Saturday, February 2, 2013

Playing it Through: Legend of Zelda Phantom Hourglass

I got LoZ: Phantom Hourglass for Christmas last year (yes, I know, I am always late to the game on modern stuff), but I was just wrapping up the absolutely amazing Skyward Sword and I was saturated with Zelda goodness.  That was not the time to embark on another Zelda epic.  And I had always heard that PH was an instant classic.  The debut LoZ game for the DS with innovative controls, great story and tricky puzzles, Phantom Hourglass earned the hype it received.  Or so they say.  Me?  I got Spirit Tracks the year it came out (the previous Christmas, no less) and fell in love with the railroad theming and the whimsical game play that takes its cue from Wind Waker (which I hold is a really great game BECAUSE of the sailing, not despite it).  Everything I read said that ST was a veritable clone of PH just with a train instead of a boat.  Well, I loved ST, so if PH is the source material, it must be great, right?

Let's find out.  I had a lot of fun playing through FFVII in the first PiT, and that was a game I had played a million times.  Let's see how it goes with a game I'm playing for the first time.  If you are reading along with me, I'd love to hear your experiences.  Drop me a message in the Comments section.  I'll also take any tips or tricks you might know, but please keep spoilers to a minimum unless I ask for specific information.  Discovery is a great deal of the fun in Zelda games!

After playing Phantom Hourglass for a few hours, I can already see the parallels between it and Spirit Tracks.  Both games feature a frame quest off which the main quests spoke.  In Phantom Hourglass the Temple of Ocean King is the frame quest and as you explore it you unlock the other major quests of the game.  Since Zelda games tend to start at the micro level and work to a much larger scale, I am certain this game will follow suit.

The game starts out with a retelling of Wind Waker, kind of, after which Link shows up on the shore of Mercay Island.  Navi shows up (I know its not really Navi, but you and I both know it pretty much is, so just go with it) and leads Link to the her Grandfather's house, who also happens to be the wise man of the island and, as later events will suggest, more than he appears.  From the outset, the game doesn't really have a tutorial level, per se, but the first parts of the island introduce many of the basic skills that will be required to play the game.  Using the stylus to move isn't exactly intuitive, but you get used to it.  The hardest part is rolling, as into trees.  Scribbling along the edge of the screen tends to just wiggle Link around, not always prompt the desired action.  Combat is pretty simple since tapping a foe causes Link to attack it.

I get through the first cave easily and enter the town.  It is a relief to see that "town" equals about 3 houses.  This will greatly reduce the amount of inane chatter before I can get on with the quest.  The goal is to meet the smarmy and tattered sea captain who will be our dark horse companion for the trip.  His name is Linebeck and he is effectively a foppish ninny.  To that effect he has gone missing in the Temple of the Ocean King and must be rescued.  The Temple is, unsurprisingly, a huge puzzle that lays the groundwork for the game's key gimmick.  Parts of the temple are ensconced in an evil pink fog that will drain your life. Fortunately, there are also safe zones.  The key is to get in and out of the fog while solving the puzzles that will set Linebeck free.  Very standard Zelda stuff.
You called?
The temple is pretty easy and Linebeck is soon free.  Once freed he characteristically flees the Temple forcing Link to follow him back to town, specifically to the dock.  Speaking with Linebeck at the dock prompts the Old Man (not Mister Old Man, mind you, but similar in many ways...) to show up and send Link off to find clues as to the whereabouts of the Ghost Ship that kidnapped Zelda (I failed to mention that this was the point of the game, but this being a Zelda game I assumed you would have already guessed what our objective was).  The first place the Old Man suggests to look is Ember Isle, where there lives a wise soothsayer called Astrid. Since Linebeck is now tied to the quest, his vessel has been volunteered for the job.

Driving the boat has been significantly changed since Wind Waker, and maybe for the best, although I really enjoyed the sailing in that game.  You pretty much just draw a course on your map and then let the boat go along.  You have to pay attention as hazards will crop up and you may have to avoid or jump over them, but for the most part you just let the boat go its way.  On the way to Ember Isle, I ran across Beedle's ship, which wanders the seas selling all manner of interesting things.  I picked up a part for the ship, more on that later, and checked out many other goods a budget of 60 rupees will not support.  Leaving Beedle, I proceed to Ember Isle where a whole new puzzle presents itself.

Astrid appears to be locked in the basement of a house as precautionary measure when the Ghost Ship recently paid a visit to the island.  Her assistant was meant to come let her out after the ship left, but he has not returned.  The secret to opening the door to Astrid's room is to find the three torches on the island and touch the map on the wall outside her chamber where those torches stand.  Clues are pretty obvious and the biggest tip off comes when you meet her assistant's ghost near the first torch.

With the torch locations discovered, Astrid points you toward your next objective: freeing the spirit of Power trapped inside the volcano.  The trek up the volcano is pretty easy, but getting in the door introduces another new kind of puzzle and one of the novel game play aspects the Nintendo DS features.  To open the door of the volcano dungeon you must blow out the candles that flank the door, literally.  By blowing into the microphone on the DS you actually blow out the candles in front of you!  I realize that by now this is old hat to the rest of the universe, but is is still pretty cool.  (A similar game play aspect was utilized when you first meet Astrid as you must call out to her behind the door.  Any noise will suffice, but it's a lot more fun to actually call out)

Once inside, standard Zelda dungeon rules apply.  The puzzles are fun and not overly complicated.  A puzzle with a mouse and a key led to some fits until I figured out exactly the best way to trap the little bastard.  The puzzles get a boost when the boomerang is found.  Here the stylus control really shines as you draw paths for the boomerang to follow to hit triggers and unlock doors.  And in typical Zelda style, the boss fight at the end of the dungeon requires you to use the item found within it to achieve victory.  One nice touch is the boss key gimmick which sees you carrying the key to the door and tossing it in to unlock it.  This adds a new kind of puzzle to the dungeon which is equal parts fun and frustrating.

The final boss of the volcano dungeon is Blaaz, whose name I think wants to be pronounced "blaze'" but looks more like "blas." Blaaz attacks by splitting into three parts and lobbing fire attacks.  As mentioned above, the boomerang is required to smash all of the pieces of Blaaz back together.  Once reunited, bash Blaaz with the sword until he regroups and the whole thing starts over again.  Hit Blaaz enough times and he goes out in a puff of smoke.  Your reward is the freedom of the Spirit of Power and, of course, a heart container.

According to Astrid there are three Spirits:  Power, Wisdom and Courage.  (familiar, much?)  All three must be located and their power drawn upon to reveal the location of the Ghost Ship.  Apparently there are also these tear drop things which can amplify the powers of each spirit.  I have seen a red one like the one you get on Ember Isle in Beedle's shop and another in the shop tent back on Mercay.  They were both really expensive, so I am guessing they are important.  More on that as I play along.

For now, though, it's back to Mercay Island so that the Old Man can tell us where to go next.  On the way back, I make another stop at Beedle's ship and pick up another ship part, a sickle anchor.  On Mercay Island there is a ship builder who can modify your ship (the same goes for the train in Spirit Tracks).  As you collect parts you can visit the builder to upgrade the ship.  Different parts bestow different benefits and if you use all of the parts from a given set you get an extra bonus.  If this is anything like the aforementioned train in Spirit Tracks, this will be a neat addition to the main game.

The Old Man suggests a return trip to the Temple of the Ocean King might help illuminate the next part of the adventure.  Linebeck accompanies for some reason (treasure he says).  Once inside, the Old Man appears and points Link to the pedestal on the second floor of the Temple.  There Link finds the gimmick object for the game: the Phantom Hourglass.  The glass has the power to protect Link from the pink fog in the temple that drains life, but only for a short time.  Once the sands have drained they must be recharged by the sun.  Thus, it must be used sparingly.  Having claimed the Hourglass, the secrets of the Temple can be revealed, slowly over the course of the adventure, that is.  And that's where I left things.  In the Temple, ready to explore the next level.
So far this seems like a pretty standard Zelda adventure.  It borrows much from Wind Waker, and I am hoping for more divergence in the adventure as the game progresses.  I'm in the minority that has no problem with the kid Link adventures or the cell shaded style they are done in.  All I really am looking for is a fun adventure with great puzzles and lots of action.

Follow Link and I through Hyrule after the JUMP!

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 After Party

The Big Wrap-Up!

Thank you to everyone for reading along this month as we have counted down (or up) the very best vertical shooting games for the Atari 2600.  The VCS is an incredible gaming console that gets pigeon-holed by its age and perceived limitations, but if this list shows us anything it is that pigeon-holing this system is extremely unjustified.  The games on this list demonstrate the versatility of the 2600 and its ability to showcase a variety of games within a well loved genre.  From simple games like Space Invaders and Galaxian to games as complex as Solaris, the VCS has the power to create an amazing arcade-worthy experience.  One of the greatest things about these kinds of projects is that it allows me to explore libraries of video games and discover incredible games I had never played or heard of before.  During this project, I discovered Glacier Patrol, Espial, and Guardian.  Three games I now need to add to my collection.  These projects also give me a chance to dust off a few games I haven't played in a while and give them another go.  Over the course of this project I have set six new personal best scores, many on games I don't play as much as I maybe should.  Creating this list has been a lot of fun for me, the Atari 2600 being one of my favorite video game console from childhood, and I hope that you have discovered some new games or maybe rediscovered some old favorites along the way.  Thank you to everyone for reading along.

For those of you late to the game, below is the complete list of The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600.  Rather than link them all here, you can find a handy-dandy listing on the right side of the blog.  You know, over there ----->
1. Beamrider (Activision)
2. Solaris (Atari)
3. Millipede (Atari)
4. Plaque Attack (Activision)
5. Fantastic Voyage (20th Century Fox)
6. Demon Attack (Imagic)
7. Astroblast (M-Network)
8. River Raid II (Activision)
9. Spy Hunter (SEGA)
10. Espial (Tigervision)
11. River Raid (Activision)
12. Megamania (Activision)
13. Phoenix (Atari)
14. Wabbit (Apollo)
15. Galaxian (Atari)
16. Centipede (Atari)
17. Shootin' Gallery (Imagic)
18. Deadly Duck (20th Century Fox)
19. Glacier Patrol (Telegames)
20. Guardian (Apollo)
21. Communist Mutants from Space (Starpath)
22. Space Invaders (Atari)
23. Buck Rogers and the Planet of Zoom (SEGA)
24. Zaxxon (Coleco)
25. Crackpots (Activision)
26. Carnival (Coleco)
27. Name this Game (US Games)
28. Threshold (Tigervision)
29. Spacechase (Apollo)
30. GORF (CBS Electronics)

And finally, because I am a bit of a dullard, I present you with the game that I forgot:

Worm War I
20th Century Fox

I cannot believe I forgot this guy.  He's not the greatest shooter out there, but he is most definitely a vertical shooter for the Atari 2600, the most basic criteria for this project!

In Worm War I, you wage war against giant worms in a tank as you traverse an endless field of colored blocks.  Yeah, that's about all the story the instruction manual gives you; don't accuse me of summarizing.  The playfield scrolls vertically as you march toward your Lumbricus terrestris foes and the blocks that make up your world.  Your tank is invulnerable except for its need for fuel.  Run out of it and you are dead in the water, game over.  As long as you can blast worms and blocks out of your way, you can virtually play forever.  Contacting worms or blocks severely drains your fuel so you must be careful.  Every so often a refueling pagoda (straight from the instructions) will show up.  If you shoot it you will lose the chance to refuel and everything on the screen, except you, you will be destroyed.  Bad idea, though, because you are going to need the fuel.  The worms come at you in increasing waves until you have faced six on-screen at the same time, then the game resets with deadlier worms and more blocks.  You can speed up your attack on the worms by pressing forward or slow down by pulling back on the controller.

Worm War I presents a decent challenge, but the only real difficulty comes in not shooting your fuel pagodas and not scrolling too quickly so that worms and blocks are on you before you can blast them.  I've not been playing the game terribly long, but I can already see that the difficulty maxes rather early in the game.  There is a variation where the worms are only visible for a brief time, and while that adds some definite challenge, that is not the main game they give you.

Had I been more attentive, I blame the late placement in the alphabet and the fairly bland name, I probably would have ranked this game somewhere in the low twenties or late teens.  The concept is interesting and the challenge is there, if a bit minimized.  The game looks ok, the worm effect is nice, but the sounds are dreadfully reminiscent of Pac-man (shudder).  My main issue is with the lack of vision.  The base game is good, but it lacks any kind of depth and the difficulty maxes too quickly to have much replayability.

Worm War I is a decent game, but ultimately pretty unspectacular.