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.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Phantom II/Pirate

Phantom II/Pirate
Developer: Dave Weavil

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.

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