Monday, October 9, 2017

The Learning Curve: 5 Hours with River City Ransom

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

Hour 1:  

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

Hour 2:  

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

Hour 3:

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

Hour 4:

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

Hour 5:  

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

Dating in Hyrule is super easy!

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

Final Appraisal:  

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

Learning Curve:  

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

Will I Finish It?  

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

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

The Gizzle Wap and the Strange Red Tree
Developer Jeff Smith

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

What’s All This Then?

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

How’s It Play?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whistles and Bells

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

Final Assessment

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

Tips and Tricks

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Worse Comic: Swordquest #3

Swordquest #3 landed this week and sadly things did not get any better.  If anything this comic tumbled straight down the hill and landed squarely in downtown Crapsville.  Since it was very cathartic for me to take issue #2 apart, I figure why not vent my frustrations on issue #3 in the same manner and maybe we can all learn a little something about how not to make terrible comics in the future.

I got lucky (?) this month and my comic shop owner had pulled the Cover “B” variant for me instead of the dreadfully mundane Cover “A” in the style that bored us all to tears last month.  The Cover "B" variant featured a striking image of Torr and Tarra from the original (good) Swordquest comics by legendary, and original SQ artist, George Perez.  This was bittersweet however as it kind of looks like Perez wasn’t at this best and maybe rushed through the project in order to do work he actually wanted to do.  There is a sketchy quality to it that, while still distinctively Perez, is uncharacteristic of his usual polish.  Still, even on his worst day, a George Perez cover beats a computer-enhanced image of a woman holding a flashlight…

But that’s just the cover and results may vary.  We’re here for the riveting story and excellent storytelling that is sure to be found within these pages…

Well, crap, we’re 6 panels in and off to a thrilling start.  Our main character’s (I still don't recall his name) suddenly chesty and square-jawed mother (whatever happened to her pointy chin from last issue?) has wandered downstairs to find a note that suggests that maybe something might actually be happening in the story to move the plot along.  Don't get too excited.  You would kind of hope and assume that with three issues under his/her belt, Ghostwriter X would have settled in with these characters and gotten comfortable drawing them.  Nope.  It looks like every panel is a struggle just to get coherent lines on the page. I'm definitely not against new artists getting out there and doing stuff, but I expect a much higher level of execution from a $4 comic book from a company that wants to be a major player on an esoteric comic that is going to have to work very hard to find an audience outside it’s minuscule native one.  This first page, and protagonist’s mom, are a mess.

Things don’t get much better as the (lack of) action picks up on the following pages.  Our intrepid team is heading to LA to steal the Sword and apparently drop in on Konjuro, I mean Konrad Juros, for reasons unclear.  In what I can only assume are supposed to be character building and plot justifying moments, we get some very awkward moments between our cast members, not the least of which is this bizarre moment where a stranger approaches the brother of the Dunmer girl because he recognizes him from a reality TV show (makes it topical and relevant).  During this exchange, for no reason I can discern, we get this panel featuring the Dunmer brother as the chef from Burgertime

What the ass?  This goes completely unexplained and is just there because video games.  Maybe it’s there to break up what is otherwise a very dry and tedious interaction.  It’s kind of like on the next page where it’s clear that Ghostwriter X read on an online forum that to make talking heads more interesting you just move the camera around willy-nilly so that the characters are all at different and unnecessary angles.  

And then there is this moment where the Dunmer and the Protagonist share an uproarious laugh.  Look at those two.  They are breaking up with hysterics.  Try to calm down you two, you’ll get booted from the airport.

And before you accuse me of just being a big bully about the art, I want you to remember that this guy

is also this guy


Ok, I’m going to try to give the art a rest and focus on the miserable story it’s so desperately trying to tell.  The team goes to LA and they get there a couple days ahead of the convention where they are going to steal the sword, so with the extra time they decide to look in on Konrad Juros, you know, for no reason at all that I can determine.  It is unclear what they hope to gain apart from finding out if he is really an evil wizard from a comic book.  And if they do discover that, what then?  If he's an evil wizard, he’ll just kill them, and if he’s not then we’ve got a scene worthy of inclusion in the Twilight books.

They get to the office and Protagonist uses his “notice words in the room around you power” to convince Konrad Juros to see them despite their lack of appointment or general purpose in life.    When we meet Mr. Juros it appears he’s put on some pounds since his appearance in the magazine at the end of last issue.  It also appears that Ghostwriter X got ahold of a comic book where Steve Dillon drew Wolverine and decided to copy that work for exactly one panel.  (I know, I tried to restrain myself).

Juros let’s our team into his secret arcade of games he created but never released and sure enough in that arcade is the long lost and lamented Airworld, the final game in the Swordquest series. Juros eagerly allows Protagonist to give the unreleased game a try and hands him an Atari 2600 CX40 joystick that is either connected to absolutely nothing, or is connected to a nearby arcade cabinet.  Either way, what the hell?

But I’m getting ahead of myself and have skipped over two video game-related gaffs that are absolutely inexcusable.  First, Konjuro explains away his coincidental name by claiming that it was the way programmers worked their names into video game related materials since there wasn’t room in the game programs for credits.  This is complete and utter bullshit and an outright lie.  There was plenty of room to program your initials or other credit into Atari 2600 games.  You can see this in numerous games from back in the day where programmers snuck their initials into games either on the sly or legitimately.  Hell, there’s an entire credit screen in the Asteroids game that says Atari, 1980.  It’s an entire screen JUST FOR CREDITS.  Tell me there isn't room for credits in the game.  BULLSHIT. The real story is that Atari refused to allow programmers to put their initials or names into games because they didn’t want to give their programmers independent credit for their games.  Don’t believe me? Find a programmer’s name in the Missile Command manual.  This is largely why Activision was founded and why you get an “about the programmer” page in every Activision game manual.  This is why Atari programmers had to hide their initials in their games as Easter Eggs.  This is why the most famous video game Easter Egg, Warren Robinett’s secret credit room in the classic Adventure game exists.  Not because there wasn’t room, but because Atari didn’t want their programmers to get credit. But this is an Atari sponsored comic, so I guess the truth can be flexible.

However, that makes the second gaff even MORE inexcusable.  In the same panel, Konjuro provides a second example of programmers hiding their names in game stuff by citing Yars’ Revenge as being Ray Kassar’s name backwards.  First, the nitpick:  Yars’ Revenge backwards is Egnever ‘Syar.  Not “Ray Kassar.”  And while it's true Yars’ is intentionally Ray backwards with an S, (the story goes that the game was Ray’s attempt to get back at the programmers who left to form Activision) the game was programmed by Howard Scott Warshaw, NOT Kassar.  Kassar’s name was used for the game title and other aspects to be a tongue-in-cheek “screw you” to the programmers who wanted credit for their work.  Kassar is reportedly the one who told programmers that they were no more important to the video game process than the assembly line workers who constructed the actual cartridges.  Ironically, and apparently obliviously to Chad Bowers (our esteemed writer), Howard Scott Warshaw had to hide his initials in the Yars’ Revenge game as an Easter Egg as well.  But again, this is video game history according to Atari as told to Chad Bowers, so the truth is subjective. (I’ve met Howard Scott Warshaw, he’s a really cool guy, this is a complete disservice to him)

Absolutely unacceptable.  If you are going to write a comic book about classic video games targeted to an audience of classic gamers, YOU SIMPLY CANNOT make these kinds of errors or rewrite real history the way you rewrite the history of the Swordquest world.  Complete horseshit.  All of this is common knowledge in the classic gaming world, you can’t swoop in with your revisionist comic and try to sell us crap goods.

But back to the story.  So Protagonist is left alone with Airworld so he can give it a try.  Konjuro is unworried because he knows the game is unsolvable due to impossible rooms in the game.  Moments later, Protagonist comes out of the room claiming to have solved Airworld.  Our team leaves and Juros checks out Protagonist's claim.  Sure enough, the game says, in far more text than the screen would be capable of displaying along with a playfield, that he did indeed defeat the game.  This is the same game that doesn’t have room for the programmer’s initials, mind you.  Konjuro does not look pleased.  Of course, Konjuro was right, Airworld does contain impossible rooms, rooms where you can have tons of text and a playfield.  If you are writing a comic about a specific video game on a specific system YOU MUST KNOW that game and system inside and out or you are going to look very very stupid to anyone who knows anything about said game and system. 
Impossible, indeed...

And while we’re at it, what the hell kind of paddles are those?  They certainly don’t belong to the 6-switch woody they are in front of.  It would also help if they had cords…

Later, Protagonist explains that he was able to complete the game because the it was completely randomized and Biker Bun gave him the, not only unpublished, but completely never written or drawn, Airworld comic book which had all the clues in the right order.  Then they all decide that everything that has happened is due to fate (not blatant cheating) and that they have no choice but to steal the sword.  

The final scene is of Konjuro putting on his robe, because nothing could be more predictable and trite, and getting ready to confront Protagonist over the Sword. 

Dear God, kill me now.

As a parting shot, the other bittersweet thing about getting the George Perez cover is the literal “bait and switch” tactic at play.  You get a bright and colorful fantasy cover on the outside and THIS on the inside.  

The textbook definition of “bait and switch.”  

This is a great comic book written by someone who read three wikipedia articles about classic gaming when tapped by Dynamite for the project.  This is a great first comic for a sixth grader who shows a lot of promise as a future sequential artist.  As anything else, this is a giant pile of crap.  Crap.  And they want you to pay $4 for it.  Don’t do it, let me take the hit for you.  Spend your money on good comics like X-O Manowar or Motor Girl.  As someone who grew up with and loved the Swordquest games and Atari in general this comic is a slap in the face.  Pathetic.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Chunkout 2600

Chunkout 2600
Developer: James Todd
Available:  Atariage

This game should be called “Just One More 2600” because that’s pretty much how it goes.  A maddening puzzler in the same class as AStar, Jammed, or Okie Dokie, Chunkout 2600 will definitely transform 10 minutes into 60 in the press of a button.

What’s All This Then?

There is a 1980’s level “more story than you ever need for this game” backstory to Chunkout, but honestly, you don’t need it   The short of it is that you are trying to break through the defense grid of your enemy by taking it out in huge chunks.  However, to be successful you must take out the ENTIRE grid, no stragglers.  Failure to remove all of the chunks results in GAME OVER.  There are only 4 levels in Chunkout, but you play them separately, so you can use the early levels to hone your skills. Then you can call me when you clear level 4.  You see, the game isn’t easy.  You can only remove chunks when two or more adjacent chunks are of the same color.  You can remove more than 2, one might say it’s the only way to victory, but you must match two to clear.  This is fundamental blocking-clearing game play, no different than BeJeweled or Candy Crush or whatever.  The trick with Chunkout is that you must clear all of the chunks on the screen using only the chunks currently on the screen.  No new chunks will come along to help you.

Let’s break it down a bit.  When the game starts you will be presented with a screen full of various colored chunks.  Your job is to eliminate all of the chunks on the screen by matching two or more of a like color.  Thus you can take out chunks in pairs or large swaths, whatever it takes to get them clear.  As you clear chunks, the remaining chunks will drop straight down and/or shift left to prevent any blank spaces in the grid.  This will ostensibly create new grouping of chunks as the grid reduces in size.  You cannot manipulate the chunks in any way, you can only clear chunks where possible.  Clear all the chunks and you win.  Clear larger and larger chunks at a time to rack up points.  Go.
It's all downhill from here...

How’s It Play?

As stated above this is a game that inspires the “just one more” mentality.  The gameplay and rules are super simple, so you can pick it up and get playing in seconds.  You’ll probably even clear the first level on your first try in a matter of seconds.  Game 2 will add an additional color, but again, you’ll breeze through.  Then you’ll play Game 3 and start to see where strategy and planning come into play.  And when you are feeling bold, you’ll switch over to Game 4. Remember you have to clear ALL of the chunks to win. And that’s where Chunkout’s ridiculously high level of challenge comes in to play.  Each game can take as few as five minutes to play, but Chunkout pros soon learn that this is a game that, much like chess, wants you to think many, many moves ahead.  I would be willing to wager that the very best Chunkout players have the entire screen solved before they remove the first chunk.  Everything you need is on the screen when the level starts, you just have to figure out how to remove the chunks so that none remain.  Clear too many pairs and you’ll just end up with a mess.  Work on large clusters and you risk isolating a single color chunk that you can’t clear.  Should you work from the top down or from the bottom allowing the chunks to drop into new configurations?  Every Chunkout master has his or her own strategy for success.  My wife is a thousand times better at this game than I am.  She can clear level 4 on the regular.  I have never cleared level 4.
Expect screens like this a LOT.
Controls are simple: just move your cursor and press the button to clear valid chunks.  You can pick your Game variation using the Difficulty switches.  Pressing the button will restart your game when you inevitably fail to clear the chunks.

Whistles and Bells

With full apologies to Mr. Todd for my above remarks, the Chunkout 2600 manual features a full backstory for the game play.  The manual is designed like the classic Atari manuals from just before the Silver Label era.  So you can have a lot of fun just soaking in the nostalgia of reading about the world in which the game is set.  There’s even a haunting portrait of Lord Gyrak and the Xotec armada! (read the manual)  Otherwise, this is pure 100% game without too many extra trappings.
I've had my copy for a few years, so the wear is starting to show...

Final Assessment

A lot of people are going to sleep on this game because it doesn’t look like much.  It’s just a screen of multi-colored blocks.  It doesn’t have a flashy title screen or rocking soundtrack.  What it does have is incredibly addictive puzzling action that anyone can immediately pick up and play, but few can actually master.  And if you master it, there is still the matter of getting a good score.  I can easily pop this in the Atari and blow a solid hour before I realize it.  “Just one more.  I know I can clear it this time…”  Famous last words.  If you like puzzle games, Chunkout 2600 is a winner.

Tips and Tricks 

PRACTICE.  I realize Games 1-2 are very, very basic, but spend some time playing them.  Even as simple as they are they will provide good practice and hone your instincts for the more difficult Game 3 and the nigh unto impossible Game 4.  Practice.

The Bigger They Are.  Work the biggest chunks first, taking out as much of one color as you can, then smartly mop up the smaller bits.

Don’t Start.  Start eventually, but don’t rush headlong into clearing chunks until you’ve studied the board.  As I said above, I feel confident you can plan your moves to clear the entire screen before you press a single button, if you’ve a mind for it.

There is No Try.  Unlike puzzle games like Tetris, there is no fixing a screen you’ve botched.  There is no wild card piece that will show up to clear a mess.  That’s not to say that there is only one solution per screen, but don’t think you are going to salvage a sloppy round.

The Zone.  This is very much a zone game. Don’t sit and play one game, lose and quit.  Play 10 games, 30, 50.  At some point you will enter the zone and you’ll start clearing chunks by instinct.

So there you have it, simple and addictive puzzling action for your VCS.  Chunkout isn’t going to blow you away with it’s peripherals, but once you get into the game you won’t care.  The classic stylings of the manual and game design will take you back to the golden age of video games, though, so enjoy the ride.  I highly recommend Chunkout 2600 to anyone who enjoys puzzle games and considers themselves rather clever.