydrozone is essentially a first-person racer game with some shoot-em-up elements. The nearest equivalent I can think of is the trench sequences from the old Star Wars arcade cabinet. The screenshot above-right doesn’t really do the game justice, you really need to see it move. There’s a YouTube video of the game in action here if you need more persuading.

Download, play, enjoy; and if you can be bothered let me know what you think!

In other news, I’m back in employment again (woohoo) on a six-month contract which means I have less time for sitting about and writing about old video games so this blog might get updated a little less regularly in future; maybe two or three times and month (which is going to be hugely different to recent updating speeds, obviously).

And, no, I’ve not finished the Cecco articles. Exolon is up next…

Raffaele Cecco – Stormlords

19 October, 2010

Stormlord - man in need of a better posture

With the success of the Cybernoid games, Cecco became a bankable programmer; the sort of person whose name would appear on the covers of his games as a perceived mark of quality. In Spring 1988, CRASH magazine began a feature called ‘Cecco’s Log’ which followed the development – interrupted around summer of that year with an emphasis on finishing Cybernoid II – of a new game, Stormlord. In contrast to most of Cecco’s games, this new title would not have a sci-fi theme but instead be based on Tolkien-esque fantasy with the player controlling a medieval warrior type of character, the Stormlord of the title, tasked with rescuing fairies from an evil Queen.

By December 1988, Cecco announced that Stormlord was nearly complete and, in the Spring of ’89, the ZX Spectrum version arrived for review. Visually, it was typical of a Cecco game with the usual bright and well-drawn graphics but there was something new: this time it scrolled. Cecco had managed to make the Sinclair machine scroll horizontally smoothly in full colour, quite a departure from his usual flick-screen technique and, as Commodore 64 owners were happy to point-out, something Spectrum owners weren’t used to. Here it was, though, along with a game which conbined platforming, shooting and simple arcade-adventure elements.

Bollocks to the "Hot Coffee" mod - this is racy!

Stormlord is split into separate levels in which a number of fairies have to be found and rescued before progressing. The main character is the usual walking, jumping type of player character (not unlike that in Exolon in fact) and comes equipped with two types of weapon – some kind of mystical balls (not in the load-of-old-crap sense, they really just look like jaggedy tennis balls or something) which are fired by tapping the fire button/key and a broadsword which is fired by holding down fire and then releasing and, as you’d expect, does more damage. As Stormlord explores the levels he encounters all sorts of mythological silliness such as the giant fairy-like creatures in urns (?) which, on the 128K machines, wolf-whistle him if he walks across them and which also, unexpectedly for a time when video games were still largely for kids, show a bit of pixilated nipple. Good heavens! As far as less-friendly (and certainly less sexy) inhabitants are concerned there are killer caterpillar things, deadly plants, swarms of bees, green dragons, giant wasp-things which hatch from huge eggs and even what seem to be marauding chess-pieces. Stormlord has no energy, only lives, and touching these opponents is fatal. As well as fighting past these monsters, our hero has to solve simple logic puzzles using objects; these range from things like using keys to open doors to swapping an object with a pot of honey (objects, of which the player can only carry one at a time. are “swapped” with each other on contact in the manner of the Wally Week games rather than picked up and dropped where the player feels like it) to attract a swarm of indestructable bees so the player can pass. Springboards are also found throughout the levels and these can be used to leap from one part of the level to another, often being the only way to reach some areas.

Stormlord is a pretty tough game whose gorgeous looks accompany challenging gameplay. Whilst the arcade-adventure aspects are quite straightforward some of the areas are teeming with monsters who are difficult to deal with. Despite that, the game is enjoyable enough once a little practice has been put in and the challenge makes it reasonably addictive. Contemporary reviews were rather kinder – the game won accolades from the gaming press and found itself converted to even more platforms than Cybernoid had – including MS-DOS and the Sega Megadrive. Naturally, a sequel was expected and, in the summer of 1990, it arrived.

Although the main sprite, in common with Cybernoid II, is different to that in the original game (albeit merely a little taller here, possibly to counter the impression that Stormlord, with his beard and helmet, was some kind of dwarf) but first impressions suggest nothing much has changed – same graphics style, same nice scrolling, same impressive 128K sound. Then you start to play it and realise what a different beast it is.

Taller, slightly better posture, surrounded by more gratuitous nudity, what could possibly go wrong?

Stormlord was tough, Stormlord II: Deliverance makes that game look like Caspar Milquetoast. Within seconds of starting the player encounters devious enemies, a tricky jump and pits of lava that need accurate jumping to pass, and it doesn’t get any easier; the arcade-adventure elements which added interest to the original game are also gone. The plot has Stormlord descending into hell to rescue more kidnapped fairies but that’s really no excuse for the difficulty level. Whilst the original game was tough but nonetheless seemed to encourage perseverence, the sequel is simply frustrating and annoying. It’s a shame because it’s a bigger game (it uses a multi-load system), later features such as flying on a dragon seem fun and it’s as technically proficient as ever. The magazines largely agreed; although CRASH and Your Sinclair gave this game high marks, they were down from the original’s score and the difficulty was criticised. It’s a shame, really, since this was Cecco’s second-last Spectrum game and the last to have the distinctive Cecco “feel” (Time Machine, his last game for the Sinclair machine, was a monochrome pseudo-3D arcade-adventure). Deliverance was also widely converted, including a version for 16-bit machines released in 1992 which played completely differently from the 8-bit originals.

So, in conclusion, Stormlord is well-worth a look although be prepared for the old-school difficulty level. Deliverance, though, is such a tough bastard I can’t really recommend it to anyone except people who feel they have something to prove or those who love the original so much they feel drawn to its sequel. Don’t blame me for the swearing and chucking your Spectrum (or platform running emulator of choice) through a window, though. I did warn you.

(Footnote: Deliverance has “Press up to define keys” on its title screen. How fucking silly is that?)

Metal Mutant – the threefold tin-man

1 February, 2009
Look in the box, see what you got!

"Look in the box, see what you got!"

Ah, February; the month of cold winds and not-as-short-as-in-January daylight hours. Sorry I’ve take a wee while posting a new article, I generally hope to get one posted per week but I get easily sidetracked and, erm, become easily lazy. Now, where were we? Ah, that’s right: games.

I had hoped that this next article would be about the “action RPG” Times of Lore but, unfortunately, it’s taking longer to play and assess that game than I’d expected (ie it’s not a quick pick-me-up-and-play game) so instead I’m going to take a wee look at the 1991 Atari ST, Amiga and MS-DOS title Metal Mutant from Silmarils software.

When this game was published eighteen years ago (michty!) it completely failed to set the world alight. Reviews, it’s fair to say, weren’t terribly positive and it didn’t exactly jump out of the magazine pages at anyone doing a spot of browsing. I mean, the robots look nice and all of that but it’s all so green and drab looking; hardly the sort of thing that was going to inspire the average gamer to fork-out when there was Lemmings and Speedball 2 to buy instead. So, as a result, Metal Mutant is one of those games that was largely forgotten about; exactly the sort of game, in fact, that tends to attract me…

So, what’s it all about? Well, the plot seems to be some nonsense about a bunch of cyborgs being all uppity and turning against humanity. So, humanity decides to deal with this by, erm, building a cyborg and then sending it into battle against the rebel cyborgs. That’s sure to be good…

The player takes control of the cyborg in question. But – and here’s the almost-unique selling point of this game – this cyborg can transform into two other things. Namely a robot dinosaur thing and a, well, a sort-of robbie-the-robot-on-track tank-robot thing. It’s not exactly a T1000 but it’s fit for purpose, I suppose.

Your feeble dinosaur-thing skills are now match for the power of the mutant side!

Your feeble swamp monster skills are no match for the power of the mutant side!

Gameplay takes place over a number of levels and completing these levels seems to consist of ridding the various screens of horrible nasties and collecting add-ons for the cyborg. These add-ons allow the three different forms the metal mutant (ah, you see where the title came from?) takes on to access additional abilities. For example, at the start the “original” cyborg form can’t use it’s axe-attack, an attack that involves it making its arm into an axe and twatting anything nearby, but it can do this once it picks up the necessary add-on. The monsters and hazards that confront our threefold hero are numerous and varied and the different forms and abilities need to be used to progress through the game. As an example, on some screens the player is attacked by a swarm of horrible wasp-like insects. Tank-things bullets are useless (nobody can actually shoot bees with bullets except that bloke in Save The Green Planet) as is cyborg’s axe; but dino-thing’s firey breath is great for turning them into roast wasps (a possible future-delicacy in these times of crunchy credit – you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face when you’re tucking into a bag of roasted wasps outside the local nightclub two years from now).

Everybody do the (robot) dinosaur!

Everybody do the (robot) dinosaur!

And it’s this working-out-what-ability-to-use-to-get-further aspect that drives this game. When you enter a new screen you are often faced with a puzzle or a nasty whose defeat requires a little thought as well as some rudimentary joystick skills. This arcade-puzzle feel means you have to engage your brain to some extent as well as your reactions and makes Metal Mutant… well… actually rather fun to play.

You see, despite all the “this is pretty shit” reviews that this got around the time (except from a positive review from the rubbish Amiga Action whose positive reviews were often the equivalent of a crap review) this game is actually pretty good and, for me, something of a neglected classic.

It’s not perfect: the graphics, as I’ve said are a bit “plain” in the old colour department, the sound isn’t great and I’m really annoyed that the player-controlled cyborg doesn’t transform in a spectacular animation but instead turns into some stupid stars before re-appearing in his next form. But, in spite of all that, this is way better than the reviews around the time it was released suggest and for that reason I recommend a casual look if you get the chance. You might well agree with contemporary reviewers but you also just might like it and want to spend some time with it. And, hey, it’s that sort of thing that this blog is all about. That and rubbish jokes.

Heartland – since when did an egg need a pack of cards?

11 December, 2008
Therell be none of this, sadly

There'll be none of this, sadly

I have to admit that I was looking forward to this game because the only other Heartland I’ve heard of is the 1986 8-bit game by Odin Computer Graphics and it’s great not least because you get to kill bad guys with a top hat. So, part of me was hoping that this was going to be some kind of remake of that and, even though most 8 to 16-bit remakes from the 1980s and ’90s were rubbish (I still recall the dreadful Amiga version of Atic Atac I bought from a PD library where the player was a big red ball with no animation: really) I was still looking forward to the prospect of throwing my top hat at villains and collecting pages of a book, even if the graphics maybe did look like they’d been drawn by a five year old.

Dont get excited - thats not a mobile enemy; that snail just sits there

Don't get excited - that's not a mobile enemy; that snail just sits there

It wasn’t to be, though. Heartland, an Atari ST indie game from 1996 doesn’t bear any resemblance to Odin’s classic but it does bear more than a passing resemblance to another famous 8-bit game; or rather series of games (see the screenshots in this article). There’s nothing wrong with having an anthropomorphic egg as a main character, of course (see the Egghead series) but they should, y’know, be reasonably distinct from what used to be the most famous sentient egg until Mark Lawson appeared on our TV screens, rather than looking almost exactly the same.

So what’s the plot? Well, Sassy (the one who looks almost the same as Dizzy) and Sissy (who looks the same but is a girl (I think)) were planning to play cards but all the cards in the hearts suite were missing. So it’s up to the player to guide one of them around a fairly-large map looking for the missing cards.

The game itself takes place over one very-large scrolling landscape. Around this landscape, the Heartland of the game’s title, the missing cards can be found either lying around waiting to be collected or behind doorways. Those cards behind doorways are only collected on entering the door which also causes the player-character to be deposited elsewhere on the map. There are also a large number of coins lying around which can be collected although these seem to have no function other than boosting the player’s score.

Wahey, eggrolling! Its just like Easter only not as much fun.

Wahey, eggrolling! It's just like Easter only not as much fun.

And that’s pretty-much it. Despite this being a platform game there don’t seem to be any enemies beyond spikes which occasionally pop out of the ground and sap Sassy’s energy (which can be replenished from potion bottles dotted around Heartland) and the challenge of the game is more about negotiating the platforms and exploring the whole word. In fact, more than anything else, it reminds me of those “exploratory” indie titles for the PC with minimalist graphics and which inexplicably need 25MB of harddisk space and a P1000 to run; and, like them, it’s diverting for a moment before it all becomes a bit boring. If you’re really into “explore-em-ups” then this might hold some kind of appeal but I prefer my platform games with a bit more to do and a lot more trying to stop me.

And with a throwable top-hat.

Grandad: Quest for the Holey Vest

3 December, 2008
Thems some shiny wheels, old timer!

Them’s some shiny wheels, old timer!

Old people aren’t very often chosen to be the heroes of video games. I mean, video games need athletic heroes, not bald people with walking sticks. The elderly can’t pull-on
powersuits and fly through space shooting aliens, they can’t leap from platform to platform dodging the evil wibbly-wobbly sprites and they’re not especially good at diving around a room with a gun in each hand whilst the player curses the rubbish camera. Well, they can do all of these things but you suspect their doctor would tut at them. And that they’d die.

This 1992 Atari ST indie game, though, features an old man as its main protagonist. It’s called Grandad: Quest for the Holey Vest and as the name more than suggests it’s about an old bloke looking for his missing vest. Let’s get that out of the way first of all: this is not a game with a thunderously exciting plot but then, as I’ll bang on about to anyone who’ll listen, plots are usually irrelevant to gameplay which is why I get so annoyed when a lot of modern reviewers treat the “story” like it’s as important as the action in a shoot-em-up. But I digress.

Grandad is, basically, a very traditional graphic adventure. The player controls Grandad, in his electric wheelchair (which appears to have a limited battery life making this a race – if you can call it that – against time), as he rolls around his house and the surrounding gardens solving puzzles and being mean to kids. Whilst moving the old grouch is all done by joystick, the commands which allow him to interact with his environment (look, use, and suchlike) are all accessed via a drop down menu. So Grandad might examine a bit of wall and see a key sticking out but he can’t reach it because he’s too old so he has to use the bit of wire he found in the garden to hook it out and then he can open a door leading to more of the house. It’s these sorts of puzzles we’re talking about.

too busy with their crack-knives and Playingstations

This is the room you start off in. Note lack of concerned relatives. Tsk, young people today: too busy with their crack-knives and Playingstations

Despite being, essentially, an extremely simple adventure game with animated (well, slightly animated) graphics and having none of the richness and depth of something like Beneath A Steel Sky this is fairly engaging to play. Like all of these types of games, there’s something undeniably satisfying about solving the puzzles and there’s a desire to see more albeit not all that much: the game’s shameless mundanity means that it lacks the fascination that superior titles do – it’s not so exciting when the new room you’ve accessed isn’t a glittering diamond cave but some old git’s kitchen. Nonetheless, for an indie title this isn’t too bad. The graphics are pretty good and grandad himself manages to convey character even if it’s just that of a grumpy old fogie in a wheelchair and the puzzles are generally logical without being insultingly easy. This isn’t worth disengaging yourself from superb commercial graphic adventures like Sam and Max or Monkey Island (doubtless being ignored in a charity shop near you) for but if you’ve got a spare couple of hours you might like to try spending it with Grandad. Just don’t expect to be bowled-over.

#Ive been sitting here all day, drinking...

“#I’ve been sitting here all day, drinking…”

As those of you who peer carefully at the screenshots might have noticed from the title screen up at the very top-right of the article there, this game seems to have been some sort of shareware/licenseware scheme whereby only a portion of the game was playable from the start with the player needing to enter a license key to access a lift and explore further reaches of Grandad’s house (I’ve not got this far yet because I’m rubbish). Where you’d get this I’ve no idea; perhaps the programmer is still selling it or perhaps it’s been released somewhere in full as freeware. Whatever, I’ll try and find out and unpdate accordingly.

Pacman on E’s

3 November, 2008
Its not Space Invaders.

It's not Space Invaders.

It’s time to kick-off this Atari ST PD series (in fact I’m rather late with this since I’ve been busy recently) and the first game out of the hat of suggestions is Pacman on E’s from 1994. This is the first sign that this game isn’t a commercial release – a shop-shelf game blatantly mentioning teh drugs would have caused the Daily Mail to explode back in the mid-90s. Release such a thing as an indie title, though, and no one pays the blindest bit of attention.

So, we all know what Pacman‘s like (well, I’d hope do, and if you don’t then commisserations and I hope you escape from your cave very soon) so is this game particularly different? Well, at first glance not really. This follows the basics of pretty-much every Pacman game ever. The player controls the eponymous yellow pill-chomper and has to clear all the pills on each level whilst avoiding the variously-coloured ghosts (yes, yes, I know they were officially “monsters” but they’ll always be ghosts to some of us) and grabbing bonuses.

Pacman rushes around the maze, gobbling pills. Notice one of the ghosts is brown; either that or it was white and came to close to Pacman post-powerpill

Pacman rushes around the maze, gobbling pills. Notice one of the ghosts is brown; either that or it was white and came too close to Pacman post-powerpill

So, what makes this game stand out? Well, the main thing is the presentation which is excellent. The graphics are well-drawn and colourful and full of character: a particular favourite for me are the fruits and various other bonuses which are animated (a banana cheekily peels and “zips” back up whilst waiting for Pacman to grab it). The music is also excellent with a variety of “techno” tunes (as I seem to recall they were known back then) playing in the background and on top of that there’s speech and various other sampled sound effects. It’s all lovely stuff.

Unfortunately, where this game falls down is in the gameplay. There’s been several changes made from the Pacman template which effect gameplay. The most notable is that when Pacman grabs a power pill not only is he now able to eat the ghosts for bonus points but he actually moves twice as fast. This unbalances the difficulty level. The fact that the ghosts don’t seem as devious as their arcade-original counterparts also doesn’t help, as does the fact they don’t turn into eyes and rush back to the centre when eaten but instead disappear and rematerialise in their lair immediately. The worst thing, though, is that several levels into the game I had that dreaded feeling that I wished the game would try harder against me and cause me to lose a life at some point. As soon as a game stops being a challenge it stops being fun and that’s what happened to this one all too quickly. In fact, whilst playing one game and having reached level twelve or thereabouts without breaking into a sweat I simply got bored and allowed the ghosts to get our round yellow hero. That’s not a good sign.

Remember, kids, Pacman has a prescription (probably)

Remember, kids, Pacman has a prescription (probably)

If you love Pacman but are terrible at it, or if you just want to see how to get the look of a Pacman clone just right then take a look at this game. But if you’re seeking out a challenge then I’d suggest looking elsewhere. I’ll leave the last word, though, to Keith Merriwell, the made-up Drugs Kaiser.


Ascendancy – conquer space, again

24 October, 2008
Come to space! Fight lizard-things!

Come to space! Fight lizard-things!

Okay, so I’ve taken a look at the 1994 Amiga “conquer the galaxy” indie game Colonial Conquest 2 and I rather liked it. So, given that I decided to take a look at a game I rescued from my local Oxfam Music a couple of months ago, the 1995 “conquer the galaxy” commercial PC title Ascendancy and see how the two compare.

Both games basically have exactly the same mission – settle and conquer planets and beat piss out of your enemies whilst doing so. In fact, when starting out the two games have some striking similarities. As with CC2, Ascendancy splits each planet up into a series of squares on which facilities can be built to create food or industrial output. Whereas in CC2 “idle” workers produced science, here science is produced in facilities. Each facility, whether food, industry or knowledge “occupies” one free colonist and free colonists must be available in order to keep building (since the building process itself occupies a colonists time); this means that in order to keep building the player might have to wait until a new colonist is produced (which is dependant on food output). In addition to these, various other facilities can be built on planets with which it can attack nearby spaceships and defend itself from invasion as well as sundry other abilities. As I said, when it all boils down to it the way planets are developed in CC2 and Ascendancy is actually quite simliar and demonstrates just how much of an influence Sid Meier’s Civilization was on turn-based strategy gaming.

Where Ascendancy becomes a quite different game is in how it handles everything else. Let’s start with the planets themselves. CC2 gave us an extremely simple “galaxy” of several dozen planets scattered around space in the Anacreon mould. Ascendancy completely does away with this sort of thing and goes for a much more realistic galaxy model. Instead of a scattering of planets we have a scattering of stars and each of these stars has a number of planets orbiting them which can be colonised (meaning that you and an opponent can both have colonies in the same star system – more on that later). Not only that but these stars have fixed “star lanes” between them by which spaceships must travel meaning that the galaxy isn’t quite “open” from the start; the player must wrest control of nearby systems to secure the path to further away ones. The game displays this galaxy (the complexity of which is decided by the player – you can play in a galaxy of a dozen stars or absolutely loads) in a 3D wireframe model which the player can spin and rotate; it’s all rather nice.

Two rival powers face-off in an uncontrolled system. Thatll be my ship on the left. After naming all my warships Space Bastard I settled on the more conservative Killer

Two rival powers face-off in an uncontrolled system. That'll be my ship on the left. After naming all my warships "Space Bastard" I settled on the more conservative "Killer"

Another big difference is the combat and the fleets. Ascendancy is designed to keep ship numbers down and it does this via a rule meaning any empire can only control a certain number of ships: two for the home system and one for each additional system controlled. Note that this is systems controlled, not colonies; you can have five colonies all producing merrily away in one system but it only gets you one additional ship. Also if you have a colony in the same system as an opponent then tough – that makes it an uncontrolled system for both of you. If you think this sounds f*cking stupid then you’re right. It annoyed me that I could have around nine planets in my empire and yet only produce five sodding spaceships. Even China’s probably got five sodding spaceships by now and this is nine planets!

The reason for this is probably the way the space battles occur. In CC2, the player builds massive fleets, sends them into battle and the computer works out who comes out of it alive and who ends up as little bits of metal giving any nearby planets a nice shiny new ring-system. In Ascendancy, the battles are strategic affairs fought between these big hulking-great ships. You can’t just send them into battle, you have to tell them where to maneuver, which weapons to fire, when to put their shields on etc etc. This is all quite good fun, especially when more advanced weapons are developed meaning more thought has to go into the fight than “move, shoot, shoot, dieyoutwat!” and to be honest it would be pretty dull with loads and loads of spaceships. Still, nine planets, five ships… tsk.

A nearly-developed planet. The different planets type and size determines how much you can build and what facilities perform best.

A nearly-developed planet. The different planet's type and size determines how much you can build and what facilities perform best.

The way technology works in this game is also different. CC2 had a very simplistic technology system whereby scientific progress was linear and each new level brought the same advances each game. Ascendancy, however, uses a technology “tree” similar to that used in Civilization. This means that the player gets to choose which tech to pursue each time and depending on what is chosen new technologies may be open. This non-linear scientific progression has a greater sense of discovery in early games and prevents later games from feeling too “samey”.

And talking of Civilization, the way that game dealt with opposition powers has obviously also had a big impact on Ascendancy. As with Civ, there are a number of different factions to choose from (various alien races rather than nationalities and none of them human – we can assume that this is a galaxy far, far away) and, unlike the Mechs in CC2, hostility is not inevitable. The game features a fairly advanced form of diplomacy (more advanced than the original Civ) which allows for peace treaties, war, alliance and exchanging of information about star routes discovered. So, this game isn’t total war – expansion and dominance is about hedging your bets and making alliances as well as trashing those you’ve made an enemy of.

So, despite some basic similarities these two space-conquest games are actually pretty different. Which one is better depends on what sort of game you’re looking for – if you just want to fight battles and build things and don’t want too much complexity then go for CC2; if you like to micromanage a bit more, take control in battles and prefer diplomacy to endless slaughter then Ascendancy is more likely to tickle your fancy (I’m not sure how appropriate that phrase is for a wargame, but anyway…). Oh, and I know this sort of thing isn’t supposed to make too much of a difference but Ascendancy really does look and sound really nice even if you can’t seem to turn the music off.

I picked-up Ascendancy for £2 from my local Oxfam Music; as far as I know it’s not been released as freeware so all I can suggest is that you go looking for it. If you want to make it work on a modern PC then DOSBox (which I used) is your best bet.