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


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Titan Axe

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

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

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

How’s It Play?

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

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

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

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


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

Whistles and Bells

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

Final Assessment

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

Tip and Tricks

Be ready to die.  A lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Learning Curve: 5 Hours with Dr. Chaos

I've tried many times to get into this game, but for some reason I cannot seem to crack the learning curve on Dr. Chaos.  No surprise it's another Pony Canyon/FCI effort.  Those folks really know how to get in there and design a deep and complex game that provides a really rewarding experience.  They also seem to need the player to invest heavily to reap the rewards they are sowing.  I've not encountered too many FCI games that didn't require me to really dig in before I was able to get into the groove (I spent untold hours playing Ultima: Exodus and only beat it some 20 years later as an adult...).  So it didn't really seem strange that I was having a hard time making heads or tails of Dr. Chaos.

On the surface it looks like an adventure/platformer, but then you enter one of the doors and it becomes a first person exploration game.  Open yet another door and you are whisked away to another action platforming level.  Initially the adventure levels felt really clunky and death was certain.  To make matters worse, while you could continue infinitely, death meant that you lost all of your accumulated weapons and health and you had to start pretty much from scratch each time.  You only get to keep your main quest items.  This makes early exploration deaths tedious and annoying.

Despite all of that I felt there was a good game in there somewhere.  The premise was cool and the game play was unique enough to make me believe that if I could just devote the time, I might find a really great game just past the learning curve I was bumping into.  It felt like a good game I just couldn't crack, and there were so many other games to play...

So, now it's Dr. Chaos' time to shine.  It's finally going to get the 5 good hours it needs to prove what I suspect.  Let's break it down hour by hour...

Hour 1:

Off to a decent start due to several previous forays into the house.  I kind of know where some of the basic stuff is in the first few rooms, so I have no trouble stocking up on weapons and making it through the first warp zone to collect the first piece of the laser and the warp zone detector.  I've been that successful it the past, but not much further.  I'm able to explore the first few rooms with little issue.  The skeleton ape kicks me out into the hallway a couple of times, but as long as you have your gun, he's little threat.  The one thing that is extremely annoying in the hallway is the rats.  They can run under your knife very easily and then ding you for lots of HP as they scamper about.  Which brings up the main hurdle for me in getting into this game: clunky action-platforming.  Enemies are finicky to hit and often require you to be on the same platform level as they are to successfully hit.  So even if that bat swoops down well within the range of your knife, you still have to jump to be able to hit it.  You should be able to stab that skull as it falls, but no, you have to wait until it lands and is already draining your HP before you can take it out.  These little things take the "action" out of action-platforming, but all is not lost.  On my way to finding the second boss, I had a minor epiphany about this game.  This isn't a romping action-platformer.  It sure looks like one, because it has a lot of the right features, but no.  This game requires patience and nuance.  You can't go blazing through this like it's Ducktales or Demon Sword.  You have to take your time in the platforming areas.  You have to treat each battle, even against a simple hallway rat, as it's own thing.  If you take this on like you're playing Commando, you are doomed.  That isn't how this game works.  You have to take your time.  At least in hour 1, that seems to be the way to handle the combat.
Sadly, that epiphany doesn't make the platform jumping any less aggravating.  If we describe the combat system as "finicky," we can only describe the jumping as absurdly precision based.  There are jumps the warp zones I've been in that require you to be pixel perfect in your positioning in order to clear the gap and land on the next platform.  If you miss, it's a drop and a tedious trek back to the ladder or blocks that get you back up to try the jump again.  I've tried the "take your time" approach with the jumps and it does help, but not every jumping situation in this game gives you time to center your Chi.  Sometimes 3 falling skulls, 2 bats, and 2 winged skeletons are bearing down on you and if you don't make the jump, at least one of them will knock you down to the lower level so you can do it all over again.  I'm still struggling with the jumping.
These things, however, do not indicate that I'm not having fun.  So far I have managed to locate about 6 warp zones and I've learned that I am totally not ready for 5 of them.  I've explored about 80% of the visible house (apparently there is a basement I have not seen yet...).  I've found a place to acquire all of the weapon types.  And I've even defeated a second boss (a little caterpillar looking fellow) and acquired the helmet that lets you breathe underwater.  I feel like I've gotten a lot done for the first hour.
Apart from the tedious platforming and combat, the biggest downfall of the game play thus far is having to totally restock your weapon supply every time you die.  While it doesn't take overlong to do this, it does get repetitive.  And since you die a lot, you can expect to restock a lot.  And never, ever, go into a warp zone without a healthy stockpile of weapons.  Bosses aren't absurdly hard if you have the right weapon and the right strategy, but don't go in to a warp zone without a stockpile.
Overall, the exploration is going well and is a lot of fun.  Looking forward to Hour 2.
Here's the first code for the end of Hour 1, if you want to play along.

Hour 2:

More progress!  Part of the learning curve of this game is just figuring out how to navigate the house. There are lots of secret passages accessible only by punching the walls and those hits need to be pretty precise.  I kept missing one hole because I was only hitting the direct middle and far sides of the wall.  The hole I was looking for was somewhere in between.  Also, if you are looking to punch you way into the attic, you'll need to punch high on the wall to uncover the ladder.  So with that being said, I was able to access the attic and find more warp zones.  In those warp zones I was able to recover two extra health containers!!  This is exciting as I was beginning to worry about having a 99HP cap on my health.  The warp zones are getting tougher and the bosses likewise.  99HP was starting to be insufficient to the task, so finding 2 more health containers and tripling my HP limit was very exciting!!!  I was also able to liberate the high jump boots, which will greatly increase my access to previously inaccessible warp zones.  One very important thing I have learned in this hour is that fish are brutally annoying enemies.  As previously stated about the combat system in this game, when battling the fish, the persnickety nature is particularly obvious.  Shooting fish?  No problem, but you don't want to waste all of your precious ammo on low level common enemies, when you are sure to need it for the bigger baddies and likely the boss.  So that leaves the knife, an honorable weapon no doubt, and the bane of rats and bats alike, but agains the fish, well...  Let's just say that the fish are quick and can evade the knife in close quarters far better than the rat.  You really need to strike at the fish before it comes into range and let it run into the blade.  If you wait and try to strike when the fish is close enough, it's already too close and you are hit.  What's worse, because you are in the water, you float and likely bump into another fish, or back into the same fish, over and over.  So stock up on bullets and prepare to blast your way through, or brush up on your knife skills.  Fish are the aggravation catch of the day!
I'm strongly considering making a map.  Even though the house isn't huge, there are 11 warp zones to find and once found it would be nice to be able to get back to them with ease.  Luckily for me I happen to own a map of the house already.  For those of you who didn't grow up with Nintendo Power kind of money, you may recall a little, barely licensed, monthly strategy guide called the Player's Strategy Guide to Nintendo Games.  This publication was much like something your shady Uncle Terry might have published out of his garage from games he had access to from his job at the Video Vender.  But, for those of us with discount childhoods, these mags were as good as gold.  Why am I going on about this?  Because in a issue of the Player's Guide I owned as a kid, they have a map of the Dr. Chaos house!  Their tips and secrets are of the most superficial and miserable kind (thanks of the "in depth" map of the first warp zone, which is the easiest and is just a straight line), but the map itself is just fine for what I need.  So I'll likely be working on that going forward, just to keep from going in circles as I get closer to the end.

"No way" door?  That's just a door you can't go through.  Not a huge help.
Finally a PRO TIP that it took me two hours to discover:  Pressing up while in a room will cause you to turn around.  Up to this point, I've been turning circles by pressing right or left and cycling through the four cardinal directions, but thanks to this fabulous discovery, I can now turn around and leave a room the way I came in just by pressing up.  Seems minor, but I promise it's a big help!
So two hours down, 5 warp zones cleared and I'm enjoying this game more and more!

Hour 3:

I really hope I am able to beat this game within the 5 hours I have devoted to it.  If not, I will most likely finish it regardless based on the amount of fun I am having now that I am passed the learning curve for getting into it.
More progress this hour!  I've found ways to access every part of the house, I think.  I can get to all rooms in the attic and basement now and have found 3 more warp zones.  I managed to beat a buzzy beetle looking boss to gain the vest (which cuts down dramatically on HP loss) and I got my butt handed to me by a flaming lion boss and a boss that is just a skull surrounded by a ball of bones.  This game is not lacking in the creative boss design category.  I am getting better at hallway combat, but the winged bone monsters in the warp zones are plaguing me something terrible.  Their movements are just too erratic and they always seem to dodge my shots.  House exploration, one of the initial hurdles in the learning curve, is now a snap.  Room layouts and access are all totally logical and that makes it easy to figure out how to access areas like the basement and the attic.  If an attic room is directly above a room on the second floor, chances are very good that punching the north wall in that room will reveal a ladder.  Likewise, if you want to try to access a room next to the one your are in, punched on a western or eastern wall generally grants passage.  The only big drawback remains the need to reload your weapon and health supply upon death, but that is only a minor annoyance at this point.  I did pick up a green health vial in the boss room with the bone boss, but I am not sure what it does.   I've got 6 pieces of the super weapon and have explored the entire house.  I think that puts me roughly half way to the end.  We'll find out more next hour!
Super Cool Boss Gallery! 

Hour 4:

The success continues!  I managed to take out a few more bosses this time around including the bone boss. The green vial (of which I picked up another in a different boss room) restores all health and is probably very helpful in some of these tougher boss battles.  It is likely a mistake that I rush into the room and grab it right away, but you live, you learn.  My map is pretty complete at this point and I find that apart from pinpointing the location of the warp zones, I don't need it too much.  It is helpful in remembering which rooms grant access to the attic or basement, but apart from that, house navigation has become very easy.  Basement or attic access is always found by punching on the North screen.  Access to other rooms is always on an East or West screen as mentioned in Hour 3.  South screens are pretty much just how you get back to the hallway.  I took out a trilobite boss and got another health vial brining me up to what I assume is the maximum 4 health containers.  And I discovered a new, and deadly boss that looks a lot like the White Dragons from Castlevania.  However with this menace, if you miss the head and hit the body, he breaks apart and spawns a second head, and now you have two white dragons flying around.  Not fun.  This boss will take some strategy.  I am also convinced the flaming lion head boss is the final boss.  The only weapon that hurts him is the knife and once you stab him with it he begins shooting fireballs out of his mouth effectively preventing you from stabbing him again.  Taking this guy out must be the use of the super weapon, but I guess we will see.  As it stands, I only have one piece of the weapon yet to acquire and I assume the White Dragon boss has it.  So next hour,  I'll have to stock up, strategize and take him down, then see if my hunch is right about that flaming lion...

Hour 5:

Turns out the White Dragon boss isn't so tough if you take your time and try not to hit his body segments.  I managed to split him into 4 parts (instead of 6 or 8 as previously) and just concentrate on one head at a time, and he was down in no time!  Laser cannon assembled!  That only leaves the Fire-breathing Lion.  The final showdown took three tries.  The first to confirm my suspicions.  Turns out when you stab him in the face and activate him, your weapon automatically becomes the Laser Cannon and you just battle it out from there.  It took a second try to work out the pattern of his fireball barrage, and on the third try he was defeated!  Dr. Ginn Chaos was restored and the warp zone peril was ended!

Final Appraisal:
Dr. Chaos is a really great game.  I am sorely disappointed that I didn't take the time to overcome the learning curve years ago, as it is clear I have been missing out on one of the NES's hidden gems.  With diverse gameplay and a moderate difficulty level, this game really hits the sweet spot between challenge and accessibility.  It is obvious the problem all along was me.

Learning Curve:
Based on my experience above maybe 1.5 hours.  It takes a little while to get used to the side-scrolling adventure action and house navigation, but once you understand a few things (pay attention to my pro tips and discoveries above) you should be exploring and having a good time in short order.  Only the recollection of items after your death proves to be annoying, but only minimally so.

Will I Finish It?
I did!  And there is a good chance I'll play it through again in the future.  It's a lot of fun and when you know what you're doing it probably only takes an hour or two to beat.

So there you have it!  The Learning Curve has proven successful in only it's second time out!  Dr. Chaos is a great game and I strongly recommend it!  Don't let the short learning curve keep you from having a great time exploring this underrated NES game!  What to play next...

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Juno First

Juno First
Developer: Chris Walton

What's All This Then?

When this game launched it was the biggest thing since sliced bread and it has remained one of the most lauded homebrews in the every growing 2600 library.  Somehow I missed it back then.  I think I was already covered up in some really great shooters, games like Backfire and Seawolf, and I wasn't quite ready to add another one to my rotation.  But the roar of the crowd indicated that I had missed the boat.  So Homebrew of the Month is giving me a chance to make up for lost time and find out what all the cool kids were going on about.

Juno First is a straight-on classic shooter.  The game is just fine without a story behind it, but for those that like to be immersed, the plot is also a classic.  The Earth is under assault and the only thing standing between it and annihilation is you, the Juno Colony.  Just a handful of ships must fend off endless waves of enemy invaders or all is lost.  Jump in the cockpit and go!

As stated, the game is a traditional vertical shooter with your ship at the bottom of the screen and enemy ships pouring in from the top.  Since the action takes place on the surface of a planet, Juno Colony, the screen scrolls the same as in games like Solaris.  This means, based on your speed, you can control the appearance and distance of the enemy ships.  You can slowly scroll and pick them off one or two at a time, or you can try blazing through the ranks taking out as many as you can in the scrum.  The game is broken up into waves, giving you a slight break in the action to collect your wits before you are thrown back into the fray.  Waves are characterized by the variety of ships that appear and the formations they fly in.  Once per wave you have the opportunity to blast an enemy ship and rescue an astronaut.  If you are successful in this, then you enter hyperspace, a brief period when enemy ships cannot fire and you get bonus points for each you destroy.  As you progress, the waves get longer and significantly harder.  The "longer" part of that statement is important because you have a limited amount of fuel per wave with which to eliminate the enemy and there is no refueling.  So you'll need to hone your aim and be prepared to make a few daring sweeps to progress in the higher levels.  And that's it.  That's all you need to know to get going on your first Juno First adventure!

What you'll need to know on your second Juno First adventure is how to be really, really good at shooting games.  Juno First will put all of your shooting prowess to the test, and it will do so quickly. I've been playing this game for a month and I'm lucky to see waves in the double digits.  I'm not the world's greatest shooter player, but I'm far from a slouch, and this game is tough.  My Achille's heel is the ability to control the scroll.  It takes everything I have to resist the urge to just plow through the enemy waves blasting like the Kool-Aid man on his way to a parched picnic.  Because that's where the fun is, right?  Zooming through space, blowing away aliens left and right, racking up huge points.  But in Juno First, that is the recipe for disaster and an early Game Over.  This is the kind of shooter where the action is going to be frantic, no matter how fast you fly through it, so take your time and make every shot count.  Of course, don't take too much time, because that fuel meter is counting down, but don't think you can just zip your way through this game like it's Space Jockey.

How's it Play?

But is it any fun?  Sometimes games that are very simple can be brutally difficult and that can easily suck the fun right out.  Fortunately, Juno First has earned it's reputation as being one of the top shooters, and maybe homebrews, for the Atari 2600.  The game is fun.  Lots of fun.  And it definitely has bucket loads of "just one more game" appeal.  When you first start playing it's a lot of fun to see what the next wave has in store for you. As you get better and better the challenge becomes clearing waves in record time and scoring as many points as possible during hypespace.  But no matter what skill level you possess there is a lot here to like.  Best of all, the game is totally pick-up-and-play, so even novice gamers can jump right in and enjoy the fun.

Whistles and Bells

Juno First features top notch graphics for the VCS.  Crisp and clean sprites for the player and enemy ships and scrolling horizon lines give the game sleek look.  The scoring and fuel displays are unobtrusive and easy to read.  Juno First features a swanky title screen that lists the scoring table for enemy ships, reminiscent of classic arcade games.  There are two modes for firing: autofire and rapidfire.  Autofire is fairly self-explanatory, Rapidfire allows you to shoot much faster, but requires a recharge every five shots to allow your laser cannon to cool off.  I prefer the autofire, but I'm willing to bet there is a trick to using the rapidfire to really tally up the bananas.  Juno First also allows you to continue at the level in which you perished.  This can be helpful at higher levels, giving you a chance to practice before your next scoring run.  Finally, Juno First is one of the those fancy games that takes advantage of AtariVox and SaveKey features so you can save your high scores and hear some "chatter" from the alien ships. These are really sweet features that truly move VCS games into the modern era.  Juno First also features a nice, full color manual with art by Dave Dries.

Final Assessment

Juno First truly belongs in every Atari 2600 fan's library.  It's a pure shooter with lots of action, challenge, and replayability.  The difficulty isn't so great that novice players will be discouraged and it ramps at a good pace for more advanced players.  I foresee it getting a lot of play in the future in my house.  I can strongly recommend this game to pretty much anyone who likes shooting games and it might even convert a few who don't.

Tips and Tricks

I wish I had more to give you in this department, but honestly I still feel like an amateur.  So here's what I can tell you thus far:

Don't Waste Hyperspace.  It can be easy to get busy blasting aliens and forget to rescue that astronaut. But once he or she scrolls off the screen, your chance at hyperspace goes with him/her.  Make sure you slow down long enough to rescue the astronaut and engage hyperspace.

Hyperspace Clean-Up.  I find that hyperspace is a great opportunity to clean up any stray ships or clear space to get ready for the remainder of the ships in a wave.  I generally speed up a little when in hyperspace so I can take out as many ships as possible, not just for the bonus points, but also for the reasons previously listed.  Hyperspace also gives you a breather because the enemy ships can't shoot.

Slow and Steady.  Really does win the race.  As I said before, trying zoom through will end your game very quickly.  Find a scroll pace that fits your style of play and stick with it.  Don't try to go faster than you can reliably take out enemy ships without crashing.  The fuel gauge is an impending fate, but you are more likely to die from crashing or getting shot than running out of fuel.

Invincible Respawn.  As the manual will tell you, when your ship respawns it will be invulnerable for a few seconds, yet firing will immediately cancel your invincibility.  Take advantage of this brief window to scroll your way to a clear spot before you start blasting away again.  At higher levels the screen gets crowded quickly and this might be your only chance to find a break in the action from which to start fresh.

Stay Sharp!  Higher levels introduce new and more deadly kinds of aliens.  Don't get so consumed with extra-terrestrial carnage that you fail to notice a new kind of baddie that is consistently handing you your butt.  Once things like homing missiles enter the game your strategy is going to need to be tweaked.

So there you have it.  Do you have what it takes to lead the Juno Colony to victory? There's only one way to find out!

See you next month when we'll switch gears completely and have a look at a different kind of VCS game:  Titan Axe!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Atari 2600 Homebrew Project Tracker

There are so many incredible games being developed for the Atari 2600.  40 years old and going strong, there are more games in production for this classic system than we have seen since the Great Crash of '83.  Keeping track of what is going on in the exploding homebrew community can be a daunting task.  There are lots of new developers jumping into the game and technology like the batariBasic programming platform are making it easier than ever to create high quality, fun games.  It feels like someone is announcing something on a weekly basis, whether it's a great idea, a work in progress, a beta candidate ready for public testing, or even a cartridge release.  There is always something going on!  A very exciting time to be a fan of the VCS!!

But, as I said, keeping track of everything that is going on is a big job.  I'm here to try to make that job a little bit easier.  It is the goal of this Project Tracker to keep abreast of all games in development for the Atari 2600.  This Tracker will monitor the progress of announced games in development and update regularly as the status of the progress changes.  To make things a little bit easier, as many games have been announced, worked into development, then shelved or progress just tapered off, I have decided to start this tracker with games that have begun development as of Jan. 1, 2017.  I realize this will cause a lot of games that have been long workshopped to slip through my net, but I will happily rectify those cases as they are brought to my attention so that they can be tracked.  Anything already in development prior to Jan.1 will be on my radar, but not updated on the Tracker.

As things progress, I will update the status of each game according to where they are in the process.  I'll be working out the proper classifications for things as we go along so bear with me.  As games are completed and/or released, I will move those projects to the end of the tracker to be moved off at the end of the year (I'll likely do some kind of Year in Review as well).

If you have a game you are developing or know of someone who does, please contact me with information pertinent to this tracker.  I'll work on setting up an email address for that purpose as well. For now you can drop me a message at my facebook page or in the notes section at the bottom of the Tracker.  If you are a game developer and want to update your game's status, or change any information presented on this tracker, that would be exceptional.  Just drop me a message with your name, the name of your game and its updated status. If, for some reason, you are developing a game and you do NOT want your game listed on this Tracker, that's ok too. Just drop me a request asking for its removal and we'll just act like it never happened.  This is a project to help support the community and raise awareness, that's all.

So without further ado, let's take a look, in no real particular order, at the games currently in development for the Atari 2600:

(Titles are always the working title and will change as necessary.  All developer names are the names I have been able to pull from my sources, usually Atariage ID's or personal names.  Descriptions are all written by me, pics when provided or when ROM available.)

LAST UPDATE: 7.10.17

Developer: Robot 2600
Description: Hack into the system and rack up points, but look out for rival hackers!

T.R.A.S.H. (NEW 6.25.17)
Developer: WizardBone
Description: Clean up the streets by collecting garbage and thwarting mutated monsters.

Developer: VGAGuy
Description:  Navigate narrow tunnels and conserve your fuel supply.  Pick up extra fuel to keep the adventure going.

Developer:  Gray West
Description:  This is a game originally started in 2015.  Get your spies to the detonator and take out that lighthouse, but if you get caught in the light, it's lights out for you.  Lights.  Also, bad guys shoot at you.

Developer: atari2600land
Description:  Germs are trying to infect your hairy leg and you must stop them.

Developer: boski
Description:  Experience the irritation of circumnavigating traffic roundabouts in the comfort of your own home and earn points!

Developer: bjbest
Description:  Guide a wayward Space Cactus home, braving canyons full of deadly bandits who hate anthropomorphized cacti.

Developer: ultima
Description:  An action-RPG based on Norse legend.  Find the mystic sword and avert Ragnarok!

Developer: Philsan
Description: We're finally going back to the moon.  See if you have what it takes to touchdown on the moon's surface.

Developer: The Maxx
Description:  The incredible Wumpus hunt comes to life on the VCS!

Developer:  Michael Brown
Description:  Vicious vandals have broken into your plush mansion and are ransacking the place.  Protect your treasures and take out the bad guys while seeking safety in your strategically placed panic rooms.

Developer: Jinroh
Description:  The Adventures of an adorable Cat Girl as she traverses the dangerous Carrot Kingdom.

Developer: David Weavil
Description:  The sequel to the instant classic, Dungeon.

Developer: mojofltr
Description: Previously MINE DIG, the game has been revised with theming from the movie Tremors.

Developer: nanochess
Description:  A port of the Commodore and Atari 8-bit classic!

Developer: TheMajorHavoc
Description:  Dungeon crawler/RPG

Developer: The Maxx
Description:  Skateboarding peril!  Navigate danger filled streets and grab low hanging fruit.  Watch out for the cops!

Developer: Kylearan
Description:  A port of the Amiga and Commodore classic

Developer: TheMajorHavoc
Description: First person shooter inspired by Berzerk!

Developer: Mountain King
Description:  You and your bird friend search for survivors after a great blizzard.

Developer: Lillapojkenpaon
Description: Twin stick shooter (will require special controller) puts you against evil robots as you slide along a center rail.

Developer: splendidnut
Description: A brilliant remake of Burgertime.

Developer: tschak909
Description: It's one-on-one dodgeball action for the your VCS.

Developer: atari2600land
Description:  Waffles and Pretzels are coming at you from all sides.  Dodge waffles and shoot the pretzels in this 2K arcade game.

Developer: Ben Larson
Description: Adventure platformer following the trials of a Panda as he attempts to rescue his brother.

PArsec (UPDATE 3.26.17)
Developer: hloberg
Description: A port of the TI-99 game.

Description:  Demake of the popular Unreal Tournament game for the Atari 2600.

Developer: The Maxx
Description:  Flap about, grab the eggs, but avoid the spikes.


Developer: atari2600land
Description:  Avoid the celery and roast the on coming Vegans in this 2K arcade game.

This tracker will be updated at minimum weekly when there are things to report.  Updates will be noted with a date of the most recent information for that game.  Again, if you know of a game I missed (and there are likely plenty) please let me know!