Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Ature

Developer:  Beoran
Available:  (ROM ONLY) Atariage.com

Pulling from the archive again this month as I await some excellent new games to arrive in the post.  Ature was a game I picked up at an East Coast gaming convention back in the days when that was a thing.  The game had just been released and Beoran, the developer, had granted a few folks the rights to distribute physical copies of the game.  I picked up a boxed copy for around $45 American, I believe.  It was very exciting to pick up a brand new game at a convention (this wasn’t quite as common as it is today).  Ature was even more of a thrill because it was an adventure game at a time when those also weren’t really a thing.  And even seven years later, it still holds up as a solid adventure game for your VCS.

What All This Then?

Ature is the story of Signe, a young sword fighter whose family has been tasked with protecting the mystical tree that protects the land.  All was going well until a black ship carrying the evil queen Ikaza landed on Ature’s shores.  Ikaza has threatened to destroy the mystical tree by draining all of its power.  She’s turned everyone except you to stone and has started to use her evil to pervert the land.  You alone must travel far and wide defeating the queen’s minions and solving the dastardly puzzles she has put in place to prevent anyone from overthrowing her rule.  Only by finding the three leaves of the mystic tree can you break the curse and confront Ikaza face-to-face.
Ature is a standard adventure game in the vein of well-loved classics like the Legend of Zelda.  You travel the land using your sword and some limited magical abilities, defeating enemy monsters and seeking out switches and mini-bosses that will open new paths in the world.  Every time you defeat a boss or flip a switch you will be granted access to more of the world, special weapons or powers, and eventually the final showdown with Queen Ikaza.  By defeating enemies you gain experience and increase your combat ability, health bar and magic points.  You can also find helpful items that increase your power.  There is a book that lets you consume MP (called Numen Points in this game) to shoot energy beams from your sword.  There is a shield that protects you from shooting enemies.  And so on.

How Does it Play?

Really, really well.  The world is a pretty decent size, particularly for this era of homebrew.  There are many distinct areas to explore and wide varieties of enemies to fight.  The game follows pretty standard adventure game rules.  You start out with access to a small part of the world and as you defeat enemies or find switches you are granted access to new areas.  These new areas often include power-ups or weapons you will need to gain access to the next area.  The game isn’t linear, however, and you will want to keep checking back on certain areas to see if something new has been unlocked.  You’ll sometimes be able to see an item locked behind a wall that won’t open until much later in the game.
Signe controls just fine.  You can walk with your sword extended to stave off instant attacks when you enter a new screen.    Collision detection with enemy sprites is pretty generous, except with the Invisible Enemy, who is a real pain in the butt.  Defeated foes drop power-ups to restore health and magic points.  Again, all pretty standard stuff, just not stuff you see much of on the Atari 2600.

The game isn’t perfect though and it suffers from a few of the idiosyncrasies of its day.  Not all of the mini-bosses respect the boundaries of the play field, so occasionally you’ll be in a room that passes through the boss room, but is not in the boss area, and the boss will march over and crush you.  Typically this can be avoided just by moving quickly, but it’s something that should have been cleaned up in play testing.  Some rooms are nearly impossible to see on a real TV with real hardware because of the coloring choices.  There are two pink rooms in the Ruby Mountains that are really tough for this reason.  The manual doesn’t tell you enough about the icons in your inventory so that you really understand what you’ve picked up (if what you’ve picked up shows up at all.  In the screenshot below I am very late in the game, on my way to Queen Ikaza, but it’s hard to know fully what I have in my inventory.  I have some kind of cross thing, the Numen Shield (that one is obvious), something that looks like a crown, and what looks like bottom half of E.T.’s telephone.  With some careful study of the gameplay, you can eventually figure out that you have the Numen Sword, Numen Armor, and the two Mystic Books, but a simple item legend in the manual would be helpful.
Let's see I've got 4, uh, things, here.  I'm ready to take on the boss!
These are minor technical details, but they reveal a lack of polish that would otherwise make this game absolute top tier as far as VCS adventure games go.

Whistles and Bells

Well my copy came with a swanky box and instruction manual, but that was seven years ago and the guy I got it from has kind of disappeared from the community, so chances are good that’s not going to be your experience.  However, because the game is open source and the ROM is available, you can always contact Atariage and have them make you a custom cartridge with whatever swanky label, manual and box you want to create and pay for.  The game does feature nice, big graphics with well drawn and thought out play fields and interesting looking enemies and bosses.
Apart from that Ature is exactly what it is: a great game strong on fun and light on spectacle.

Final Assessment

Ature is a great adventure game for the Atari 2600.  It takes about an hour to figure out and beat, especially if you get stuck fighting the Invisible Enemy repeatedly like I do.  There are lots of places and things to explore and tracking down all of the power-ups and abilities is part of the fun.  Once you’ve beaten it, it’s fun to run through it again knowing what you know and seeing how quickly you can save the land of Ature.  After that, you can probably shelve it for a while and then pull it back out once you’ve forgotten every last nook and cranny of the map.  Pretty standard adventure game stuff.  In recent years there have been many more really incredible adventure games for the VCS.  People are finally starting to figure out how to make these kinds of game shine on the Atari, and it’s games like Ature that got us to where we are today.
None shall pass.

Tips and Tricks

Home is Where the Heart(s) Is:  Signe’s home will always have health power-ups.  Leave the screen, return, and the heart will reappear.  This is a big help late in the game when you get defeated and respawn at home.  Several trips back and forth between screens can start you off with full health again.

These Bullets are Too Expensive:  I tend not to use the Book of Striking.  It costs a Numen point every time you use it and enemy movements are pretty erratic in this game, so you aren’t always guaranteed a hit.  I prefer to save my Numen points for healing with the Book of Life.  There is only one place where you must use the Book of Striking to hit a switch that is otherwise unreachable.
I'm not saying where, exactly...

Get Her, Ray!:  Most of the mini-bosses can be bum rushed and taken out with speed.  There are a few that you will want to strategize for, but don’t be afraid to take the very direct approach.

You Can’t See What You Can’t Hit:  The Invisible Enemy is one of the most annoying and troublesome mini-bosses in the game.  You’ll encounter him late in the game near the Sea Shrine.  The only way you’ll know he’s there is A.) you’ll die almost instantly upon entering the screen. OR B.) before you die you’ll see a small dash moving towards you.  That dash is the only indication of where the Invisible Enemy is.  Don’t mistake it for his shadow, because it doesn’t work like that.  Go into the battle with full health and make a dash for the bottom of the screen.  As the dash approaches, stab at it from the bottom. You’ll know you’ve hit it if the dash jerks in one direction or another. If things get tight, run a circle around the dash until you can get back to a “from the bottom” attack stance.  Stab.  Repeat at least 6 times.  It will take some practice, but this is the ONLY way I have been able to defeat the Invisible Enemy.  He’s a pain.
Oy vey, this guy.

So there you have it!  A solid adventure game for the Atari 2600 that might have flown under your radar.  It’s not the flashiest game of its kind, but it’s a lot of fun and is a very welcome addition to an underserved category of games on the VCS.  Legend of Zelda fans will feel right at home exploring the world of Ature and vanquishing the evil Queen Ikaza.  If you missed Ature before, at the very least, download the ROM and give it a look.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Swordquest Comic: It's Over

Swordquest #5 landed this week, and the comic series that started with a whimper goes out with a sigh.  If you were hoping the whole thing would marshal in the closing chapter and redeem the four issues of blechhh that preceded it, you were sadly mistaken and extremely naive.  Chad Bowers and Ghostwriter X stay true to their formula of bland characters, grade school level art, and dull storytelling to grind this terrible comic to a close.

I would warn you that this review contains spoiler alerts, but the word "spoil" indicates that there is something "ripe" here that can go bad, and that would be inaccurate.  To briefly summarize, Protagonist (I still cannot tell you his name, is it Chris, or Peter, or maybe Chad?) manages to get the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery and is teleported to Atara where he learns that he is the re-embodiment of Rulero (it hurts to type that) and that Atara has fallen into ruin under the rule of Tyrannus..  He uses the sword to teleport back to earth just in time to kill Konjuro, but not before the villain has stabbed the eye of the big man-bun guy.  After explaining to his friends what he learned in Atara, they all decide to return to Atara to fix that world, because they were somehow so competent on this world that their winning ways are sure to carry over.  That's it.  Oh and Man-Bun turns out to be a minotaur, because sure, why not.  But this summary doesn't really do justice to the steaming pile that is issue #5, so let's dig in and really appreciate how bad comics are made.

We start with this incredible cover!  This is the final issue, right?  So it needs a really gripping cover that conveys all the drama and excitement to be found in the concluding chapter of this fantastic story, right?  So what do we get?  A guy in a suit with a face half-shrouded in shadow.  That's it.  Who is he supposed to be?  All of the major characters in the story have been revealed so the nature of the shadowy face is a curious choice.  The suit and mutton chops suggest that its Konjuro, but Konjuro wouldn't wear his tie that loosely, he's (as consistently as Ghostwriter X can muster) always been represented as very well kempt.  And again, why would he be in shadow, we already know him well.  It cannot be Protagonist because he's a complete mess adorned in a t-shirt and jacket.  It cannot be Man-Bun, he's dressed like a biker.  It's not the Dunmer because this is clearly a man (although based on Ghostwriter X's skill that's been up for grabs from panel to panel).  So it can only be the other guy.  But though he wears a suit, Other Guy is black and the skin on mystery cover guy is blue.  Unless that's yet another bizarre style choice, that rules out Other Guy. So we have a final issue cover that features a character that is entirely unrelated to the comic book it contains OR is a character we already know but inaccurately represented.  No matter who or what that is, it's a boring, boring, boring cover for a final issue.  A guy in a suit. Off to a GREAT start.

Inside, for certain Ghostwriter X has pulled out all the stops and sharpened all of his/her pencils to give us something special for this big finale.  Can anyone tell me what's going on in this panel?  Context says that Other Guy is really angry that Protagonist has vanished and is going to try to kill Konjuro, but a robed cult guy has grabbed him to prevent that from happening.  But taking this panel on it's own, I'm left to wonder if Other Guy has sprouted some caucasian arms and is doing some kind of lewd dance.  If there were more than four colors in play in Ghostwriter X's palette, then maybe it would be clear that there was cult member back there at work, but since everything is gun metal gray, who can really tell.  Also, it kind of looks like the cult member's arms are there by accident, as if Other Guy stumbled into his embrace.  It certainly doesn't look like he's being restrained.  I shouldn't be stymied by a single panel this early in the comic.  This is page two, panel two.  Hopes are not rising for a big finish.  Oh, and dear Dynamite, either swear in your comics or don't, but don't swear and then cross it out.  It makes you and me look stupid, and I don't like to look stupid.

As the good guys reel from Protagonist's disappearance, Konjuro threatens to blind Man-Bun if Man-Bun doesn't tell him what he wants to know: something about magic or how to get back to Atara, or something.  Honestly, Konjuro's motivations have been all over the place, so who can tell.  In any event, he's got Man-Bun by the neck and he's weaving a magic dagger with which to stab him in the eye.  These are the pages in question:
Zoom in and get a good look at the Dunmer's face in panel 2.  More on that in a minute.

Pretty exciting right, with the eye-stabbing and all.  Except, please explain to me how we get from the panels at the bottom of the left page to the dramatic action of the first panel on the right page.  Again, Ghostwriter X reveals his/her failure to understand basic storytelling.  On the left page Konjuro has Man-Bun by the throat.  His left hand is holding Man-Bun's throat.  Admittedly, in panel 5, that grasp is somewhat ginger and delicate, but we can assume that this is the beginning of the much tighter grip in panel 7.  Let's do that.  In panel 6, Konjuro is so close that he can place the tiny magic dagger right up to Man-Bun's eye.  Panel 7 confirms this proximity by pulling out a bit to show us Konjuro threatening him with both arms clearly bent.  Heck the one is so bent, it's coming from somewhere around his waist, which is anatomically impossible, but that's really par for the course at this point. We also know he's close because he's grabbing Man-Bun so hard his head is tilted back. So we leave the left page with Konjuro rather close to Man-Bun threatening to stab him in the eye.  Then suddenly at the top of the right page Konjuro stabs Man-Bun in the eye as promised, but he does it from what has to be at least four feet away (the wife and I recreated this scene sans the eye poke to prove the point).  So what happened in the gutter between the left and right page?  Did Konjuro back up 2 paces and then lunge at him to stab him in the eye?  Why would he do that?  All he has to do is pull his arm back and then stab.  There is no need to back up and lunge.  He's poking an eye not punching through a wall.  And the stab is pretty wimpy at that because he only uses the very tip of his magic dagger to complete the act.  This should be a dramatic moment, but it is completely devoid of impact by Ghostwriter X's desperate attempt to make it more dramatic.  However his/her inability to understand bodies moving in space creates a ridiculous situation.  I'm pretty sure a close up eye-poking can be rather dramatic, see also the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns movie.

After failing to get what he wants Konjuro prepares to make good on his threat to take both of Man-Bun's eyes, but our hero reappears just in time to vanquish the evil villain.  To convey this, we get a full page splash panel of Protagonist stabbing Konjuro in the back, the most noble and heroic way to defeat a bad guy.  Sure, it's in line with his established, cowardly loser character, but if this is the final act and his character arc is going to demonstrate some amount of change, beating the bad guy by stabbing him in the back isn't going to cut it.  That's bad storytelling with no confidence in your characters to be more than they are.
Ghostwriter X's art isn't helping Bowers story here either.  Why is the main character's back to the audience during the most dramatic moment of his story arc?  Why do we not see his face and the emotion thereupon?  If Protagonist is right handed, then maybe turn the scene around to set up a proper moment of victory.  It wouldn't be that hard to do if you thought about more than just the panel you are currently drawing.  But instead we get a loser dealing a cowardly blow to the enemy with his back to the audience, the stance of a coward, liar or thief.  Konjuro looks like the victim here for sure.  He's the only one facing the camera.  If I didn't know anything about any of these characters and you showed me this panel I would assume the bad guy has stabbed the good guy in the back while the good guy was trying to help the guy at the bottom right.  Bad, bad storytelling.

Of course, that thrilling moment is followed up by commentary from our favorite Dunmer with malleable features:

Five issues and her snaggle-toothed face is still all over the place.

So Protagonist goes on to explain that when he got the sword he was instantly transported to Atara where a robed figure reveals that he, Protagonist, is the re-embodiment of Rulero, the true ruler of Atara.  And then the robed figure lays it all out for us:  not only is Protagonist Rulero, he's also the avatar of Herminus, the thief from the REAL original Swordquest comics, and his two friends, Dunmer and Other Guy are the avatars for Torr and Tarra, and they have relived the quest for the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery.  So, I guess, somehow Herminus is really Rulero, which makes absolutely no sense at all if you know anything about the original Swordquest comics, but hey, for this slopfest of a story that desperately tries and fails at fan service, sure, why not?  For the record, the lovely wife pointed out the twins thing back in issue #2, though I will admit the Herminus/Thief angle was totally lost on me because Herminus was a clever and conniving character and Protagonist was a mopey loser.  I also figured that Man-Bun would be the avatar of Herminus since they both lost the same eye, but he turns into a minotaur when they go back to Atara, so that opportunity was wasted.  I guess there is some reveal here after all.  It's a miserable reveal, but a reveal nonetheless.

The rest of the issue drones on in it's drab and dreary color wash tones as the group is surrounded by the cops, then Protagonist teleports them all away with his magic sword.  After a brief stop back at his house in Chicago, Protagonist explains that Atara is in trouble and since he's a dying loser on Earth, he may as well go try to set things right there instead of waiting around for the death he deserves.  The twins put up a token resistance and then all decide to go with him and see what adventure awaits.
Ghostwriter X will someday be allowed to use more than three colors.   

So any kind of real, actual fun adventure will happen off panel, after these five miserable issues of whatever this was.  Honestly, looking back on it, if everything that had happened in this mini-series had happened in issue #1, with this splash panel:

as the final page of that issue, this might have had a chance at being a good story.  If we spent 22 pages of setting up a pathetic loser in need of redemption-before-his-death with an opportunity to seek that redemption by living his dream of questing for the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery in a mystical video game realm, and then spent the next four issues telling that tale, we might have had something worth reading.  You could have even given the audience and the main character their ultimate dream of completing the never finished Airworld game (and comic).  But instead we spend five issues with this band of cardboard characters who are completely devoid of substance and end up with a story that I am hopeful I can forget as soon as I publish this blog post.  Seriously, just condense this 5-part story down to it's essence, drop pretty much everything except the idea that your main character needs personal redemption and cannot find it in the real world, then have someone show up to whisk him away to Airworld or wherever to complete the quest.  You'd have four full issues to explore Airworld and complete the quest and maybe have some character development.  Heck you could even work in Torr and Tarra, and Mentorr and Mentarra, and Konjuro, and all of it.  But no.  No.  We get this.  What a slap in the face to the very thing is purports to honor.  After a fun little fantasy story constructed by comic book legends like Gerry Conway and George Perez, we get a rotten egg laid by Chad Bowen and Ghostwriter X, someone who doesn't even want to put their real name on their work.

If there is any parallel here at all between this comic and the original Swordquest games and comic it's that both ended up being colossal disappointments.

Now that this is over, never let us speak of it again.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Learning Curve: 5 Hours with Tombs and Treasure

I never could figure out what this game was.  Based on the initial interface it looked like a Shadowgate style game where you interacted with the world through a window using commands.  But the next series of screens acted more like a world-exploring RPG with a party of characters and turn-based battles. Honestly, every time I popped it in, I rarely got much farther than the first few screens.  It just looked like more than I cared to unpack in a casual gaming session.  Despite its awesome Mayan theming and Mexico setting, it failed to have a really strong hook that pulled me in for more.  That means it is a perfect candidate for the Learning Curve, although in this instance it might be more of an “interest curve” as in, how long will it take for this game to pull me into its world and keep me playing until the end.  Over the next five hours we’ll get the answer to that question.

Hour 1

As previously stated, this game is an amalgam of other game types.  At its core it is very much like Shadowgate or Uninvited.  You interact with the world through a window using commands such as “put,” “use,” and “look.”  Tombs and Treasure (T&T henceforth) even gives you a few commands you use only once or maybe never…  Notwithstanding, the main game is conducted just like that.  However, the window interactions are separated by RPG-esque exploration as you take your team through the Mexican jungle searching out various locations for more interactions.  There is literally nothing you can do during these sequences except roam the world, but it does break things up a bit and creates some nice atmosphere, so I think it’s a nice bonus.

I spent the first hour wandering about the world map to get a general sense of what I was going to be dealing with.  I discovered 3 pyramids, a bunch of wall sections, two lakes (which turn out to be “wells” in this game), a sprawling ancient ball court, and a LOT of jungle.  All in all this game probably has 3 times as many “empty” or useless screens as it does meaningful ones.  That’s just fine when you are trying to create a sense of scale, but it leaves me wanting more of the screens to have something to do in them.  Not a big deal, just means there is a big world out there with lots to find tucked away here and there.
Most of the places I ventured into featured monsters far too strong for me to fight, all of which resulted in my death.  The good news, however, is that death isn’t a big deal in this game.  You pretty much continue from where you left off with no penalty.  Even better, the combat is extremely basic (just use the “fight” command to swing your sword) and you can always run away.  Furthermore, leaving any building or fight instantly recovers all of your health.  From that it’s pretty obvious the combat in this game is more there to serve the story than to provide challenge.  I’m not upset about that in the slightest.
One pyramid was not heavily guarded and I was able to find a secret passage to the crypt of the Hi-Priest.  A tile on his coffin enabled me to open a hidden door in another nearby location, the Castillo Pyramid.  I was successful in defeating a few of the lesser monsters and was rewarded with a literal treasure trove of items.  Oh, what untold adventures they might lead to!  One hour in and I was starting to get hooked.

Hour 2

Wandering about the map with my new inventory of fabulous items, I stumbled across a few locations I had missed during Hour 1.  Indulge me while I backtrack a bit.  Your mission in this game is to locate a missing professor who was lost while studying these ruins.  Your party is made up of the professor’s daughter and Jose, your guide.  The only clues you have come from the professor’s journal which was one of the few things recovered when he went missing.  Why wait to tell you all of this now?  1. I forgot.  2.  Because in the journal the professor mentions a secret path through the forest that lead to something great.  That something great is the voice of Kukulcan.  This is important if you are going to play the game without a walkthrough because the voice imparts wisdom in the form a hint about what to do next in the game.  I would visit this location many times in the next four hours.  T&T is a little bit dense sometimes in being clear where to go or what to do next, so the hints are very helpful.  It was just such a hint that lead to my discovery of an entire structure I missed:  El Caracol!  When I found the Silver Globe, it was hinted that I take it El Caracol.  The problem was, I had not located such a place, nor even knew it existed.  Further exploration would reveal this structure and advance the plot considerably.  It would also lead to an encounter with the game’s most unusual monster:  El Slug.  A slimy green creature that looked a lot like a sheepdog.  Defeating monsters increases your level and basically makes it possible for you to defeat the next monster in the story.  If you cannot beat a given monster it’s because you are taking them on out of order.  With this in mind, I soon found I was able to beat pretty much any of the monsters that had previously been vexing me as long as I took them down in the correct order.  It doesn’t hurt that you can increase the power of your sword by inserting into them the different colored jewels you find.  Ultimately, I was finally able to obtain the Sun Necklace, one of the game’s key items that allows you to know the position of the sun.  This is vital to solving the game’s three main riddles.
All in all, a solid second hour.  By this time I was definitely hooked into the game and it’s world, and very excited to find out what discoveries lay in wait during the next hour of adventure!

Hour 3

The discoveries of the third hour were somewhat less than the second hour had anticipated.  The three main riddles of the game all involved the position of the sun.  You were to locate the censer at dusk, turn the Jaguar into a statue at noon, and drink a shrinking potion at midnight.  All three of these required you to be in the right place at the right time.  I had no luck with the censer or the potion, but I knew where to find the jaguar.  In the Warrior’s Tomb there were three statues:  a girl, a warrior, and a jaguar.  The jaguar statue was drawn differently than the other two so it was obvious that it was going to come to life.  Clues in the game had told me that the jaguar could be tamed (reverted to statue form) by playing the pan pipes (found earlier in the Well of Paradise).  So I went to the Warrior’s Tomb and to my surprise, the jaguar was gone.  Gone, I tell you.  In the wall behind where his statue was perched, I found a small hole.  In the hole was an iron key, but the hole was too small for anyone’s hand to fish it out properly.  A hint was given that a magnet would be useful in such a situation.  Back in the treasure room of Hour 1, I had found a metal rod that was magnetic, however I had already joined that rod to a small bowl found in the same room to make a compass, so it would not be able to help me solve this problem.  (This would prove to be significant later in our tale)  But there was little time to ruminate on this problem as the hour struck noon and the jaguar suddenly appeared in the room before us.  Luckily, this was not a combat situation, just a puzzle.  However, it was during this encounter that I learned another one of the game’s key strategies:  switch characters whenever you aren’t sure what to do.  Turns out the main character is terrible at playing the pan flute, but the girl character is a maverick.  So to tame the jaguar, switch to the girl character and have her use the pipes.  Problem solved, the fearsome cat becomes a statue permanently (another significant act) and the team is able to continue their adventure (at least somewhat…)
With nothing else to do in the Warrior’s Tomb, I decided to explore the other “too tough to beat” part of the game: the Ball Court.  Having defeated the monster in the Warrior’s Tomb I was now strong enough to defeat the monster in the Ball Court as well.  This opened the area up for exploration.  It also introduced me to the first element of the game’s major, major downfall.  You see, in the Ball Court there is a room you can uncover wherein you find the most powerful item in the game, a jewel that significantly weakens demons.  If you remove this jewel from its stand, the door you came through slams behind you forever.  You cannot die, there is no monster to kill you.  All you can do is stand in the room, look at things, and have the game taunt you with too-late hints like “you should have opened another exit before taking the jewel. Better hit reset.” 
That wouldn’t be so bad if hitting reset didn’t mean entering both of your characters’ names and the ridiculously long password just to start over wherever you last obtained your password (passwords can be obtained at any time by looking at the Ixmol Jewel you pick up at the start of the game).  So unless you are in the habit of writing down 32 character passwords before every single action in the game, this means you are going to be doing a LOT of data entry just to trial-and-error your way through some of the game’s more menacing puzzles.  This is a fun killer.  A big one.  After three unsuccessful attempts to obtain the powerful green jewel from the room, each one followed by several minutes of password entry, I decided Hour 3 was over.

Hour 4

I set out in Hour 4 to just leave that stupid jewel alone and come back when I had a better idea of how to defeat the trap.  So instead I headed back out in to the jungle to see if there were more areas I had missed in previous ventures.  I explored everywhere for about 30 minutes and finally decided to seek out the wisdom of Kukulcan to see if that would point me in the right direction.  Turns out there is a second floor in El Caracol that I was not aware of.  Again, if you are stuck for what to do, try switching characters.  Turns out Jose, the guide, is strong, strong enough to move the pedestal in El Caracol to reveal a hidden staircase.  After discovering this, I was able to solve the riddle of the censer and locate the censer itself.  Now I just have to figure out what to do with the censer itself.  The Kukulcan clue about getting the iron key before turning the jaguar into a statue is neither helpful nor encouraging as I still no idea if there is any way to get that iron key since I don’t have the magnetic rod any more, and seeing as to how I had already stoned the jaguar…

Hour 5

I spent 45 minutes of Hour 5 desperately, and ultimately in futility, going about the time-honored tradition of traveling to every location and trying every command with every character with every object, just to see if I could accomplish anything.  I could not.  I did locate the hole that the iron key fits, but without the key this was a hollow discovery (slightly clever pun unintended, but pleasing).  Time was growing short and frustration was mounting, so I did the only thing a person in the modern era can possibly do when faced with such an impasse:  I spent my last 15 minutes searching the internet for a walkthrough that would explain what went wrong.
Remember that iron rod that I used to make a compass back in Hour 1 that seemed like a mistake by Hour 3?  It was.  Not only was it a mistake, it was a game-breaking mistake.  You can never remove the rod from the compass, so once it is joined, the rod is lost to you for the rest of the game.  Which means that if you did what I did, you can never get the iron key.  Not that it would have mattered, because you see, I got the hint about "getting the key before thwarting the jaguar" AFTER I thwarted the jaguar, another game breaking mistake.  Once the jaguar is reverted to statue form, it will never come alive again, meaning that unless you get the key first, you can never complete the game.  
Turns out T&T suffers from at least 5 of these game-breaking mistakes from which there is no return, unless, as I said before, you are writing down 32 character passwords before every single move in the game.
This is no end of frustrating and discouraging.  I completed my five hours with T&T utterly defeated and discouraged.  What had started out as a really fun explorative adventure was ground into utter aggravation by game-breaking mistakes that are way too easy to make.  It doesn’t seem like the game would allow this because it is constantly cautioning you against leaving a room too soon, or grabbing the wrong item.  There are tons of places where the game helps you not screw it completely up, but there are at least 5 times where you can make the game unwinnable by doing something very, very simple.  Maybe if the game had employed a SAVE system like Shadowgate does, these kinds of screw-ups wouldn’t be as galling, but with the massive password system, running into one of these honest mistakes is worthy of the controller throw.
This felt like the mantra for Hours 4 & 5

Final Appraisal:  
Tombs and Treasure is an incredibly fun adventure/puzzle game with a unique take on a classic formula, however it features several game-breaking mistakes you can make that cause the game to be unwinnable.  Furthermore, its cumbersome password feature makes trial-and-error puzzle solving tedious and frustrating.  There is a lot of fun to be had with this game, but the drawbacks for playing it wrong threaten to drain all of the enjoyment right out of it.  If you decide to take the game on, it can be a very rewarding play, just make sure you DO NOT join the rod and the bowl until you enter the maze, DO get the iron key before you freeze the jaguar, DO NOT grab the green jewel until you have two doorways open, and DO NOT take the handle from the Castillo machine.  If you do the converse of any of those things, you are doomed.  You have been warned.

Learning Curve:  
It doesn’t take as long as I thought to get really invested in this game.  It’s a lot of fun, it features a unique setting and theme, and there is a lot to explore.  While the game can be obtuse in telling you exactly what you need to do next, there are plenty of clues and if you learn a few of the games essential mechanics: look at everything, switch characters often, beat enemies in the right order, and avoid the game-breaking mistakes, you will be having a lot of fun in no time.  I would say it took me just over an hour to be fully committed to this game.

Will I Finish It?  
I did.  After Hour 5’s crushing revelations, I decided I would see the end of this game.  So I started a new game and played all the way through avoiding the game-breaking mistakes.  All in all it took me probably an hour and fifteen minutes to beat, knowing already how to complete 3/4 of the game before I started.  As I assumed, it was a very satisfying experience.  Again, this is a great game with a few very serious flaws.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Homebrew of Month: Strat-o-Gems Deluxe

Strat-o-Gems Deluxe
Developer: John Payson

There just weren’t that many great puzzle games for the Atari 2600 back in the day.  I don’t know if puzzle games just weren’t a thing yet, or if people weren’t sure how to execute them on the system, but they just weren’t a thing.  It’s almost like once Tetris hit, everyone in the universe said, “hey, puzzle games have arrived, here’s Pipe Dream, and Puzznic, and Klax, enjoy!” But before that?  Not much.  So it’s really no surprise that a large body of homebrew efforts have been devoted to rectifying this void.  From Tetris 2600 and Edtris to more recent efforts like AStar and Assmebloids, the VCS library is starting to swell with puzzle games, as well it should. Turns out the Atari can handle time-sinking puzzle games just as well as any of the big boys.  Heck, after playing Tetris Party Deluxe on the Wii, I’m pretty sure puzzle games shine best on simpler systems.  Strat-o-Gems Deluxe is a top tier example of how good puzzle games can be on the Atari 2600 (I’m being paid for every time I say “puzzle game” in this review…)

What’s All This Then?

Strat-o-Gems is a falling block puzzler which requires you to match three or more of a given color to clear all of the blocks of that color.  A more standard puzzle game mechanic there isn’t.  Blocks drop in groups of three called “triples.” You can rotate the vertical order of the blocks in the triple as it falls by pressing the button. When you clear blocks, the remaining blocks drop down which can lead to massive, high scoring combos.  Blocks can be cleared vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.  Wild card triples will appear to help you clear up mistakes you make during play and once every 60 triples, you get a "clear all" block that will clear all the blocks of a given color.  You keep playing until the screen fills with blocks that reach the line at the top.  You play as long as you can to get the highest score possible and impress your friends.

How’s it Play?

Beautifully.  All you really want from a puzzle game is smooth piece movement, consistency in the rules, and steady difficulty ramping.  Strat-o-Gems Deluxe delivers on all counts.  It really is a shining example of how great puzzlers can be on a foundational system like the VCS.

Whistles and Bells?

You don’t call a game “Deluxe” unless you’ve packed it with dynamic special features.  The cart features 3 versions of the game:  an NTSC version, a PAL version, and a mini-game version.  The mini-game is a simpler version of the main game with fewer features and some might argue, increased difficulty.  The game also supports the AtariVox add-on which will display an instant replay any time you make a particularly spectacular combo.  AtariVox also allows you to save high scores.  Strat-o-Gems Deluxe has a swanky title screen and fantastic graphics as well as a full color manual that provides some behind-the-scenes insight into the development of the game.

Final Assessment

Strat-o-Gems Deluxe is a (ahem) gem in the VCS collection.  You can never have too many great puzzlers in a video game library and having one as good as this one is icing on the cake.  The game plays perfectly and unlike a lot of similar games, the difficulty wastes no time smacking you in the face.  This keeps the game challenging and engaging and guarantees lots of replay value.  Oh the hours I have spent playing “just one more” game.  If puzzle games aren’t your thing, then this one isn’t for you, otherwise, this is a “must-have” game in any VCS collection.

Tips and Tricks

I wish I had more to tell you here, but I’m not as good at Strat-o-Gems Deluxe as I would like.  However, I will pass along a few fundamentals that seem to help me along:

Don’t Forget the Swap:  I always get busy making combos and totally forget that I can swap the existing triple for the one on deck.  Using this feature early on can set you up for some incredibly high scoring combos and be the key to high scores before the action gets out of control.

Play the Diagonal:  I seem to do much better when I forego horizontal and vertical matches and work the diagonals.  This seems to open up more chain combos and create better opportunities later in the game.

Score Early:  Late in the game there will be little time for working big combos and making the huge scores.  Use the early levels to line up the complex combos that earn the major points.  This will allow you to focus on staying alive in the higher levels.

Keep it Clean:  While it’s important to line up big combos and rack up points, it is equally important to keep the play field as clear as possible.  Once the triples start dropping at faster rates, try to keep your stacks as close to the bottom as possible.  While you won’t score as much, you will have more room to maneuver and avoid mistakes.

Clear All Smartly:  When you get the "clear all" block, be sure you pick a color to clear that will clean up the most space and open up or create the maximum number of combos.  Used smartly, the "clear all" block can save you from certain ruin.

So there you have it!  Strat-o-Gems Deluxe is at the forefront of some great puzzle games for the Atari 2600.  Homebrewers are working hard to fill a long-standing gap in the 2600 library and as long as they are doing it with titles like this, we are all in good hands!

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Learning Curve: 5 Hours with River City Ransom

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

Hour 1:  

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

Hour 2:  

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

Hour 3:

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

Hour 4:

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

Hour 5:  

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

Dating in Hyrule is super easy!

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

Final Appraisal:  

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

Learning Curve:  

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

Will I Finish It?  

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