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.

BUT


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?

2 comments:

  1. To bad the author of this game is a total psycho. Not only is he now banned from the AtariAge forums but this Titan Axe game has also been removed from the AtariAge store due to his insane online threats to others in the Online Atari Community as well as the people in his real life. All of this was posted to his online blog and it was one mindblowing manifesto of garbage.

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  2. Yeah, things really went downhill fast for him there. Not sure what happened, but it got ugly fast. Shame.

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