Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Closer Look at Halloween

A Closer Look: Special Halloween Edition Trick or Treat!

Halloween.  No holiday begs for video games to be themed around it more that this one, and for good reason.  Halloween is all about monsters and skeletons and aliens and all kinds of other scary things that you can vanquish with blasters, swords, fire, or just run the hell away from in any number of video games throughout the ages.  When autumn rolls around and Halloween is getting big in the window, it’s always fun to make a run through some of the very best Halloween-type games in my collection.  Often played are classics like Haunted House and Frankenstein’s Monster for the Atari 2600, or Friday the 13th and the Addam’s Family for the NES, and you can never go wrong, any time of year, when pulling out any Castlevania game and giving ol’ Drac a run for his money.  But Closer Look isn’t about my favorite games or whimsical trips down memory lane (don’t hold me to this, chances are good somewhere down the line it will be about both…).  No, Closer Look is about shedding some light on the darker corners of the gaming universe and that means it is time to reach deeper into our hollow plastic pumpkin and pull out a couple of Tricks and Treats in the classic gaming world and double check them just to make sure that creepy guy who lives on Valentine Street didn’t stuff them full of razor blades.  So without further ado, I give you A Closer Look’s Halloween Special: Tricks and Treats for the NES!

First, the Trick.

We’ll get this nasty surprise out of the way and that will make the Treat all the sweeter!  Reach in to that plastic pumpkin and pull out THIS:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!  A Robert Louis Stevenson classic all about the dual nature of man and the constant internal struggle between the ego and the id.  A fascinating tale that would most certainly make a fascinating video game, right?  Yeah, and eating that unwrapped popcorn ball is a good idea as well…

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the NES is set up with promise.  It follows the premise of the story to the letter.  You are Dr. Jekyll and all you want to do is get to the church on time so that you can marry your beloved Miss Millicent.  To do this he has to travel across London (which is remarkably big in 1886!) all the while avoiding becoming upset lest he should trigger his transformation into his darker alter ego: Mr. Hyde!  The trip should be simple.  What could go wrong?  Walk across London, no problem…well, unless you are the extremely sensitive Dr. Jekyll that is.  Apparently anything and everything will set this guy off.  Now I can see becoming upset whilst being pummeled by barrels, pooped on by birds, or exploded by bombs.  These things are annoying and potentially injurious.  But the good Doctor is also set off by barking dogs, walking into spider webs, and the occasional agitated passer-by. As a matter of fact, there is very little in this game that doesn’t royally frustrate Dr. Jekyll.  How is this guy getting married?  I’m thinking two months into married life and Jekyll is going to be Mr. Hyde all the time.

It is clear that aggravation is impossible to avoid, thus you are inevitably going to spend some time as Mr. Hyde.  When this change takes place, you will be transported to a dark, twisted version of London filled with all kinds of bizarre monsters.  Fortunately, Mr. Hyde doesn’t really care about being upset by such things and actually gets his kicks off blasting them into oblivion with his Psycho-Wave (a little detail RLS failed to clue us in on back in 1886).  Vaporizing these phantoms seems to have a calming effect on Mr. Hyde and will eventually result in a return to his more docile Dr. Jekyll state.

The object of the game is to reach the church as Jekyll before Hyde catches up to him.  As you travel toward the church as Jekyll, each transformation into Hyde will progress him along a course toward Jekyll.  Should Hyde reach Jekyll, Divine Intervention will cause lightning to strike Hyde and Miss Millicent will be stranded at the altar as her betrothed becomes a crispy critter.  It is your job to guide Jekyll through London avoiding the myriad of annoyances that plague you.  When you do become Hyde, you’ll have to blast away at the monsters as quickly as possible to trigger the transformation back to Jekyll as time marches you closer to that fateful bolt.

This really is set up as a would-be classic.  The gameplay is unique, the concept successfully implements the plot elements of the time-honored story, there is a variety of things to do in the game, and there is an arcade feel that makes replay seem likely.  Yep, and that popcorn ball is all covered in caramel and glistens in the porch light.  But let’s not forget about that guy on Valentine St.  Sure, the game is set up to be a winner, but that is where the winning ends.  The game is bad.  At its best it is an exercise in frustration.  After about ten minutes chances are good you’ll be the one turning into Mr. Hyde.

The problems are most evident in the Jekyll levels.  The good doctor moves like he’s made of wood.  I’m not expecting Flo Jo here, but for a man looking to make it to his pending nuptials and aware that he is prone to fearsome transformation as a result of mild agitation you would think he would be looking to make better time.  But, no, Jekyll subscribes to the travel doctrine of the tortoise.  That alone wouldn’t be overly frustrating were it not coupled with the doctor’s complete lack of tolerance for aggravation. The game boasts a large Jekyll/Hyde meter that indicates Jekyll’s calmness level, but major instances, like being caught in one of the mad bomber’s blasts, will drain that meter in one shot and it’ll be off to Hyde-land. Even that wouldn’t be a game killer, but the coup de grace is the sheer number of irritants in London and Jekyll’s complete impotence to deal with them.  A good 90% of the characters you encounter are out to piss you off and you have almost no way to avoid being the victim of their animosity.  Jekyll’s defensive options are limited to jumping (best for angry dogs and cats) and ducking (the sling shot kid).  You can also duck into some buildings, but your stay will be limited and timing is essential.  Jekyll’s offensive capabilities are none.  Apparently, the good doctor is a complete pacifist.  The manual states that you can use his cane to poke at people, but all that does is make them even more contentious with him, so there is no effective use for that feature.  All of this adds up to numerous trips to Hyde’s dark London and less and less progress toward the church.

The only upside, Hyde’s adventure is actually fun.  There are plenty of monsters to blast with your PSYCHO-WAVE, you can also punch them, but the wave is primo.  The level design is the reverse of what you travel as Jekyll, so you’ll know if you are getting close to a date with destiny. The impetus is on blasting as many baddies as you can as fast as you can so that you can return to the tranquility of regular London.  You’ll want to be hasty since dark London is auto-scrolling constantly pushing you toward eternity.  Just be careful not to take too many hits as Hyde.  Death as Hyde is the same as death as Jekyll, and while Hyde is tougher, he can be felled if overwhelmed.  Overall, though, your time as Hyde is way more fun than anything you’ll do as Jekyll.  However, since you’ll be coming here often, chances are good that lightning bolt is in your future, no matter how good you get as Hyde…

Irritating gameplay aside, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde features solid graphics, with interesting detail and colorful backgrounds (as well as the largest bird poop in video game history!).  The music gets redundant fast, but only because of the lack of variety and the amount of time you’ll spend replaying levels.  The game does feature endless continues so you can beat your head against the wall as long as you like.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a true Halloween trick.  It looks good, it is built on a solid premise, the gameplay successfully implements that premise in an innovative and interesting way, and it has enough variety and challenge to make replay seem likely.  However, it fails to execute on the most fundamental level and fails to be fun.  If you think Dr. Jekyll spends a lot of time in an irritated state during this game, that will be nothing compared to the out-right rage that will take control of your mind.  I kid you not, this is the one and only game in my collection that has actually been yanked out of the console and sent flying across the room into, and nearly breaking, a window.  The game succeeded in turning me into Mr. Hyde, but it failed to deliver in any other way.  In case you are wondering, no, I have never successfully completed the journey to the chapel and the good doctor remains a bachelor in my world. (ed. note, this has recently changed, I finally got the good doctor to the church and never have to ever, ever again) If you are lured in by this game, don’t blame me, you have been warned.  Stay off of Valentine Street.

And with that horrible experience behind us, we can put our metal detectors away and unwrap that ever-shrinking Snickers Fun Size bar and have ourselves a little treat: Frankenstein: The Monster Returns! (also NES) Unlike the game described in the above section, Frankenstein goes above and beyond what it needs to be and ends up being quite a nice little game.

Intended as a sequel to the timeless Mary Shelley tale, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns tells a story years after the monster was put to death (although it departs from the original a bit to do this).  As the title indicates, the Monster has indeed returned from the dead and has taken his revenge upon a small village by abducting the Elder’s daughter, and consequently your love interest (what are the chances?), Emily.  To prevent a second (third?) trip to the grave, the Monster has also enlisted the aid of a bevy of classic horror creatures to ransack the town and stymie any would-be heroes.  This means bad news for you, since you are, in fact, a would-be hero!  And it is up to you to defeat the Monster’s hordes and rescue fair Emily.

Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is a side-scrolling adventure game featuring a number of levels, scores of monsters to defeat and lots of items and power-ups to find and collect.  The game follows the standard formula with each level consummating in a boss fight.  The story is integrated into the gameplay much in the way such is accomplished in Faxanadu.  People you meet and talk to will give you items and tips as well as develop the storyline, but these inclusions are fairly unobtrusive and skippable if you are playing through.
While not particularly long, the levels are diverse and feature lots of areas to explore and items to find.
The main appeal of this game is the simplicity of the design juxtaposed with the surprising amount of depth that can be discovered with dedicated playing.  The fact that it is littered with monsters to vanquish doesn’t hurt.  The power-ups are generously spaced and, of the levels I have played, there are few “stuck points” where you just beat your head against the wall unable to progress.  There are all kinds of secret passages and buildings to explore and the levels are long enough without being tedious and repetitive.  The game isn’t a cakewalk, by any means, but there is enough here to keep players challenged and still motivated to try again to put the demented Monster to rest, should they falter in their attempt.  Best of all, the game is fun.  There is something undeniably appealing about taking a sword and slashing your way through a collection of hideous monsters.  This may be what is likewise so compelling about games like Castlevania.  I would wager that, while not as iconic or classic as Castlevania, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns, is just about as good.
Graphically, the game is solid, if a bit muddy.  They aren’t going to win any awards, but they aren’t going to inhibit your ability to play the game, either.  The cut scenes are interesting for a game of this ilk and do a nice job of advancing the plot.  The main drawback is that the game is relatively rare and therefore in fewer collections.  If a copy can be found, it is well worth getting a hold of.    To be honest, I haven’t gotten nearly as far on this game as I would like.  There is a sea monster that keeps kicking my butt when I fall in the lake.  The good news, there is a password feature that allows you to start over at the beginning of any level, so one day I will get past that bastard and on to the Monster himself!

Thus, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is a true Halloween treat, one you might have missed while pouring through your more popular, holiday appropriate NES titles.  Sure, you’re going to play Castlevania and Friday the 13th this year; you’re supposed to.  But while you’re thumbing through Monster Party and Maniac Mansion, don’t forget to give Frankenstein: The Monster Returns some serious love.  Oh and be smart, don’t ruin a perfectly good holiday by thinking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can end in anything other than unmitigated rage on your part.  Avoid, trust me.  And if you have the time, you may also want to take a look at Uninvited, or Shadowgate by Kemco-Seika.  But those are stories for another Halloween….

Have a great Halloween and join me back here in two weeks when I’ll get topical and take a Closer Look at
Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus for the Nintendo Wii.  Does it work?  Is it fun?  Answers to these questions and more, in two weeks!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Closer Look at Dungeon: An In-Depth Guide!

A Closer Look at Dungeon for the Atari 2600

Dungeon for the Atari 2600 is a new homebrew released this year by David Weavil. the game is an impressively large adventure role playing game with a lot of depth and tons of replayability. Much like its ancestor, Adventure, the game pits you , the humble adventurer, against a sea of troubles in pursuit of a noble goal. In Adventure, the goal is to find the fabled Chalice, for Dungeon you must slay the evil Demon; you should probably also save the princess, although that is optional. Considering the limitations of the VCS, this game is remarkably complex and offers a gamer experience unique to the system.

Dungeon represents some of the greatest things about the modern Atari homebrewing scene. Making new games for old systems isn't a new concept, but significant advancements have been made in the past decade opening all kinds of new doors for ambitious programmers with a love for otherwise "obsolete" gaming platforms. Programming for an older system like the VCS is a true labor or love that requires dedication and determination. Dungeon was programmed using a relatively new programming tool called batari Basic. From the batari Basic web site: "batari Basic (bB) is a BASIC-like language for creating Atari 2600 games. It is a compiled language and the compiler runs on a computer, but it creates a binary file that can be run on an Atari 2600 emulator or used to make a cartridge that will operate on a real Atari 2600." (see In layman's terms, batari Basic provides a simpler interface for designing 2600 games, which are traditionally programmed using the somewhat thicker 6502 assembly language. Originally designed as a learning tool to propel promising programmers (alliteration unintentional, I promise) on to the more comprehensive 6502, batari Basic is also being used as a platform for creating full-fledged games like Dungeon as well.

This edition of Closer Look will delve deep into the heart of Dungeon and shed light on the darkest corners of the exceptional game. What follows is intended to be a Complete Strategy. This means that SPOILERS aplenty await readers who continue beyond the final, closing paragraph of this introduction. If you wish to explore Dungeon entirely unspoiled, READ NO FURTHER and go play the game. However, if you are looking for specific information, or just want to peek behind the curtain, by all means, proceed. The guide follows after the jump!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Closer Look at Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town

Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town for Gameboy Advance

One of the best things about writing these Closer Looks is that I often get to play the living crap out of games that I, and maybe you, would otherwise shun, usually with good reason. Doing this forces me outside my comfort zone and makes me see video games from entirely other perspectives. This go-round is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The game of choice this time is Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town, because the friends that were originally in Mineral Town grew insufficient, perhaps? Either way, the Harvest Moon series is one of my wife’s video game passions (Circus Atari, Eggomania, and Sims are few of the others if that means anything to you). I think she has played nearly all of the games in the series and by virtue of proximity the games’ many jaunty theme songs have been drilled into my memory for all time. During one marathon session of Harvest Moon, we’ll say N64 for kicks, I asked her what about the game appealed to her, because to me it looked like a whole lot of work with no pay off. I’m sure she gave an answer that was somewhat insightful, but to be honest I cannot remember it. However, that set off a chain of events the end result of which you are about to read.

I was looking for a new game to spotlight with Closer Look, when my wife suggested that this would be a perfect time to introduce me to the Harvest Moon series. Intrigued, but highly skeptical, I agreed and asked her to pick out the game she felt would be best for a complete novice who had minimal interest in the series. Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town was the answer, but being the curious lad that I am, I suggested the girl version instead (Harvest Moon: MORE Friends of Mineral Town). Hey, I’m not afraid to play as a girl, I kicked Belle’s Quest’s ass, remember! Thus, I embarked on my first venture into the land of farm simulation as a scrappy young blonde…

The game starts simply enough: you are a modern girl dissatisfied with big city livin’ and looking to shake thing up a bit in your life. One day, a television ad catches your eye glorifying the fantastic lifestyle that is to be had in Mineral Town, a small community that has recently found itself with a vacant farm property. Just the change you’ve been looking for! However, once you get there, you find out the quaint farm land is really a run-down derelict and the Mayor (Thomas) has pulled the old “bait and switch” on you. To make matters worse, the check cleared the bank and you are stuck here with only your newly acquired dog and a field full of weeds. If life is going to be worth living, you’re going to have to make the most of it here in Mineral Town.
From there, the game is pretty wide open. What you choose to do with your farm is entirely up to you and your future is literally in your hands. You can go all green-thumby and sow the entire field in turnips, pumpkins, and pineapples (what a climate this place has!). You can raise a herd of cattle and live off of milk and cheese. From sheep and chickens to mines full of gems, the possibilities are endless. Maybe a little too endless, but more on that later. Harvest Moon:MFoMT is a big farming/social simulation game that is made up of three basic phases: shipping things for money, interacting with the local townsfolk, and personal character growth. These three phases are completely intertwined and how you conduct yourself in one area usually has a direct impact on what goes on with the other two.

The most fundamental, day-to-day aspect of the game is shipping things for money. Predominately this means farming in some capacity, although there are other ways to get rich, and early on those ways are vital to getting your farm up and running. The crops you grow, the products your livestock creates (eggs, milk, wool), even things you just find laying around in the forest can all be shipped off and exchanged for money. Your basic task every day is to do something to generate sufficient revenue to maintain your land. You’ll need to buy seeds for growing crops; you’ll need to buy chickens, cows, and/or sheep to reap the benefits of livestock. And all of these things cost money. The simplest way to make money early on is to harvest ores and gems from the local mine. These gems and ore can be sold straight away and will bring consistent profits until your plants and animals start to produce. Once that gets going, trips to the mine will become less important and more supplemental in nature and you’ll be able to spend more time on your farm and in town.

While you’re busy mining, and hoeing (not the other kind…), and chopping, and brushing cattle, you also need to make an occasional appearance in town to let people know that you’re not just some creepy recluse who never leaves her farm and brushes cows all day. Interacting with the townsfolk is an important way to advance the minimal plot of the game and is also beneficial for increasing your ability to turn a profit. The most important interactions in the game, I am told, are the interactions you have with the majority of the single males in Mineral Town. Apparently, there is a narrow boy:girl ratio in Mineral Town and everyone has the fever to get married. If you are to join in the fun you’re going to have to do some serious wooing of the local male populace and maybe start a few catfights with the stunningly attractive ladies of the town. One of the main story elements in the game is getting married: when you finally do, the game credits roll (again, I am told), so those looking to “beat” the game are going to want to spend a lot of time paying attention to the boy of your choice (and the choices ain’t exactly George Clooney or Johnny Depp here in Mineral Town, good luck!). Other interactions in Mineral Town include making friends and enlisting the help of various people primarily through a long and elaborate gift-giving game. Participating in this can be as time-consuming as farming itself, so you’ll have to manage your time wisely.

The game does feature annual events to keep your daily life from getting too tedious. Every 25th day of the Winter season, the Mayor of Mineral Town will break into your house between 9pm and midnight, while you are sleeping and leave you a gift if you hang your sock on the wall. You think I’m kidding, but in Mineral Town this is a close as you are going to get to Christmas. There are more normal events, called Festivals that you can partake in. You can enter your best cow or sheep in the various livestock festivals, or you can watch fireworks from the beach with your sweetheart during the aptly named Fireworks Festival. These events provide various opportunities for advancing character subplots, winning rare items and awards, or just creating a general sense of community. Participation appears to be optional, unless you are pursuing a particular angle, but there are lots of things to be gained from taking in a festival. Just be sure you have done all of the things you need to do on the day of the festival, because most times activating the festival will consume the remaining time in the day. Don’t leave your chickens out in the rain just because you want to enter the Cooking Contest!