Played and beat a very nice NES game the last few days: Solomon's Key 2 known in the US as Fire 'n Ice. It's an action-puzzle game of the "one screen puzzle", "grid based puzzle" and "control a character within the puzzle" type. 99% of it is also not time sensitive as, after any action that set things in motion, everything is resolved before you regain control of the character. In a handful of levels though there are moving enemies you have to dodge and in a few others, the puzzle is about 2 screens high and it scrolls automatically in an infinite loop (so you have to hurry to not get caught by the greatest 8 bit video game killer: the bottom of the screen). The goal of the puzzle is to extinguish all the fires in each level (or in some rare occasion kill all enemies), by dropping or sliding ice cubes on them. The wizard character we play is able to move left and right, drop off ledges, climb up one tile high walls, push single ice blocks and create or destroy ice blocks in front and below him (notice the lack of jump! height and movement management are key!). As is often the case in such games, action that are performed with the same input have a priority list, so, for instance, if you move toward a single isolated ice cube, you will push it, not climb on it. Obviously, it's this type of problem that make the core of the puzzles. The ability to create and destroy ice allows for a much greater control over the situations than in games were you can only manipulate a set quantity of items (like in a Sokoban, a Snakebird or Stephen's Sausage Roll - also known as the best puzzle game ever). Because of it, the player can wander off the right path and still recover from it providing some critical blunders have not been done. This is a very pleasant feeling and not a too common one in a puzzle game to get confused mid way through resolving a problem and nevertheless manage to solve it after cleaning the mess you made!
This design choice came at the cost of two things. The first is that there is no "undo". I guess the devs decided the character was powerful enough for the players to get punished if they screw up or fail to plan ahead (and it's not really a problem as the huge majority of the levels can be solved in under a minute). The other is that it makes it pretty difficult to design puzzle that take into account all what the character can do. In several occasions I really feel like I cheese'd my way out of problems in ways that the devs failed to account for. These are very minors issues for a game that offers 100 pleasant levels. With only a dozen of trivial "tutarial-ish" ones, the meat to fat ratio is pretty good. I found most puzzles rather easy, but still entertaining, with a handful of harder ones and only a couple that made me struggle (struggling on a puzzle though is often caused by brain farts rather than level design, usually by erroneously discarding a possibility). If that was not enough content for you, after beating the game a secret post credit screen tells you a code to do on the title screen to access another 50 levels! Truth be told, after trying a bunch of them, they feel more like the video game equivalent of "deleted scenes" than extra content. Most were trivial or tedious, so not keeping them for the final game was the right choice.
In these retro games mentioned in this thread, it's obvious some aged better than others, be it for technical, game design or even thematic reasons. Released in 1992 (26 years ago dudes....) Solomon's Key 2 has hardly any grey hair. The game design and level design are tight (you even get quality of life elements like being able to play the puzzles in any order you want), the presentation is obviously not stellar as it's still a NES game, but the tile based design and stylized character are very clean and aged gracefully and the little narrative cut scenes are charming. The game only really shows its age with its lengthy passwords system! Honestly, with a save system and slight visual and audio touch up, this game could be released tomorrow and still be great. At least for puzzle games fan!
So.... I did a little sorting of the NES game I have still to play, put the sport games aside (sorry Bennett Foddy!) and removed some doubles.... still, almost 40 games are left. Some are pretty scary as they are notoriously hard (Ghost n' Goblins, Battletoads) and some are scary because they are probably pretty bad or lame. I explored this last section with a bit of Lunar Pool, a pool game that has two originalities: there are 60 table configurations and you can adjust the friction (you can even bring it down to zero, which is pretty dumb as just about any shot ends up with almost endless bouncing - 'almost', because the white invariably ends in a pocket for a fault...). Single player is super dull. Single player vs computer is even duller as the AI is non existent, attempting silly shots and at time making even sillier ones... In many billiard games, when preparing your shot you have a ghost ball or a trajectory indicator and sometime you even have info about what the ball you will hit will do. Here, you only have a trajectory indicator without bounces taken into account, so with pixelized low resolution graphics, trying to anticipate where the balls will go after hitting a shot is an exercise in futility... Also, you can adjust power, but not effects, making it extremely lame for a billiard game as in all real life variants (especially snooker), the name of the game is cue ball control.
I dug deeper in the lame mine with Home Alone 2, an action platformer based on the movie of the same name starring Macaulay Culkin. This game should be a mandatory study for all game design schools as an example of all the many ways you can fail at turning decent ideas into a decent game. This game fails at feedback, at patterns, at telegraphing, at internal consistency, at causality... it's a trainwreck. It is playable though, so, against my better judgement or maybe pushed by some morbid curiosity, I soldiered through the whole thing (with the help of a guide and let's play videos). Luckily, it's not a very long game, because there are no continues and a number of ways to instantly die.
I played all 32 levels of Ice Climber (certainly not in one credit though) and will write something about it later, but I just wanted to brag because I landed the plane in Top Gun on my 2nd attempt and don't get what the fuzz was all about
To be fair, somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered reading a comment or watching a video about these landing sequences and the critical hint was: ignore what you see, just follow the instructions! We'll see tomorrow if that was beginner's luck or if I can do it somewhat consistently.... I hope I can, because the game has 4 missions, which means 4 landings and it also has 3 lives and no credits, so ya better stick dem landings Maverick!
So, Ice Climber. This is one of the "black box" game released by Nintendo alongside the NES in Europe and the US. The game is a lot more known in Europe, because, for a while, it was bundled with the console and, during that period, in just about every toy stores and department stores it was the game on demo. It is a pretty simple game (which is not surprising for a game released 1985) and even if it was first created for the NES, it definitely has an early arcade game vibe to it. You play as an eskimo with a mallet trying to climb a "mountain".... I put it in quotes, because each of the 32 levels is really just eight floors followed by a bonus section of pure platforming. The idea is that you go from layer to layer by jumping with your mallet to hit and break the icy ceiling/floor, creating gaps you can then jump through. To make things tougher, some yeti-like characters are patrolling the layers trying to fix the holes they find, birds (those perennial video game jerks) fly around, icicles slowly form and fall, some floors/ceiling are unbreakable, some are replaced by moving clouds of various speed and size you can use as platforms, some walls restrict your movements on the floors, and while in general the ground is somewhat slippery, some floors can be replaced by conveyor belts that come in different speeds. Oh and of course, the game scrolls up layer by layer and the bottom of the screen is lethal.
In the upper part of the levels (the bonus area), no yeti, no bird, no icicle, no breakable anything, just some platforms and moving clouds, some vegetables to collect for points and a 40 sec timer during which you need to climb to the top and grab a flying condor (at this point it is important to not try to make sense of any of this). If you fall to your death or run out of time during the bonus section, you don't actually lose a life, but miss out on all these sweet sweet points you really want because it's an early '80s arcade game so it's all about the high score baby! When you beat stage 32, you reach stage 33 which is just stage 1 with a new fancy number and so the game loops infinitely as far as I know. Since you can chose on which level to start, beating all 32 of them is not that hard (also because the designers showed admirable restraint: making almost impossible levels would have been pretty easy with their tool set). Beating them all in one credit though.... good luck on that.
The game is pretty pleasant to play, but I would say it suffers from two design problems. The first is that, for a platforming game, the mechanisms are surprisingly janky. The amount of running for a jump to register as a running jump (that goes reasonably far forward instead of almost not) is more than you would think. The momentum of the character is often surprising. When hitting walls while jumping, you bounce off them.... Add conveyor belts and moving platforms that impart momentum to the character and mastering the movement in this game is not the most intuitive thing. To make things worse (but still playable), you never know if you are going to land on the edge of a platform or fall through it. In the same way, you, at times, go through the edges of the clouds when jumping on them, but, at other times, you miserably bonk your head... I am not sure if those problems are the result of an attempt to make the platforming smoother with special code for edge cases, but it's a bit perplexing if not frustrating.
The second design issue is a bit weird... it's the fact the winning strategy is often waiting. You see, when you have a ceiling full of holes and tiny platforms above you and are on a floor full of gaps you might fall through, waiting for the yetis to go back and forth and fix it all makes things dramatically easier. Suddenly you can't die by falling and you have more room to land and stay on the floor above. So yeah, in later levels you wait a lot while the enemies work for you. The game tries to counteract this strategy with a big bear that appears after a while and who jumps in place, making the whole level scroll up by a layer. A neat idea, but the bear arrives after too long and I don't think I ever died to his shenanigans. It's often a problem when the path of least resistance is not that exciting. See: camping in EverQuest or my future post about Top Gun.... (counter-examples: the Souls games).
I am not sure for Afterburner, but it's almost a yes for Top Gun. That 'almost' makes all the difference: nothing like getting bored to tears for five minutes only to die anyway! More on that later....
We are pleased to report the iranian space shuttle has been destroyed.... wait what? You see, in Top Gun the film, Maverick actually downs 3 MIG fighters in the only actual combat mission of the story. In Top Gun the NES video game, you do that within the first 10 seconds of gameplay so... yeah... the only things Top Gun here are that you pilot a plane in the navy and you get a 8-bit rendition of the famous musical theme of the movie. A lot of money must have went in the rights for the Top Gun name, logo and music, because not much is left for the game.
The game is a pseudo flight simulator. The top half of the screen is the cockpit view and the bottom half is the cockpit, with a radar, info about your speed and altitude, remaining missiles (before each mission you pick one of three missile types), fuel and 'health'. It's not uncommon for games of that era to have big chunks of the screen used by a mostly static UI to lighten the graphic work load. This is a pseudo flight simulator, because you don't actually freely fly a plane in a space. It's more like a rail shooter, so you get set encounters based on a timer, but you can adjust the direction you look at and the game will adjust the trajectory of the enemies accordingly, sorta. No barrel roll, no looping, no Immelmann here. Only look right, look left, look up (by pushing down flight stick style)
, look down, A button to shoot your gun, B button to lock and then fire missiles. Bare bone stuff. In fact, this is so bare bone that you also don't get any music during combat missions and also, no pause button (it's unclear to me if it's a strange oversight, a technical limitation because of the way the game is coded or a pretty mean design decision - the Souls games, again!).
While rudimentary, the system kinda works and there is something satisfying about tracking and gunning down enemy planes (there is a nice friction here, because the more you look off center, the more the camera wants to look back to the center, a bit like a rubber band trying to pull it back, so the camera movement is not linear, but sorta logarithmic), getting rid of people on our 6 (this is materialized by an alert on the radar and you have to do some left and right to stop being tailed - I guess you get shot down if you don't break the tail, but it never happened to me!), shooting down or dodging incoming missiles or seeing gun fire whiz past you.
To add flavor to the combat phases, each mission ends with an infamous landing sequence and the middle point of missions 2, 3 and 4 have an in-flight refueling sequence. Both kinda work on the same principle: you need to do the right thing by following commands given to you on the radar (Speed up! Left! Right! etc). The refueling is pretty trivial (do what you are told and you end up winning before running out of fuel), but the landing is a lot trickier, because at the end of the sequence you are supposed to go toward the right direction and be in the ballpark of the right altitude and speed. Also, depending of the inclination of the plane, the speed and altitude affect each other differently. These correlations and the fact only one order can be given on the radar at a time can lead to very frustrating situations were you still crash even if you follow the prompts... fun times. When you get how it works though, you land the plane most of the time, but it still remains a nerve wracking experience... so I guess it's good?
This all would be pretty cool if it was not for a pretty big problem with the game: it is ridiculously hard if you try to play it honestly. You have a total of three lives to beat the game. Fail a landing? Here goes one life. Get hit by one of the dozens of rockets fired at you because it somehow tracked you despite your attempt at dodging it or because inexplicably your bullets missed it? Here goes another life. Get hit 4 times by gunfire during a mission? Down you go.... Oh and level 2, 3 and 4 end with boss battles where you need to kill a static ground target that vomits missiles at you while planes shoot at you, so you better reach those with a lot of hp or going down is a real possibility.... I suspect that to win the game honestly, you need to memorize and anticipate the whole script of the levels (and those are pretty damn long and, unlike a typical rail shooter, you don't have visual cues to help with the memorization). So yeah, you need to cheese it.
The cheese is simple: if you can't see it, it can't hurt you. Pull that flight stick as hard as you can, and all those destroyers and submarines and AA batteries become inefficient. Slide it left or right as hard as you can and 90% of the enemy planes will fly past you and miss you with their guns and missiles.... This is reminiscent of another '80s film: WarGames. "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play." Obviously, 'playing' like this is not fun, a bit painful (remember there is no pause, so you are pressing that D pad diagonal for minutes) and it's till possible to die! You can die in boss fights, you can die in landing sequences, you can die because some planes here and there still manage to fire a rocket at you, you can die because you still have to break tails and when you maneuver to do that, you are exposed to enemy fire and rockets.... So yeah, the madness of this game is that even with cheese that cut out most of the content, it's still tense as heck and still feel like an achievement when you beat the game (because yes even with the cheese it took me several tries and boy are you not happy when you fail to shoot down that lone rocket after 15 minutes of pressing the D pad like an idiot...).
Family is in town and went Black Friday shopping and finally grabbed a Snes Classic. Wow, the nostalgic 90's "feelz" are all over again, my wife, sister in law and brother in law have been playing non-stop. I will have to Google, but I have been told they are pretty easy to flash and throw on 300+ ROM games.
Over the last few week I played through Shenmue with a friend with the recent PS4 remaster. If you try it, be sure to patch it, because without the patch the sound is totally messed up. The voices and music are totally drowned out by the sound effect so you have to aggressively correct the mixing in the option and from time to time we would get sounds looping infinitely.... The patch corrects all this, but the sampling of the voices (at least for the japanese version) is pretty dreadful. I have yet to check my Dreamcast version, but I certainly did not remember it being that bad. I am ok with voices being a bit grainy because of heavy compression (the game after all had hours of dubbed lines), but there is a little kid in particular that is so heavily saturated it's impossible to understand how this could have went through a production chain and end in our poor innocent ears!
Anyway.... for those who were not there in the past 19 years, Shenmue is an action-adventure game released originally on Dreamcast in 1999. It was extremely ambitious and innovating at the time as it's basically a rudimentary yet "realistic" murder investigation done by the teenage son of the victim. "Realism" is a loaded notion, but lets use it as something in a fiction (here, in a video game) that gives us the feeling it could have happened in our everyday life. It something that lies both in the details and the mundane, but gives it all a particular texture and stakes that suddenly feel higher and more palpable than tales where "realism" is abandoned. In Shenmue, this effect is obtain in many ways. It's the meticulous 3D modelization of the places and the characters, it's having voice acting for every single line uttered by every single the character, it's having a neighborhood where every single inhabitant has her or his daily routine, it's having an investigation that starts by asking your neighbors if they saw a black car the night your father died, it's finding a blue collar job as a forklift driver at the docks to get near a local gang established there, it's having to kill time for a day when you have an appointment tomorrow at 4 p.m. etc, etc, etc.
Even if mechanically, progressing the story feels like a long fetch quest chain that is not very complex and not a brilliant story to boot, things go smoothly and pleasantly (with the possible exceptions of the clunky movement and taming the camera, especially in inspection mode - you can zoom in on many objects and then grab them and inspect them). On the action front, things are a little more dubious. You get the infamous QTE (Quick Timer Events!) with the random button prompts during cinematic sequences (those require a surprisingly good reaction time compared to their many heirs), some minimalist driving sequences and an absurdly deep free fight engine. Think Virtua Fighter, except with more moves, some chained moves, lateral movement and a move based experience system.... The depth and complexity of the system is made that much more absurd by the fact you can cruise through 90% of the game by only scratching the surface of the fighting system and that you can probably count the fighting sequences on your hands. So instead of starting like wimp and slowly turning into a badass through unlocking new skills and making sure the player get to use them, you supposedly start as a badass, but you certainly do not feel like one, cheesing just about every fight you can!
An aspect of the game that I did not notice when I played the game for a bit back in 2000 is how cosmopolitan it is. By and large, Japan is a monoculture, but in this game, without it being explicated other than being set in a town that is near a harbor, is packed full of chinese and americans, both friends and foes, and even the japanese characters are well traveled or versed in foreign cultures. Your father lived in China, your girlfriend has family in Canada, the mysterious chinese killer is fleeing to Hong Kong, the little city has a pizzeria, a hot dog stand manned by a japanese-american in dreadlocks and his black girlfriend, etc, etc. Needless to say that the original voice acting suffers greatly from this idea (english lines being uttered by japanese voice actors or by random english speaking people who can't act), but it makes the microcosm of Dobuita and its harbor very unique and memorable.
Let's hope the kickstarted sequel will keep the very unique feel of the game, while modernizing its controls and interface! Well... if it does not end in vaporware that is....
Played some Hatris on PC-Engine (aka TurboGrafx-16) the other day. This is a game that is rather famous for two things 1) Being made by the creator of Tetris 2) Being pretty bad. It is part of the big family of "stuff falls from the top of the screen and you need to stack it properly for it to eventually disappear because you lose when stuff stacks too high" games that, to the best of my knowledge, Tetris originated. The title is not a lie: in Hatris, you stack hats. a pair falls side by side from the top of the screen, you can move it left and right (there are 6 columns) and switch the hats' position. The idea is to stack 5 identical hats to make them vanish. The complexity comes from the fact the different types of hats are more or less tall and stack differently depending on what other hat they fall on (If a top hat lands on a clown hat, most of the clown's hat will end in the top hat, but if things happen the other way around, the clown hat would land on top of the top hat for a dramatic height increase in that stack). Also when one of the hats of the pair lands on a pile, you can still control the single remaining hat (so a pair does not need to land on two adjacent piles). As the game gets harder and harder there are more and more different types of hat (up to six). Also, from time to time instead of one of the hats, you get a red or blue flame that burn respectively all the hats of one type that are at the top of a pile or a whole pile.
While these mechanics are relatively simple, a lot of depth comes from them and you are constantly making decisions and trade-offs to manage your piles of hats. That being said, after an hour of play I felt that in the hardest difficulty levels randomness played too big a part in your ability to deal with what the game throws at you. The killer are the crowns. They are not that high, but don't stack at all, so a pile of 5 crowns is like half the allowed screen height. To make things worse, crowns are immune to burn. So, suddenly, it's no longer about managing the different hats, it's about managing the crowns and hope the rest will fall into place somewhat... meh.