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!