Monday, August 14, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Phantom II/Pirate

Phantom II/Pirate
Developer: Dave Weavil
Available: Atariage.com

I'll be honest, I picked this game up for the bonus mini-game Pirate.  I am not familiar with the arcade version of Phantom II and while I enjoy a good vertical shooter, I’ve already got plenty to choose from and I just recently picked up Juno First, so adding another wasn’t a priority.  But the premise of Pirate sounded very interesting and I’m always up for an exploration/adventure game.  If Phantom II turned out to be fun as well, then THAT would be the bonus.

What’s All This Then?

Phantom II/Pirate is basically a multi-cart featuring two fully developed games that, due to their 4K limit (Phantom II was born of a 4K coding competition), would not have been big enough to warrant individual cart releases, but have been paired together in a fantastic one-two punch of fun gaming.

Phantom II is a vertical scrolling shooter in which you must chase down and take out enemy planes.   You’ll fly through day and night and heavy cloud cover to shoot down squadrons of enemy planes and eventually large bomber planes that will partially refill your fuel reserves.  You can’t fly forever and the longer you take to shoot down your targets, the more you will drain your fuel supply.  You only get one plane, so if you collide with an enemy plane or run out of fuel your mission is over.  The original game starts in black and white and if you are good enough to find and take out the UFO, you can unlock a color version of the game which features a special bonus stage where you can dock with a refueling plane and get more fuel to continue your mission. 

Pirate is a completely different kind of game wherein you have set out to discover the lost treasure of the fiendish pirate Up Chuck DeLuc.  You find yourself stranded on a remote island inhabited by snakes, a Voodoo Priestess and the ghost of DeLuc who wanders the island guarding his treasure.  As you explore the island you will find tools to help you including a sword (for combat against the hostile inhabitants of the island), a shovel (to retrieve the treasure), and a flower which will restore your health should you succumb to the aforementioned inhabitants.  While the island isn’t huge, it is completely unmapped (and all locations will reset for each new game!), and you’ll have to make your own map or just have a good memory to keep track of things as you find them.  If you can collect the shovel and locate the “X,” which always marks the spot, before DeLuc and his minions find you, then you can claim the treasure and make sail for home.  You can take three hits before you expire, so pick your battles carefully. 

How’s It Play?

Phantom II plays beautifully.  At first it looks like a really basic shooter and it can be very easy to underestimate this game; I did. But after playing it for a while you will begin to appreciate the nuances of the game.  First and foremost, shooting the enemy planes isn’t as easy as it looks.  The enemy planes are very good at darting out your sights and using the cloud cover to evade your shots.  During the night sequences, the planes are invisible except when your radar sweeps the screen. This means that you’ll literally be firing blind for much of the stage.  Shoot down enough enemy planes and you’ll have to take on the bomber.  While being a bigger target, the bomber also takes more hits to defeat and that eats up precious fuel.  Fuel consumption is a very big part of this game.  Since you only have one plane, you must keep an eye on your fuel gauge and work to take out the enemy planes as quickly as possible.  As you advance in the game this becomes increasingly difficult.  
The controls are super tight and you have options for how long your fuel will last and whether your shots are guided or straight.  There are even children's options for younger players, something you don’t see so much these days.  Unlocking the "color" version of the game adds new challenges with the refueling plane and provides more layers to the gameplay.

Pirate also plays incredibly well.  The game interface takes a couple of play throughs to get used to, but once you understand the mechanics, you'll be tromping all over the island with ease.  The island conforms to a 7x7 grid giving you 49 possible “screens” to explore.  Each screen will feature some island geography and perhaps one of the interactive elements of the game.  You explore the island by moving around the grid one section at a time.  Your main goal is to find the shovel and the X and retrieve the treasure.  Sometimes the shovel is just lying about and sometimes it will be guarded by a snake or even DeLuc himself.  You can engage any enemy in combat at any time, but your chance of success is greatly increased by finding the sword.  The screen changes color to indicate a change in your status.  The window border color indicates what items you are carrying and the color of the island features in the window indicates your health.  As you explore you may also encounter the Voodoo Priestess.  Defeating her will remove all snakes from the island and make things a little easier.  Of course, defeating her isn’t a given, so you’ll want to weigh the risks/rewards of seeking her out.  
Basically you move in each of the four cardinal directions and use the button to interact with things on the island.  Very simple, but very fun.

Whistles and Bells

In addition to a colorful and beautifully illustrated (by the uber talented Dave Dries) manual, Phantom II/Pirate features the ultimate Whistle and Bell:  a third hidden mini-game.  This mini-game casts you in the role of a wizard who must discern the combination that unlocks a door to hidden treasure.  The combination is worked by closing gaps in the walls.  Close the gaps in the right order and the door will come down.  Choose the wrong gap and a beholder (at least it looks like a beholder, it’s block with a single, glaring eye) will appear and attempt to incinerate you.  You’ll have to work out the rest of the combination while avoiding the burning touch of the monster.  As you advance, the number of gaps increases as does the speed of the pursuing monster.  Only those with a keen mind and quick reflexes will be able to claim the treasure at higher levels.  This hidden mini-game is as fun as the other two main games and puts some really sweet icing on what is already a well-packed game cartridge.  For a hint on how to access the hidden bonus game inspect the back of your instruction manual under very good lighting.

Final Assessment

I was pleasantly surprised by Phantom II/Pirate.  I very seriously bought it solely on the back of my interest in the Pirate bonus game, but was happy to find out that Phantom II also presented a tightly designed vertical shooter that was fun and had more depth than I expected.  While it's not likely that Phantom II/Pirate will go for long stretches in my VCS, it is highly likely that it will get popped in regularly and each game put through its paces.  If you enjoy quick, easy-to-play games that are fun without being taxing, then this is a good game for you.

Tips and Tricks

Phantom II:  The night sequences are by far the toughest.  When the enemy plane appears, if you are now where near it, you can usually assume it flew straight up, so shoot at that place first.  If that doesn’t work aim a little left or right and you will usually hit. This gets harder as the planes get faster.

Phantom II:  Stay at the bottom.  Except for the early stages when the planes move slowly and not as erratically, I tend to stay at the bottom of the screen.  In the early stages you can play around a bit and fly into the collision zone, but later in the game this almost assures you a GAME OVER.

Phantom II:  Be extremely careful when refueling at the tanker plane.  It is VERY easy to collide with it and end your game.  Go slow, line it up, and then refuel.  You’ll run out of fuel anyway, so rushing into a collision will not help your cause.

Pirate:  Don’t forget that you can run from DeLuc.  Standing your ground with him should really only be a do-or-die situation as when he is standing on the X, otherwise run.  Sure, he’ll steal your shovel if you are carrying it, but shovels can be found again.  Run.

Pirate: Search the ENTIRE island before you start slashing at snakes.  I’ve had games when a single snake was my doom.  Make sure you cannot find everything you need through exploration first and use combat as a last resort.

Pirate:  The island is 7x7.  I like to explore by making my way to any corner of the island and then scanning left or right and ascending or descending the island accordingly.  You may have to run from DeLuc, but just backtrack to the nearest edge of the island and begin again.  This pretty much eliminates getting lost and it helps keep better track of the location of the X.  (i.e. the X is 3 right and 4 up from the bottom left corner)


So there you have it!  I went in for one fun game and got 3 instead!  I really shouldn’t be surprised, Phantom II/Pirate is by David Weavil, the same guy who brought us Dungeon and is about to release its much anticipated sequel!  Weavil has made a name for himself as a top level game developer in the homebrew scene and Phantom II/Pirate is another feather in his cap.  If you are a fan of mini-game style fun, Phantom II/Pirate belongs in your collection.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Bad Comic: Swordquest #2

Swordquest #2 does pretty much everything wrong and may be one of the worst comics I have read in a long time.

Followers of EF's Facebook page know that I have been reading and lamenting Dynamite's Swordquest comic since its ill-fated #0 issue.  Honestly, the comic has been so underwhelming that when I saw issue #2 on the stands this past weekend, I was certain I already had it and that the series was at least on issue #4.  I feel like I've been suffering this comic for far longer than I actually have.  But issue #2 proves to be the worst issue of this dismal comic yet.

For those of you not reading the comic, let's do a quick recap of the series so far.  A confirmed loser moves back in with his mom after his apartment burns out.  While there, he discovers his old Atari 2600 and his favorite game Swordquest.  He recalls the nerd glory of the contest associated with the game and his near winning of it.  He also regrets not winning the ultimate prize.  Also he is gay and dying of some kind of disease.  So, with apparently nothing to lose, he decides to steal the prizes from the 30 year old contest which are conveniently on display at a video game museum, because that will make him feel less like a loser.  To hatch his ho-hum plot, he enlists the help of two of his childhood friends, one of which he had an unrequited crush on long ago.  Cue unnecessary awkward homo-hetero tension.  As they are plotting the crime, a bizarre biker dude with a man-bun shows up with a cryptic message about the very prizes the main character is looking to steal.  That's where we are at the end of issue #1.  (If it helps lend some insight into how compelling this story is, 3 issues deep and I couldn't provide you with a single character's actual name)

Now that you are up to speed,  let's take a quick look at how bad a comic can be.
Maybe they left the bottom right quarter blank in the hopes someone would print a good comic in that space.  I'd take a 30 year old Family Circus at this point...
Let's start with this eye-popping cover.  It practically crawls to the back of the shelf and hides behind better comics.  In all actuality, given the lack of action or excitement in the first two issues of this comic, this cover perfectly captures the dullness to be found within its pages.  Nothing screams "BUY THIS COMIC" like a guy with an Atari shirt checking his blank smartphone screen.   You are publishing a comic based on an ancient and esoteric video game.  Your target market is at the confluence of comic book fans and classic video game fans.  That gives you about 50 potential customers.  That means in order for this comic to be a success you simply MUST appeal to non-target comic readers.  This cover will not do that in any way shape or form.  If you are Spectacular Spider-Man and you are 200 issues deep, you can afford to have a cover with a pregnant Mary Jane as your only image.  If you are Swordquest #2, your cover needs to have a vampire AND an explosion.



Off to a snoring start, let's check out the insides!  Thus far the action in this comic has come down to the following:  There was a fire.  A guy who was clearly down on his luck moved back in with his mom, found his old video games and then decided to steal some modern artifacts from a museum.  All of that action required a LOT of walking, talking and sitting.  Riveting stuff.  So, I guess, to offset the tedium of yet another issue of non-stop common human behavior, this issue starts with some fantasy adventure.  The man-bun biker from last issue is regaling our cast with a fantastic story about the origin of the fantastic world, which supposedly actually exists, upon which the Swordquest video games were based.  As the story goes, there were originally four worlds with four powerful artifacts that eventually devolved into a single world with a single artifact: the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery (video game nerds will recognize this as the grand prize in the real Swordquest contest).  Only one man could wield this powerful weapon and rule the unified world (called Atara, just so you know). That man's name?  Rulero.  I kid you not. Rulero.  That's "ruler" with an "o" attached to it.  Rulero.  Now extremely nerdy fans like me will be happy to tell you that the actual ruler of the kingdom in question was Reullo.  Anyone with access to the original Swordquest comics would know this. I would assume that the creators of this comic would have access to that as well.  I mean, they got Konjuro right.  He's from the source material.  So why Rulero?  Also, why rewrite the original story from the original comics?  For my money that story is a thousand times more interesting than whatever they have done here.  Also, I can allow for names like Konjuro, Mentorr and Mentarra from a 30 year old comic I got free with a video game.  I cannot allow for sloppy crap like Rulero from a comic I paid $4 for in the modern day.  Come on.

At the conclusion of the needless retcon of the Swordquest universe, Konjuro sends the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery to our world, where I can only assume it ended up as the prize for the Swordquest contest.  Which brings us back to "reality" and present day where the man-bun biker finishes his story.  Our cast of contentious friends have different reactions to the story with only one of them dismissing the tale as bad fan fiction.  Considering that this comic is a work of bad fan fiction on the level of Stephenie Meyer, having only one character dismiss even worse fan fiction as fan fiction is pretty much par for the course, but I would hope that, if this comic is supposed to be taking place in the "real" world, pretty much anyone who isn't our loser protagonist would react like man-bun biker was a kook.  Instead, over the course of the other half of this comic, through lots of talking and milling about, all three characters eventually come around and decide that what was once petty larceny is now an epic quest.  To be continued.  That's right.  We are at the end of issue two and we haven't even started on the actual "adventure" yet.  We had two regular issues, plus a bonus "0" issue to set up a completely underwhelming story.  Three total issues and nothing, absolutely nothing of any consequence has happened.

There's just not much here to have sunk $10 into. Our main character is completely unlikeable.  He's basically an adult video game loser stereotype with some tacked on curiosities like homosexuality and terminal illness to add artificial depth, I suppose.  We have been given no reason to root for him or wish him success in his mission.  His motivation is weak at best if it exists at all. He doesn't want to be a loser anymore.  None of us do.  But the path to cool doesn't begin with "steal video game artifacts from a museum."  His mission is to commit a crime, and not a noble one against a greater evil, but a meager one for petty personal gain.  How are we supposed to relate to and cheer for this character?  And it's clear that the supporting cast doesn't like him either.  His mother is apathetic to his situation at best and his two friends are openly hostile toward him.  The most he can hope for from any of his friends is pity.  And I guess that's the most the comic can hope from us as well.

I would comment on the story, but there hasn't been one yet.  At most I can tell you that the idea of a loser plotting petty larceny at a video game museum doesn't exactly inspire me to great things.

As for the art?  Back in the mid 1990's I read issue #9 of X-Force, which up to that point had been penciled by then hot up-and-coming artist (and now parody of himself artist) Rob Liefield.  Issue #9 however, had a guest artist, someone called Mike Mignola.  It was, hands-down, the worst superhero comic art I had ever seen.  This Mignola guy was an obvious hack.  Just horrible.  Of course, the only horrible hack in this story was me.  Mignola is a genius and a master storyteller.  He was also the one who opened my eyes to comic art beyond that of dynamic superheroes.  It wasn't that Mignola was a crap artist, it was that he was doing art that was a perfect match for horror comics or fantasy comics (check out his work on the Chronicles of Corum) and was completely different than the hyper-real super hero stuff I was used to. The moral of my tangent is that I am capable of understanding when an artist is working in a particular style or within the framework of a specific theme.  I no longer cringe when I see Jim Mahfood's name on a project.

That is not what is happening in Swordquest.  This art, by the enigmatic Ghostwriter X (I can see why they don't want to include their real name), is neither stylized nor thematic, it's just amateurish.  For a comic that features a LOT of talking heads you would hope that the artist tapped for the job would be good at drawing faces.  Not so much the case here.  Take a look at these not-at-all generic faces for our cast of characters.


This is our "hero."  Look at that guy.  Winner.  He's a very low rent Alton Brown.




This is his mom.  Notice how her facial features can morph at will. Her hairstyle can change almost instantly to hide or reveal her inconsistent forehead.  Sometimes she has a pointy chin, sometimes rounded.  Sometimes wide nose, sometimes narrow.  She's clearly a shapeshifter...with man hands.



This is one of his friends.  She's clearly an member of the Dunmer from Skyrim, although what she is doing in our world is yet to be revealed.  Sometimes she has cheekbones, sometimes not.  At least her forehead is consistent.  Ghostwriter X graduated from the school of "draw a head and then draw a face in it. Make it fit."

And I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  If you are going to read this comic, be prepared for confusion as to who is talking and when.
Lots of great pages like this to keep you enthralled
Ok, so maybe talking heads isn't Ghostwriter X's strength.  Makes him/her an odd choice for this comic, but ok, we can always fall back on the action scenes to carry us through the tougher conversation pieces, right?  Well...



First panel, I'm not sure what kind of green crotch monster they are fighting, but the woman has clearly missed her target with her green energy shooting sword.  Maybe it's due to her bizarre anatomy.  Anyone who can tell me what's going on with her stomach gets a bonus.  Rulero also gets credit for holding the world's thinnest and slightly bent spear.  And let's not forget his legendary wrist strength.  He can hold a thinly handled broad axe way down at the other end with just one hand.
Second panel, that is one lackluster murder.  Tyran puts about as much effort into regicide as he does taking out the trash.  And maybe he's cold blooded, but his facial expression is more one of boredom than "I'm killing the King to take over the throne!"  Just killing the king, doing his job.
Third panel.  Let's ignore Tyran loitering back there in the hallway, because that's a whole other paragraph and let's just focus on the softcore porn in the foreground.  I may be new to the ways of Atara, but where I come from females do not have an extra skin pocket on their hips for which to stick one's hands during copulation.
So even when things are happening in the comic, the art creates more problems than it solves and makes an already dull comic confusing and incoherent.

But at least the storytelling is solid, right?
Only if you are engrossed by powerful sequential art like this:
That's right.  Three panels of blank smartphones, two coffee mugs and a hand.  Gripping.  Really moves the story along.   And of course, issue #2 ends with a SHOCKING reveal:
That's right, Konrad Juros is none other than Konjuro himself!  You're telling me KONrad JUROs is really Konjuro?  Thank goodness for that spilled coffee or this madman would have gone completely undiscovered.  Oh, and who is Konrad Juros?  Well, he's supposedly the one behind the whole Swordquest thing here on earth.  Sure thing.  No one tell Nolan Bushnell or Ray Kassar.  Look at that guy. Unless Flock of Seagulls was higher up in the yuppie executive world than I remember, that guy was not an 80's power broker.


Two of these are the masterminds behind the Atari 2600 and it's success.  One is not. You tell me


The whole comic feels like something written by someone who has heard of the 1980's and classic video games and Swordquest, but never really experienced them firsthand.  Case in point, each issue is littered, and I do mean littered, with little panels of what are supposed to be Game Tips.  I think the idea is that we are reading a comic book about video games so these Game Tips are supposed to make us feel like we are also reading a video game magazine circa 1992.  "It's video game stuff, just toss a bunch of it in there so we look like we know what video games are." The main problem is that these "Game Tips" aren't even remotely close to being game tips.  Like this helpful fellow here:

A Game Tip is "Look behind the giant Ruk's Egg at the top of the tower to find the ultra-powerful Phoenix Materia."  A Game Tip for Swordquest is "Leave the Grappling Hook in Cancer and the Rope in Leo to get the third clue."  A Game Tip for this comic is "Read X-O Manowar instead."  What they are printing as "Game Tips" are just obvious writer commentaries that pander to the audience.  Bad idea, poorly executed.  And the comic is loaded with junk like this that either name drops popular video game icons or tropes or try too hard to be "in the know."  It's like when your non-drinking buddy tries to tell you that dopplebocks are his favorite ale.   Just admit you don't drink, dude.

Swordquest is a bad comic book.  It's a bad video game-based comic book, but it's mainly just a bad comic book.  Completely unlikeable protagonist.  Bland and unsympathetic supporting characters.  A plot that hasn't started yet, but centers around committing a minor crime in the name of helping the main character not feel like a loser.  Amateur art that neither paints a striking picture nor successfully articulates a story.  Swordquest is "How Not To Make Comics" primer for anyone starting out in the industry.  I've sunk $8.25 into this disaster.  Don't you do the same.  Dreadful.
Its-a me, Konjuro!




Thursday, July 6, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Stay Frosty 2

Stay Frosty 2
Developer:  Darrell Spice Jr.
Available: Atariage.com


I warned you last month that I was stacking the deck, so you’re going to have to bear with me for a few paragraphs as I gush about Stay Frosty 2, what is probably the single best platforming game for the VCS.

I missed the original Stay Frosty, which was only released as part of the Stella’s Stocking  holiday cart back in 2007.  I’ve never been big on Christmas themed games and a whole cart full of them just wasn’t calling to me at the time.  Then, one fateful day in the Atariage High Score Club, Stay Frosty 2 came up in the rotation, I had a brief chance to play it and fell instantly in love.  This is a ridiculously good, addictive platform/puzzle game.

What’s All This Then?


Stay Frosty 2 is built on a very simple premise that’s as old as Christmas itself: living fireballs have kidnapped Santa Claus and his helpers and it’s up to you, a man made completely of snow, to extinguish their evil plans and rescue your friends.  To accomplish this task you must survive 128 grueling levels of deadly fireballs and the hot, hot sun. All you have to do to complete each level is put out all of the fireballs.  You can do this simply by running over them and melting on them, or by pelting them with snowballs you make from your own body.  Basically you have to die a little bit each time you defeat the enemy.  Horrifying I know, but heroism doesn’t come cheap.  Luckily, you can find a wide variety of power-ups in each level to keep you going.  Ice blocks and chests can replenish your snow supply, corn cob pipes can turn you to solid ice to slow your melting, brooms give you the double jump and carrot noses allow you to lob snowballs.  Don’t worry, you’ll start each level fully packed and ready for the next challenge.

And challenge is what this game is built on.  There are no gimme levels in Stay Frosty 2.  You’ll have to plan your attack carefully to put out each fire while conserving your frostiness and getting the right power-ups to achieve victory.  In addition to the power-ups there are also level gimmicks that will either aid or impede your progress.  Buckets of coal will illuminate dark levels, but they will also cause any fireballs you encounter to flare up.  Sticks will open up new passages to inaccessible areas and moving walls will be both a help and a hinderance as they constantly change the play field.  And that’s just a sampling of what’s in store for you as you dig into this winter wonderland.

How’s It Play?


Beautifully.  The physics in this game are surprisingly smart.  When you are whole, you’ll glide across the floor with ease then, as you melt, your movement becomes more slippery, but you’ll also be able to cross gaps with greater ease.  When you throw fireballs, the speed at which you are moving as well as the direction will dictate the trajectory and velocity with which the ball is launched.  This is essential for mastering some puzzles where the only way to extinguish the fireballs is with well thrown snowballs.  The only aspect of controlling Frosty that might take a minute to master is the double jump.  Unlike in some games where you can initiate the second jump just before you land, in Stay Frosty 2, you’ll need to execute your double jump at or before the apex of the original jump.  This may cause some early double jump deaths until you get the hang of it, but once you do, you’ll be bounding all over the place like a pro.
Level 13, one of the most insidious firebird levels I have encountered.
More important than controls, however, is the level design.  Stay Frosty 2 is smart.  Chances are good it’s smarter than you.  It’s certainly smarter than me.  The game is designed with 32 unique levels, but those levels repeat thrice for a total of 128 total levels.  Each time you complete the 32 unique levels you rescue a helper and start over at level 1 with less time to complete each level.  This is insane.  I have played this game for many, many hours (far more than the paltry 2 I have set forth as the requirement for this feature) and the best I can do is level 19, the first time around.  Level design is where Stay Frosty 2 really shines.  You’ll not find more challenging, and yet engaging platforming levels in another VCS game.  The closest I have found is Hunchy II (another sequel homebrew game which originated from a multi-cart).  Some levels are pretty straightforward, just put out the fires.  Others require you to plot out a course to avoid hazards, conserve snow, and take out the fireballs in the right order.  The trickiest levels for me are the firebird levels.  These levels require you to obtain the carrot nose power-up (so you can throw snowballs) and then navigate a screen full of firebirds who will not only melt your body super quickly, but will also steal your carrot so you have to lose time and snow back-tracking to pick it up again.  In a game where time is of the essence, these inconveniences are oft fatal.  If you can successfully avoid the firebirds, you still have to figure out how to target the fireballs and take them out.  Stay Frosty 2 has levels that require all of your gaming prowess, smarts, dexterity, and reflexes.  And it somehow never gets old or frustrating.  At least not for me.  I’m always ready for one more go.

Whistles and Bells


Stay Frosty 2 has lots of little details that provide the perfect polish to what is already an incredible game.  The game features a soundtrack of classic Christmas tunes to keep you in the spirit, OR if you are like me and it’s June and Christmas music threatens to drive you utterly mad, you can turn the music off with the right DIFFICULTY switch.  There’s only so much “The Holly and The Ivy” I can be asked to take.
It also features the ability to pause the action using the TV TYPE switch in case you need a second to regain your senses or just use the loo.
The game comes with a beautifully designed manual by the always impressive David Exton.
And if you look closely you’ll even notice some minute details that prove this game was made with great care and attention:  is that evil sun watching you as you move about the screen???


Final Assessment


I told you this was a love letter to Darrell Spice Jr. and his incredible game.  And I stand by my statement:  Stay Frosty 2 is the best platforming game you can have for your Atari 2600.  In my mind it’s pretty much perfection on all fronts: pick-up-and-playabilty, crisp, clean graphics, challenging and engaging levels with endless replayability, and well designed music.  There are a lot of great homebrews out there, but this one gets everything right.

Tips and Tricks

I wish I had more advice to give you on this one:

Bonus points: Remember that you get bonus points for collecting all of the ice blocks and exiting the level.  The points are based on your size, so on levels you have mastery over, save up as many ice blocks as you can to collect on your way out.  This will help accumulate extra lives more quickly.

Secrets!  This game holds a lot of secrets.  Once you feel comfortable with the early levels, start taking some risks and look for them.  Here’s a hint about the first one I found, entirely by accident: Look under the tree on Christmas morning.

He’s a Might Good Leaper:  Frosty’s jump distance is very very good.  Learning the reaches of his jumps and what you can do with a double jump will serve you well in higher levels where it’s not always clear how to get to certain platforms.  Jumping around ledges and smart falling will be crucial to later puzzles.

Order Up!  On what I call Order of Operation levels, there is a definite sequence to taking out fireballs and collecting ice blocks and chests.  Pay attention to the location and frequency of ice blocks and remember the snowflakes do not cause ice chests to respawn.  This will help you determine what to pick up when.  

Bad Gas:  The manual advises you to avoid gas cans whenever possible because they cause all of the fireballs to reignite.  I have yet to encounter a level yet where I could avoid the gas cans.  So plan on implementing them into your strategy.  Figure out how to get to the gas as quickly as possible and don’t waste snow melting fireballs needlessly, then work the solution.


So there you have it!  Hot fun in the summer time with Stay Frosty 2.  If you don’t already have it, go get it, and you can thank me later.  Easily one of the best homebrews ever created for the Atari 2600.
Join me next month as I buy a homebrew game for the bonus game included on the cart and then see what I can make of the main game as well.  That’s right, it’s Phantom II/Pirate

  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Titan Axe

Titan Axe
Developer: Papa
Available: Not Currently Available for Sale


Long ago in days of yore a compatriot of mine told me that I could not fit an entire Dairy Queen double cheeseburger in my mouth.  For those of you that know, the DQ double cheeseburger, at least circa 1993, was huge in comparison to other competing fast food burgers.  Stuffing the entirety of one of those babies into one’s pie hole was no small feat.  Yet I felt compelled to prove my friend wrong, and therefore, I crammed the entire meat sandwich into my gaping maw.  It was uncomfortable, unpleasant, and my eyes teared up from the strain.  I nearly gagged as I tried to work my mandibles and process that half pound of bread and beef with the hope of sneaking improperly sized hunks of it down my throat.  It took several minutes but eventually I did it.  My friend was impressed, I reveled in my newfound glory, and we all agreed that while it was something to behold, it probably wasn’t the best idea and was definitely more than I should have been capable of, even though I did it.


Titan Axe feels like that cheeseburger.  It’s ambitious, it goes beyond what the VCS has historically been capable of, and at times it is a little uncomfortable, but yet it has been done.  Long time 2600 fans know that there is a real dearth of beat ‘em up style games for the system.  Perhaps the shining example of why is Double Dragon.  Many don’t even realize there is a Double Dragon game for the Atari and that’s probably because, except for the most die-hard player, it’s not very good.  Using a single button for a beat ‘em up game is extremely challenging.  You have to make creative use of the joystick and joystick-button combos.  The result in DD is a game that looks and sounds really good, but with gameplay that is very clunky and most of the strategy relies heavily upon striking your opponent and then running away.  Titan Axe, sadly, doesn’t seem to be able to transcend that limitation, but I’ll get into that in a minute.

How’s It Play?

First let’s lay out the premise of the game.  Evil bad guy, Oblivius has pulled evil technology from the future and is capturing fairies to drive the monsters across the world in devastation and conquest. He must be stopped and you must make a difficult journey to confront him and defeat him.  Pretty standard plot for a game of this sort.  Your journey takes you through a wide variety of landscapes and pits you against myriad foes bent on your destruction.  Your only recourse is to vanquish these villains, one-on-one, as they block your path and work your way to the final confrontation.  You may choose to be a Dwarven or Amazonian warrior, but no matter which role you assume, you will have several ways to battle your enemies:  standard attack, jump attack, special attack, magic attack.  Those alone will not be enough to take down some of the more powerful foes.  You’ll need to develop combos using several different attacks if you are to survive.  You can use each attack as many times as you need, no limits for magic (except that using magic costs 1 health container) or special attacks, but just spamming a single kind of attack will not yield positive results.  Defeat a foe and you’ll move to the next screen.

So it’s a fairly simple game on its face.  The key to the whole thing is a great combat mechanic.  If the combat mechanics are solid this game will soar.  Sadly as mentioned above, the limitations of the system, specifically the controller, shackle Titan Axe and keep it from reaching the heights it so desperately wishes to achieve.  To put it bluntly, the fighting system is clunky at best and rage-inducing at worst.  To execute a basic attack you must press the button and move the joystick left or right simultaneously.  Not such a big deal, but it can be really hard to see if you’ve actually executed the move because the sprite doesn’t change dramatically to represent the move.  As the Dwarf, if you swing your axe, the axes doesn’t extend out past your body.  It looks like the Dwarf has T-Rex arms and can only swing his little axe a tiny bit.  This isn’t the fault of the game developer, this is purely a limitation of how sprites can be generated by the VCS.  So you may be pressing the button and joystick like crazy, but have no idea if the move is being executed.  The special attack is a little more clear as the Dwarf does some kind of crazy attack where he rolls around on the ground and the Amazon does a spinning sword slash.  These animations are much easier to see, however they also open you up to counterattack, so you better be sure they hit.  Jump attacks are a little confusing.  The jump part is pretty clear as your character raises its weapon high above its head, but the attack part is harder to see because the weapon drops and gets lost in the sprite.  I’m still not sure if I have ever successfully landed a jump attack.  Part of this obscurity is also due to the enemy sprite’s lack of response to being attacked.  When you hit the enemy it is supposed to be knocked back away from you.  This only happens sometimes and the amount of knockback is so small that the enemy is almost upon you again, unless you retreat.  So it can be extremely difficult to know if you have landed a hit at all.  To confuse matters even more, the enemy attack is really more of a “run up and stick to you” attack than anything like sword slash or punch.  Think Kung-Fu.  

So the average attack screen goes something like this:  You enter. The enemy spawns from the right and runs at you.  You attempt to execute an attack move.  The enemy runs up to you and sticks to you.  If you are lucky, you hit the enemy and it moves back slightly, then attempts to stick to you again.  You attack again.  This time the enemy doesn’t move and maybe even hits you (the screen flashes to indicate an enemy hit and you lose 1 health container).  You retreat hoping to get away from the enemy, but by now he is solidly stuck to you and maybe even overlapping your sprite.  You execute a magic attack.  If you are lucky the enemy is destroyed.  If not, then the battle goes on as above until one of you are dead.

That’s not exactly the ideal fight mechanic for a beat ‘em up.  And it led to me, more than once, quitting the game and questioning whether or not I would go back to it.

BUT


Titan Axe does get a lot of things right.  I would dare say that it gets everything else right and surrounds the troubled battle system with enough good stuff to make this a game to not overlook.  Let’s start with the overall project.  There simply aren’t enough of this kind of game for the Atari 2600.  Even if they aren’t executed to perfection, it’s nice to have some diversity in the catalog. Bonus points for making it fantasy themed.  Second, the scope of the world is pretty huge with 64 screens of game play.  The backdrop for every battle screen is uniquely rendered and the instruction manual features a listing of each screen (because it’s the VCS and playfield graphics aren’t always going to be of NES quality).  The backgrounds aren’t always static either, with flowing waterfalls, erupting volcanoes and statues with eyes that watch your every move.  A couple of screens even push the boundaries of what you would expect from an Atari 2600 game, like the battle that takes place on the back of a giant eagle in flight.  Watch your step or you could plummet into the forest below!  The game also features many hidden secrets, some listed in the manual and some not.  These include warp zones to take you forward (and sometimes backwards) on the path and much needed full health refills.  All of this helps to create a very real and immersive environment.  My first few runs I played with the instruction manual open in front of me so I could get the full scoop on each screen as I encountered it.  Really boosted the fun.
The variety of enemy sprites is also great.  There are many different kinds of enemies to battle and while most use the aforementioned “stick like glue” battle tactic, a few are capable of magical attacks and the final boss can literally rain down death upon you.  That’s another great thing, Titan Axe features mini-bosses, a final boss fight, and an end screen. Things that you only get from some of the more advanced and impressive VCS games of yore (or heck sometimes even today).  So there is a lot here to really enjoy and be impressed with.  Don’t make the mistake of dismissing this game just because it can be rather difficult to get into the game play.


Whistles and Bells

Titan Axe gives you the ability to select from two possible characters with which to play, not something you often get in a VCS game.  It also features the ability to toggle the music off and on.  I opted to leave it on, but having the option is nice as the music is all deep tones and can become a bit monotonous during long play sessions.  You may continue indefinitely on the journey should you be defeated.  Playing on Difficulty A starts you further back on the path after a defeat, while Difficulty B moves you back a few screens.  This allows you to determine the level of frustration you can deal with, a necessary option.  However, the game also features two different endings depending on which Difficulty level you complete it on, so that’s a big plus.  I was able to complete the game on easy, and I plan to return to get the “good” ending another time.
The game comes with a beautiful full color manual with retro styling and a gorgeous cover by ATARIBOY.  The cartridge label features the same striking artwork and will stand out in any collection.

Final Assessment

Titan Axe is an ambitious game that really pushes the limits of what can be expected from the Atari 2600.  It is only held back, not by lack of vision or ability of the programmer, but simply by the limitations of trying to adapt a beat ‘em up style game to a joystick with one button.  The core fight mechanic is the game’s only weak spot and there is plenty of good stuff surrounding it.   This is not a pick-up-and-play game for the casual gamer.  Much like Double Dragon, this is a game for someone who is enamored enough with the concept and the theming to dig in, master the mechanics, and see the game through to the end.  So if you are considering this game, gird yourself for a fight, and not necessarily just the one in the game.


Tip and Tricks

Be ready to die.  A lot.

The instruction manual gives you the best tip of all:  Stick and Move.  Like with similar games, your best combat strategy is to attack the enemy and then run away.  Let them come to you, attack and run.  Repeat until enemy is defeated.  This is just about the only way to have success in this game.  It also helps to stay low on the screen where you can hit the enemy before they can hit you.

Start your attack early.  If the enemy is close to you, it’s too late.  Start your attack when the enemy is about mid-way across the screen.  The hit box on the enemy sprite is big and you want to hit it with as much room to spare as possible so the tiny bit of knock back you get is maximized and you have more time to get another hit in or retreat. 

On the non-combat screens when shurikens come at you. stay toward the bottom of the screen and they will fly over your head.  Trying to time jumps over them is nearly impossible.  But don’t get lazy, as many of these screens hide secrets…

Some enemies move quickly, so enter each screen ready to attack.  Look at the scenery after you defeat the foe.

The instruction manual suggests a combo JUMP + SPECIAL ATTACK as a good strategy for taking down tougher foes.  I have never, to my knowledge, successfully executed this combo.

The manual goes on and on about secrets in the game, but gives no indication of how to activate them.  Here's a spoiler free tip. Secrets are activated by moving UP at the right time on certain screens.  Good luck!

Summon your Dragon ally to crush the stronger foes!
Use magic sparingly.  Any time you see a Dark Warrior or Skeleton, use magic.  These are tough enemies that will kill you quickly.  Typically the magic will wound them without taking them out, if you are worried about losing a health refill.  But if you attack a couple of times and then hit them with magic they will usually perish.  Remember: using magic costs 1 health container.

The same enemies drop health refills every time.  Remember which ones those are so you don’t accidentally destroy the health refill with a magic attack.

The magic curse in the Emerald City boss fight is real.  Stick to physical attacks unless you like repeating a lot of screens.

I had the most success with the Dwarf.  Even though he moves like jittery mud, his attacks seem to hit more reliably and he seems stronger.  I prefer the Amazon for her speed and sprite clarity, but she seems to be made of paper.

This game plays much better and much cleaner in emulation than it does on actual hardware.  When I was playing the game for screenshots on my computer I found the battle mechanic and sprites to be far less muddy.  This was encouraging, but I had much less success playing with a D-pad instead of a joystick. Lots of unintended jumping.  Go figure.
I wasn't sure if I was being congratulated or just encouraged to be the best I could be...


So there you have it!  Titan Axe for the Atari 2600 is a game that bites off more than the VCS can chew and comes away with some impressive trappings, but the core game play goes beyond what might be possible for the system.  Dedicated gamers will be able to push through and enjoy a rich experience, casual gamers will throw this game into the unplayable pile along with Double Dragon.


Join me next month for a guilty pleasure, a game I already know I like and have been looking to add to the collection:  Stay Frosty 2.  How far can I get before I melt?