Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Learning Curve: 5 Hours with Tombs and Treasure

I never could figure out what this game was.  Based on the initial interface it looked like a Shadowgate style game where you interacted with the world through a window using commands.  But the next series of screens acted more like a world-exploring RPG with a party of characters and turn-based battles. Honestly, every time I popped it in, I rarely got much farther than the first few screens.  It just looked like more than I cared to unpack in a casual gaming session.  Despite its awesome Mayan theming and Mexico setting, it failed to have a really strong hook that pulled me in for more.  That means it is a perfect candidate for the Learning Curve, although in this instance it might be more of an “interest curve” as in, how long will it take for this game to pull me into its world and keep me playing until the end.  Over the next five hours we’ll get the answer to that question.

Hour 1

As previously stated, this game is an amalgam of other game types.  At its core it is very much like Shadowgate or Uninvited.  You interact with the world through a window using commands such as “put,” “use,” and “look.”  Tombs and Treasure (T&T henceforth) even gives you a few commands you use only once or maybe never…  Notwithstanding, the main game is conducted just like that.  However, the window interactions are separated by RPG-esque exploration as you take your team through the Mexican jungle searching out various locations for more interactions.  There is literally nothing you can do during these sequences except roam the world, but it does break things up a bit and creates some nice atmosphere, so I think it’s a nice bonus.

I spent the first hour wandering about the world map to get a general sense of what I was going to be dealing with.  I discovered 3 pyramids, a bunch of wall sections, two lakes (which turn out to be “wells” in this game), a sprawling ancient ball court, and a LOT of jungle.  All in all this game probably has 3 times as many “empty” or useless screens as it does meaningful ones.  That’s just fine when you are trying to create a sense of scale, but it leaves me wanting more of the screens to have something to do in them.  Not a big deal, just means there is a big world out there with lots to find tucked away here and there.
Most of the places I ventured into featured monsters far too strong for me to fight, all of which resulted in my death.  The good news, however, is that death isn’t a big deal in this game.  You pretty much continue from where you left off with no penalty.  Even better, the combat is extremely basic (just use the “fight” command to swing your sword) and you can always run away.  Furthermore, leaving any building or fight instantly recovers all of your health.  From that it’s pretty obvious the combat in this game is more there to serve the story than to provide challenge.  I’m not upset about that in the slightest.
One pyramid was not heavily guarded and I was able to find a secret passage to the crypt of the Hi-Priest.  A tile on his coffin enabled me to open a hidden door in another nearby location, the Castillo Pyramid.  I was successful in defeating a few of the lesser monsters and was rewarded with a literal treasure trove of items.  Oh, what untold adventures they might lead to!  One hour in and I was starting to get hooked.

Hour 2

Wandering about the map with my new inventory of fabulous items, I stumbled across a few locations I had missed during Hour 1.  Indulge me while I backtrack a bit.  Your mission in this game is to locate a missing professor who was lost while studying these ruins.  Your party is made up of the professor’s daughter and Jose, your guide.  The only clues you have come from the professor’s journal which was one of the few things recovered when he went missing.  Why wait to tell you all of this now?  1. I forgot.  2.  Because in the journal the professor mentions a secret path through the forest that lead to something great.  That something great is the voice of Kukulcan.  This is important if you are going to play the game without a walkthrough because the voice imparts wisdom in the form a hint about what to do next in the game.  I would visit this location many times in the next four hours.  T&T is a little bit dense sometimes in being clear where to go or what to do next, so the hints are very helpful.  It was just such a hint that lead to my discovery of an entire structure I missed:  El Caracol!  When I found the Silver Globe, it was hinted that I take it El Caracol.  The problem was, I had not located such a place, nor even knew it existed.  Further exploration would reveal this structure and advance the plot considerably.  It would also lead to an encounter with the game’s most unusual monster:  El Slug.  A slimy green creature that looked a lot like a sheepdog.  Defeating monsters increases your level and basically makes it possible for you to defeat the next monster in the story.  If you cannot beat a given monster it’s because you are taking them on out of order.  With this in mind, I soon found I was able to beat pretty much any of the monsters that had previously been vexing me as long as I took them down in the correct order.  It doesn’t hurt that you can increase the power of your sword by inserting into them the different colored jewels you find.  Ultimately, I was finally able to obtain the Sun Necklace, one of the game’s key items that allows you to know the position of the sun.  This is vital to solving the game’s three main riddles.
All in all, a solid second hour.  By this time I was definitely hooked into the game and it’s world, and very excited to find out what discoveries lay in wait during the next hour of adventure!

Hour 3

The discoveries of the third hour were somewhat less than the second hour had anticipated.  The three main riddles of the game all involved the position of the sun.  You were to locate the censer at dusk, turn the Jaguar into a statue at noon, and drink a shrinking potion at midnight.  All three of these required you to be in the right place at the right time.  I had no luck with the censer or the potion, but I knew where to find the jaguar.  In the Warrior’s Tomb there were three statues:  a girl, a warrior, and a jaguar.  The jaguar statue was drawn differently than the other two so it was obvious that it was going to come to life.  Clues in the game had told me that the jaguar could be tamed (reverted to statue form) by playing the pan pipes (found earlier in the Well of Paradise).  So I went to the Warrior’s Tomb and to my surprise, the jaguar was gone.  Gone, I tell you.  In the wall behind where his statue was perched, I found a small hole.  In the hole was an iron key, but the hole was too small for anyone’s hand to fish it out properly.  A hint was given that a magnet would be useful in such a situation.  Back in the treasure room of Hour 1, I had found a metal rod that was magnetic, however I had already joined that rod to a small bowl found in the same room to make a compass, so it would not be able to help me solve this problem.  (This would prove to be significant later in our tale)  But there was little time to ruminate on this problem as the hour struck noon and the jaguar suddenly appeared in the room before us.  Luckily, this was not a combat situation, just a puzzle.  However, it was during this encounter that I learned another one of the game’s key strategies:  switch characters whenever you aren’t sure what to do.  Turns out the main character is terrible at playing the pan flute, but the girl character is a maverick.  So to tame the jaguar, switch to the girl character and have her use the pipes.  Problem solved, the fearsome cat becomes a statue permanently (another significant act) and the team is able to continue their adventure (at least somewhat…)
With nothing else to do in the Warrior’s Tomb, I decided to explore the other “too tough to beat” part of the game: the Ball Court.  Having defeated the monster in the Warrior’s Tomb I was now strong enough to defeat the monster in the Ball Court as well.  This opened the area up for exploration.  It also introduced me to the first element of the game’s major, major downfall.  You see, in the Ball Court there is a room you can uncover wherein you find the most powerful item in the game, a jewel that significantly weakens demons.  If you remove this jewel from its stand, the door you came through slams behind you forever.  You cannot die, there is no monster to kill you.  All you can do is stand in the room, look at things, and have the game taunt you with too-late hints like “you should have opened another exit before taking the jewel. Better hit reset.” 
That wouldn’t be so bad if hitting reset didn’t mean entering both of your characters’ names and the ridiculously long password just to start over wherever you last obtained your password (passwords can be obtained at any time by looking at the Ixmol Jewel you pick up at the start of the game).  So unless you are in the habit of writing down 32 character passwords before every single action in the game, this means you are going to be doing a LOT of data entry just to trial-and-error your way through some of the game’s more menacing puzzles.  This is a fun killer.  A big one.  After three unsuccessful attempts to obtain the powerful green jewel from the room, each one followed by several minutes of password entry, I decided Hour 3 was over.

Hour 4

I set out in Hour 4 to just leave that stupid jewel alone and come back when I had a better idea of how to defeat the trap.  So instead I headed back out in to the jungle to see if there were more areas I had missed in previous ventures.  I explored everywhere for about 30 minutes and finally decided to seek out the wisdom of Kukulcan to see if that would point me in the right direction.  Turns out there is a second floor in El Caracol that I was not aware of.  Again, if you are stuck for what to do, try switching characters.  Turns out Jose, the guide, is strong, strong enough to move the pedestal in El Caracol to reveal a hidden staircase.  After discovering this, I was able to solve the riddle of the censer and locate the censer itself.  Now I just have to figure out what to do with the censer itself.  The Kukulcan clue about getting the iron key before turning the jaguar into a statue is neither helpful nor encouraging as I still no idea if there is any way to get that iron key since I don’t have the magnetic rod any more, and seeing as to how I had already stoned the jaguar…

Hour 5

I spent 45 minutes of Hour 5 desperately, and ultimately in futility, going about the time-honored tradition of traveling to every location and trying every command with every character with every object, just to see if I could accomplish anything.  I could not.  I did locate the hole that the iron key fits, but without the key this was a hollow discovery (slightly clever pun unintended, but pleasing).  Time was growing short and frustration was mounting, so I did the only thing a person in the modern era can possibly do when faced with such an impasse:  I spent my last 15 minutes searching the internet for a walkthrough that would explain what went wrong.
Remember that iron rod that I used to make a compass back in Hour 1 that seemed like a mistake by Hour 3?  It was.  Not only was it a mistake, it was a game-breaking mistake.  You can never remove the rod from the compass, so once it is joined, the rod is lost to you for the rest of the game.  Which means that if you did what I did, you can never get the iron key.  Not that it would have mattered, because you see, I got the hint about "getting the key before thwarting the jaguar" AFTER I thwarted the jaguar, another game breaking mistake.  Once the jaguar is reverted to statue form, it will never come alive again, meaning that unless you get the key first, you can never complete the game.  
Turns out T&T suffers from at least 5 of these game-breaking mistakes from which there is no return, unless, as I said before, you are writing down 32 character passwords before every single move in the game.
This is no end of frustrating and discouraging.  I completed my five hours with T&T utterly defeated and discouraged.  What had started out as a really fun explorative adventure was ground into utter aggravation by game-breaking mistakes that are way too easy to make.  It doesn’t seem like the game would allow this because it is constantly cautioning you against leaving a room too soon, or grabbing the wrong item.  There are tons of places where the game helps you not screw it completely up, but there are at least 5 times where you can make the game unwinnable by doing something very, very simple.  Maybe if the game had employed a SAVE system like Shadowgate does, these kinds of screw-ups wouldn’t be as galling, but with the massive password system, running into one of these honest mistakes is worthy of the controller throw.
This felt like the mantra for Hours 4 & 5

Final Appraisal:  
Tombs and Treasure is an incredibly fun adventure/puzzle game with a unique take on a classic formula, however it features several game-breaking mistakes you can make that cause the game to be unwinnable.  Furthermore, its cumbersome password feature makes trial-and-error puzzle solving tedious and frustrating.  There is a lot of fun to be had with this game, but the drawbacks for playing it wrong threaten to drain all of the enjoyment right out of it.  If you decide to take the game on, it can be a very rewarding play, just make sure you DO NOT join the rod and the bowl until you enter the maze, DO get the iron key before you freeze the jaguar, DO NOT grab the green jewel until you have two doorways open, and DO NOT take the handle from the Castillo machine.  If you do the converse of any of those things, you are doomed.  You have been warned.

Learning Curve:  
It doesn’t take as long as I thought to get really invested in this game.  It’s a lot of fun, it features a unique setting and theme, and there is a lot to explore.  While the game can be obtuse in telling you exactly what you need to do next, there are plenty of clues and if you learn a few of the games essential mechanics: look at everything, switch characters often, beat enemies in the right order, and avoid the game-breaking mistakes, you will be having a lot of fun in no time.  I would say it took me just over an hour to be fully committed to this game.

Will I Finish It?  
I did.  After Hour 5’s crushing revelations, I decided I would see the end of this game.  So I started a new game and played all the way through avoiding the game-breaking mistakes.  All in all it took me probably an hour and fifteen minutes to beat, knowing already how to complete 3/4 of the game before I started.  As I assumed, it was a very satisfying experience.  Again, this is a great game with a few very serious flaws.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Homebrew of Month: Strat-o-Gems Deluxe

Strat-o-Gems Deluxe
Developer: John Payson

There just weren’t that many great puzzle games for the Atari 2600 back in the day.  I don’t know if puzzle games just weren’t a thing yet, or if people weren’t sure how to execute them on the system, but they just weren’t a thing.  It’s almost like once Tetris hit, everyone in the universe said, “hey, puzzle games have arrived, here’s Pipe Dream, and Puzznic, and Klax, enjoy!” But before that?  Not much.  So it’s really no surprise that a large body of homebrew efforts have been devoted to rectifying this void.  From Tetris 2600 and Edtris to more recent efforts like AStar and Assmebloids, the VCS library is starting to swell with puzzle games, as well it should. Turns out the Atari can handle time-sinking puzzle games just as well as any of the big boys.  Heck, after playing Tetris Party Deluxe on the Wii, I’m pretty sure puzzle games shine best on simpler systems.  Strat-o-Gems Deluxe is a top tier example of how good puzzle games can be on the Atari 2600 (I’m being paid for every time I say “puzzle game” in this review…)

What’s All This Then?

Strat-o-Gems is a falling block puzzler which requires you to match three or more of a given color to clear all of the blocks of that color.  A more standard puzzle game mechanic there isn’t.  Blocks drop in groups of three called “triples.” You can rotate the vertical order of the blocks in the triple as it falls by pressing the button. When you clear blocks, the remaining blocks drop down which can lead to massive, high scoring combos.  Blocks can be cleared vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.  Wild card triples will appear to help you clear up mistakes you make during play and once every 60 triples, you get a "clear all" block that will clear all the blocks of a given color.  You keep playing until the screen fills with blocks that reach the line at the top.  You play as long as you can to get the highest score possible and impress your friends.

How’s it Play?

Beautifully.  All you really want from a puzzle game is smooth piece movement, consistency in the rules, and steady difficulty ramping.  Strat-o-Gems Deluxe delivers on all counts.  It really is a shining example of how great puzzlers can be on a foundational system like the VCS.

Whistles and Bells?

You don’t call a game “Deluxe” unless you’ve packed it with dynamic special features.  The cart features 3 versions of the game:  an NTSC version, a PAL version, and a mini-game version.  The mini-game is a simpler version of the main game with fewer features and some might argue, increased difficulty.  The game also supports the AtariVox add-on which will display an instant replay any time you make a particularly spectacular combo.  AtariVox also allows you to save high scores.  Strat-o-Gems Deluxe has a swanky title screen and fantastic graphics as well as a full color manual that provides some behind-the-scenes insight into the development of the game.

Final Assessment

Strat-o-Gems Deluxe is a (ahem) gem in the VCS collection.  You can never have too many great puzzlers in a video game library and having one as good as this one is icing on the cake.  The game plays perfectly and unlike a lot of similar games, the difficulty wastes no time smacking you in the face.  This keeps the game challenging and engaging and guarantees lots of replay value.  Oh the hours I have spent playing “just one more” game.  If puzzle games aren’t your thing, then this one isn’t for you, otherwise, this is a “must-have” game in any VCS collection.

Tips and Tricks

I wish I had more to tell you here, but I’m not as good at Strat-o-Gems Deluxe as I would like.  However, I will pass along a few fundamentals that seem to help me along:

Don’t Forget the Swap:  I always get busy making combos and totally forget that I can swap the existing triple for the one on deck.  Using this feature early on can set you up for some incredibly high scoring combos and be the key to high scores before the action gets out of control.

Play the Diagonal:  I seem to do much better when I forego horizontal and vertical matches and work the diagonals.  This seems to open up more chain combos and create better opportunities later in the game.

Score Early:  Late in the game there will be little time for working big combos and making the huge scores.  Use the early levels to line up the complex combos that earn the major points.  This will allow you to focus on staying alive in the higher levels.

Keep it Clean:  While it’s important to line up big combos and rack up points, it is equally important to keep the play field as clear as possible.  Once the triples start dropping at faster rates, try to keep your stacks as close to the bottom as possible.  While you won’t score as much, you will have more room to maneuver and avoid mistakes.

Clear All Smartly:  When you get the "clear all" block, be sure you pick a color to clear that will clean up the most space and open up or create the maximum number of combos.  Used smartly, the "clear all" block can save you from certain ruin.

So there you have it!  Strat-o-Gems Deluxe is at the forefront of some great puzzle games for the Atari 2600.  Homebrewers are working hard to fill a long-standing gap in the 2600 library and as long as they are doing it with titles like this, we are all in good hands!

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Learning Curve: 5 Hours with River City Ransom

The legendary hype surrounding this game has haunted me since bygone days of yore.  It was a Double Dragon RPG that combined everything you loved about scrolling fighting games and everything you loved about Final Fantasy.  People used to talk about it at school like it was the ultimate game. Yet I never got a chance to play it in its original era. It wasn’t until I was an adult gamer that I managed to track down a copy to finally find out what all the 30 year old buzz was about.  And I couldn’t have been less impressed.  Sure it played like a really great Double Dragon game, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to level up, or what I was supposed to buy at the mall.  It doesn’t help that I didn’t have an instruction manual, but that is easily remedied these days with the internet, so that’s not a valid excuse.  Despite numerous attempts to immerse myself in the world, I just couldn’t get River City Ransom to click, which makes it a perfect candidate for The Learning Curve!  So let’s spend 5 good hours with River City Ransom and see if I can recapture the magic I heard so much about all those years ago…

Hour 1:  

Having played this before, I know the general gist:  You roam the neighborhood fighting gang (the late 80’s high school kind, not the scary late 90’s LBC kind) members and taking their lunch money (who’s the bully now?!).  You can then go to the mall and buy stuff to help you be a better fighter.  A quick run through of the instruction manual confirms all of this, gives some insight to what you might want to buy at the mall, and provides a litany of moves to learn with the promise of more possibilities in the game.  Most importantly it outlines the objective of the game:  defeat the gang bosses, gain access to River City High School and rescue your girlfriend from Slick.  Things are always so much clearer when you read the manual…
That said, the first hour of game play still feels rather pointless.  Every street or area is occupied by a random gang, steadily increasing in difficulty as you progress.  Mini-boss battles are announced only by a change in music and an increased chattiness of the characters.  But ALL battles in this game are COMPLETELY optional.  Don’t want to fight Moose right now?  No big deal, just walk past him and exit the area.  On the one hand, this is kind of great.  You must beat all of the bosses to progress, so you can skip all you want, you’re not getting to the end of the game until you fight them.  One the other hand, this makes it really hard to know where you need to go and what you need to do next.  
The game is also very frustrating out of the gate.  Prepare to “die” a lot.  And your pocket money is cut in half every time you die.  So everything in the game is prohibitively expensive.  One of the keys to success is buying books and gear to improve your fighting stats, but when beating a bad guy nets you 25 cents and the book costs $25 and you die pretty regularly, amassing $25 is a monumental task.  It’s hard enough scraping up enough dough to buy some food to stay alive.  This means that for my first hour I am spending most of my time beating up bad guys, getting my butt kicked, and using all of my savings to eat enough to stay alive.  Sadly, due to the penalty for dying, this is a process of diminishing returns.
Since your stats only improve by eating the right foods, reading the right books or equipping the right gear, “leveling up” is very slow and very tedious.  I spent a great deal of my first hour grinding with very little pay off.
On the up side, the game really is the Double Dragon RPG you always wanted.  The game plays silky smooth and while the combat, at least for now, feels like a lot of button mashing, there are a lot of moves to learn and execute.  I like the design and feel of the game quite a bit, I’m just very frustrated at an hour spent with not much progress.  I managed to defeat the first boss and buy the Arc Circus jump attack, but that’s about it.  Let’s hope Hour 2 brings more progress.

Hour 2:  

Considering my frustration at the lack of progress in Hour 1, I decided to spend all of Hour 2 grinding.  Just good ol’ fashioned, slow and monotonous grinding to try and get enough money to improve my stats, learn some new moves, and get some gear.  It was slow going, but I was able to eat enough stuff to boost a few stats. This is not as easy as it sounds either, because eating certain food will boost your stats, but since it doesn’t happen on the stats screen you don’t really get an appreciation for what improved right away.  Considering the number of food options it is also tricky to remember exactly what food boosts which stat, so I spent a lot of time just eating everything and trying to boost whatever I could.  Eventually I noticed that my weapon stat was getting pretty high, as was my kick stat.  Whatever food I was eating to stay alive was giving me strong upgrades in those departments.
I also bought the Dragon Feet technique which essentially gives you Chun-Li kicking powers.  This is MUCH better than the Arc Circus move and should have been my first purchase.  It makes grinding much, much easier.  As you fight better enemies you make more money, so your buying power increases dramatically, but getting to that point takes a lot of work.  I think I’ve pinpointed this as the Learning Curve for this game, but we shall see.  I’m still only barely covering my food expenses, but slowly I am getting better at combat and improving my cash flow.  I did buy some sneakers and that has improved by kick power.
Not much actual progress towards the goal, though.  I think I may have gone one screen farther than I had in the last hour…

Hour 3:

Do NOT save your money.  Every time you get to a mall, spend it ALL.  When you die you get to keep your items, but your cash is cut in half.  Considering how often I die in this game, trying to save up money, when not actually grinding, is always a losing proposition.  So when you make it to the next mall, buy whatever you need.  Buy take-out food, because you can keep it and use it, even if you die.  That is Lesson #1 from Hour 3.
Lesson #2:  Spam Dragon Feet.  And spam it like crazy.  Even the toughest foes who block it constantly will eventually fall to its rapid barrage.  Also, because my weapon stat is so high: spam weapon attacks.  Basically my strategy during Hour 3 has been to enter a screen, fend off as many bad guys as I can with a bat or whip, then, should one get close enough to knock the weapon free, spam with Dragon Feet until all are dead or I can retrieve my weapon.  This strategy has made the game infinitely easier.
Employing this new cheesy technique I was able to make enough money to buy the Army Boots dramatically improving my kick skill.  I was also able to fight my way to the gates of River City High School, however, I clearly have missed several bosses along the way because the gates remain locked.  Bosses seem to appear after you have cleared all the regular goons from a screen, so I need to go back and clear all the screens to uncover the bosses I have missed.
Also, I went to the sauna, paid $3.50 and got to see Alex’s bare ass.

Hour 4:

The Boss fights all start with a long winded speech by the boss during which they are immobile.  Use that time to wail on them, pin them against a wall, and blammo! instant win.  At least mostly.
This combined with the spamming strategy from Hour 3 allowed me to beat this game in about 15 minutes during Hour 4.  I tracked down each boss (when you beat a boss, they will tell you where to find the next one), pounced on them as soon as they appeared and started yakking.  Weapons kept the earlier, slower foes at bay, Dragon Feet handled the rest.  Once I got in to the school things got dramatically tougher, but I was still able to take out all three (four really) bosses on two tries with little difficulty.  The increased strength and speed of the foes inside the school took me by surprise the first time, but I went back in with plenty of food to keep me going and pretty much walked to the end on the back of spamming Dragon Feet.

Hour 5:  

With River City Ransom beaten I decided to use my extra hour to play a little Adventure of Link.  It’s been a few years and I’m WAY rustier than I used to be at this game.  Once upon a time I could beat it in a single sitting and usually with only one, maybe two continues.  Now I find myself exploring the palaces like it’s the first time and I’m already 7 continues deep.  With my 5th hour I was able to take out the fourth palace and get the general exploration of the Eastern Continent completed.  Love this game!
Brave New World!

Dating in Hyrule is super easy!

I like to pretend this guy is the Evil Magician from story in the Instruction Manual

Final Appraisal:  

I totally get it.  I can totally see the charm of this game.  It truly is a Double Dragon RPG and once you understand how to progress against the bosses and how to grind for money, it’s a lot of fun.  However, it is also EXTREMELY short.  Knowing what I know now, I’m willing to bet I could beat it in under 2 hours.  Buy Dragon Feet, grind while spamming DF to amass enough money to buy the army boots and boost kick stat, beat all bosses, THE END.  But I now completely understand the charm of the game and why so many people like it.  

Learning Curve:  

Even though it took me 3 hours to really get a feel for what’s going on, I’m going to cut that in half and say that you can get over the learning curve in this game in 1.5 hours.  I feel it would take the uninitiated that long to get used to the way the combat works, grind their way up to a level of competency, and get a feel for how to best use trips to the mall.  Just make sure you read the instruction manual first.  Once you get over the learning curve, this game won’t take long to beat.
(Editor's Note:  As a mini-proof, I was able to beat all of the bosses and the game in about 10 minutes while taking screenshots for this article, so add about an hour of grinding, and I think it's an easy beat)

Will I Finish It?  

Already did.  Will I play it again?  Most definitely.  I can easily see River City Ransom being a fun afternoon’s diversion in much the same way I play through something like Castlevania or Legend of Zelda.  Great game.  Although I will say it’s worth finishing in a single sitting because it has a ridiculously long password for saving your game…
And this password doesn't even include the ridiculous punctuation some of the letters have!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: The Gizzle Wap and the Strange Red Tree

The Gizzle Wap and the Strange Red Tree
Developer Jeff Smith

One of the hot new releases at, Gizzle Wap is a side-scrolling adventure game that looked like it was going to fly under the radar overshadowed by higher profile titles like Scramble and Assembloids, which were getting a lot of buzz at the time of release.  However, the story and the nature of the game play were intriguing and I decided to let the masses fawn over the big names and check out this quieter title instead.

What’s All This Then?

Once upon a time there was a man.  This man had a daughter, and together at bedtime the two of them would craft the adventures of a strange creature called a “Gizzle Wap.”  The Gizzle Wap would roam the land solving problems and encountering odd creatures of mishmash design.  Then one day, the man decided to take those adventures and craft them into a video game, uniting his love of games and the time spent with his daughter into one extremely sweet and touching tribute to something special that they shared.  That game, The Gizzle Wap and the Strange Red Tree, tells the story of an evil red tree that sprouted up one day in the forest and began poisoning the Zazzle flies that frolicked there.  When the Gizzle Wap found out about this, the solution was clear:  remove the tree.  To do this he would have to enlist the help of the Pegsi, super strong flying horses that could pull the tree up and take it away.  To win the Pegsi’s favor, the Gizzle Wap would have to bribe them with cloud fruit that grew in the forest.  And so the adventure began…

How’s It Play?

The Gizzle Wap's adventure consists of several stages. First, you must travel the forest collecting cloud fruit.  This is easy because there is always one per screen.  Once you collect the fruit, you will have to fend off the monsters of the forest to leave the screen.  Collect enough fruit and 3 Pegsi will appear to uproot the Red Tree.  With the tree gone, you are then tasked with finding the hidden lair of the Invicta, the evil monsters responsible for the tree’s existence.  The Invicta lair is hidden in the forest and can be found by touching something in the forest that is out of place.  Once discovered you descend into the lair and face the Invicta one-on-one.  There are seven Invicta, each more difficult than the last.  Defeat all seven Invicta to challenge the Invicta Prime, the worst of the lot.  Defeat him and you’ll have saved the Zazzle Flies and the forest!
As it sounds, each level features unique game play.  Collecting cloud fruit is pretty standard platforming fare with things to collect and enemies to battle.  Once you’ve got a load of fruit, head for the tree and see how many Pegsi you can attract.  Later levels require more fruit to bring the Pegsi in to help.  Cloud Fruit also restores your health so having a full load is never a bad thing.  Once the tree is removed, it’s a race to find the Invicta lair.  With the tree gone, the poison is now spreading faster and threatens to kill you if you do not find the lair in time.  Search the forest screen-by-screen looking for anything out of place, could be a tree branch or a hole in a rock, just make sure you find it fast (or have plenty of extra fruit to keep you going).  This is a fun, scavenger hunt like level that you don’t often see in games and ends up being my favorite part of the whole thing.  Finally, the boss fight against the Invicta is pretty straight-forward.  In later levels the Invicta brings along friends to drain your health while you try to take it out making the battles much harder.  When the Invicta is defeated, the tree returns and you go again.

The level design is the game’s strongest feature.  We really need more games like this on the 2600.  It reminds me of games like Krull, where there is plenty of action and lots to do.  While the basic tasks are the same, the appearance of new enemies (and friends) and steadily ramping difficulty mean that the game doesn’t get stale easily.  The promise of a big boss showdown at the end also creates a strong incentive to see the game all they way through.

Sadly it’s not all good news.  The sub-title of this game should be The Gizzle Wap and the Strange Red Tree:  Zazzle Flies Make Terrible Weapons.  While the Gizzle Wap handles just fine, and sometimes totally cracked out like when you get the Humming Duck, the Zazzle Fly is just flat out unreliable.  And seeing that the little glow bug is your ONLY source of offense this leaves you with a frustratingly hard to use weapon in a game about fighting monsters.  The instructions say that you can use the zazzle fly three different ways:  in front of you as a shield, under you as a pogo weapon, and you can send it flying into the tree tops to do battle in the sky.  That’s great in theory, but miserable in execution.  Using the fly as a shield is pretty easy (just press and hold the button), but it’s movement (and the movement of the monsters) is so erratic that it’s hit percentage is fifty at best.  Sometimes the monster flies right under or past the fly and hits you anyway.  Sometimes not.  Using the fly as a pogo weapon isn’t terribly difficult either (press the button and hold down on the joystick), but since the ants it is used to combat jump at the same exact time you do, getting your target directly under you takes practice, a lot of practice.  You can also use the pogo attack on other monsters, even the Invicta, but you’ll need to master squashing ants first. As a small side note, eating the cloud fruit to restore health is accomplished by pressing down on the joystick, and I’ve eaten a lot of fruit accidentally while trying to pogo attack. Finally, sending the zazzle fly into the trees is like sending your four year old into the kitchen to get a napkin.  Oh sure, they’ll probably come back, but the success of the mission is entirely up for grabs.  When you send the zazzle fly up, it flies in an erratic pattern best illustrated by this Family Circus cartoon:

Yep.  So good luck hitting anything you are aiming at.  You can use the difficulty switches to send the fly diagonally rather than straight up, but I have not been able to determine any real difference in the two.  Many, many, many times the fly just goes right past/through the enemy to no effect.  I have the best luck when aiming in front of the enemy and tying a four-leaf clover to a coin and tossing it in the wishing well outside my window.  Even then my hit rate is maybe 25%.

Very frustrating.  And I think this is why the “find the lair” portion of the game is my favorite, no combat.  The combat is so clunky I’ve gone into Invicta lairs many times with full health and lots of extra fruit and still come out the loser.  I’ve also died on a single forest screen because I could not get that damned fly to hit the Thesbe wasp for anything. When 2/3 of a game depends on good combat controls, they really need to be tighter than this. 

The good news, however, is that you can get better at using the zazzle fly and fighting the monsters in the game with a lot of practice.  I probably spent 3-4 hours playing this game for this review and in that time I got good enough to defeat the 4th Invicta pretty regularly, but it took a lot of dedication to make that happen.  I fear that the less dedicated player isn’t going to put in the kind of time I did.

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  In getting screenshots for this review, I noticed that the game does play slightly better in emulation than it does on actual hardware.)

There are a few other minor bugs like sometimes the cloud fruit is out of reach (not a big deal), and sometimes the Invicta will fail to appear in the boss screen for several seconds, or it will leave the screen during battle and reappear seconds later.  These are pretty small potatoes, but they make the game look a little unpolished.

Whistles and Bells

The Gizzle Wap and the Strange Red Tree comes with a nicely designed, full color manual that features concept art and the heartwarming story that inspired the game.  Because I was an early adopter, I also got the box and a super swanky poker chip, but those are limited so they may be gone by the time you read this.

Final Assessment

The Gizzle Wap and the Strange Red Tree is a smartly designed adventure game with a variety of game play elements that is only held back by its frustratingly inaccurate combat controls.  If the zazzle fly was easier to control this game would be nearly perfect, but the game relies heavily on its combat elements and those are weaker than they should be and create a larger learning curve than I think the game needs.  If you are willing to spend some time getting past, and forgiving, the frustrating combat controls, then there is a really nice little game here to enjoy.  And I will unashamedly admit that this game gets major bonus points from me solely on the back of its inspiration.  I would LOVE to see more adventures of the Gizzle Wap, just with better controls.

Tips and Tricks

Practice!  As I said above, the combat is very frustrating, so take some time to master, or at least get familiar with, each kind of attack.  The pogo attack is best for the ants and against the Invicta when it flies under you.  The shield mode is best against the Culex, which tends to fly diagonally and will often run into it on its own. This is also a good strategy against the Invicta when it swoops at you. The “up in the trees” mode is almost useless, but does seem to be most effective against the Thesbe wasp.  It will also sometimes hit the Invicta when it just paces about the treetops.

Stock Up!  Don’t collect only enough fruit to call the Pegsi, load up!  Collect as much as you can before you summon the third Pegsi to pull the tree so you have plenty to eat if the search for the Invicta lair or the battle therein goes poorly.  

Pay Attention!  This is a game that rewards paying attention.  When it comes time to find the Invicta lair, you will need to be able to identify minute differences in the forest backgrounds.  This could be a tree branch in the wrong place, a gap in a rock, anything, so stay sharp and take the time to know the forest while you are collecting cloud fruit.

Keep Moving!  During the Invicta battles, standing in one spot is asking for trouble.  The Invicta is always moving, and as you will learn, in predictable ways and you should follow suit.  This will open you up to more attack opportunities.  I spend a lot of time jumping and sending the fly into the trees with a lick and a promise.  When the Invicta dives, get your shield ready or get ready to jump over him and pogo.

So there you have it, my first big purchase from the 2017 game release!  The Gizzle Wap and the Strange Red Tree sounded like a fascinating world full of adventure and I was excited to see just how well it delivered on that promise.  I think Gizzle Wap is worth having, but I caution you to stick with it when it gets frustrating.  Hopefully you’ve picked up a few of the 2017 games as well.  I’d love to hear what you think about your purchases.