Friday, December 27, 2019

Game 126: Dig Dug

Dig Dug is one of many classic arcade games that I would have never played without MAME. I remember seeing it in arcades in the 90’s, but never played it, or even noticed the name – all I even noticed was the odd looking title screen – I think it had the Atari logo on it – which made me think of a fighting game, with large sprites of Dig Dug shaking his fist at a Fygar.

MAME allowed me to play this game for the first time, and finally had a name to connect with that title screen. It mainly reminded me of a slew of shareware Boulder Dash clones that had been quite popular on DOS, but with cutesy graphics and music, and a horrific way of murdering your enemies (aside from the already horrific boulder crushing); inflating them with a bike pump until they burst like an over-pumped tire.

I never spent all that much time on it back then, but with Data Driven Gamer, I felt compelled to dig deeper.

Dig Dug allows continues, which posed a problem for my high score methodology. Do I allow continues, or not? Using continues will reset your score, but later rounds are higher scoring, so would it be cheating to use continues to effectively start the game on a later round, where the risks are higher, and the rewards greater? I decided it would be, and disallowed myself the use of continues.

Dig Dug is ultimately a game of risk vs. reward. Crushing your enemies is always better for your score than bursting them, and the more you can manage at once, the better. But they don’t always cooperate with your plans, and the longer you take herding enemies into a line following you toward an inescapable boulder trap, the more likely it is that another enemy will screw up your plans by turn into a ghost and phasing through the dirt, heading right for you.

Aside from crushing enemies, there some reliable ways to boost your score. When you’ve dropped two rocks, regardless of if they crushed anyone, a vegetable spawns in the starting place, and during later rounds these vegetables can be worth more than typical crush combos, making it worthwhile to drop useless boulders just so you can snag the veggies. This only happens once per round; dropping four rocks does not spawn two vegetables. Bursting enemies are worth more points the deeper underground you are, and the firebreathing Fygars are worth double if you burst them while facing a horizontal direction, which isn’t all that difficult to do safely. Bursting a Fygar in that manner at the deepest level is worth the same amount of points as crushing one, so it’s still better to get a double rock combo if possible. Finally, eating dirt is worth points, but so few that it doesn’t seem worthwhile to spent extra time in a level doing this.

I enjoyed Dig Dug, even though I frequently found its randomness to be frustrating. For all the ways the game can randomly screw you over, it provides a lot of tools to mitigate this risk, or deal with problems as they occur. Ghostly enemies are slow and predictable, and will instantly revert to normal form whenever they hit a tunnel, and so you can proactively defend yourself from nasty surprises by digging redundant ghost trap tunnels between stray enemies and your corridors of death. But the more time spent preparing, the more enemies will catch up with you. Your pump can be used to slow enemies down without killing them, in preparation for a big boulder combo, but when more than two enemies are chasing you, this quickly becomes impractical, and on later levels they can outrun you. When you drop a rock, they’ll try to run out of the way, Raider of the Lost Ark style, and it’s difficult to predict whether they’ll make it out of the tunnel or not. But sometimes when they successfully escape, they’ll just turn around and walk right back in.

GAB rating: Good. An uncontroversial Namco classic.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Deadline: Won!

When I last played, I made these observations and inferences concerning the suspects:
  • Mrs. Robner had been having an affair with a man named "Steven."
  • Their son George Marshall was an idler whom Mr. Robner had threatened to disinherit.
  • Mr. Robner had told his lawyer to expect a new will, but did not follow through, and the will reading split the estate between his wife and son.
  • Mr. Robner's most recent memo had been written to his business partner Mr. Baxter, who denied receiving it, but it wasn't in the trash.

I had learned nothing new about his secretary Mrs. Dunbar or housekeeper Mrs. Rourke.

At the scene of the murder, I saw that there was mud on the floor of the library's balcony, and that the rose garden below it had been trampled. Somebody had entered the library from below, killed Mr. Robner, and presumably left the same way he or she entered.

But I was out of leads and had to follow a walkthrough to continue. The first thing I missed was that the newspaper, in which I read Mr. Robner's obituary, has a second section which can be read by typing “READ SECOND SECTION.” An article there described a merger between Robner Corp and Omnidyne, with a picture of Mr. Baxter and Omnidyne’s president smiling. Baxter was quoted as saying Mr. Robner was in full agreement with the merger.

But this didn’t gel with the memo fragments I revealed on the paper pad, which I imagine read something like this:


        For the last time, I
insist that you stop the merger
with Omnidyne corporation. Otherwise
I will be forced
        document in my possession
implicates you      Focus s
          reconsider before it is too

Next, the walkthrough said I had to show the calendar to George. He got flustered and wandered off. I followed him to his bedroom, against his protests, where he put on music and asked me to leave so he could attend to personal business. I did, and he closed the door. I tried to listen at the door, but could hear nothing. I tried sticking around, and he periodically emerged from his room, looked around, and darted back in.

When I went to the library balcony and waited, he emerged, snuck into the library, and reached behind a bookshelf, causing the east wall to rotate and reveal a secret passageway.

I tried following, and saw him trying to open a safe. He panicked, knocked me out, and darted. I found him downstairs and questioned him, and he acknowledged the safe, but claimed he forgot the combination. I reloaded and tried a different approach – letting him retrieve the contents, and then questioning him. He became indignant, and refused to answer questions or submit to a search.

I turned to the walkthrough again. You must catch him at a very precise time – it takes him exactly 15 minutes to enter the closet, open the safe, and leave, and you must use this information to enter the closet after he retrieves the will, but before he leaves with it. Wait fewer than eight minutes, and you’re too fast. Longer than 15, and you’re too late. Enter within this window, and you catch him in possession of the new will.

I did this, and confiscated and read the new will, which, as expected, disinherited George and left everything to Marshall’s wife. This certainly looked bad for George. Not only did this establish a motive, but also partly an opportunity, as the murderer would have had to know about the secret passageway, and that Mr. Robner would be in it at night. But I had no evidence linking him to this, or any evidence of means.

The safe also contained a stack of papers implicating Mr. Baxter in the “Focus scandal.” I don’t remember reading anything about that in the game’s literature, but it proves him guilty of a crime, and that Mr. Robner was blackmailing him, providing a motive and suggesting Baxter lied when I showed him the pad of paper. I showed these to Baxter, who admitted to “irresponsible” past dealings. But it still didn’t prove means or opportunity – there isn’t even evidence that Mr. Baxter had the opportunity of entering the library at night.

The walkthrough said that to find the means, I had to talk to McNabb, furious about his trampled roses, listen to him, and then ask him about them. I did, and he said there were two deep holes in his garden that morning (perhaps from a ladder?), and the roses were crushed. Examining the holes in the garden produced the message “there is no hole here,” but typing “mcnabb, show me holes” got results. He led me to the holes, and I found that his ladder fit perfectly in them, and led up to the library balcony.

This still didn’t give me proof of means. The walkthrough said I had to also SEARCH GROUND. Oh, come on.

This produced small, unobtainable fragments of a hard substance. I searched the ground carefully (an action the manual states is possible), and found a muddy piece of porcelain. Lab analysis revealed it to be a piece of a teacup with traces of an unidentified chemical.

Finally, evidence of murder! Somebody poisoned Mr. Robner’s tea, waited for him to die, swapped his cup for a clean one, escaped from the library by way of ladder, smashed the poisoned one, buried the pieces, and returned the ladder.

Still, no evidence linked anyone to this hypothesis. George was a candidate, as only he was confirmed to know about the secret room, but that didn’t rule out the possibility of everyone else knowing too.

The manual said that objects can also be analyzed for specific compounds, so I had it re-analyzed for each medicine that I had found in the various bathrooms, and one test for “LoBlo” found in Mrs. Dunbar’s bathroom turned up positive. A further pathology report found the drug in Mr. Robner’s bloodstream, and stated that the drug, a blood pressure lowering agent has known interactions with other medications such as Mr. Robner’s antidepressants.

Means and opportunity were established, but what about the motive? Mrs. Dunbar certainly was in a position to poison Mr. Robner’s tea, and wouldn’t even need to know about his secret passageway to do it, but why? She was one of the few people on the estate who didn’t have a clear reason to kill him.

I checked the LoBlo for fingerprints, and oddly found none at all. I showed the evidence to Dunbar, who denied wrongdoing and accused George. She nervously glanced at Baxter. As I left, she walked outside for a smoke break, and dropped a ticket stub to a concert. This in itself wasn’t suspicious, except that for something unimportant, I clearly had to go to a lot of trouble to get it, so I showed it to her to see what would happen. She confessed that Mr. Baxter took her to the concert and drove her home – not sure why she didn’t just say “yeah, I told you I was out with a friend” – which contradicted Mr. Baxter’s alibi, and proved he was on the property the night of the murder.

I showed the ticket stub to Mr. Baxter, who corroborated Dunbar’s confession (and further contradicted his own alibi). I arrested both of them, which ended the game successfully.

Overall, this was an interesting, unusually designed adventure game, which never felt experimental, but some unfair design tainted the experience. The usual adventure game paradigm, even late into the graphical era, consisted of mostly static, self-contained puzzle rooms, with rigidly defined links between them, to be solved in sequence in order to win the game. Deadline had almost no artificial barriers, no puzzles unrelated to the plot, and its multiple characters acted as free agents, roaming around the place, reacting to events caused by you and also to events caused by other characters.

I had fun initially exploring the mansion, snooping around, charting the suspect’s schedules and gathering evidence, but eventually hit a wall. The suspect’s schedules turn out to be not all that important or relevant, and taking fingerprints, though mentioned explicitly as an action in the manual, never seemed to turn up any except Robner's and Dunbar's on the teacup. On that note, why would her fingerprints be on the teacup that Mr. Baxter swapped for the one she handled? Did she deliberately smudge Baxter’s decoy cup ahead of time, knowing the police would dust it for fingerprints?

There are a few chains of action you must take to win the game, and the longest, most involved of them is kicked off by asking a distressed McNabb to show us the “holes,” and then searching the ground near the holes once he leads them to you. It seems unreasonable to expect the player to presume that “mcnabb, show me the holes” is a valid parser statement – the manual only makes the vaguest allusion to this syntax, and the action of searching the ground is motivated only by the knowledge that Mr. Robner’s killer had been there. After obtaining a toxicity report on the teacup fragment found there, you must present it to the guilty Mrs. Dunbar, which causes her to take a smoke break (from the stress, I assume) and drop another clue, but only if you do this while she is in the living room.

The final bit of arbitrariness is that you must present this clue, a ticket stub, to Mrs. Dunbar, at which point she confesses that she went with Mr. Baxter. Why would she do that?

It’s also not completely proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that Dunbar and Baxter are guilty. Maybe it wouldn’t be hard to convince a jury that they were a couple, therefore giving Dunbar a motive, but simply knowing that Baxter was on the property and lied about it makes the difference between an acquittal and a conviction. Why? Even if Dunbar had come home alone, that wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Baxter came by later to aid in the murder. And even though Baxter had taken Dunbar home, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that someone else – everyone’s scapegoat George for instance – might have been the one who swapped the teacups or even poisoned Marshall himself. George, after all, knew about the secret passageway, and could have snuck into the library by the rose garden at night while his father was in the secret room. The game somewhat accounts for this – if you do arrest Baxter and Dunbar without first showing Dunbar the ticket, the game outright tells you that you were on the right track, but the jury acquitted due to lack of evidence that Baxter was on the premises, but from a narrative perspective I find it unconvincing.

The setting also feels all wrong for the time period. The game is allegedly set in 1982, but it feels like the 30’s, with mansions and secret passageways, class divides reminiscent of the great depression, the archaic formality of addressing everyone as Mr. and Mrs., a reference in the manual to “stenographic services,” and antiquated gender roles – Mrs. Dunbar as a live-in secretary whose duties include making tea for her boss is a particularly hard anachronism to stomach. Couldn’t they have just set it in the 30’s? Would a crime lab that could find traces of chemicals on a piece of a broken teacup have been implausible?

I shouldn’t be too harsh on Deadline for its narrative shortcomings, though. It is leaps and bounds ahead of anything else of the era that I’ve seen. Few detective novels stand up when given enough scrutiny, and they never had to account for the non-linear, interactive nature of computer games as Deadline did. But the undermotivated actions required to finish the game properly are troubling. The number of relevant clues is fairly small, and most of them are absolutely required. I think the biggest problems with the game would have been greatly alleviated if there had simply been more clues. More small ones to nudge the player in the right direction, or more big ones to provide multiple routes to the solution, either or both would have been fine.

GAB rating: Above Average. Interesting and at times enjoyable, but flawed enough that I can’t unequivocally recommend it.

There’s an alternate solution I found that wasn’t mentioned in the walkthrough. There are a number of bad endings, most involving a failure to indict or convict, but there’s one which could be considered a success depending on your perspective. If you present the ticket to Dunbar and Baxter, then sometime soon, you’ll hear a gunshot, and Dunbar will be found dead in her bedroom, next to a gun and a suicide note written in blue ink, but no pen. Baxter will come running and break down sobbing. Ask him for a pen, and he’ll search through his pockets and hand you a blue one (why???). Then you can arrest him, and have him convicted of two counts of murder.

My completed Trizbort map (times may vary game to game):

Friday, December 20, 2019

Game 125: Deadline

Download the manual here:

Infocom’s first non-Zork game is also their first to include the feelies that the company is now famous for.

Even the packaging, distributed as a crime lab evidence sleeve is thematic, ruined a bit by the “12 Hours to solve the murder” tagline printed on the rim. Within is a collection of evidence, meant to be examined even before loading up the game.

A letter from Marshall Robner’s lawyer, Mr. Coates, to the Edindale police, requests an investigation on his client’s sudden drug overdose death. A photo shows his chalk outline on the floor of his library, fallen from his chair, and a cup of tea, saucer and a bottle of pills are spilled on the ground by his chair. A coroner’s report details the autopsy – dead at 1 a.m. from a massive overdose of “Ebullion,” with no external injuries except a bruise consistent with his fall. Multiple witness statements, a lab report on the teacup, and fingerprints collected from the scene all fail to indicate any foul play. The sleeve even contains a packet of the Ebullion tablets collected from the scene. But we already know there is a murderer – the game told us so on the packaging!

The things I knew about Mr. Robner were:
  • A wealthy industrialist and philanthropist
  • Recently prescribed Ebullion, an anti-depressant
  • Robner Corporation was struggling
  • Talked of suicide in recent weeks
  • Had no personal friends, was not close with his wife
  • Had frequent fights with his son George, and threatened to disinherit him

The interviewed witnesses/suspects are:
  • Mrs. Robner
    • Called the police in the morning when she noticed Mr. Robner was locked in the library and didn’t answer her knocks
    • Unhappily married, resented his devotion to business and charity
    • Did not react strongly when the body was discovered
  • Mrs. Dunbar, secretary
    • Claims to have been out with a friend until 10:30pm
    • Last person to see Mr. Robner alive, when she brought him tea at 11pm, two hours before death
    • Discovered the body along with Mrs. Robner
    • Lived in mansion for six years, since it was built
  • Mr. Baxter, business partner of 25 years
    • Claims to have been at a concert until 10pm, and then at his home until Mrs. Dunbar notified him of Mr. Robner’s death
    • Last saw Mr. Robner at the office in the afternoon
    • Claims Mr. Robner never discussed personal life
    • Also claims to have witnessed his fights with George, and that Mr. Robner spoke of threatening to disinherit him
  • George Robner, only child of Mr. and Mrs. Robner
    • 25 years old, never employed
    • Had threatened Mr. Robner with violence
    • Was uncooperative with detectives
  • Mrs. Rourke, housekeeper
    • Was housekeeper for six years, since the mansion was built
    • Had been up late past Mr. Robner’s time of death, did not hear anyone enter the library during this time

Mr. Baxter seemed the most suspicious, thanks to his inconsistent testimony, but I had no material evidence implicating him, or any clues suggesting how he or anyone else might have killed Mr. Robner.

The manual described some of the gameplay functions peculiar to Deadline. Things can be examined, and sometimes they can be examined CAREFULLY for more thorough results at the cost of time. The game operates on a clock, and events may happen at specific places at certain times, but you must solve the case in 12 hours, or fail. You can pass time by WAITING, and can specify to wait for a certain number of minutes, or until a certain time, to wait until a certain person shows up. Evidence may be sent to the lab for analysis, or shown to witnesses to a useful effect. Suspects may also be questioned, accused or even arrested, but it isn’t enough to arrest the correct suspect – you must also find evidence proving means, motive, and opportunity.

I loaded the storyfile into Frotz and began my investigation the same way I always began these games – by Trizborting. Mr. McNabb the gardener was making his rounds, and got pissy when I walked on his roses. Mrs. Robner was waiting in the foyer, demanded that I leave by 8pm, and advised me to attend the will reading at 12:00. The library on the second floor where Mr. Robner died had pieces of evidence spilled all over the floor, but I put that aside in favor of mapping.

Mapping out the mansion didn’t take especially long – it’s not all that big with only about 50 rooms – but some shenanigans with the lawn going off in multiple directions and multiple interior rooms described as “hallway” inflated this phase a bit. It would have been nice, and also thematically appropriate, if Infocom had bundled an estate grounds and floor plan in the package. The mansion is two stories, with a kitchen, dining room, and living room on the first floor, the library and master bedroom with attached bathroom on the second floor, with balconies accessible from both, and private bedrooms and bathrooms for George, Mrs. Dunbar, and Mrs. Rourke.

What’s more interesting than the mapping is the fact that the characters walk around and do things on their own – an engine feature present since MDL Zork, but not used nearly to the extent that Deadline does. A number of important events occurred while I was mapping, independent of my actions, though exact times sometimes differed on replays:

At 9:06, a phone inside the house rang.

At 10:04, a mailman handed me a letter, which I read like the snoop I am:

"Dear Leslie,
   I am sorry to learn that Marshall has been despondent again. His obsessive interest in business must be causing you terrible anguish. It doesn't surprise me that he talks of suicide when he's in this state, but the thought of the business going to Baxter after he's gone will keep him alive.
   So George has finally gone too far? It's hard to believe, after all those empty threats, that Marshall actually followed through. It serves that little leech right, if you ask me. This means that, should the unthinkable happen, you will be provided for as you deserve.
   I'll see you Friday as usual.


Interesting, but not all that incriminating. It provides a motive for Mrs. Robner or this Steven, but it could also simply be a lucky coincidence for them.

At 11:10, the newspaper was delivered. Reading it produced an obituary for Mr. Robner, but no new information.

At a few minutes after noon, everyone except Mr. McNabb was gathered in the living room, where Mr. Coates announced that Mr. Robner had failed to complete a new will despite recently stating his intent to, and George smiled suspiciously. The current will left the estate to him and his mother in equal parts.

I restarted and shadowed everyone individually, and came up with these rough schedules (exact times vary).

Mr. McNabb, gardener
  • 8:00 – 10:05 – mows north lawn
  • 10:07 – 11:01 – mows east lawn
  • 11:04 – 12:03 – cuts flowers in garden path, notices roses have been crushed
  • 12:04 – gets ladder from shed
  • 12:05 – 13:04 – prunes trees in orchard path
  • 13:09 – 15:13 – mows south lawn
  • 15:21 – 20:00 – mows west lawn

At 12:04, he somehow teleported from the orchard path to the non-adjacent shed and back to grab the ladder that he needed to do his pruning. I attribute this to a scripting error rather than any in-universe explanation.

The fact that he notices his roses have been crushed interested me. Someone had been walking there, and most likely at night.

Mr. McNabb was not considered a witness or suspect by the police, and was not interviewed by them.

Mrs. Robner:
  • 8:00 – 8:39 – makes meal in kitchen
  • 8:41 – 9:07 – eats breakfast in dining room, is interrupted by ringing phone
  • 9:09 – answers phone, but won’t talk in the living room
  • 9:16 – 9:30 – makes private phonecall in bedroom
  • 9:37 – 10:18 – knits in living room
  • 10:21 – 11:17 – eats breakfast in dining room
  • 11:20 – 12:57 – knits in living room
  • 13:03 – 13:36 – rests in bedroom
  • 13:43 – 20:00 – knits in living room

The only interesting part of her routine is the phonecall. I eavesdropped by the living room extension, but I only caught a few words, fragments of a conversation between Mrs. Robner and an unknown man discussing their plans in the immediate future (“But we couldn’t have planned it better. You’re free.”). I tried presenting Robner with her letter from Steven, and she admitted to the affair but huffily denied any involvement in Mr. Robner’s death and chided me for opening her mail.

Nothing here aroused my suspicions. I was satisfied that the murder was simply good fortune for Mrs. Robner and Steven – no evidence pointed to a more complicated explanation.

  • 8:00 – 9:21 – rests in bedroom
  • 9:30 – 9:59 – prepares snack in kitchen
  • 10:01 – 10:49 – eats red herrings in dining room
  • 10:58 – 11:53 – listens to music in bedroom
  • 12:00 – 12:43 – paces around living room
  • 12:49 – 14:18 – east lawn
  • 14:24 – 15:05 – paces around living room
  • 15:09 – 20:00 – listens to music in bedroom

Red herrings. Real cute, guys.

Two things were suspicious and/or unusual. First, during the will reading at noon, when Mr. Coates announced that Mr. Robner had promised a new will days ago and failed to deliver, George nodded his head and smiled, as if he expected that. In George’s witness testimony, he said that he expected his father didn’t have the nerve to carry out his threat to disinherit him. Was his judgement correct, or did he tamper with the new will? I had no evidence, but it was something to keep in mind.

The other thing was George’s hour and a half spent on the east lawn, apparently doing nothing. The game just says “George is here” until he leaves. Why? Does he just like the view? Again, no evidence, so I did not speculate.

Mrs. Dunbar:
  • 8:00 – 9:01 – sits in living room
  • 9:07 – 9:29 – brushes hair in bathroom
  • 9:33 – 11:37 – rests in bedroom
  • 11:43 – 14:13 – sits in living room
  • 14:19 – 20:00 – rests in bedroom

Mrs. Rourke
  • 8:00 – 9:58 – cleans kitchen
  • 10:00 – 10:55 – cleans dining room
  • 10:57 – 11:04 – cleans kitchen
  • 11:17 – 14:28 – cleans living room
  • 14:32 – 20:00 – rests in bedroom

Nothing suspicious about their routines. They both attend the will reading, but as they both live on the estate, perhaps this isn’t unusual.

Mr. Baxter
  • 9:55 – 10:02 – arrives in limousine
  • 10:06 – 15:55 – reads a book in living room
  • 15:58 – leaves in limousine

A simple routine, but why is he even here? He claimed he wasn’t a personal acquaintance with Mr. Robner – a claim already incongruous with his own testimony. I expect he would only have interest in Mr. Robner’s stakes in the corporation, a matter that would be settled by the board of directors, not his will. There’s not much in this routine to work with (the book he reads is a novelization of Deadline, but that’s just typical Infocom meta-humor), so I couldn’t speculate.

Mr. Coates, the family lawyer
  • 11:55 – arrives in car
  • 12:00 – reads will
  • 12:03 – leaves in car

Mr. Coates must be a very busy man. He wastes no time by arriving early, appears nervously impatient when waiting for guests to arrive in the living room, and calls for a cab immediately after finishing. But there’s nothing unusual or suspicious here. Notably, he was not interviewed by the police, or considered to be a suspect or witness.

Clearly, I’d need to find some material clues, so I went to the library to see if I could pick up anything that the previous inspectors missed. Items in the library included:
  • The oak door, broken in from the outside by the police
  • A pencil
  • A collapsible tray
  • A bowl of sugar
  • A wastepaper basket with a crumpled receipt, list of stock prices, and an abandoned letter addressed to the board of directors
  • A teacup and saucer
  • A pad of paper
  • A desk calendar, open to July 7th (the day right before the night of his death), showing a 2pm meeting with Mr. Baxter.
  • A bottle of Ebullion

Three things were interesting here. First, the library balcony was directly over the rose garden that somebody had trampled. Examining it showed mud on the floor and a scrape on the railing. That showed how the murderer got in and out. Second, the pad of paper revealed some word fragments when I rubbed the pencil on it, a common detective trope.


                  st time
 nsist             op       merg
       mnidy               Oth
         ocumen     y poss
  plica     y      Focus s

I showed this to Mr. Baxter, but he claimed he never got the memo and couldn’t guess what Mr. Robner was asking him to do.

Third, the calendar’s next page showed something interesting:
9am – Call Coates: Will completed.

I tried showing this to Coates, but he was unresponsive.

I searched the rest of the house, but couldn’t find anything else of interest, and so I took a break.

My Trizbort map (times may vary game to game):

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Game 124: Robotron: 2084

After replaying Robotron: 2084, and with Williams’ Defender and Stargate in recent memory, I’m almost inclined to think of it as the third game in the Defender trilogy. It’s obviously not the same kind of game as those two – while Defender and Stargate were horizontally scrolling shmupoids with five or six different action buttons, Robotron is a single-screen overhead shooter with zero action buttons. And yet there’s a lot that I see in common. The most obvious is the dual goals of destroying enemies and rescuing people, which can often conflict. Robotron doesn’t compel you to rescue people as Defender does, but it’s by far the best way to score points, and by scoring points, gaining sorely needed extra lives. And like Defender, Robotron awards extra lives at regular point intervals, an uncommonly generous design balanced out by the alarming difficulty of holding onto all those lives. It’s a difficulty which feels fairer than most arcade games, but with a very high skill floor, and a good part of that difficulty stems from the sheer amount of deadly chaos on the screen, which was high in Defender, higher still in Stargate, and possibly peak pandemonium on Robotron, being all too happy to throw everything it’s got at you all at once on a single screen.

The first time I heard of and played Robotron was in 1998, when a 3D sequel came out on the Nintendo 64. I was hooked by its simple, addictive gameplay, ingenious control scheme, and intense difficulty, with massive swarms of killer robots, balanced by ample chance to earn huge supplies of extra lives.

Some years later, once I had and understood MAME, I knew I had to give the original a try, but it didn’t quite grab me the same way. I think they key difference is that in Robotron 64, there’s an end game, even if it you have to complete 200 waves to reach it, and it hands out extra lives by the dozen, generous enough that a patient player may actually reach it.

Replaying it now, with more of a score-oriented mindset than a completionist one, I found it much more appealing this time around.

Like Defender, Robotron has a backstory and gameplay instructions in its attract screen, and it’s more animated and in-depth. Few arcade games in the era offered anything of that nature, at best giving instructions and/or plot printed on the side of the bezel.

I wasn’t quite able to reach wave 200, but after wave 10 you’ve seen most of what Robotron: 2084 has to offer, and after that it only gets harder. The waves essentially loop through five types, like so:
  • 1 – Grunts and spheroids (except during the first loop)
  • 2 – Tanks (except during the first loop)
  • 3 – Grunts and spheroids
  • 4 – Hulk mob or grunt mob (except during the first loop)
    • Hulks on waves 14, 24, 34, etc.
    • Grunts on waves 9, 19, 29, 39, etc.
  • 5 – Brains

Grunts attack by mindlessly moving toward you in large numbers, but they’re not difficult to herd as long as there aren’t other threats (and there always are). They’ll trample electrodes, neutralizing each other. In grunt mob waves, they’ll surround you. The longer the round goes, the faster the grunts move.

Hulks are big, slow, stupid, indestructible nuisances that kill humans and get in the way of you and your laser shots. They don’t seem to have any particular movement pattern, except that they seem to walk in straight lines for some time, and then turn 90 degrees left or right before walking in a straight line again. Shooting pushes them back a bit, not enough to make a huge difference, but you can occasionally push them away from a human for just long enough to rescue them.

Spheroids generate enforcers, which spam projectiles of varying speeds in your direction. The sooner you kill the spheroids, the fewer enforcers you’ll have to deal with, but that’s easier said than done,  and often endangers the humans because your attention is diverted from rescuing them.

Quarks should have been called cuboids. The generate tanks, which spam large, rebounding projectiles, often leading you, and often deliberately aimed to make you think the shot will miss, only to hit you on a bank shot. They only appear during tank rounds, and appear in much greater numbers than spheroids do on their respective rounds.

Brains are, I find, the deadliest enemy, as their zig-zagging shots are extremely difficult to dodge or to shoot down. Their ability to enslave humans and turn them against you isn’t nearly as bad – brains move slowly, the converted humans aren’t extremely dangerous, and levels with brains also have lots of humans, which means more points and more extra lives.

GAB rating: Good

What else can I say? Robotron rocks. Creating balanced difficulty is a very tricky thing – when arcade game developers didn’t design a hard playtime limit into their game, they had to err on the side of high difficulty – better that a game be unfair than unprofitable. Defender, Stargate, and Robotron are more chaotic than anything else I’ve looked at here, but through carefully polished design and understated depth, never feel unfair, even at their most blink-and-your-dead intensity. I award it a harpoon, along with Defender, making Vid Kidz a top tier arcade developer of the era, and the first developer of any kind to get two harpoons.

In 1983, Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar would create Blaster, a pseudo-3D, pseudo-sequel to Robotron, set in the year 2085 when the Robotrons have finally exterminated the human race, and you must blast your way through space in the cockpit of a space shuttle in search of a safe haven. Blaster was not a success, and this would be the last game that Jarvis and DeMar would create for Williams Electronics.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Game 123: Pac-Man (VCS)

Read the manual here:

A lot of the games I’ve played for Data Drive Gamers are classics. A lot are also stinkers. This infamous port may be the first classic game that’s classic for being a stinker, and it won’t be the last.

At the heart of Pac-Man’s woes is a technical limitation of the system; the VCS only supports two general-purpose sprites, and Pac-Man needs five. Atari previously overcame this limit in Space Invaders by simply adjusting the sprite horizontal position mid-scanline, effectively making rows of identical sprites, but Pac-Man’s monsters have more complex movement needs; they do not move together in fixed ranks as Space Invaders do.

Atari programmer Tod Frye came up with a solution, but an inelegant one. There’s technically only one monster, but it constantly teleports all over the screen, cycling between four different positions.

Slowed to 10fps

The result is the appearance of four different monsters on screen, but each with a nasty 15hz flicker, as only one monster is visible during each screen draw. This is allegedly why the monsters are called “ghosts” in the manual, a label that’s stuck to this day, although the original monsters looked pretty ghost-like to me.

The manual opens with some almost astounding hubris.

We know that millions of people all over the world just love the PAC-MAN arcade game. We also know that PAC-MAN has traditionally been an arcade game. Well, we at ATARI know all about arcade games. After all, we make some of the greatest arcade games in the world.

As with other Atari games, there are multiple game modes. The box claims 8, though each game also has an alternating two-player variant, so I’m surprised Atari didn’t call it 16. The difference between game modes is the speeds of Pac-Man and the ghosts, but there’s no logical sense to the number order.
  • 1: Slow Pac-Man, jogging ghosts
  • 2: Slow Pac-Man, running ghosts
  • 3: Fast Pac-Man, crawling ghosts
  • 4: Fast Pac-Man, walking ghosts
  • 5: Fast Pac-Man, jogging ghosts
  • 6: Fast Pac-Man, running ghosts
  • 7: Slow Pac-Man, crawling ghosts
  • 8: Slow Pac-Man, walking ghosts

The difficulty switch affects power pill and cherry duration.

I played a smattering of these modes, ending with the manual’s recommended expert setting of mode 6, difficulty A.

GAB rating: Bad

God, this was bad. I know that’s not exactly a revelation – if you type “worst video games” into Wikipedia, you’ll get a list where Pac-Man is among the first, noting its role in the biggest market crash in video game's history. But you have to play it to really understand why it’s so bad. Flickering aside, I can forgive the lame graphics, with rectangular “cherries,” orange dashes instead of dots, uniformly colored ghosts, and a non-rotating Pac-Man sprite, although why they made the background blue instead of black is beyond me. What’s less forgivable is that Pac-Man controls stiffly, doesn’t always obey directions, that the maze is nothing like the original, just a bunch of repeating broken squares without any parts to lose ghosts in, the ghosts have boring movement patterns, and that the sound is utter cacophony, and much worse than having no audio at all. Some of these flaws may have been unavoidable with the system’s limitations, but that doesn’t make this game any more fun to play.

Another big change is that ghosts now kill you if so as much as lightly brush up against them. I suppose I could get used to that if anything else about the game was decent, but it’s still jarring when I’m so used to the arcade version, where clipping partly through the monsters on a tight turn is a common gameplay occurrence, and it’s even possible to pass right through them if you’re lucky or have Billy Mitchell-like timing.

Despite its infamy, Pac-Man was the best-selling game on the system, at 7.7 million copies sold, and ultimately a commercial success, even if it underperformed and failed to meet Atari’s fantastic expectations. Contemporary reviews were unkind. A review by The Book of Atari Software gave it a D+, criticizing its poor controls, flicker, and limited graphics. A capsule review in Software Encyclopedia rated it 4/10, stating serious-minded Atarians who demand their home versions match the quality of their coin-op cousins just may find themselves seriously disappointed.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Game 122: Demon Attack

Imagic was the second ever third-party developer for the Atari VCS, and was composed of ex-Atari and Mattel employees. Their first of many games in 1982, and one of their biggest hits, was Demon Attack, a Galaxian-style vertical shmup. Atari sued over alleged similarities to Phoenix – another Galaxian-style vertical shmup which Atari had exclusive VCS distribution rights over, but I played Phoenix prior to this entry and didn’t see a strong resemblance apart from the broad genre format and some vaguely bird-like demons.

The manual describes what little plot Demon Attack has to offer – you are marooned on the ice planet Krybor, where legions of snarling demons from who-knows-where hover ominously. You must attack them with your Laser Cannon, or be destroyed! Of course, you’ll be destroyed anyway, but it’s the principal of dying with the highest score.

As with Atari’s own games on the system, Demon Attack has a selection of game modes, albeit a conservative 10, which is a bit less than the median multi-mode Atari game, and tiny compared to the excessive 112 in Space Invaders. The first eight are simply the full set of combinations of three settings:
  • 1 player / 2 players alternating
  • Normal shots / tracer shots
  • Normal play / advanced play

Tracer shots would be better labeled “guided shots,” and cause your in-flight projectiles to move left and right with your cannon. Your base also moves considerably faster. “Advanced play” essentially means beginning on wave 9, where demons are worth 30-120 points (the scores max out at 35-140 on wave 11).

Modes 9 and 10 are a “special” co-op mode where control of the laser cannon alternates between players every four seconds. Mode 9 otherwise mirrors standard gameplay, and mode 10 features tracer shots for both players, but is incorrectly labeled “advanced play.” Nice try making a novel co-op mode, but alternating control was lame in Space Invaders, and it’s still lame here.

Difficulty switches affect how aggressively the demons fire. I preferred playing with the harder, more aggressive demon setting.

At the time, the closest point of comparison on the platform would have been Atari’s Space Invaders, but there are significant differences. Space Invaders had 36 invaders on screen at a time, which moved in a simple, uniform pattern. Demon Attack only allows up to six demons on-screen at a time, in three ranks, and only one is ever an active threat at any given moment, but they swoop around the screen, back and forth, up and down, in erratic and difficult-to-predict patterns, even pursuing the player and leading the player in their shots.

Mode 1: Demon Attack

Mode 1 is the standard game, starting with easy waves which gradually become more difficult, and with normal, unguided shots.

For the first few waves, only three demons will be on-screen at once. Two demons will never occupy the same rank, and only the demon in the lowest rank will ever fire on you. They’re pretty wide targets, but their unpredictable swooping motions make hitting them a challenge. The easiest time to hit them is also the riskiest; the vanguard demon will hold still before and during firing. If he stops directly above you, and you fire first, you’re all but guaranteed to hit, but you risk getting hit back if you can’t move out of the way fast enough, or if the fire pattern forces you into a corner. Kill the shooter, and either a new demon will spawn in its place, the demons above will descend and the next-lowest demon will become the new shooter. There will be five demon reinforcements per wave, for a total of eight demons.

It’s important to always bear in mind that only the vanguard demon is a threat. The rest are harmless targets of opportunity, though they are more difficult to hit.

Starting on the fifth wave, hitting a demon will cause it to split into two smaller ones; a feature likely cribbed from Space Invaders Part II. These pairs will always occupy the same horizontal scanline, moving up and down in perfect synchronicity, unless you kill one of them. Small demons are worth double the points.

Whenever you split a large demon, the small demon which goes off to the left will be designated a shooter. It won’t actually shoot at you unless/until it’s in the vanguard (i.e. if you split a large demon in the rear ranks), and until then, it will just flutter around, even more difficult to hit than the large ones. The small demon which goes off to the right will NEVER shoot at you.

If two small demons are in the vanguard, the shooter will fire, with a bit less firepower than a large demon, but they’re all the more dangerous just for being trickier to hit. Kill the shooter, and the other demon will swoop down at you. Kill the non-shooter, and the shooter will stop shooting and swoop down at you. Likewise, if one small demon is in the vanguard (i.e. you killed its partner previously), it will swoop down at you.

Killing the swoopers is optional, as they die when they hit the floor, but is key to getting a high score, because they’re worth quadruple points. They swoop fast, and their back-and-forth, downward, parabolic motion means some very tricky timing is involved. But, unlike fluttering demons, they’re predictable. Once I figured out the timing to hit them reliably, and the sound effects proved useful in nailing this, I did this as much as possible. In fact, I found this much easier than hitting the final Space Invader.

I managed to reach wave 11, where the scores max out at 35 points per large demon, 70 points per small demon, and 140 points per swooper. At this point, it wasn’t long before survival was just too difficult; the demons’ shots would often track my laser cannon, which at close range was really quite deadly, and I’d lose lives faster than I could gain them.

Mode 5: Advanced Demon Attack

This is the same as Demon Attack, except that it appears to start at wave 9. Large demons split right away, point values are 30-60-120, and by the third wave they max out at 35-70-140 and the demons move and fire with fast, aggressive patterns characteristic of the standard game’s 11th wave.

It also didn’t take long before UFO-like demons started appearing, which are the worst kind of demon in the game. They’re large, which means more firepower, but they pulsate, which makes hitting them a nightmare.

By skipping the earlier, easier stages, you also have less of an opportunity to rack up extra lives.

Mode 7: Advanced Tracer Demon Attack

Oh, boy. The tracer shots here take some getting used to, but are so overpowered when you do. I could probably play this mode forever, but I eventually got bored, and quit once I hit 100,000 points. It’s because of this that I didn’t bother posting about mode 3, which is just tracer shots with the standard difficulty.

Tracer shots move in-flight with your cannon, always being horizontally aligned with it. This does necessitate a different strategy; you can no longer fire at a demon and move out of the way, because this will also cause your shot to move out of the way. But with guided shots, it’s a bit easier to hit the demons which AREN’T firing at you, which I often found to be the more optimal strategy. When facing demon pairs in the vanguard before, I’d prefer to target the shooter and then turn its partner into a swooper. In this mode, I’d prefer to target the fluttering partner and turn the shooter into a swooper. In either case, my strategy for hitting the swooper was the same – hold still, wait until it’s about to fly above me, and shoot straight.

GAB rating: Good

Demon Attack is top-tier for the VCS, though that’s only saying so much. I had fun with it, and Imagic did more than enough to make it stand out among a sea of Space Invaders and Galaxian clones despite the system’s limitations, but it’s hard for me to get excited about it in 2019 when Galaxian, Galaga, Centipede, and Phoenix are readily available on MAME. Even in 1982, the Atari 400/800 line would have offered a superior arcade-at-home experience, albeit at a high price. Had I owned an Atari VCS back then, I would have been pleased to own both Space Invaders and Demon Attack, as both games have strengths over the other. It’s just a pity that Space Invaders’ best feature, two-player simultaneous play, isn’t part of this game, or it could have been the ultimate Invaderslike.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Games 116-121: Early Sega

The first time I ever heard of “Sega” was in late 1990, when a friend introduced me to the Sega Genesis. Until then, Nintendo had been more or less synonymous with video games in my mind, and the Sega games, with their massively improved graphics and audio, blew my mind. This was, in effect, my first exposure to next-generation gaming.

For a long time, I viewed Sega as a relative newcomer to video games, existing mainly as a competitor to Nintendo. I later learned of the Master System, which I viewed as a predecessor to the Genesis, and understood existed as a response to Nintendo. I became aware of their prolific and often cutting-edge arcade game output in the 80’s, but viewed them as ephemera with less lasting appeal than the Nintendo games I had been playing at home during this time.

Imagine my surprise, when I learned that Sega not only been making video games for years before Nintendo, but had presence in the arcade scene long before Atari existed!

Their earliest arcade games were electromechanical machines, with their first international hit Periscope released in 1966. Based on an earlier Namco electromechanical game, also called Periscope, players launch torpedoes, represented by lines of electric lights, at a convoy of model boats moving through an ocean diorama. This game design survives today as Midway’s Sea Wolf, which is emulated in MAME, but the periscope peripheral can’t be properly emulated, and without it, it isn’t much fun to play.

Photo by SegaRetro

Following the huge success of Pong, Sega was among the first of many companies to copy its design. They released Pong-Tron to Japanese arcades in 1973, making it their first purely electronic video game. Updates later that year included Pong-Tron II, which added a singleplayer challenge mode where the player aims for a field goal in the middle of the left-hand side of the screen, and Hockey TV, which gives each player two paddles (but only one knob per side to control both, unlike Pong Doubles in 1974).

Over the next few years, they would transition away from electromechanical games, phasing them out by 1976. Some of their games released over these years included light gun games such as Balloon Gun and Bullet Mark, and sports games such as Goal Kick and Last Inning. They would also license games from American developers, such as Clean Sweep from Ramtek, for Japanese distribution. Moto-Cross was one of their more important games of this period, a pseudo-3D motorcycle racing game with sprite and background scaling. It was rebranded as Road Race, Man T.T., and most famously, Fonz. All of these games are based on TTL logic, and none are emulated.

In 1977, Sega created the VIC Dual system board, which powers their earliest emulated games.  Here, I feel, the history of Sega games truly begins.

Game 116: Depthcharge

Among the first games published by Sega for their platform, Depthcharge was developed by Gremlin, who previously developed Blockade; an important ancestor to the Snake game genre. It’s difficult to know how much Sega was involved in the development of any of these games, but I have to imagine that, being new hardware designed by Sega, they must have had some involvement in creating the earliest games for it.

The concept is like Periscope in reverse – you control a destroyer, and drop proximity charges on convoys of submarines below, which blindly launch surface mines. Atari released a conceptually very similar game the same year, and it’s unknown which came first, but in Atari’s game, you had little control over the destroyer, the subs did not return fire, and it featured actual depth charges, with depth fuzes that had to be set before dropping. Sega’s game gives you direct control, and you simply drop your charges from the port or starboard, which automatically detonate on contact with a sub.

Depthcharge is a very slow-paced game, but doesn’t lack for challenge. You can have a maximum of six charges in the water at once, which is indicated on the UI, and I found I had better results by dropping blankets of charges than I did by trying to estimate how far a sub would travel by the time my charge would drop to its depth. Often, my extra charges would wind up hitting previously unseen subs – generally a good thing, but sometimes it meant that a low-scoring sub ate multiple charges intended for a higher scoring one.

That said, low-scoring subs are worth more than it seems. When the time runs out, you will receive a 30 point bonus for each sub sunk, which effectively means each sub is worth 30 points more than its score tag says. The game grants extended time for scoring 500 points, and the bonus does not count toward this, so you will want to prioritize high-scoring subs accordingly until you’ve reached this threshold.

Getting hit by the floating mines won’t end your game, but will cost you 100 points, and potentially much more. This is because during your destroyer’s sinking animation, you can’t move, and each additional mine that hits during this time will cost you another 100 points. They’re slow and easy to avoid, but hit detection is a bit off and you can sometimes get sunk by one that looks like it should have been a miss, so it’s better to stay far away from them until the explosion animation ends.

The controls aren’t as fancy as Atari’s Destroyer, let alone Periscope and its pedigree; all you get is four pushbuttons, two to move the destroyer, and two to drop charges on either side. The hit detection is kind of wonky too, on both sides. Despite this, I found it more fun than those games. There’s a sense of strategy, balancing the act of keeping charges in the water with having enough reserves to deal with unexpected and unpredictable shallow-sailing subs. The sound design is excellent, and the animations, though few in number, are pretty elaborate considering this is a game from 1977.

GAB rating: Above Average. I like it, but don’t feel too strongly about it.

The majority of VIC Dual games were also developed by Gremlin, until late 1978, when they merged with Sega.

Game 117: Deep Scan

The original version of Deep Scan is not emulated in MAME, but rather MAME emulates a dual-game machine with Deep Scan and Invinco; Sega’s take on Space Invaders (as seems was standard for all Japanese developers of the day). Deep Scan’s sound effects, sadly, are not emulated or sampled.

It’s a remake of Depthcharge, but abandons the penny arcade structure in favor of the now more familiar format where you play until you run out of lives. To ensure that you do run out of lives at some point, the subs get more numerous and more aggressive as they start to get away.

Compared to Depthcharge, Deep Scan plays a bit faster, has more colorful graphics, albeit with less animation. Hit detection now appears to be pixel-accurate, which makes hitting subs much harder. Subs now become destroyed instantly, and do not block multiple charges, which actually discourages cluster bombing, as all but one will probably miss and leave you disarmed until they hit the bottom of the ocean. Once subs start getting away, they’ll become more numerous, and therefore more of them will get away, quickly and exponentially ramping up the difficulty until survival is impossible.

The destruction bonus is now 50 points per sub, but it is no longer automatically gained at the end; you must hit a red submarine to cash in, and taking a hit costs you the entire bonus. The bonus far outstrips points gained normally, but I wasn’t able to achieve it even once.

I don’t especially like the positive feedback loop mechanic, where small errors quickly beget more and more errors until the difficulty reaches critical mass and you’re screwed. Arcade games must have some built-in mechanism for ending the game to keep the quarters flowing, but I’d rather difficulty spikes come from player success than player failure.

GAB rating: Average. It has positive points, but I like it less than Depthcharge, and still don’t feel all that strongly about it.

Game 118: Carnival

A shooting gallery video game, with some gimmicks made possible by the video game format.

The bezel provides some instructions:

There are actually two bonuses – one for hitting all of the pipes, which starts out large, and decreases over time, and another for spelling B-O-N-U-S, which starts out small, and increases with each target you hit (but stops increasing once you hit the B, and is forfeit if you hit any of the letters out of order). In addition, sometimes a yellow frame with bonus bullets or points appears, and can be worth upwards of 500 points or the bullet equivalent if you hit it fast enough, which is as good as a reasonably quick pipe bonus.

Ducks are a real nuisance, and ensure that you can’t just sit in one spot and hit the pipes at leisure. And the B-O-N-U-S letters just seem to be ridiculously easy to hit when unintended, therefore ruining the spelling bonus, but nigh-impossible to hit when you’re just trying to hit them so you can clear the board and finish the round.

GAB rating: Average.

I found this game more annoying than fun. Things are always getting in the way or being a distraction. That’s where the difficulty comes from, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying to play. And while it was nice of them to provide a way to turn off that annoying carnival music, it’s just a time-waster as you have to move all the way to the far right of the screen and shoot the music box to turn it off, and it turns back on again at the beginning of the next round. It’s fun enough that I can rate it Average, but also annoying enough that I can’t rate it more than that.

Game 119: Space Fury

Sega’s take on Asteroids is frantic, chaotic, and colorful, but what might be its most notable feature (apart from allegedly tending to catch on fire!) is the almost alarmingly clear voice synthesis, which emotes and inflects, even if does sound more like a Buzz Lightyear toy than a fearsome alien warlord. Sound emulation isn’t perfect – it’s too fast, too high pitched, and clips at the end of each syllable, but even with these flaws it’s still almost uncanny considering the era.

The game itself feels pretty wack. To finish a wave, you have to destroy all onscreen enemies before reinforcements come, and reinforcements seem to come almost immediately when you start shooting, and hit detection on both sides is unreliable, so you just wind up spraying and praying. Between rounds, you have the option of picking a “dock” to upgrade your weapon capabilities, and woe betide you should you overshoot your target and begin a round without one – you will in effect be doomed, unable to take on the endlessly respawning destroyers with your stock pea shooter.

Each of the three upgrades, when taken, will be unavailable for the next phase, until you have taken each one, at which point they’ll all be available again. The blue upgrade, which allows triple forward-fire, is clearly the best, and therefore best saved for the very difficult wave 4. Once wave 4 is completed, if you have taken all three upgrades, then all three upgrades come back and you can take the blue one again for the fifth round against the “entire fleet,” which as far as I can tell is endless.

GAB rating: Below Average

It’s inoffensive, but the play is marred by weird mechanics, poor hit detection and is otherwise unremarkable.

Game 120: Turbo

This strikes me as a pseudo-3D remake of Monaco GP, an earlier TTL-based Sega game that through some voodoo accomplishes more graphical tricks than should be possible without a CPU.

You’re driving in a very long endurance race against seemingly unlimited opponents, all of them incapable of hitting high gear. Passing them wouldn’t be a problem, except that they drive like they’re drunk and it’s easy to slam into them, again and again, costing precious seconds. Your goal is to pass 40 before time runs out, which grants extended play, but with a nasty surprise; now crashing kills you. Lose two lives, and your extended play (and game) is over.

Like Monaco GP, controls are twitchy and annoying, and crashes just don’t feel avoidable. I played with a keyboard, as I don’t have a steering wheel, but I don’t think a wheel would have helped much; the crashes came less often from my inability to control the car and more often from my inability to predict where all those road hogs were going to be as I tried to not be there when it happened. The constant perspective changes are kind of neat, but the transitions are abrupt and jarring, and another source of unavoidable crashes.

GAB rating: Below Average, for the sum of its annoying play mechanics.

Game 121: Zaxxon

Sega’s earliest whale is, according to Wikipedia, the very first video game to employ an axonometric projection to convey a 3D effect. Mathematically, all isometric projection is axonometric, but not all axonometric projection is isometric. In true isometric perspective, any two lines that would intersect at 90 degrees in the 3D space will intersect at exactly 120 degrees in the 2D projection.

True isometric perspective is rare in video games, and most of the games labeled this way are merely axonometric, but Zaxxon is in fact both.

And this seems like an odd choice for this kind of game, a 3D variant of Scramble. Gauging depth is nearly impossible in a truly isometric perspective, and this is a critical skill in a shmup. To aim at your enemies, or avoid crashing into the terrain, you must know where your ship is relative to these things. An altimeter on display doesn’t help very much, as it doesn’t really indicate anything relative to the terrain.

Fortunately, there are a few tools; your shadow indicates the ship’s X,Y position, and most of your targets are on the ground – pity your only weapon is a laser gun, and you don’t have bombs! The laser gun also helps determine your position relative to the terrain; often you must pass through a small opening in a wall, but firing your laser gun will either impact on the wall or pass through the opening, as will your ship on its unadjusted trajectory.

Once you understand how to deal with brick walls, you’re fairly safe in the air. But, if you spend too much time at a high altitude, a homing missile will fly right at you, so it’s best to stay at low altitude where you can shoot at the ground targets for points and fuel, as you do in Scramble. Fuel drums are wide targets but must be hit close to the center to count, while merely brushing up against them is enough to kill you. High scoring targets are risky; laser guns pointed in your direction don’t shoot often, but if they do, dodging may be impossible. The most valuable targets are the satellite dishes, which are often out of the way and close to dangerous terrain, requiring fancy flying to swoop in, shoot them down and swoop out fast enough to pass through the next obstacle without crashing into it.

But at the midpoint of the loop, forget it. There, you’ll encounter a dogfight against up to 20 fighters in deep space, and without shadows as a visual aid there’s just no good way to align them in your sights. The game cheats on the isometric projection a bit by enlarging or shrinking the sprites as they climb or dive, which doesn’t normally occur during a true isometric projection, but it’s not enough. Your fighter also displays a targeting reticle, complete with an audible ding, when a fighter is in your sights, but they’ll fly out of your sights too quickly for human reaction time. Fortunately, their shots are just as unlikely to hit you as yours are to hit them, so flying around wildly and shooting a lot, hitting whenever you happen to, seems to get pretty good results.

At the end of the loop, you’ll face Lego Robby the Robot, who is indestructible and armed with a single homing missile. Shoot the missile six times and it will explode, and cause the robot to run away, granting you a pathetically small 200 point bonus. It’s not terribly difficult, but you don’t have much time to find the correct altitude and alignment for blasting it out of its launcher, a task aided by your shadow and laser impact points on the robot itself.

Then, the loop repeats on a higher difficulty.

GAB rating: Above Average

Zaxxon has a pretty steep learning curve, but I had fun with it once I learned how to survive for longer than a few seconds. It won’t make my list of all-time greats – it hasn’t got the gameplay depth of Defender and Stargate, or the variety of Scramble and Super Cobra – but it was entertaining enough for a few hours.

Interestingly, despite its importance as an early hit, Sega hasn’t done much to revisit this IP. There aren’t very many 3D shmups out there, but with a polygonal 3D engine, I could see Zaxxon working out as one, and a true 3D perspective would solve some of the issues plaguing the original. In fact, Coleco used a pseudo-3D, behind-the-ship forward-scrolling perspective when they ported Zaxxon to the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. Sega would use the same perspective and also support stereoscopic 3D glasses in their much later Master System port. The next and final Zaxxon game, on Sega’s failed 32X console, did in fact use 3D polygons. Paradoxically, it lacked 3D gameplay, confining the action to a flat isometric-projected plane.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Intermission: 1981/1982

With early SNK games posted, my 1981 phase is done. I started with a horizontally scrolling arcade shmupoid, ended with a horizontally scrolling arcade shmup, and it’s been a little over six months in between them.

That first game I played of 1981, Defender, was also one of the best. Ruthlessly difficult, and yet fairer than most, Defender is notorious for an average novice playtime of ten seconds, killing off most of its players before they can even come to grips with its complex controls and objectives. With practice, I felt I gained a mastery over Defender, lasting longer and having more control than in most Atari games. Defender is generous with lives and weapons, failure always felt like it was my own fault, and yet maintains high difficulty even with proficiency.

Ms. Pac-Man was the other arcade-style game of standout high quality. Pac-Man is classic for a reason. Ms. Pac-Man makes it fresh all over again with more mazes, faster play, and aggressive ghosts that aren’t afraid to make you feel overwhelmed.

Wizardry and the games leading up to it took nearly two months to cover. I spent about one month playing the PLATO predecessors to Galactic Attack – Sir-Tech’s first game, Galactic Attack itself, and then Wizardry’s PLATO predecessors Moria and Oubliette. Wizardry itself took me two weeks to finish, and afterwards I went into the most in-depth data and mechanics analysis I’ve ever done for a game before.

Wizardry itself, in spite of a minimal presentation and a rushed feel in the second half, is easily the best CRPG I’ve played on Data Driven Gamer yet. The dungeons are well designed and fun to explore, character development is complex and satisfying, combat is nail-bitingly tactical, and feels well sized for the amount of content within. Gamers with even mild archaeophobia might prefer to play this game on a system other than the Apple II where it was first conceived, where niceties like improved interface, fewer bugs, more graphics, and automaps are available, but even if it had never been ported or remade, I would still regard it as among the best games of the era.

During this phase of Data Driven Gamer, I started using a rating system, and posted retroactive rating digests titled “Ahab GABs.” Moving forward, I will rate games in my initial posts about them, but for now, I will post my final Ahab GABs, right here.

Defender, Ms. Pac-Man, and Wizardry were the best games of the year, and I award them harpoons in recognition of this. Of the others, read on.

Arcades in spades

I played 24 arcade games in my 1981 phase, plus two non-arcade games that feel like they belong here.

I already mentioned that Defender and Ms. Pac-Man were top dogs, so no further discussion is needed.

Konami’s Scramble and Super Cobra, two very similar games released very close to each other in time, are fun, if technically unimpressive shmupoids, closer in style to Gradius than Defender. Donkey Kong is legendary, though I found it too unfair to qualify for a harpoon. Galaga is often considered better than Galaxian, but I like it about the same, for reasons both similar and different. Gorf is a strange hodgepodge of space shooter minigames, but they’re (mostly) good ones and I enjoyed it. Stargate is like Defender, but crazier. These are all Good games.

Nintendo’s Space Fever is a decent Space Invaders clone, with three game modes offering some variety, but the best of them is the one that plays most like Space Invaders, so I can’t really rate it as high. Similarly, Super Missile Attack, an unauthorized gameplay mod of Missile Command, is fun but only subtlely different from the base game, and I couldn’t rank it as high as the original when most of what makes it fun was already done by Atari in the first place. Sierra’s Crossfire, though not an arcade game, plays like one, and while it’s fun, performs well, and is innovative enough to stand out, plenty of actual arcade games of the era are better and just as accessible today. SNK’s Sasuke Vs. Commander is the least ambitious of its early games that I played, but the most polished and the most fun. All of these games rank Above Average.

I had no strong feelings about Konami’s Kamikaze and Frogger, or Nintendo’s Sheriff. QIX is interesting but I always felt success came at the mercy of the QIX’s random movements. Tempest is utter chaos. Exidy’s Circus is an interesting twist on Breakout, but not really better or worse. Venture feels like it would be better as a console game, as its exploration-based gameplay doesn’t lend itself well to a fair difficulty curve, and fighting its jittery monsters quickly got annoying. Nintendo’s Ball is another arcade-like game, albeit much simpler, and was fun for a few minutes but obviously isn’t meant to suck up hours of your time. SNK’s early games Ozma Wars and Vanguard offer interesting twists on their genres, marred somewhat by technical jank. These games all rank Average.

Atari’s Avalanche was a bit like Breakout but worse, despite controlling well. Radar Scope was like Galaxian but worse. Exidy’s Robot Bowl was trivial, and Targ was massively unfair. These games rank Below Average, and Robot Bowl is borderline Bad, saved only by its short playtime and its lack of anything that caused offense or annoyance.

Stella turns four

None of the Atari VCS games of the 1981 phase were terrific, but the best of them was Missile Command, a surprisingly functional port of the arcade game. It’s still a downgrade, but complete enough that I can rank it Above Average.

Activision’s Fishing Derby was kind of fun if simplistic in typical VCS fashion, and Kaboom! was certainly an improvement on Avalanche. I rank them both Average.

Activision’s Boxing is Below Average, offering less room for strategy than typical two-player Atari games of the system.

Bookending this list is Atari’s other best-selling arcade port, Asteroids. Stripped down to the point of only passing resemblance, it has none of the fun or excitement of the original. It’s just Bad.

PLATO and Sir-Tech’s Roots

I spent a lot of time playing the games on PLATO which had a strong influence on Sir-Tech’s early games.

Sir-Tech’s first game, Galactic Attack, kept me hooked until I was able to finish conquering the solar system, but it does suffer from excessive downtime spent waiting while your ship cruises between the planets, and isn't as strategically deep as it ought to be. I rate it Average.

I could not rate the PLATO games that directly influenced Galactic Attack, as they are multiplayer-only games. The RTS Conquest and ship shooter Empire III are completely dead online. On the other hand, Empire IV, which Galactic Attack most strongly takes after, still has an active multiplayer community. As of my initial post on it, it still plays every Sunday night, and I got a few rounds in, but the top players are so skilled and the learning curve so steep that I never felt I had a chance of experiencing the game as more than cannon fodder.

Of the two games that led up to Wizardry, Moria is Below Average; a depressingly large dungeon crawler with nothing much of note to discover in its repetitively designed 240-odd dungeon levels. Oubliette is tantalizing, a complete-feeling multiplayer RPG with a reasonably-sized dungeon, explorable town, and extensive tactics, monsters, gears, and spells reminiscent of Wizardry, but it isn’t balanced for solo play, and the multiplayer scene is gone. I can’t rate it.

Wizardry vs. Ultima

1981 was the beginning of long-running duel between two classic RPG series. For many players, my former self included, Wizardry and Ultima are where CRPG history begins.

Ultima, sadly, lost this first round. The series holds a special place in my heart, and I’d rank this first game Good in spite of its shallowness relative to its breadth, but the bugs, uneven difficulty curve, and most of all, the slow, slow movement really hampered my enjoyment, and knocks my rating down to Average. A later remake and its more widely played DOS port would improve, but I am rating the 1981 original here.

Graphics are for suckers

Infocom was once again in their own league. Zork II was undoubtedly the best adventure of 1981. No harpoon – Zork I was the better game, but Zork II is still Good despite some stinker puzzles. World design is varied and yet cohesive, writing is up to Infocom’s lofty standards, the parser is still incredible considering nobody else had yet figured out how to move beyond the standard VERB-NOUN interface, and some of the puzzles actually involve commands complex enough to take advantage of this.

Of the rest of the games, The Cranston Manor Adventure (the text-only version) was the next best, a faithful, if unimaginative Colossal Cave-style adventure, which benefited from a decent map layout but suffered from just a few too many annoying gameplay mechanics. I rank it Average.

Softporn Adventure was tolerable as an adventure but mostly failed at being funny, if that was even the intention. Cranston Manor (the graphical remake) was less annoying than its inspiration, but also less interesting, and coming straight from the original game, felt too familiar. I rank both Below Average.

The Demon’s Forge and Ulysses and the Golden Fleece are among the worst adventure games I’ve ever played in my life, but not for all of the same reasons. The Demon’s Forge has a completely arbitrary parser that needs you to guess the exact pair of words Brian Fargo happened to be thinking of at the moment and isn’t consistent, accepting “SEARCH BODY” and “LOOK COSTUME” but not “LOOK BODY” or “SEARCH COSTUME.” Puzzles are as obtuse as they get even when it isn’t the parser’s fault (though it usually is), and the graphics are bad enough to interfere with gameplay. Ulysses’ meager puzzle content is padded out with endless mazes, including one where breadcrumbing is impossible and you’ll be punished for using a map, it’s full of spiteful design such as thieves that steal your items if you wander into the wrong part of the map (one of them a seagull that takes everything you’re carrying), multiple unmotivated actions like bribing a guard who isn’t in your way or saying magic words at specific moments, and of course the fact that the lantern at the beginning of the game is neither useful nor required, even though you have to explore a cave in the midgame, and you’ll get stuck in an unwinnable game state if you take it. Needless to say, I rate both games Bad, and hope this is the nadir of my delving into the genre.

Maze Game: Escape from Castle Wolfenstein

Castle Wolfenstein is among the most famous games of the era, but I didn’t like it much, due to baffling controls, unforgiving difficulty, several strange gameplay decisions, and most of all, the tedious requirement of opening almost every footlocker in the castle in order to have a chance of advancing in rank. Credit is given for its innovations and legacy as one of the first stealth games, but overall I rank it Below Average.

Its predecessors Maze Game and Escape! fare worse. Maze Game is slow and lacks any interesting gameplay elements, while Escape! expands on the concept with an underdeveloped logic puzzle and random encounters that can ruin your game, which you can’t do much to influence or react to. I rank them both Bad, though seeing 3D raycasting on the Apple II is a cute trick for a little while.

Strategy on 16K

Lastly, there were six strategy games, all of them distributed on tape, all using 16KB of RAM.

The best of them was Chris Crawford’s Tanktics, which despite completely lacking graphics and relying on an external physical map for gameplay, felt the most like a modern wargame. The AI is pretty bad, and gameplay options limited, but I can comfortably rate it Above Average, with the caveat that thanks to the involved tabletop setup required, most people will not want to play this.

Football Manager is clean-looking and data-oriented, which are good things in my book, but short on options and therefore not deep with regards to strategy. Midway Campaign feels more sophisticated than it probably is, and outcomes are much more influenced by luck than your own tactical decisions. Galactic Empires and Galaxy are barely different games, better as multiplayer than solo, though I did enjoy playing Galaxy’s hardest scenario after I “fixed” the code to eliminate gunnery factor and fog of war. I rank these games Average.

B-1 Nuclear Bomber is definitely the worst of these games, not for any particular offense, but because it’s just so easy and trivial. It’s Below Average, and the thinnest veneer of sophistication and the absence of frustration keep it from sliding into Bad territory, but just barely.

That’s it for this final GAB digest. It’s interesting how mediocre most of non-arcade games were. Almost half of the 50 games that I rated were arcade titles. Of the 26 non-arcade titles, only two were ranked Good, only three Above Average, and of those three, two were arcade-style games for home systems.

Looking ahead at the lineup for 1982, it’s going to be an even longer phase than 1981, with about 45 whales, over a dozen introducing companies and their accompanying backlogs. None of these games are especially long – Wizardry II is likely to be the longest – but we’re not yet at the phase when personal computer games could offer substantially more content than their mainframe ancestors.

Some of the companies that will be introduced by their 1982 games include:
  • Sega, one of the oldest arcade game companies in the world, for Zaxxon
  • Imagic, for Demon Attack
  • Cinematronics, a pioneer of vector hardware, whose 1980 game Star Castle inspired Atari’s Yars’ Revenge
  • Sunsoft, a lower-tier arcade developer who would years later become a force in the third party console scene
  • Irem, for Moon Patrol
  • Parker Brothers, for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
  • Data East, for BurgerTime
  • Universal, for Mr. Do!
  • Broderbund, for Choplifter!
  • BudgeCo, for Pinball Construction Set
  • subLOGIC, famous for Flight Simulator, but introduced here for Night Mission Pinball of all things
  • Llamasoft, for Gridrunner
  • Beam Software, for The Hobbit

A number of trends and firsts (for Data Driven Gamer) pop up in 1982 as well:
  • A total absence of mainframe-originated games, unless you count Zork III (I don’t)
  • The first games made for the IBM PC
  • No fewer than three Atari games famous mainly for being awful
  • Multiple Apple II pinball games
  • The first personal computer flight simulator
  • Arcade games with parallax scrolling
  • The first official Star Wars video game
  • Games featuring graphic nudity
  • The first game made for Japanese personal computers
  • The first Australian computer game
  • A trend of games having exclamation marks in their titles!

I’ll skip one exclamation-marked game here; Pitfall!, as I’ve already beaten that game by finding all of the treasures within the 20 minute time limit, and wouldn’t especially care to do that again.

I have one question, looking ahead at the list. Can anyone recommend a decent steering wheel for MAME? I don’t want to spend a huge amount of money, and something like the Logitech G29 is just too much. The Microsoft Sidewinder looks good enough, and the price is about right, but how does it perform in games like Pole Position?

Monday, December 2, 2019

Games 113-115: Early SNK

Buy Ozma Wars, Sasuke Vs Commander, Vanguard, and 20+ later titles in the SNK 40th Anniversary:

I’m breaking my own rules a bit here. This is the final post in my 1981 phase, and normally, all games in a post are related to a whale that came out in the year of the corresponding phase. I’ve used Super Cobra to introduce Konami, Kaboom! to introduce Activision, Donkey Kong to introduce Nintendo, and Venture to introduce (and conclude) Exidy. In all cases, I had used the company’s earliest whale, and selected a small number of preceding games to accompany the post.

SNK’s earliest whale is 1986’s Ikari Warriors, not 1981’s Vanguard, but the 1986 phase is so far away, that Vanguard just feels like the more appropriate game to use as an introduction to the company.

The early history of SNK is a bit obscure. Multiple sources state that before expanding into developing coin-operated video games, they produced electronics and software for business purposes. Wikipedia states they were founded in 1973 and went through a public reorganization in 1978, launching as “Shin Nihon Kikaku,” but doesn’t say much about what they were doing during these first few years of private operation.

Ozma Wars is often cited as their first video game, released in Japan in 1979. But recently, the existence of some earlier games has come to light, courtesy of Frank Cifaldi of The Video Game History Foundation.

Unplayed: Micon Kit

In 2018, during the production of the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, Cifaldi posted a Twitter thread concerning a number of lost SNK titles, including their very earliest “Micon Kit” machines. Like so many other early works on Japanese corporations who dipped their toes into the world of coin-op video games in the late 70's, these too are Breakout variants.

Micon Kit 1

Micon Kit 2

Space Micon Kit

Brandon Sheffield, who was also involved in the SNK 40th Anniversary collection, located a functioning cocktail cabinet in Nagano, and posted information in a Twitter thread as well.

Interestingly, this machine turned out to be CPU-based. “Micon,” in fact, is a Japanese abbreviation for “microcomputer,” and the implication is that logistical difficulties notwithstanding, this shouldn’t be terribly difficult to emulate. But logistical difficulties withstanding, namely, getting this rare machine into the hands of someone with the ability to write such an emulator, I wouldn’t count on it anytime soon.

Unplayed: Yosaku

Scan by SNK Fandom wiki

This game is so obscure that it isn’t even listed on Mobygames. SNK 40th Anniversary Collection and Wikipedia both place it before Ozma Wars chronologically.

Inspired by a pop song about a lumberjack, you must chop down three trees while avoiding forest critters and falling branches. It’s among the rarest Japanese arcade games, and is unemulated.

Amazingly, there is gameplay footage on Youtube.

SNK would much later remake this game for the Neo Geo Pocket, as a secret minigame in King of Fighters: Battle de Paradise.

Game 113: Ozma Wars

Running on the same hardware as Taito’s Space Invaders from a year earlier, Ozma Wars looks and plays much like it, but with enough forward-thinking ideas to stand out. There’s a variety of enemies here, which pitch and weave and use different tactics against you. Enemies are constantly spawning from the top of the screen and diving at you, on the bottom, making it almost like a vertically scrolling shmup, except that you have no vertical movement control. Instead of having multiple lives, you have an energy meter, which gradually ticks down as you fly and fire, drains very rapidly when you take hits, and refills somewhat in between levels, as your spaceship docks and refuels from a carrier.

Ozma Wars’ most famous innovation is having meaningfully different levels, with alien attack patterns distinctly varying on each discrete stage. But I think this property pales next to the innovation of having such a wide variety of enemy types, each with different attack formations, weapons, and animations.

This is one of the few arcade games where I decided to use official emulation rather than MAME. MAME, unfortunately, does not emulate the sound correctly, and instead as a placeholder, plays the Space Invaders' ear-splitting UFO whine on a permanent loop. What were they thinking? The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection uses proper sound effects. Are they authentic? Hell if I know, but it’s so much more pleasant to listen to than the MAME loop is.

I had a good run, seeing all four of the attack patterns, but then the final player kill was pure bull; the boss just teleported directly above me and smashed my atoms into particles with a barrage of unavoidable projectiles. Bosses are the most difficult part of the game, showering you with ordinance that blocks your shots and provides little opportunity to slip through or fire a shot that lands through, and as there’s no mercy invincibility, you can easily take multiple consecutive hits and end your game no matter how well you performed on the waves before. But this one didn’t even give me a chance!

Ozma Wars may be a bit too ahead of its time. The Space Invaders hardware is clearly struggling to keep up with the action, with slowdown and sprite flicker the normal state of gameplay, and sudden speedups when the screen is partly cleared. While Space Invaders made this an asset by deliberately speeding up the invaders once their ranks started to thin, here it just feels like the machine is straining. Slowdown affects everything; your ship movement, your laser shots, your rate of energy consumption, and sprite flicker hurts gameplay, as enemy ships will randomly blink out of existence, causing your shots to move past them. I enjoyed the game's innovations, but the technical issues got in my way more than they should have.

GAB rating: Average

Energy consumption is crucial to this game, but feels very random thanks to being tied to the game’s inconsistent speed. These are my rough measures:
  • 160 units consumed per second (idling)
  • 50 units consumed per second moving (cumulative with idle consumption)
  • 30 units consumed per shot fired
  • 100 units consumed per escaped enemy
  • 8,000 units consumed when hit by a meteor or bomb
  • 8,000 - 10,000 units consumed when hit by a laser
  • 15,000 units consumed when hit by a UFO
  • 20,000 units consumed when hit by a comet
  • 15,000 max units recharged between levels

Basically, think of every 10,000 points as a life, and never let any of the UFO’s hit you, not even the smallest ones. If you don’t get hit, then you can play through a level sloppily and still come out slightly ahead when you recharge.

In 1980, SNK would release a sequel, Atom Smasher, but unlike Ozma Wars it is unemulated, and doesn’t even have a Mobygames entry.

Game 114: Sasuke Vs Commander

A peculiar game, credited by Mobygames to Tose Co.; a Japanese developer who almost exclusively takes outsourcing jobs and rarely accepts credit.

I don’t know who “Commander” is, but you, Sasuke, are a green-kimonoed, red-haired bodyguard, and must fight an army of ninjas bent on killing the shogun. At least that’s what the shogun tells you in the intro, which had me imagine something along the lines of Namco’s King & Balloon, but the shogun needn’t be protected; the ninjas only seem to be interested in killing you. Fail, and Sasuke trips over a rock.

It’s another vertical shooter, with some obvious influence from Galaxian. The ninjas are agile, colorful foes, flying through the treetops as they hurl deadly shurikens in your direction, and there are little things such as the sound effects and the tally of kunai in the lower-right corner to indicate the current wave. Although there are relatively few ninjas on-screen at a time, they attack almost constantly. There are no periods of calm as in Galaxian; if you don’t move right away, you’ll be dead within a few seconds of starting. But despite the ninjas' thin ranks, they’re easy to hit, as their movements aren't erratic, and their hitboxes are rather wide. Sometimes it’s better to ease up, though, as you can also be killed if the body of a dead ninja falls on you, and you can easily get overwhelmed with too many things falling at once. It may be better, on occasion, to let a ninja escape than to let its body become yet another falling thing that you have to worry about dodging. Unlike Galaxian's aliens, shooting ninjas at point blank is a very bad idea!

Between waves, you must fight a boss who will use magic against you. Here, you won’t lose any lives if you fail, but may gain thousands of points if you kill it quickly enough. The bosses add some variety, as there are at least three types; a fire magic user, a doppelganger spinner (the shurikens tossed by his illusions are just as deadly as those from the real one), and one that tosses swords at you, which embed in the earth and then explode.

Starting on the third wave, Sasuke starts throwing two kunai at once. Shades of Galaga, perhaps? It doesn’t make a huge difference, as if one hits, the other usually hits too, but occasionally you can kill two ninjas with one throw.

My best attempt got me to round five, and scored 27,000 points.

Sasuke Vs Commander is perhaps a simpler game than Ozma Wars, with most of the game spent fighting swarms of two types of ninjas who differ mainly by speed and aggression, but it plays more smoothly, and I think is overall more fun.

GAB rating: Above Average

Game 115: Vanguard

Also credited to Tose Co, Vanguard is one of multiple side-scrolling shmups released in 1981, others including Konami’s Scramble and Super Cobra, Universal’s Cosmic Avenger, and most famously Williams’ shmupoids Defender and Stargate.

Of the ones that I’ve played, Vanguard feels the most like Scramble; you have a fuel meter, which is refilled by destroying targets, and also features stage-based level design, each stage with its own terrain style, enemy lineup, and even scrolling direction. One stage, full of stationary targets just sitting there for you to lay waste to, feels very much like it was lifted from a similar stage in Scramble.

In what could be a nod to Super Cobra, Vanguard also allows you to continue when you run out of lives for the price of another coin, but only during the first loop.

I was able to beat the first loop, which culminates in a boss battle (which oddly makes me think of the MCP in TRON), without having to do this.

Everything about this game, however, feels slightly bad. Being able to fire in four directions is a neat innovation, anticipating Robotron (and resembling the otherwise unsimilar Crossfire), but nothing feels quite right. Hitboxes are off, sprites clash, the laser doesn’t feel satisfying to use, diagonal scrolling produces garbage tiles on the edges of the screen, and enemy movement just feels random. The laser gun has a tendency to pass right through enemies if they’re close enough to your ship! Fortunately, the game is a bit on the easy side, which mitigates the frustration a lot. The first phase can be completed with an invincibility powerup active for almost the entire duration.

GAB rating: Average

These early games by SNK are all innovative, all a touch easy, and also all kind of janky feeling, looking, sounding, and feeling mechanically worse than their contemporaries. It’s an interesting contrast to the later Neo Geo games that I more associate with the company, which are polished and way ahead of the competition on a technical level, but at their best feel very derivative, and at their most innovative are a bit boring.

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