Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Homebrew of the Month: Oystron

Developer: Piero Cavina
Available: Atariage

Let’s go back, way back to the dawn age of modern Homebrewing.  A time when sitting down and punching out code for a new Atari 2600 video game was more than just a labor of love, it was an act of self-sacrifice and skill.  These were the days of the Stellalist: a small, cloistered corner of the internet where those few who possessed the knowledge and talent for writing in a coding language more obsolete than Latin is to human languages swapped secrets and mined the VCS library for whatever wisdom could be gleamed from it’s hallowed halls.  At this time you could count the number of homebrew games without taking off your shoes.  Games like Edtris and Dark Mage were dipping their toes in the water to see if it was deep enough to swim.  From that primordial homebrew soup would soon come incredible games, games like Qb and this month’s selection:  Oystron.  I had not yet entered the classic gaming scene when Oystron began forming, but it, and I, burst onto the scene at about the same time.  I remember hearing about it, and others like it, but had no real clue what homebrews really were, or if they were anything to pay attention to.  No, I was too busy trying to track down copies of H.E.R.O and Pitfall II; desperately chasing those nostalgic nuggets of my past unable to see the future of VCS gaming jogging along side me.  So now, nearly twenty years later, I aim to catch up!  I’m probably the last person on earth to play Oystron for the first time, but maybe not.  Maybe you too are saying, “Hey! I just got here!  You mean there were homebrews before Draconian?”  There sure were.

What’s All This Then?

Oystron is a space shooter with some interesting twists.  You are in space harvesting pearls from space oysters.  As you harvest them you drop them in the collection zone.  When you have collected a full row of pearls they become powerful bombs and clear room for more harvesting.  This would likely be a tedious job excepting that you are not alone.  Space seems to be occupied by a bevy of creatures like yourself, that find these space pearls enthralling.  As such, these other space creatures will do whatever they can to steal your pearls.  So while you are busy harvesting you must also fight off your rival creatures to keep them from stealing or outright destroying your crop.  If you can hang around long enough, you will enter the Oystron phase.  It is during this phase that space goes absolutely mad as the mysterious Oystron appears.  Oddly enough the Oystron isn’t really hostile, he just seems to dance around a bunch during which time you can blow him up with bombs or you can just wait until he gets tired and mutates into a space oyster.  Yeah, maybe the most bizarre boss fight I’ve ever seen.  Either way, after the Oystron has done whatever it is it has set out to do, you’ll enter the Warp phase, during which everything speeds up dramatically and the risk of death is greatly increased.  Survive the Warp phase and new level will begin.  Repeat until dead or 100K points, which ever comes first.  Spoiler alert: it’s most likely death.

How’s It Play

Pretty damn solid for a game from the Homebrew Stone Age.  Ship movement is smooth (mostly, more later) and collision detection is solid.  The game starts out pretty difficult, but once you get the hang of the action things settle down and you can really get into the gameplay.  Difficulty definitely ramps as the levels progress and you’ll find particular challenge during the Warp phases when the speed goes completely out of control.  
However, it’s not all good news.  While the main part of the level is great and the action is well executed, once you enter the Oystron phase, the wheels start to come of.  Perhaps in an attempt to ratchet up the excitement and create a sense of disorientation, during the Oystron phase the screen begins to flash with a level of seizure inducing flash that only the most rigid mind can possibly tolerate.  Everything is blinking or flashing or moving or all three at the same time.  If the effect is to throw you off your game, it succeeds beyond what is reasonable.  Sadly it is so distracting and so busy that it totally breaks your concentration and makes this part of the game extremely difficult to play and enjoy if you can keep from writhing on the floor.  Somewhere during all of that screen vomit, the Oystron makes his appearance and you have an absurdly short amount of time to regain your senses, find him, and plant your bombs without being hit by the rest of the crap flying around.  It’s a mess, and not in a good way. 
Things calm down a little bit once you enter the Warp phase, and you’ll only have to deal with a change in screen color and a dramatic shift in enemy speed.  Gameplay remains the same as in the normal level, things are just much, much faster.  I found, that I was still suffering from the effects of the Oystron phase and generally spent the Warp phase bleeding lives and crashing into stuff hoping the madness would stop.

If you have any lives left, you get to start level 2.

So overall, 80% of the game is really fun space shooting action, and the other 20% runs the risk of causing vertigo.  The 80% that is fun is really great and that’s what I keep coming back for.  I find that I just grit my teeth and do my best to survive the other 20%.
There are a couple of game variations to keep you interested and challenged if the base game is too easy.  There are novice, medium, and hard options as well as an option to make your spacecraft “bounce” when it gets near the edge of the screen instead of just stopping.  It’s the best I can do to play the novice difficulty level, but I am willing to bet expert players enjoy the challenge of the other two.  I found the “bounce” option for the ship movement to be more annoying than anything else and honestly made the game feel sloppy and broken rather than more challenging.  Keep those difficulty switches on B, kids.

Whistles and Bells

Being from the early days of homebrewing, Oystron is its own Whistle and Bell.  The fact that it existed was super special for its day.  This is long before AtariVox or SaveKey were anything other than “wouldn’t it be cools.”  Oystron does come with a nicely designed full color manual, however the manual is riddled with typos and mislabeled images.  For instance, the space oysters and space creatures are mislabeled, and the manual says Difficulty setting B will cause your ship to bounce, when it is in fact the A setting that causes this.  There are some other inaccuracies in the manual that might simply smack of coming from a time when video game manuals weren’t being written or scrutinized as much as they are today.  There are also some things the manual leaves out, like how you must line up pearls to obtain the bombs with which to defeat the Oystron, or that lining up pearls causes them to disappear.  After 20 years I think the manual is due a rewrite.

Final Assessment

Oystron is a fun and engaging space shooter for the Atari 2600.  It features a novel concept with intriguing and challenging gameplay.  It takes a few minutes to fully comprehend what is going on, but once you get the hang of collecting pearls and fending off the bad guys, you’ll be having fun in no time.  Just be forewarned about the completely disorienting and psychologically jarring Oystron phase.  If you are even slightly set off by flashing lights, you may want to give this game a pass.  What happens during the Oystron phase is very similar to what happens to Alex in A Clockwork Orange.  But if you can make it through that with your wits intact there is much to enjoy about Oystron.  Don’t be wary just because it’s one of the earliest homebrews out there!

Tips and Tricks

Rapid Fire:  You can rapid fire by holding down the fire button.  This is nice not only because you keep shooting, but because you automatically drop off any pearls you pick up.  Early on you don’t have enough to worry about placement, so just grab and drop.  Later in the level once the collection area gets fuller, you can start being more judicious about where you place your oysters.

Play It Safer:  Enemies come from the right and they spawn on screen.  So while you can venture outside the collection zone, there is really little reason to ever do so.  If you keep left you can get a clearer sense of the action and intercept the space creatures before they can steal your horde.

The Best Offense is a Great Defense:  I know you want to get out there and just grab all the pearls you can, but the space creatures need to be your top priority.  Wait until a new wave spawns, locate and destroy the space creatures first, then harvest as many oysters as you can before the next wave starts.

Space Zoology 101:  Know your space creatures.  Some just come and take pearls, others will obliterate them.  Some cannot be killed and some can only be killed from behind.  Some space oysters have harder shells than others.  All of this goes to show that you will be best served learning the special characteristics of each kind of space creature, so that you better understand how to survive their onslaught.  This isn’t just a shoot ‘em up.
These arrow looking guys can only be shot from behind

Oystron Phase:  I don’t know what to tell you.  As soon as your screen goes completely berserk, try to regain your composure and look for the Oystron.  He usually dances about mid-screen and bounces between rows.  Set bombs in the rows he’s dancing in and just get out of the way.  Do your best not to die, because if you do, you’ll have to do the Oystron phase again.

Warp Phase:  This phase is just wicked fast.  It doesn’t last forever, so my best strategy is to stay in one row and shoot until it’s over.  If you are brave enough to stick your nose out and try to harvest pearls, that’s all you.

So there you have it!  One of the, ahem, pearls of the early Atari 2600 Homebrew library dusted off and shined up, ready for action again.  It’s nice when an older game like this can hold up against some of the extremely impressive games that are coming out today.  Oystron’s not going to blow anybody’s socks off these days, but it is still fun to play and still provides plenty of good solid action and challenge.  If, like me, you’ve been passing over it for a while, it might be time to go back and see what you’ve been missing.

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) Atariage.com

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.