Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Homebrew of the Month: Drive!

Developer: Nick Wilson

In the Big Atariage Homebrew Release of 2017 there were heavy hitters like Assembloids and Scramble that made everyone ooo and aaah.  There were also unassuming games that flew right under everyone’s radar.  Games that you really shouldn’t overlook.  Previously for the HotM I examined one such game:  The Gizzle Wap and the Strange Red Tree.  This week we take a look at another hidden gem:  Drive!

What’s All This Then?

You’ve plundered the treasure from an ancient temple in the year 2050, but now the structure is crumbling around you.  There’s only one way out:  DRIVE!  As you race to escape, you’ll want to nab any additional treasures you come across.  Survive to a score of 99,999 and you win.  Crash three times and you’re history, future history perhaps.

Drive! is a fast-paced, obstacle-dodging endurance game that pits you against a random assortment of walls you must navigate on your way to the finish!  Best of all, Drive! is one of the few homebrew games developed for the use of the Paddle Controllers!  The game play is simple and straightforward, but there is a lot to like about this game.  The basic idea is to navigate your vehicle through gaps in the walls at breakneck speed.  As you zoom through you will find different treasures.  You can carry a maximum of five, but hoard them at your own peril.  You see, you can “burn” a treasure in order to jump over a wall if you find yourself in a tough spot.  This becomes very helpful when things start to speed up.  In addition to giving you jump boosts, the treasures are also imbued with special powers.  Some allow you to pass through walls like a ghost, others give you unlimited jumping ability or even extra “lives.”   
That’s it.  Jump in your car and hit the gas!

Please excuse the crappy screenshots.  Is not easy to get good screen shots of a fast paced paddle game off your tv... 

How’s it Play?

Really well.   Taking into account that my paddles are really, really jittery until you play a dozen or so games and warm them up, Drive! plays really well right out of the gate.  The player moves smoothly through the obstacle course and the collision detection is sharp.  There are no cheap crashes.  Because of this you’ll want to be precise with your jumps, because even landing part of your car on a wall is crash time.

But don’t let your mad driving skills fool you.  Playing the base game with both difficulty switches on B is for old ladies and children.  What you want to do is switch both difficulty switches to A.  The left switch makes the gaps in the walls smaller and the right switch causes some of the walls to move.  Not so smart now, are ya?  Oh, still cocky?  Ok wise guy, now hit SELECT.  This will turn the title screen red and let you know you are entering the Speed Freak Mode.  Speed Freak Mode starts the game at the top possible speed.  If you survive long enough you might even enter that zen-like zone where everything just slows down.  If…

Whistles and Bells

Well the first and most obvious Whistle and Bell for me is the fact that this game was developed for paddles. (I've only mentioned it like 3 time so far)  I don’t know why more games do not utilize this controller (or other controllers like the Keyboard or Driving Controllers).  Just having a new paddle game is a pretty special thing.  Drive! also supports AtariVox/SaveKey so you can hold on to your high scores and comes with the now pretty much standard high quality, full color manual.

Final Assessment

Drive! is a great twitch-esque game that might seem really simple at first, but once you start implementing some of the game variations, you’ll soon find there is plenty of fun and challenge to be had.  Those endowed with great paddle skills will find it easy to jump right into the driver’s seat and race for that perfect score.  Those, like me, who are paddle-challenged will not be put off as the game variations give you plenty of opportunity to warm up to the task at hand.  The action is fast-paced and fun and will keep you coming back for more.  Finally, a new paddle game for the VCS!

Tips and Tricks

Practice!  Don’t discount the value of playing the Difficulty B variations to warm yourself up before going for Speed Freak Mode.  Even I was able to get 80K points in just a couple of runs on the dual B setting.  This will help familiarize you with the fundamentals before things get out of control.

Burn Baby, Burn!  You can only keep 5 treasures at a time, so do not hesitate to burn one here and there when things get tight.  It’s better to have jumped and lost a treasure than to never have jumped at all.  You treasure tally is only taken when the game is over, so until then use as needed.

Sneak in Some Rest.  This is an endurance game.  You’ll not get to 99K in a couple of minutes, so I use the invincible power-up to give my hand a break.  This power-up also gives you a change to test out some riskier maneuvers consequence free, if you are all rested up and just want to try some new tricks.

So there you have it, a cool new paddle game for your Atari that probably slipped past you when you weren’t looking!  It may not be as flashy as some of the heavy hitters released last year, but Drive! definitely deserves your attention!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Homebrew of the Month: Gingerbread Man

Gingerbread Man
Developer:  Fred Quimby

I had not intended for this review to coincide with any cookie appropriate holidays, however it timed out so that I was playing Gingerbread Man during the Christmas season, so I’ll let you decide if that’s timely or trite, whichever suits your fancy.  There was considerable hype around this game when it came out and it still gets a nod now and then as a top notch platformer for the system so I was long overdue in checking it out.

What’s All This Then?

Gingerbread Man is a video game interpretation of the famous fable about a baked good that sprang to life and attempted to elude those that would eat him.  In this version you must navigate five treacherous screens evading enemies and collecting items to help make good your escape.  You take control of the enlivened unleavened cookie while he is still in the oven and flames are dancing all about.  Once freed from the oven you must make your way out of the house and as far away from danger as possible, yet somehow trouble always finds you!  And if you succeed in completing all five screens, it’s back in the oven for you to do all over again, only this time harder.  Much harder.  If you can battle through all 19 levels, you will come face-to-face with the final boss and perhaps win your actual release.

How Does it Play?

Hard.  Really Hard.  Gingerbread Man features all of your platforming standards: tricky jumps, relentless foes, and fast-paced action.  Controls are smooth and despite a few awkward playfield collisions the physics are solid.  Where the game separates itself from the pack is in its difficulty.  Gingerbread Man is a very difficulty game.  The jumps are unforgiving and the enemies are strategically placed to create the most problems.  While the collision detection with the playfield can be a little fast and loose, the collision detection with the enemies is crisp.  You’ll not be able to get by barely grazing a cat’s ear or bird’s wing.  If you even think you’ve made contact with an enemy, you’re dead.  To compound all of that there is a time limit for each level and you are awarded no extra lives.  Hard.
One of Gingerbread Man’s strongest assets, however, is level design.  Each screen features a totally unique game mechanic and win device.  In the first level you must collect bits of burnt cookie to vanquish fire balls while dodging fire jets. (oh!  What an oven!)  Level 2 requires you to collect balloons with which to float out of the house while a cat and dog prowl the area trying to eat you.  In level 3 you must avoid two cats and a bird while collecting roof tiles to build a bridge to a nearby tree.  The fourth level is truly unique in that the goal of the level is to obtain a worm resting on a tree branch and then feed it to the baby bird high in the tree tops.  To reach the worm you have to increase your weight by gathering falling leaves and lowering trampoline-like tree roots to the appropriate height for a well-timed jump. The final level might be the easiest.  You have to jump about the cave and collect loose stones and throw them at the bird and cat.  Three successful hits and you’ve won!
If surviving those five levels wasn’t hard enough, once you succeed you are cast back into the oven and the difficulty ramps dramatically.  There are more fires in the oven, more balloons to collect in the dining room, and so on.  I have not been able to survive all 19 levels to get to the final boss, but if the rest of the game is any indication, he’s no treat either.

Whistles and Bells:

Not much.  Like most modern homebrew games, Gingerbread Man features a nicely illustrated full color manual.  Graphically the game is simple, but honestly that all this game really wants.  There is a CONTINUE feature to give you an opportunity to practice higher levels and there are three game variations (a feature far too infrequent in modern homebrews) including a version for children, or perhaps more appropriately, first time players.  One nice little feature is that when you continue, your score turns black instead of the default white to indicate that you have used the feature.  This keeps non-continued scores pure.  That’s a smart feature that more games should employ.

Final Assessment: 

If you have ever used the term “guide game” in something other than a derogatory fashion, Gingerbread Man is probably not the game for you.  It’s difficult, very difficult.  In about three dedicated hours of playing I only managed to make it to level 7, and only then by exploiting the CONTINUE feature.  This is platforming at its most challenging.  You must be precise with your jumps, you must give enemies a wide berth, and your timing must be impeccable.  There is no way to slop your way through this game.  That means you are going to be playing the first three levels many, many times.  With enough practice you will get good at Gingerbread Man, but no one is going to hold your hand along the way.  The game’s strength lies in its varied level design and gameplay.  While each level is based on the “collect and avoid” game mechanic, that device is never used the same way twice.  This makes for a fun play and helps you overcome the frustration that can result from the heightened difficulty.

Tips and Tricks:

Let’s take this screen-by-screen:

The Oven:  Work from the bottom up.  The lower flames are the hardest to kill because when you throw the cookie bits, you throw them in an arc like a basketball shot.  This makes attacking the higher ones from underneath very easy (you also get less points), but taking out the lower ones, a challenge.  Since the last remaining fireball doubles in speed, you don’t want the bottom fireball to be that guy.  So take out the lower ones first and then work your way up.

The Dining Room:  This is perhaps the game’s weakest screen.  Timing with the dog and cat is rigidly precise and there is little room for error.  You are best to let the dog make a full transit of the room and jump over his head twice before you leave the chair you start on.  Once you get past the dog, don’t dally on the tabletop, get up on the light fixture and plot out how to gather the balloons most effectively.  One of the reasons I feel this is the weakest level in the game is due to the fact that some of the balloons are completely obscured by the playfield and the only way to obtain them is to jump from precisely the right spot and collide in just the right way with the playfield to register that you have collected the balloon.  This seems unnecessary as the balloons could easily be placed in challenging positions on the screen that are not obstructed by playfield.  You’ll want to figure out exactly where to stand and when and where to jump to force the collection of the balloons.  I recommend saving balloons that require you to land on the floor for last.  Typically I work the left side of the screen and then finish with the balloons on the right.
I still have not figured out how to collect this balloon on Level 7

The Roof:  This is a great screen.  Roof tiles will appear at random all over the roof and the bird and cats will provide plenty of interference in collecting them, however I strongly recommend staying on top of the roof until you see where the roof tile appears.  Sometimes you will get lucky and be able to avoid the cats altogether if the tiles appear on the upper half of the screen.  Each time you place a tile on your bridge wait to see if you can easily collect the next one without too much peril.  This is also the screen where it is essential that you learn the “duck jump.”  Thankfully, in this game you can jump from the ducking position.  This means you can squeeze between the top and bottom cats without being absolutely perfect in your timing.  You will use this a lot in this level and in the dining room to avoid cats above you.

The Forest:  And now for something completely different.  The basic tip from the roof works here as well.  Stay high in the tree tops while you wait for the leaves to fall.  Snag them as quickly as possible to avoid unnecessary trips to the forest floor and encounters with the cat.  Work the roots consistently until they are low enough for you to bounce and get the worm.  There really isn’t much cause to aggravate the baby bird, so the mother bird’s wanderings should only provide minor difficulty.

The Cave:  Jumping here is tricky as the stones in the wall are spaced just far enough apart that an imprecise leap will find you on the floor.  Take advantage of the rising air currents whenever possible instead of attempting finicky jumps.  Loose stones appear just about everywhere so try to stay high on the screen (seeing a pattern in the later levels?) so you can collect them without bothering the cat too much.  You throw in an arc again so hitting the bird will be easier than hitting the cat.

Final Tip:  Take advantage of the CONTINUE feature to practice harder levels before you try playing for score.  In Game Variation 1 you can continue up to level 14 and in Game Variation 2 (SUPER HARD) you can continue indefinitely, but lose all progress in a level when you die.  Trust me, you want the chance to familiarize yourself with the later screens before you make an honest run at the boss.

So there you have it.  An extremely challenging platforming game the likes of which I have not played since Hunchy IIGingerbread Man isn’t going to be for everyone, but for those of us who love a brutal platformer, this one will always scratch that itch.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Ature

Developer:  Beoran
Available:  (ROM ONLY)

Pulling from the archive again this month as I await some excellent new games to arrive in the post.  Ature was a game I picked up at an East Coast gaming convention back in the days when that was a thing.  The game had just been released and Beoran, the developer, had granted a few folks the rights to distribute physical copies of the game.  I picked up a boxed copy for around $45 American, I believe.  It was very exciting to pick up a brand new game at a convention (this wasn’t quite as common as it is today).  Ature was even more of a thrill because it was an adventure game at a time when those also weren’t really a thing.  And even seven years later, it still holds up as a solid adventure game for your VCS.

What All This Then?

Ature is the story of Signe, a young sword fighter whose family has been tasked with protecting the mystical tree that protects the land.  All was going well until a black ship carrying the evil queen Ikaza landed on Ature’s shores.  Ikaza has threatened to destroy the mystical tree by draining all of its power.  She’s turned everyone except you to stone and has started to use her evil to pervert the land.  You alone must travel far and wide defeating the queen’s minions and solving the dastardly puzzles she has put in place to prevent anyone from overthrowing her rule.  Only by finding the three leaves of the mystic tree can you break the curse and confront Ikaza face-to-face.
Ature is a standard adventure game in the vein of well-loved classics like the Legend of Zelda.  You travel the land using your sword and some limited magical abilities, defeating enemy monsters and seeking out switches and mini-bosses that will open new paths in the world.  Every time you defeat a boss or flip a switch you will be granted access to more of the world, special weapons or powers, and eventually the final showdown with Queen Ikaza.  By defeating enemies you gain experience and increase your combat ability, health bar and magic points.  You can also find helpful items that increase your power.  There is a book that lets you consume MP (called Numen Points in this game) to shoot energy beams from your sword.  There is a shield that protects you from shooting enemies.  And so on.

How Does it Play?

Really, really well.  The world is a pretty decent size, particularly for this era of homebrew.  There are many distinct areas to explore and wide varieties of enemies to fight.  The game follows pretty standard adventure game rules.  You start out with access to a small part of the world and as you defeat enemies or find switches you are granted access to new areas.  These new areas often include power-ups or weapons you will need to gain access to the next area.  The game isn’t linear, however, and you will want to keep checking back on certain areas to see if something new has been unlocked.  You’ll sometimes be able to see an item locked behind a wall that won’t open until much later in the game.
Signe controls just fine.  You can walk with your sword extended to stave off instant attacks when you enter a new screen.    Collision detection with enemy sprites is pretty generous, except with the Invisible Enemy, who is a real pain in the butt.  Defeated foes drop power-ups to restore health and magic points.  Again, all pretty standard stuff, just not stuff you see much of on the Atari 2600.

The game isn’t perfect though and it suffers from a few of the idiosyncrasies of its day.  Not all of the mini-bosses respect the boundaries of the play field, so occasionally you’ll be in a room that passes through the boss room, but is not in the boss area, and the boss will march over and crush you.  Typically this can be avoided just by moving quickly, but it’s something that should have been cleaned up in play testing.  Some rooms are nearly impossible to see on a real TV with real hardware because of the coloring choices.  There are two pink rooms in the Ruby Mountains that are really tough for this reason.  The manual doesn’t tell you enough about the icons in your inventory so that you really understand what you’ve picked up (if what you’ve picked up shows up at all.  In the screenshot below I am very late in the game, on my way to Queen Ikaza, but it’s hard to know fully what I have in my inventory.  I have some kind of cross thing, the Numen Shield (that one is obvious), something that looks like a crown, and what looks like bottom half of E.T.’s telephone.  With some careful study of the gameplay, you can eventually figure out that you have the Numen Sword, Numen Armor, and the two Mystic Books, but a simple item legend in the manual would be helpful.
Let's see I've got 4, uh, things, here.  I'm ready to take on the boss!
These are minor technical details, but they reveal a lack of polish that would otherwise make this game absolute top tier as far as VCS adventure games go.

Whistles and Bells

Well my copy came with a swanky box and instruction manual, but that was seven years ago and the guy I got it from has kind of disappeared from the community, so chances are good that’s not going to be your experience.  However, because the game is open source and the ROM is available, you can always contact Atariage and have them make you a custom cartridge with whatever swanky label, manual and box you want to create and pay for.  The game does feature nice, big graphics with well drawn and thought out play fields and interesting looking enemies and bosses.
Apart from that Ature is exactly what it is: a great game strong on fun and light on spectacle.

Final Assessment

Ature is a great adventure game for the Atari 2600.  It takes about an hour to figure out and beat, especially if you get stuck fighting the Invisible Enemy repeatedly like I do.  There are lots of places and things to explore and tracking down all of the power-ups and abilities is part of the fun.  Once you’ve beaten it, it’s fun to run through it again knowing what you know and seeing how quickly you can save the land of Ature.  After that, you can probably shelve it for a while and then pull it back out once you’ve forgotten every last nook and cranny of the map.  Pretty standard adventure game stuff.  In recent years there have been many more really incredible adventure games for the VCS.  People are finally starting to figure out how to make these kinds of game shine on the Atari, and it’s games like Ature that got us to where we are today.
None shall pass.

Tips and Tricks

Home is Where the Heart(s) Is:  Signe’s home will always have health power-ups.  Leave the screen, return, and the heart will reappear.  This is a big help late in the game when you get defeated and respawn at home.  Several trips back and forth between screens can start you off with full health again.

These Bullets are Too Expensive:  I tend not to use the Book of Striking.  It costs a Numen point every time you use it and enemy movements are pretty erratic in this game, so you aren’t always guaranteed a hit.  I prefer to save my Numen points for healing with the Book of Life.  There is only one place where you must use the Book of Striking to hit a switch that is otherwise unreachable.
I'm not saying where, exactly...

Get Her, Ray!:  Most of the mini-bosses can be bum rushed and taken out with speed.  There are a few that you will want to strategize for, but don’t be afraid to take the very direct approach.

You Can’t See What You Can’t Hit:  The Invisible Enemy is one of the most annoying and troublesome mini-bosses in the game.  You’ll encounter him late in the game near the Sea Shrine.  The only way you’ll know he’s there is A.) you’ll die almost instantly upon entering the screen. OR B.) before you die you’ll see a small dash moving towards you.  That dash is the only indication of where the Invisible Enemy is.  Don’t mistake it for his shadow, because it doesn’t work like that.  Go into the battle with full health and make a dash for the bottom of the screen.  As the dash approaches, stab at it from the bottom. You’ll know you’ve hit it if the dash jerks in one direction or another. If things get tight, run a circle around the dash until you can get back to a “from the bottom” attack stance.  Stab.  Repeat at least 6 times.  It will take some practice, but this is the ONLY way I have been able to defeat the Invisible Enemy.  He’s a pain.
Oy vey, this guy.

So there you have it!  A solid adventure game for the Atari 2600 that might have flown under your radar.  It’s not the flashiest game of its kind, but it’s a lot of fun and is a very welcome addition to an underserved category of games on the VCS.  Legend of Zelda fans will feel right at home exploring the world of Ature and vanquishing the evil Queen Ikaza.  If you missed Ature before, at the very least, download the ROM and give it a look.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Swordquest Comic: It's Over

Swordquest #5 landed this week, and the comic series that started with a whimper goes out with a sigh.  If you were hoping the whole thing would marshal in the closing chapter and redeem the four issues of blechhh that preceded it, you were sadly mistaken and extremely naive.  Chad Bowers and Ghostwriter X stay true to their formula of bland characters, grade school level art, and dull storytelling to grind this terrible comic to a close.

I would warn you that this review contains spoiler alerts, but the word "spoil" indicates that there is something "ripe" here that can go bad, and that would be inaccurate.  To briefly summarize, Protagonist (I still cannot tell you his name, is it Chris, or Peter, or maybe Chad?) manages to get the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery and is teleported to Atara where he learns that he is the re-embodiment of Rulero (it hurts to type that) and that Atara has fallen into ruin under the rule of Tyrannus..  He uses the sword to teleport back to earth just in time to kill Konjuro, but not before the villain has stabbed the eye of the big man-bun guy.  After explaining to his friends what he learned in Atara, they all decide to return to Atara to fix that world, because they were somehow so competent on this world that their winning ways are sure to carry over.  That's it.  Oh and Man-Bun turns out to be a minotaur, because sure, why not.  But this summary doesn't really do justice to the steaming pile that is issue #5, so let's dig in and really appreciate how bad comics are made.

We start with this incredible cover!  This is the final issue, right?  So it needs a really gripping cover that conveys all the drama and excitement to be found in the concluding chapter of this fantastic story, right?  So what do we get?  A guy in a suit with a face half-shrouded in shadow.  That's it.  Who is he supposed to be?  All of the major characters in the story have been revealed so the nature of the shadowy face is a curious choice.  The suit and mutton chops suggest that its Konjuro, but Konjuro wouldn't wear his tie that loosely, he's (as consistently as Ghostwriter X can muster) always been represented as very well kempt.  And again, why would he be in shadow, we already know him well.  It cannot be Protagonist because he's a complete mess adorned in a t-shirt and jacket.  It cannot be Man-Bun, he's dressed like a biker.  It's not the Dunmer because this is clearly a man (although based on Ghostwriter X's skill that's been up for grabs from panel to panel).  So it can only be the other guy.  But though he wears a suit, Other Guy is black and the skin on mystery cover guy is blue.  Unless that's yet another bizarre style choice, that rules out Other Guy. So we have a final issue cover that features a character that is entirely unrelated to the comic book it contains OR is a character we already know but inaccurately represented.  No matter who or what that is, it's a boring, boring, boring cover for a final issue.  A guy in a suit. Off to a GREAT start.

Inside, for certain Ghostwriter X has pulled out all the stops and sharpened all of his/her pencils to give us something special for this big finale.  Can anyone tell me what's going on in this panel?  Context says that Other Guy is really angry that Protagonist has vanished and is going to try to kill Konjuro, but a robed cult guy has grabbed him to prevent that from happening.  But taking this panel on it's own, I'm left to wonder if Other Guy has sprouted some caucasian arms and is doing some kind of lewd dance.  If there were more than four colors in play in Ghostwriter X's palette, then maybe it would be clear that there was cult member back there at work, but since everything is gun metal gray, who can really tell.  Also, it kind of looks like the cult member's arms are there by accident, as if Other Guy stumbled into his embrace.  It certainly doesn't look like he's being restrained.  I shouldn't be stymied by a single panel this early in the comic.  This is page two, panel two.  Hopes are not rising for a big finish.  Oh, and dear Dynamite, either swear in your comics or don't, but don't swear and then cross it out.  It makes you and me look stupid, and I don't like to look stupid.

As the good guys reel from Protagonist's disappearance, Konjuro threatens to blind Man-Bun if Man-Bun doesn't tell him what he wants to know: something about magic or how to get back to Atara, or something.  Honestly, Konjuro's motivations have been all over the place, so who can tell.  In any event, he's got Man-Bun by the neck and he's weaving a magic dagger with which to stab him in the eye.  These are the pages in question:
Zoom in and get a good look at the Dunmer's face in panel 2.  More on that in a minute.

Pretty exciting right, with the eye-stabbing and all.  Except, please explain to me how we get from the panels at the bottom of the left page to the dramatic action of the first panel on the right page.  Again, Ghostwriter X reveals his/her failure to understand basic storytelling.  On the left page Konjuro has Man-Bun by the throat.  His left hand is holding Man-Bun's throat.  Admittedly, in panel 5, that grasp is somewhat ginger and delicate, but we can assume that this is the beginning of the much tighter grip in panel 7.  Let's do that.  In panel 6, Konjuro is so close that he can place the tiny magic dagger right up to Man-Bun's eye.  Panel 7 confirms this proximity by pulling out a bit to show us Konjuro threatening him with both arms clearly bent.  Heck the one is so bent, it's coming from somewhere around his waist, which is anatomically impossible, but that's really par for the course at this point. We also know he's close because he's grabbing Man-Bun so hard his head is tilted back. So we leave the left page with Konjuro rather close to Man-Bun threatening to stab him in the eye.  Then suddenly at the top of the right page Konjuro stabs Man-Bun in the eye as promised, but he does it from what has to be at least four feet away (the wife and I recreated this scene sans the eye poke to prove the point).  So what happened in the gutter between the left and right page?  Did Konjuro back up 2 paces and then lunge at him to stab him in the eye?  Why would he do that?  All he has to do is pull his arm back and then stab.  There is no need to back up and lunge.  He's poking an eye not punching through a wall.  And the stab is pretty wimpy at that because he only uses the very tip of his magic dagger to complete the act.  This should be a dramatic moment, but it is completely devoid of impact by Ghostwriter X's desperate attempt to make it more dramatic.  However his/her inability to understand bodies moving in space creates a ridiculous situation.  I'm pretty sure a close up eye-poking can be rather dramatic, see also the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns movie.

After failing to get what he wants Konjuro prepares to make good on his threat to take both of Man-Bun's eyes, but our hero reappears just in time to vanquish the evil villain.  To convey this, we get a full page splash panel of Protagonist stabbing Konjuro in the back, the most noble and heroic way to defeat a bad guy.  Sure, it's in line with his established, cowardly loser character, but if this is the final act and his character arc is going to demonstrate some amount of change, beating the bad guy by stabbing him in the back isn't going to cut it.  That's bad storytelling with no confidence in your characters to be more than they are.
Ghostwriter X's art isn't helping Bowers story here either.  Why is the main character's back to the audience during the most dramatic moment of his story arc?  Why do we not see his face and the emotion thereupon?  If Protagonist is right handed, then maybe turn the scene around to set up a proper moment of victory.  It wouldn't be that hard to do if you thought about more than just the panel you are currently drawing.  But instead we get a loser dealing a cowardly blow to the enemy with his back to the audience, the stance of a coward, liar or thief.  Konjuro looks like the victim here for sure.  He's the only one facing the camera.  If I didn't know anything about any of these characters and you showed me this panel I would assume the bad guy has stabbed the good guy in the back while the good guy was trying to help the guy at the bottom right.  Bad, bad storytelling.

Of course, that thrilling moment is followed up by commentary from our favorite Dunmer with malleable features:

Five issues and her snaggle-toothed face is still all over the place.

So Protagonist goes on to explain that when he got the sword he was instantly transported to Atara where a robed figure reveals that he, Protagonist, is the re-embodiment of Rulero, the true ruler of Atara.  And then the robed figure lays it all out for us:  not only is Protagonist Rulero, he's also the avatar of Herminus, the thief from the REAL original Swordquest comics, and his two friends, Dunmer and Other Guy are the avatars for Torr and Tarra, and they have relived the quest for the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery.  So, I guess, somehow Herminus is really Rulero, which makes absolutely no sense at all if you know anything about the original Swordquest comics, but hey, for this slopfest of a story that desperately tries and fails at fan service, sure, why not?  For the record, the lovely wife pointed out the twins thing back in issue #2, though I will admit the Herminus/Thief angle was totally lost on me because Herminus was a clever and conniving character and Protagonist was a mopey loser.  I also figured that Man-Bun would be the avatar of Herminus since they both lost the same eye, but he turns into a minotaur when they go back to Atara, so that opportunity was wasted.  I guess there is some reveal here after all.  It's a miserable reveal, but a reveal nonetheless.

The rest of the issue drones on in it's drab and dreary color wash tones as the group is surrounded by the cops, then Protagonist teleports them all away with his magic sword.  After a brief stop back at his house in Chicago, Protagonist explains that Atara is in trouble and since he's a dying loser on Earth, he may as well go try to set things right there instead of waiting around for the death he deserves.  The twins put up a token resistance and then all decide to go with him and see what adventure awaits.
Ghostwriter X will someday be allowed to use more than three colors.   

So any kind of real, actual fun adventure will happen off panel, after these five miserable issues of whatever this was.  Honestly, looking back on it, if everything that had happened in this mini-series had happened in issue #1, with this splash panel:

as the final page of that issue, this might have had a chance at being a good story.  If we spent 22 pages of setting up a pathetic loser in need of redemption-before-his-death with an opportunity to seek that redemption by living his dream of questing for the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery in a mystical video game realm, and then spent the next four issues telling that tale, we might have had something worth reading.  You could have even given the audience and the main character their ultimate dream of completing the never finished Airworld game (and comic).  But instead we spend five issues with this band of cardboard characters who are completely devoid of substance and end up with a story that I am hopeful I can forget as soon as I publish this blog post.  Seriously, just condense this 5-part story down to it's essence, drop pretty much everything except the idea that your main character needs personal redemption and cannot find it in the real world, then have someone show up to whisk him away to Airworld or wherever to complete the quest.  You'd have four full issues to explore Airworld and complete the quest and maybe have some character development.  Heck you could even work in Torr and Tarra, and Mentorr and Mentarra, and Konjuro, and all of it.  But no.  No.  We get this.  What a slap in the face to the very thing is purports to honor.  After a fun little fantasy story constructed by comic book legends like Gerry Conway and George Perez, we get a rotten egg laid by Chad Bowen and Ghostwriter X, someone who doesn't even want to put their real name on their work.

If there is any parallel here at all between this comic and the original Swordquest games and comic it's that both ended up being colossal disappointments.

Now that this is over, never let us speak of it again.

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.