Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Game 229: Miner

As I begin writing this, Digital Antiquarian had just about a week ago published an extremely unpunctual article on 1983's Lode Runner (of which Miner is a prototype) despite having stopped covering that era almost eight years ago. Coincidence, or did Jimmy Maher scan my whaling log for backlog material and then beat me to the punch? Probably coincidence, but it's fun to speculate.

After Maher's typically well-sourced and riveting account of its development, there's no point to describe the game's history in detail again, but here's a short version. James Bratsanos, a student of UW, developed a game Suicide on his Commodore PET in c1980-1981, based on a friend's second-hand description of an arcade game that he never played. The next year, he rewrote it on the university's VAX-11 computers as Kong. It is described it as a monochrome ASCII game about navigating a 2D maze of platforms and ladders, collecting gold, being chased by monsters, and digging holes to trap them. Fellow student Doug Smith closely remade that game on his Apple II as Miner, and submitted a copy to Broderbund, who rejected it for publication. Smith made an improved second version, with color graphics and sound. It was accepted, and reworked into a third version, released commercially as Lode Runner to avoid confusion with the similarly titled Miner 2049er which was by then available on the Apple II.

Bratsanos has said in interviews that the arcade game described to him was Donkey Kong, but Jimmy Maher believes it more likely that his friend described Universal's Space Panic, that he renamed his game Kong when Nintendo's smash hit landed in the summer of 1981, and years later misremembered the actual order of events, falsely conflating the memory of Donkey Kong's success into Suicide's genesis. Neither Suicide nor Kong exist any longer as far as I know, but they represent the earliest germ of Lode Runner, and given its much stronger similarities to Space Panic than Donkey Kong, I concur with Maher's interpretation. Interestingly, Broderbund had previously published Apple Panic, an unauthorized port of Space Panic.

Smith's original version of Miner appears to be lost, like Bratsanos' game that inspired it, but the second version that got Broderbund's attention is available on Asimov. And I will cover it as an ancestor.

After I started, I quickly concluded that an early level here is impossible to finish, and the in-game level skip function doesn't seem to work. Fortunately, the levels are easily edited, and I've made my fixed version available here:
https://drive.google.com/uc?authuser=0&id=1WFSzEfdoLG_XSfT0AGVNSnTxsdh96-WJ&export=download


I've never played the original Lode Runner before, but I had played a demo of the Windows sequel. I quickly found that in this prototype, all of the basic elements are already here. Climb ladders, dig to the left and right to trap monsters, collect all of the gold on the level, and escape once you do.


 

It's reminiscent of Space Panic on a superficial level - you run through a stage made out of bricks and ladders while being chased by monsters, and can dig pits to trap them or descend yourself, but the differences all work in Miner's favor.

  • Space Panic was sunk by unreliable controls and random monster behavior that made it a crapshoot to complete your task of killing them. Here monsters behave deterministically, though not always sensibly. The result is monsters that chase you a lot more aggressively, at least when they can figure out a path, and therefore can be reliably lured into your traps with proper planning and execution
  • On that note, the goal isn't even to trap the monsters, but to get the gold. If you can't trap the monsters, you can probably evade them instead. That said, they can collect gold too, and when this happens you'll need to trap them to get it back.
  • The level design is much more varied, more puzzle-oriented, and more interesting. Digging is just as much a tool for navigating the levels as it is a tool for trapping monsters. The fact that you can't dig straight down makes it often necessary to plan several moves ahead or risk digging yourself into a corner from which you can't get out.

 

Not the least most important difference is that the controls are vastly better than Space Panic's, and the tile-based level design and controls absolve you of the pixel-precision that Space Panic demanded. The controls aren't by any means perfect, and you'll definitely want to use joystick mode over keyboard, as the twitchy keyboard movement scheme can easily send you sprinting right past ladders and ledges with a single key tap. Even on joystick mode, I died several times because the game dropped lightly tapped directional inputs, or registered a push longer than intended and moved me two spaces when I only meant to move one, but it's still much better than Space Panic, and it's also generous enough with bonus lives that you can afford the occasional deadly mishap.


Level 03 is the unbeatable one, owing to both a bug and some level design errors.


First, there is a bug that makes it impossible to grab some of the gold. The two leftmost pieces and the two in the center can only be reached by dropping onto the floating platforms from the hangbars above. Unfortunately, landing on the gold from these bars causes it to disappear without awarding points or credit for collecting it, making the level unwinnable. This can be fixed by raising the corresponding bars up a tile.

Second, after collecting the gold on the rightmost platform, it is impossible to reach the ladder to the right, or to return to any of the platforms on the left. This is fixed by extending the ladder's length downward.

Miner does have a level editor on the disk, but it lacks any preview function, and it's much easier just to extract the level file in text format, tweak it in Notepad, and put it back on the disk. This is what I did.

Revised stage

There are 20 levels in total, beginning with level 00, and when you reach 20, it loops back to the design of level 01, though the counter keeps increasing.

I made it to level 20 on my second real attempt and recorded the playthrough. During the latter half I am beating levels 12 through 19 for my first time, so I make a lot of mistakes that aren't edited out or undone with save states. I'd still earned enough bonus lives from the previous levels that I could reach level 20 with a surplus - this game isn't all that hard. The resulting playthrough video is a bit more authentic than most, as you can see me struggle with unfamiliar puzzles and layouts and fail repeatedly as I gradually figure things out, rather than demonstrate obtained proficiency from start to finish.

 

GAB rating: Above Average. Miner needs a bit of polish in the controls and graphics department, but the planted seeds of a winner are already evident. Kong and Smith's original prototype modeled after it may be lost, but it's easy to see why Broderbund took immediate interest in snatching this one up and fine-tuning it into a commercial-quality product.

Up next is Lode Runner, and I must admit I'm a bit apprehensive. Miner's 20 levels already feel like they exhaust the gameplay possibilities that the engine allows. Lode Runner, as far as I know, introduces no new gameplay mechanics, it merely tightens up the existing ones, and this is supposed to sustain itself for 150 levels? I've been pleasantly surprised before, but the notion of enduring this much Lode Runner sounds exhausting. We'll see in the new year.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Game 228: Elevator Action

Why did Taito think we would want to play a game about elevators? Elevators are the opposite of action. The term elevator music is used as a metaphor for anything boring and uninteresting. Sales performance, nonetheless, proved they were right.


You play Agent Otto, a guy who looks like a silver fox in the title screen but an ordinary shlub ingame, which would be perfect for a secret agent, but unfortunately for him, everywhere he goes is infested with fedora-wearing counter-agents who want to kill him. Your mission is to infiltrate a 30-story tower by entering from the roof, descend to the basement, stealing all of the intelligence along the way, all of it kept in rooms marked with red doors, and escape in the getaway car parked in the basement's garage.

Your main method of descent is an overly complicated network of ridiculously unsafe elevators. Some floors have stairs, but for the most part you'll be riding lifts down the shafts. Counter-agents will shoot you on sight, but their bullets can be easily ducked under, or somewhat less easily jumped over, and they aren't so good at evading your return fire. In later levels they'll learn how to go prone, which will evade even your crouching shots, but eventually they'll stand up, or you can shoot them while descending. Trying to guess whether they'll aim low or high can be a problem sometimes; most of the time it's high, but you can't easily jump from a crouching position. You also can't crouch on the elevators, but you can change direction as they shoot at you.

An oft-noted tactic is shooting the lights out, but I'm not really sure what this accomplishes. You'll still get shot at in the dark.

I cleared three buildings and scored 32,550 points before getting bored.

 

GAB rating: Above Average. Elevator Action is a bit slow paced, repetitive, and primitive looking, but quite playable and there's a bit more depth here than it seems. There's just not much longevity.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Game 227: Crystal Castles

Buy Crystal Castles and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/400020/Atari_Vault/

What if Pac-Man was axonometric 3D, had a completely forgettable cartoon bear antagonist, and kitchen sink design that threw as much crazy nonsense as the designers could cram into its PROM instead of polishing a handful of elements to perfection?

 


I've played Crystal Castles at ACAM, and the cabinet is a sight to behold, with its striking M.C. Escher-inspired artwork all over; the sides, the front, the speakers, and the control panel, where a glowing red Atari trackball sits in right in the middle, standing out from the icy cool design. This, of course, is lost playing on an emulator.

The game is set over 36 castles divided into nine levels, plus one final level consisting of a single castle. You control Bentley Bear with the trackball for movement, which feels oversensitive and slippery at first, but it's crucial for survival later on when enemies move incredibly fast.

Enemies include:

  • Gem eaters, the most common enemy. They don't seem to have a movement pattern, though when they start eating gems, they'll tend to gather them in a straight line. They never move very fast, but their random movements and numbers make them troublesome for the entire game, as places you need to be tend to be patrolled by roaming gem eaters who get in the way but also don't finish eating all of the gems in the pockets they block off, forcing you to get around them. They can be killed and their ranks thinned by touching them while they eat, but starting around level 3 they eat so fast that this is nearly impossible to pull off unless you anticipate this.
  • Trees move fast, eventually ridiculously so, but always make a beeline for you. With clever maneuvering they can be trapped in corners while you work at clearing the parts of the stage that's safe from them. Trees destroy gems, absolving you of the need to collect them.
  • Whereever there's honey, there will soon be bees, which behave like trees except that they buzz off eventually, but they'll be back. Collecting the honey slows their return, and should be a priority in most levels.
  • Crystal balls also behave like trees, except they have a momentum to their roll, possibly foreshadowing Marble Madness of the next year. Trees and bees will instantly hone in on your position, while crystal balls can't change their direction so immediately, which can make manipulating their behavior more difficult, but also allow strategies that wouldn't work otherwise. They also destroy gems.
  • Berthilda the Witch is set up as Bentley Bear's nemesis but actually one of the least dangerous opponents, moving slowly and randomly. She can be killed by collecting the magic hat and touching her before the magic runs out, which it always does far too soon. Said magic hat has a very nasty surprise in the penultimate castle.
  • Ghosts and zombies also move slowly and randomly but they can't be killed. Coaxing them away from their corners to get at the gems near their feet can be a problem.

 

Unusually for a golden age arcade game, Crystal Castles has a definite ending and doesn't loop once you beat the final bastard of a level. It also has continues of a sort; three secret warp zones to skip most of the castles, and the locations are revealed when you reach the level that the warp skips to. The third and final warp goes to level 7-1. Good luck beating the last 13 castles one one set of lives - I needed save states to pull this off, almost on a per-level basis, though I might have been able to beat the game without saves on 8-4 onward if the final castle weren't clown pants ridiculous.

 

All 37 castles aren't unique, though. In fact, there are only 16, and levels 5 through 9 consist almost entirely of repeats, the sole exception an "Impossible Staircase" stage in level 9.

 

GAB rating: Average. To answer my own rhetorical question posed at the start, it would be overbloated and would wear out its welcome shortly after you've seen its whole bag of tricks.

As for Bentley Bear, Atari would put him on furlough until 1995, when he'd be revived as the mascot for Atari Karts.

Stare into his eyes hard enough and you can see Sam Tramiel's dead dreams.


Friday, December 18, 2020

Games 225-226: Door Door & The Portopia Serial Murder Case

Coming straight from one game about murder to another, the Portopia Serial Murder Case is a "priority ancestor," a Japanese computer adventure game with more historical importance than international fame. Never officially released outside of Japan, it was well received, ported to numerous platforms including the Famicom where it sold 700,000 copies. Its success put Enix, Chunsoft, and its designer Yuji Horii into the spotlight, and they would go on to produce the Dragon Quest series, and Horii would play a key role in Chrono Trigger's dream team of designers. It helped codify the visual novel subgenre, inspired Nintendo's Famicom Detective Club series, appears to have directly influenced a series of Hudson Soft adventures including Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom and the NES ports of ICOM's MacVenture series, and has been cited by Hideo Kojima as a major influence on his work, who included the game's loader program as a playable cassette tape in 2015's Metal Gear Solid V.

Portopia was briefly revived in 2001 and again in 2005 as mobile phone remakes, and in 2010 the Famicom version unofficially translated to English.

Love Match Tennis, screenshot by Giantbomb

Portopia's publisher, Enix, began its business in 1982 as a computer game publisher by holding a contest open to hobbyist programmers. Despite having a strong home computer market, with popular products by NEC, Fujitsu, Sharp, ASCII Corp, Sord Computer Corp, and imports from Apple and IBM, the computer game industry stagnated. Mobygames, though it probably significantly underdocuments the regional library, only has 14 original Japanese computer games from 1982 and earlier. Other ventures in this era include ports of Avalon Hill's BASIC wargames, translations of Zork & Zork II, ports of six Namco arcade games to the Sord M5, and ports of four Konami arcade games to various computers. Enix's founder, Yasuhiro Fukushima, hoped his contest would attract attention, and despite having no programming experience himself, make him a player in the sparse field.

In February 1983, Enix announced the winners of the contest, and released them to quick commercial success. Two of them are of concern to Data Driven Gamer. The first was Love Match Tennis, written by Yuji Horii, then a freelance writer. Unfortunately, I can't find any copies of this game to play, and suspect that none exist on the Internet. There is footage on Youtube, so the game isn't necessarily lost, but copies are certainly rare.

The second, Door Door, was created by prodigious amateur programmer Koichi Nakamura, who previously coded unofficial ports of popular arcade games for his PC-8001 computer, and would go on to found Chunsoft, and maintains business relations with Horii and Enix to this day.

 

Game 225: Door Door 



Even by video game standards, this is an odd concept. Defeat aliens by... closing doors on them? Couldn't they just not enter the doors if they wanted to beat you?

I really don't understand how to win at this game. You've got to herd the aliens and get them to follow you into a door, relatively close to one another, while going in the direction of the door's hinge so that you can trap them all in one quick slam. Herding them's quite a trick, because the only consistent behavior I can see is that if they come across an open door from the open side of it, they'll always enter. But you must herd them anyway, because if you trap them one by one, the last survivor will go into warp speed and kill you quickly. And you have to do this pretty fast, because the aliens will reach a brisk jogging pace and outrun you before long anyway.

You can jump over the aliens, but the successful timing window is ridiculously small and even when it works, it doesn't really look like it did. Starting on the second level there will be tiny, difficult to see spikes on the floor which look like you could hop over them if you can even see them, but I kept landing right on them every single time.

The ladders also require pixel-precise alignment before you can climb them, and far too often I got caught while struggling to ascend a ladder while being just barely off from the correct climbing position.

As a side note, the audio sounded like the chip was malfunctioning. Tweaking the settings made it sound less horrible, but I could never get it to sound right. Maybe this is just an emulation or configuration problem. I don't know.

Here's a video if you want to see me failing at Door Door over and over again to a soundtrack that sounds as if someone tried to play a simple ditty on a broken 56K modem.

 

GAB rating: Bad. Door Door did not challenge me. It annoyed me. It controls badly, and for a game where it's absolutely crucial that you are able to manipulate the monster behavior just to survive, this task seems completely impossible. Monsters would sometimes climb ladders instead of following me right into a door trap. They'd sometimes ignore ladders that I was counting on them to climb. They'd sometimes leave the door traps much sooner than anticipated and kill me right when I was about to close it. And according to Wikipedia there are 50 looping levels? Oy vey.

Despite my dislike for this game almost 40 years later, Door Door was a success, and spawned ports to every major Japanese home computer system, as well as a sequel Door Door MkII which formed the basis of the even more popular Famicom port.


Game 226: The Portopia Serial Murder Case

 

Wikipedia states that Portopia was originally developed in BASIC for the NEC PC-6001 microcomputer, one of four different NEC personal computer system lines available at that time. I'd like to play the original version, especially since there doesn't seem to be any footage of it at all on Youtube, and even screenshots are scarce, but the language barrier isn't surmountable in such a text-heavy game. I'll have to settle for the fan-translated Famicom version, which I expect isn't exactly the same game.

I did, at least, manage to get it working in a "PC6001VX" emulator, and viewed the intro scene, which was cut from the Famicom port. Thanks to Redditor ringopicker for translating this!

Boss!! I am your subordinate, Yasuhiko Mano. Please call me Yasu. Okay, I am going to explain the case in question. Kouzou Yamakawa is the one who was killed. He was the president of a money lending company.

Kouzou's secretary, Fumie Sawaki, was the one who found his body first. She was concerned about Kouzou not showing up at work, so she visited his home and found him dead. Fumie describes that scene as the following:

(Fumie:) When I arrived, the door to the study was locked. So I asked the manager of the building, Komiya-san, to come and bust the door open. When I entered the room, the president was there... but when I checked the door, there was a key in the lock from the inside. Komiya-san also noticed this and hurriedly went to check the windows. He said, "This might be suicide since it's a locked room." And then we called the police.

(Back to Yasu talking:) Komiya was saying the same thing so Fumie seems to be telling the truth. Now, what is the truth behind this case...? Boss!! I'm going to load the main program. Press the return key when you are ready to record/run the tape.

Yasu: "This is the area where the incident occurred." [Interview around] [Go to the crime scene] ... please order me around like this. Boss?

That's as far as I can reasonably go. There were some Japanese adventures that accepted input in English, but this one requires you to enter commands in kana. We can already see that this is a text adventure with graphics much along the lines of Sierra's Hi-Res Adventures, and the drawing style and aesthetic even looks very similar to The Wizard and the Princess, except for Yasu's tiny head looking at you from the bottom-center of the screen.

From here on, I switch to the 1985 Famicom port, translated by DvD Translations, and for the first time in this blog, I load an NES emulator.

 

The manual, translated on their website, recaps the cut intro. There's a little more detective noir flavor here, and more information. Most notably, Yasu tells us that Kouzou ran a predatory lending company, and sometimes drove his insolvent debtors to suicide with his vicious ways of collecting.

As a console conversion, the parser interface is gone, and instead you have number of stock actions selectable from a menu:

  • Move
  • Ask
  • Investigate someone
  • Show item
  • Look for someone
  • Call out
  • Arrest
  • Investigate thing
  • Evidence
  • Hit
  • Take
  • Theorize
  • Dial phone
  • Close case

 

This interface had already been partially implemented in the Sharp and Fujitsu ports of Portopia, and  two other games that Horii had written by this time of the Famicom port.

Most of these actions will open a sub-menu asking you what object or person to perform the action on, but "Investigate thing" and "Hit" instead change the cursor to a magnifying glass or hammer, which must be tapped on something on the screen, which sort of anticipates Sierra's icon-driven point & click adventures.

We're also told there will be a maze at some point. Yay.


From questioning the locals and asking Yasu to research the suspects, I learned these clues:

  • The locals say that struggling grocer named Mr. Hirata had not been seen since the day of the murder. He was significantly in debt to Kouzou.
  • Kouzou's only relative was a nephew named Toshi, who lives by the harbor, unemployed. Toshi has a criminal record, and often sought money from his uncle.
  • Fumie worked for Kouzou fresh out of junior college, and had been employed for two years before discovering his body.
  • Komiya has no relatives and lives at Kouzou's mansion as a security guard, and has been there for five years. This appears to differ from the original version, where Fumie tells us he is the building manager.

 

Next I went to Kouzou's mansion.

  • All of the windows are locked from the inside.
  • The lock on his study door is old-fashioned, and can be locked by key from either side, only while the door is closed, but it is impossible to insert a key into both sides at once.
  • The body is not present, but the autopsy report states time of death at 9pm on the 17th, from a knife stab to the neck, still in his right hand's grip.
  • A matchbox in his study says "Pal 117-3149." Dialing this number reaches the Pal hostess club, who denies knowing Kouzou, but gives an address.
  • A painting in the living room conceals a button, which opens up a trapdoor in the study, leading to the maze.



This maze is Horii's tribute to Wizardry, with its orthogonal walls, one-way passages that slam behind you from a direction, and messages, including a sly reference.


I mapped it out, and for my efforts I found a safe, but no way to open it or any other way out, so I returned to the living room. Searching the bookshelf produced a key that opened the safe, and inside I found a stack of IOU notes. From these, I learned Mr. Hirata owed 3 million yen, and also that Kouzou had made payments to a Mr. Kawamura. Investigating him was not yet made an option.

A map of the maze.


Next I went to the harbor to try to meet Toshi.


Toshi wasn't home, but I could enter his apartment, where a note by the telephone was written in cipher.

 

Dialing *15 on his phone connected us to some shady sounding people. Yasu took charge and asked them to meet us by the harbor.

 

The boat here goes to Awajishima Island, but there was nothing relevant there yet. I returned to the mainland and went to Shinkaichi to check out the Pal hostess club.


There was little useful here, though. The barkeep had nothing interesting to say, and visiting the strip club next door made Yasu very happy but the only bit of information here was the name Okoi on the sign, suggesting some importance.

I went to the police station, where a report came in, that Mr. Hirata's teenage daughter Yukiko informed us that he might be in Kyoto.

One by one, I summoned every potential suspect and witness to the precinct for interrogation.

  • Komiya had no alibi, but denied wrongdoing, and said nothing else. A swift punch to his head and he admitted to sneaking out on the night of the murder for a drink, which Yasu confirmed. On further questioning he mentioned hearing shouting under the mansion.
  • Fumie was at English class that night, and Yasu confirmed this.
  • Toshi, surprisingly, answered. He claimed to be at his apartment, which Yasu could not confirm. Showing him the package alarmed him, and he lied about the note when shown it. So I hit him and he confessed he was buying drugs that night. I arrested him for dealing, but this ruled him out as a murder suspect.
  • Yukiko was at home, which Yasu didn't feel was even worth verifying.
 

From there I went to Kyoto, but not much was explorable, and Mr. Hirata was nowhere to be seen.

I was stuck, and revisited each location, without discovering anything useful. So I turned to a walkthrough, and I had missed something - a ring at the doorstep, which you find my searching the lower-right corner of the door.

Why would you even think to look there?

At the station, Toshi recognized it and said he gave it to Yukiko, but she vehemently denied this.

I still didn't seem to be getting anywhere, or able to get any more information anywhere else, but after returning to the police station, there was another call from Yukiko, saying that she found a number in her father's jacket pocket. I called this number, but it wasn't in service.

Then it occurred to me, I might need to dial an area code first. It's been a long time since I had to think about area codes. So I hit Google - Kyoto's area code is 075, and prefacing this before the rest of the number reached the Teradaya Inn, where the concierge confirmed that Mr. Hirata had stayed, and then went to Amitabha Peak.

Incidentally, calling the number as-is from Kyoto also works without needing the area code. It's a small detail, but I like it.

I went to Amitabha Peak and found him.


Yasu wanted to close the case, but this couldn't be the end, right?

Investigating the grass near his body found a suicide note lamenting his debt, but it did not confess to Kouzou's murder. And after returning to the police station, an autopsy revealed his death occurred earlier on the same day. The witnesses available had some new dialog, but no new information.

I had to turn to the walkthrough again. Now you need to have Yasu investigate Yukiko's alibi. Before Hirata's death, he won't do this.

Yasu found a neighbor report that Yukiko was seen going out that night. So I questioned her further, and she admitted to visiting Kouzou to ask for more money, to pay back some other moneylenders who were even worse!

I needed the walkthrough again. I had to find was a photo of Kouzou, hidden not inside his drawer, which I had checked the first time, but just slightly to the right of it.

But it wasn't in the cabinet. What is it with this place and ridiculous invisible pixel hotspots?

The barkeep at Pal recognized the photo and told me Kouzou had a fight with Mr. Kawamura. His name suddenly became an option in the Investigate menu when it hadn't before, but Yasu couldn't find anything.

Now the walkthrough said there's a lighter in Kouzou's living room, in yet another hotspot with absolutely nothing to suggest searching there.

You have to search the right foot of the couch.

The barkeep recognized it as Mr. Kawamura's. And questioning the Shingeki locals revealed that Okoi was close to him. So I called her to the precinct for questioning.

Yasu could confirm her alibi. Because of course he could.

Okoi told me that Mr. Kawamura and Kouzou worked together as con men, but recently their relationship turned sour and Kawamura turned to blackmail. Yasu could investigate, and told me he had been convicted of swindling six times and had bankrupted multiple companies with his activities.

At this point I knew that when in doubt, just go to the police station, so I left and came back, and sure enough there was a tip from Okoi to find him at the Sumire Apartments.

Did she know I'd find him like this?

Once again, Yasu pleaded with me to end the case. I knew better.

Back at the police station, Okoi told me that Kawamura and Kouzou and defrauded a company in Sumoto called Sawaki Industries. And reminded me that Fumie's last name is Sawaki. She couldn't be found for questioning, so off I went, where the locals had interesting things to say.


Local scuttlebutt was that her parents both committed suicide and her brother, distinguished by a birthmark, vanished.

Back at the police station again (sigh), a map had been discovered at Kawamura's apartment and sent over as evidence. This contained directions to an undiscovered secret in the maze, but part of it had been torn off. What directions remained led me to the central area which had a path going around a walled-off area, so I hit each wall segment here and eventually found a hollow one, which I could walk into, finding a secret area.


After trying every other command, "Call Out," which had previously only been used to summon suspects to the precinct, caused Yasu to shout, which opened a secret compartment with a hidden diary inside. Maybe this puzzle makes more sense in Japanese? Is there a word for "summon" that also means "shout?" Here it seems like forced wordplay.

The diary revealed that Kouzou hired Fumie to make up for ruining her family, and meant to leave some of his fortune to her and her brother. As if that made up for losing their parents, though Yasu suggested that Fumie's brother might think so.

I had to look at the walkthrough one last time, and learned that at the police station, you can take a suspect's photo or strip-search them by using the Take command. This hadn't been necessary yet, so I didn't know it was possible until now. And you must strip-search Yasu!


Yasu confesses that he killed Kouzou and Kawamura. He locked the door from the outside, and had Fumie slip the key into the inside of the door once Komiya broke it open.

 

There's no footage of the PC-6001 version, but I did find a twenty minute playthrough of the PC-8801 version which came out around the same time, with an English translation. It's a Google Translate job, and presented in a gimmicky skit format, but it's the best thing available, and gives a glimpse into what changed in the Famicom verison.

 

Some differences I observed:

  • There are no ridiculous hotspots to search, obviously. You type "investigate <object>" and Yasu will find whatever happens to be hidden there.
  • "Find out" works as a general command to have Yasu investigate a suspect. The Famicom version had a submenu to investigate job, personal life, or alibi.
  • On that note, there are no menus. You have to type in the name of the person to investigate, without any list of valid choices.
  • Inspecting the keyhole in Kouzou's study shows a cross-section diagram of the lock, to demonstrate that it is impossible to lock or unlock from the outside when a key is already inserted in the inside lock.
  • Kouzou's photo is hidden in the bookshelf rather than the cabinet.
  • The lighter, ring, and safe key aren't found at Kouzou's place. There are also no living room or outside areas.
  • There's no maze section at all, and therefore no stack of IOUs or diary.
  • Komiya admits to stealing Toshi's wallet and hands over a note he found inside, which is a password for his dealer. The Famicom version added Toshi's apartment as a location, where a different note is found.
  • The laundromat, not Yukiko, discovers the phone number in Hirata's jacket. Yukiko isn't even in the PC-88 version.
  • Yasu can be stripped anywhere.
  • A final ending shot shows Yasu and Yumie reunited. Either way, there's no word concerning their future, as Yasu confessed to two murders and Yumie to tampering with evidence and conspiracy.


GAB rating: Below Average. I enjoyed the opening act, and the final twist with Yasu was pretty clever, but the overall experience just kind of fell apart right around the time that my first round of interrogations failed to turn up anything.

Portopia plays more like an adventure game than a visual novel. Even so, I wasn't expecting an Infocom-like mystery game with a dynamic world and autonomous characters that allows you to really investigate freely and solve the case on your own, and I didn't get one. Portopia isn't really about solving the case, but about telling you a story, and its very short length is padded out by refusing to move things forward until you find the right trigger action.

Sometimes these actions are related to the most recent problem that presented itself. Far too often, though, the case just reaches a dead-end, and then to proceed you must re-interrogate every suspect on every topic, re-visit every location to question the locals again, re-visit the police station for new reports, and re-investigate every alibi, just to find the arbitrary action that pulls on the next thread in the script. I'll forgive the ridiculous investigation hotspots that you sometimes need to click on to find invisible things, which is a problem specific to the Famicom version, but I still found the experience wearying.

 


Screenshots by Mobygames

In 1984 and 1985, Horii released two more mystery games, targeting the PC-88, and adopting the menu system that would later be used in Portopia's Famicom port. If nothing else, the art style seems to be a lot more mature. Only the former of the two was ported to the Famicom, and there do not seem to be fan translations for either, so I won't be playing them.

His next game, Dragon Quest, targeted the Famicom and was initially released in 1986. It proved immensely popular, spawning three sequels on the platform and a series still going strong today, making Horii a household name in Japan. Its western release, which took three years to localize, met a much more lukewarm reception, and many modern players may wonder what the big deal was, but there's no denying Dragon Quest's international fame. I plan to play and cover this game eventually.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Game 224: The Witness

Read the manual here:

It's been almost a year since I played Deadline, Infocom's previous mystery game. This was the first non-Zork game by the company, and though I found its concept surprisingly well realized - this was no mere Adventure-style treasure hunt dressed as a detective novel, but a game about gathering evidence, observing suspects, and deducing the meaning of clues - I also found its design unfair, with a single critical path solution, and the clues that nudge the player into discovering it were scarce and obscure.

The Witness, not to be confused with the 2016 puzzle adventure of the same name, is self-rated "standard" difficulty, as opposed to Deadline's "expert," so I started feeling optimistic.


An instruction manual styled like a 1930's detective magazine serves as both period flavor and guidance on the rules of this mystery, which are mostly the same as Deadline's. There's an ingame clock, beginning at 8pm and ending at 8am, and story events will occur at specific times with or without your involvement, though time only advances when you perform actions, including waiting. You can examine evidence, take fingerprints, and analyze samples. Suspects can be followed, talked to, searched, questioned on particular subjects, accused, and arrested should you have evidence proving motive, method, and opportunity. Sergeant Duffy - apparently a time traveler - returns as your assistant, and this time he can be asked for hints.

Deadline's original packaging resembled an evidence sleeve, and contained several feelies representing evidence gathered during the case's preliminary investigation. Witness statements and alibis, background checks on each suspect, fingerprints, lab analyses and toxicity reports, etc. The Witness doesn't quite measure up here - there isn't any case to speak of just yet, only a telegram from a client "Freeman Linder" vaguely alluding to a threat on his life and requesting police protection. Two other feelies, a matchbook from a "Brass Lantern" restaurant, and a not suspicious at all looking suicide note by "Virginia Clayton Linder," represent clues found at the start of the game.

Lastly, there's a two-page newspaper dated February 1st 1938 with about 50 articles printed in narrow columns. Two of them concern the Linders, so I read them for background information.

The first and more prominent article concerns a charity ball honoring Freeman Linder, which he did not attend due to the death of his wife. He is established as a trade company mogul and a philanthropist with a military background who has spent the majority of his career living in Asia, nearly estranged from his family. A timeline of his career is as follows:

  • 1900 - Marine Corps, stationed in China. Fought in the Boxer Rebellion.
  • 1904 - Discharged, returned to LA.
  • 1907 - Returned to Hong Hong, rumored to have worked as a mercenary.
  • 1910 - Returned to LA, married, soon after traveled to Tokyo to join the Imperial Japanese Navy as an engineer.
  • 1922 - Returned to LA. Founded Pacific Trade Associates import/export company. Left for Asia again soon after.
  • 1925 - During a return to LA, founded Asian-American School and Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which his wife directed during his absences.

 

The second article concerns his wife's death by gunshot, and makes no mention of the suicide note. This article contradicts the former one, which says she was found dead, by stating she died at the hospital, but I can't think of any explanation for this except oversight by the writers. The article notes her involvement in charity work, both in her husband's Asian America-centered projects and national charity under the FDR administration. Her surviving relatives include her husband, their daughter Monica, and two sisters who live on opposite coasts.


Starting the game proper, we arrive by taxi on the Linders' driveway, possessing the telegram, a revolver, handcuffs, and the Brass Lantern matchbook, which was found on the curb. The game notes that we've read Mrs. Linder's suicide note and the newspaper article on the family - was that really all the police file contained? No doubt it's all connected to this mysterious threat on Linder's life, but for now, that's not what we're here for.

I approached the front gate and rang the doorbell, which summoned a man named Phong who brought me to the living room with Freeman and Monica. Freeman, after gulping down a whiskey and soda, took me to his office, where he explained that his wife's lover, Ralph Stiles, sent him a threatening note. 

I questioned him on some subjects - Ralph, Phong, Monica, his wife, the note, and the matchbook, which prompted an involuntary flinch as he told me that Phong sometimes goes there but he never has. Monica came in at around 8:30 to tell us she was going to the movies with "Terry."

I couldn't think of what else to talk about, but Linder objected when I tried to leave his office. Shortly after 9:00pm, he shouted "Stiles!" at a figure outside. I was shot dead, and the game chided me for not staying seated.

Restarting, I did a bit of exploring before entering the house, to form a better Trizbort map. Here, only cardinal "NESW" directions are recognized, so there's no need to bother with NE, up, down, or that nonsense, and mapping is all the easier for it. To the east of the driveway entrance is a side yard leading to a path outside Linder's office, and a backyard outside Monica's bedroom, with a Japanese rock garden to the north.

A garage off the driveway houses an MG sports car and a Bentley, and a locked workshop is attached. At 8:40, the MG left the garage, which we know at this point is Monica going to the movies. At 9:00, someone entered the property. I saw him knock on the office door, where a tall man - Linder I assume, handed him some money. Sergeant Duffy appeared soon after, ready to assist.

Having explored the outside as much as I could, I tried to enter the house, but Phong told me that Linder no longer needed my services and denied me entrance.

The game was probably lost, but I waited out the time limit to see what would happen. At 11:00, Monica returned, briefly entered the workshop, and then went into the house through the garage door, locking the door behind her. After midnight, a bell rang. Nothing further occurred until 8:00 in the morning, when the chief pulled me off the case. In the epilogue, Stiles was found dead on the beach, holding a cheap handgun.

A timeline of the ingame events so far:

  • ~2037 - Monica leaves in the MG.
  • 2052 - Lights go on in Linder's office.
  • 2100 - Stiles enters through back gate.
  • 2101 - Stiles knocks on Linder's office door and receives money.
  • 2102 - Stiles exits through back gate.
  • 2106 - Sgt. Duffy appears.
  • ~2258 - Monica pulls into the garage, leaves a ticket stub on the ground, and enters the workshop, locking the door behind her.
  • 2314 - Monica exits the workshop.
  • 2315 - Monica enters the house.
  • ~0004 - A bell rings in the distance.
  • 0120 - Lights out.
  • 0622 - Dawn breaks.
  • 0647 - Sunrise.
  • 0800 - Deadline.

 

I restarted, and replayed the prologue. After entering the living room, I rudely explored and Trizborted out the house while Linder had his drink. A hallway connects the rooms of the one-story house. On the north-east side are Freeman and Monica's bedrooms, which share a master bathroom. On the northwest is a dining room, kitchen, and Phong's bedroom, with a small private bathroom attached. The south end has the office, garage, and a small storage closet.

Soon, Linder summoned me to the office, and this time I sat down and stayed seated until 9:03, when Stiles approached. This time Linder was the one who got shot. When Duffy appeared, he told me he apprehended Stiles and brought him to the living room for questioning.

Free to explore the house and investigate, I noted these clues:

  • Phong carries house keys which open the various doors in and out of the house, and the door to the workshop.
  • There's a grandfather clock inside the office. It can't be opened with Phong's keys, but examining the keyhole reveals gunpowder residue.
  • The cracked window, examined, reveals some putty and an exposed wire. Lab analysis found traces of cordite, suggesting some kind of plastic explosive.
  • Footprints outside the office match Stiles' muddy wing-tip shoes.
  • Stiles when questioned claims he was offered money to leave town. He denies writing the note, and when shown the matchbook, says that the phone number scrawled on the inside was his own, and that Linder must have written it down there when they met at the restaurant.
  • Nothing of interest is found on Stiles' person.
  • Analysis of the matchbook and note reveals both were written in the same kind of ink, but I couldn't find a way to ask the lab to compare their handwriting.
  • When Monica returns home, after entering the workshop, she goes to the bathroom, dry heaves, and sobs in her bedroom. She resists being searched or questioned on most topics, though admits to feeling relieved by her father's death.
  • The coroner's report comes at about 12:42pm, concluding death from a bullet through the heart, but couldn't find any rifling marks.
  • Analysis of the movie ticket showed it had been purchased that night. When asked about the movie, Monica said it was "Dead End," but I couldn't find a way to confirm that this was the movie played that night.
  • Looking at the books in Monica's room reveals that an "important" one is missing. I couldn't find a way to follow this thread further.
  • Absolutely nothing has any fingerprints on it. Not even things I saw people touch.

 

I decided to snoop on Monica a bit using save states as time travel, knowing where she'd be throughout the night. I waited for her in the workshop, where she played with some wires, and turned ashen-white when she realized I was watching her. When I hid in the office out of sight, she entered shortly before midnight, pressed the butler's button, and then removed something from the clock. I emerged, startling her, and though she still would not submit to a search, she did confess to setting up a gun mechanism in the clock when accused of foul play, and urged me to read a medical report that showed he was dying of stomach cancer.

At this point, it's possible to arrest Monica, but despite her confession, the jury will acquit due to a lack of motive. Genre-awareness tells me that Linder killed his wife and is setting up Stiles to take the fall for his own death, and all the clues I've seen so far are consistent with this, but I'd need stronger evidence to close the case.

Another experiment revealed something interesting, but not surprising. I restarted and tried pressing the butler's button in Linder's office, and he, almost in a panic, grabbed my wrist to stop him from doing this. During his death, I noticed that he reached for the button himself, then shouted to distract me so I couldn't see him press it himself. And when I pressed it afterward, a "click" sound came from the clock. After Monica adjusts the wires, this button summons Phong (as she had tested herself).

I needed a way to open the clock. Monica wouldn't let me take her key, but after I handcuffed her to the lounge, searching her person was easy. This only revealed a pendulum, relays, and "things," and I found no way to interact with any of it. I asked Sergeant Duffy for advice but he wasn't much help at all, only muttering that the clock looked funny and that he found a green spool in the workshop, and there was, but I couldn't find a way to interact with it either.

Stuck, I turned to a walkthrough. There were a few bits of evidence I had missed:

  • A receipt for two handguns found in Phong's book. Phong says that Monica bought them under a pseudonym. Monica admits to this, but says they are for self defense.
  • A handgun in the mud outside found after Linder dies. Analysis shows it had been fired recently. Monica claims Phong planted it to frame Stiles. Neither Phong nor Stiles recognizes it.
  • Another handgun found on Monica's person with a sawed-off barrel, found by searching her a second time. Analysis shows it, too, had been fired recently.

 

As it turns out, though, the crucial bit of information was one I already had found in an earlier playthrough. When you question Monica about Mr. Linder before catching her in the office opening the clock, she admits being relieved that her father is dead. Turns out that's all you need to establish a convicting motive.

In fact, after Linder's death, you don't even need to leave his office to win the game. This is all you have to do:

  • Press the butler's button before Monica returns and rewires the mechanism. The clock will click.
  • Examine the clock.
  • Analyze the powder once Duffy enters. When this finishes, you have established means.
  • Wait for Monica to return. When she enters the office and sees the body, and ask about her father before she leaves. Now you have motive.
  • After she leaves, hide behind the lounge. Wait for her to enter and incriminate herself, and then stand up. Now you have opportunity.
  • Arrest her once Duffy returns from the morgue.

That's it. Those actions are all required, only those actions are required, and every other bit of evidence you might find is irrelevant. Monica is convicted of murdering her father as revenge for the death of her mother.

But could that really be it? There was so much evidence suggesting more to it than this. Why was the window wired to explode when Linder pushed the button? Why was he so eager to stop me from pushing the button? Why did the threatening note from Stiles seem to be written by Linder himself? Why would he push the button that triggered his death at the exact moment that Stiles approached? If Monica was culpable alone, then we could write off the medical report as a forgery since it couldn't be verified, but there were so many things pointing to Linder's involvement in a scheme to frame Stiles.

The game assured me, though, that I had reached the proper conclusion. Monica did it, and that's it.

 

However, there is an epilogue that explains the true outcome, as told by the omniscient author himself.

Linder knew about his wife's affair, and she in fact did commit suicide. Linder intended to get revenge by framing Stiles for attempted murder, and Phong and Monica were both in on it. Monica would rig the butler's button to fire a shot at him from a gun hidden in the clock and blow up the window to make it seem like a shot was fired through it. Linder would summon Stiles to his office at night, and just as he approached, hit the button to pin it on him. You, the detective, were to witness the attempt on his life. Phong would plant an identical handgun in the mud to further implicate Stiles. Monica, however, who blamed her father for pushing her mother to suicide, aimed the gun at where his heart would be, and left everything else according to the original plan, causing Stiles to be framed for an actual murder instead of an attempted one.

This plan, frankly, is really dumb, and as my partner puts it, has more holes than a colander. How could Linder be sure the bullet from the clock wouldn't kill him? How could Monica be sure the bullet from the clock would kill him? The heart's a small target and people move. An autopsy should have also revealed that the entrance wound was in his back, and therefore could not have been fired through the window. Ballistics would find that the bullet didn't match the gun planted on Stiles, and find the lack of rifling marks altogether suspicious. And the evidence of this scheme - the gunpowder on the keyhole, and the wires and plastique debris found in the window, are pretty obvious and indiscreet.

GAB rating: Above Average. The Witness obviously follows the template of Deadline, and inherits its good qualities - its full realization of the interactive detective novel with evidence and snooping around, the independent actors in the story who walk around and do things both of their own accord and in response to your actions, and Infocom's best in class parser and decent writing and worldbuilding, which isn't quite up to par with the best the team had offered, but still beats out anything by any other developer seen yet. And Deadline's biggest problem - the obscurity of its solution - is alleviated. The solution here may be narrow, but no part of it is as unreasonable as Deadline's. Only establishing motive - achieved by questioning Monica about her father at just the right time - feels arbitrary.

But in being reasonable to solve, The Witness goes a little too far in the other direction and feels kind of trivial. When I solved the case, it felt like I had played an interactive Two Minute Mystery. Deadline wasn't exactly a doorstopper, but The Witness makes it look like The Big Sleep. The clock is a gun, his daughter somewhat resents him, and she has the key. Case closed, zero pipe problem.

What really bothers me, though, is how so much evidence indicates a conspiracy bigger than the patricide we see in the official resolution, and the game's true conclusion doesn't acknowledge any of it except in a tacked-on epilogue that explains What Really Happened. Your detective character never truly solves the mystery, and none of the evidence you find except for the few pieces that convict Monica serve any purpose except as a mental exercise for you, the player. Linder's suspicious behavior, the traces of the bomb in the window, the guns, the receipt for the guns, all pointless as far as the game is concerned. Even the matchbook, suicide note, and newspaper that come with the game are completely irrelevant! It lends the impression of an unfinished game, where you were supposed to be able to solve the real mystery, but they just didn't have time or perhaps space to implement this. Deadline gave you a different ending depending on whether you merely nailed your suspect on circumstantial evidence or truly busted the case wide open, so why not this one too?

 

I discovered on a replay that it is possible to reveal the conspiracy. And you're punished for it. As I mentioned before, if you show the muddy gun to Monica after accusing her, she'll finger Phong. But then I discovered that If you ask Phong about the gunpowder, he'll reveal the plot and confess his role in it.

If you've met the conditions necessary to convict Monica, and you are also possessing the gun receipt (it must be removed from the book for this to work), then you may arrest both Monica and Phong. Phong confesses to the frame-up scheme, insists that the intent was never deadly, and Monica somehow gets a slap on the wrist from a plea deal and avoids a murder charge. Their in-game confessions are immaterial to the ultimate outcome. Your supervisor laments that we failed to uncover the full truth, even though this is the only ending where we absolutely did. Arghhh!

In spite of my reservations concerning The Witness' storyline and brevity, I could see myself rating it Good if only it were a little more complete, and the hierarchy of endings reworked a bit. Convicting Monica as a lone actor should have given you congratulations but prompted you to did a little bit deeper, because the moment I did that and realized this shallow outcome was the "true" solution annoyed me to the point of dissatisfaction. The criteria for convicting both Phong and Monica could have been a little better thought out, but more importantly, should have included one where Monica's full culpability in the plot is proven, and this should have been the true ending.

My Trizbort map:

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Game 223: Star Wars

The year is 1981. Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon, the final film is in pre-production and under very tight wraps, and although there aren't any official Star Wars video games yet, the industry is full of unlicensed imagery.


 




LucasFilm must have caught wind of this and determined to show them all how to do it right, and partnered with Atari (who, let's face it, had made the best space combat game yet; 1979's Star Raiders) to create the first official Star Wars video game. An early vector space shooter prototype at Atari called "Warp Speed" seemed like the perfect candidate for this, and over the next two years would be reworked into this Star Wars game. Parker Brothers beat them to the punch with two 2600 titles developed relatively quickly, but Atari's offering, which came out in May 1983 around the same time as Return of the Jedi, clearly has more lasting appeal.

The attack on the Death Star, which is the subject of this game, could be the single most frequently videogame adapted movie scene of all time. Mobygames lists five unauthorized adaptations of it from 1978 to 1980 alone, and there are many more generic space shooters that happen to feature TIE Fighters as enemies. Most are basic shooting galleries from a first-person perspective, which is probably the closest thing there is to cinematic immersion at this point. Star Raiders went the extra mile and presented a fully 3D space sim, but this style came at the cost of limiting how much action could be on the screen at once, and besides that, its gameplay was unthinkably complex compared to coin-operated arcade games of the day.

Atari's Star Wars takes a middle ground between 3D space sim and static shooting gallery, preserving the first person perspective and giving you limited control of your X-Wing's trajectory as it follows a set route to the Death Star, across is surface, and through the trench at the meridian. A steering yoke directly controls where your guns aim, but indirectly controls pitch and yaw just enough to help dodge projectiles and obstacles.

I played with a flight stick, and noticed ingame drift. As it turns out, the arcade game's yoke was self-calibrating, which made sense for an arcade environment where the game would run for hours without being reset, but for a MAME user this is a bit inconvenient as you will probably close the game whenever you're done playing, which erases the calibration data. The remedy is to move the joystick around in circles when starting the game for the first time, during the wave select screen. Either that or use a save state when it's calibrated properly and load it whenever starting anew.

The first phase is the approach, where TIE Fighters scramble to intercept you. The fighters launch slow-moving fireballs which aren't too hard to shoot down, but it's easy to become overwhelmed when you have several fireballs coming at you from multiple fighters. Shooting the nimble fighters themselves is worth 1,000 points each and means less pressure if you can pull it off - which is no simple feat given their quick, erratic movement patterns, not to mention how your attention becomes split between shooting the fighters and their incoming ordinance.

On later waves, Darth Vader in his prototype Advanced Starfighter will attack as well. He can't be destroyed, but a hit is worth 2,000 points and will cause him to spin out of control for a few seconds.

The second phase is the Death Star surface, which is skipped during the first wave and isn't fully realized until the third. Here you must dodge towers while shooting or avoiding fire from them and the ground turrets. If you can shoot the white tips of all of the towers - and your X-Wing makes several passes during this phase - it's worth a cool 50,000 point bonus.

Finally there's the climactic trench run, where turrets lining the sides shoot more fireballs, and on later levels you also have to pitch and weave to avoid the bridges that span it. And then at the end you fire your torpedoes by targeting the exhaust port and pulling the trigger. Doing this instantly finishes the wave, so don't worry about the incoming fireballs when the port comes into view!

Big bonus points - 100,000 from waves 5 and onward - can be scored by "using the force" by not firing a single shot until the exhaust port comes into view. This means you've got to dodge both the fireballs and the bridges, and the only way you can consistently dodge both is by baiting the turrets into firing low before you pitch high to avoid a bridge, and vice-versa. It's well worth it, unless your shields are so low that you don't expect to survive another wave.

Speaking of which, once I felt I was good enough at this game to survive Wave 5, I found it was far better to start there than to start any earlier and work your way there. This is because if you start on Wave 5 and finish it, you'll receive a one-time 800,000 point bonus, which is far more than than you could ever hope to score in the first four waves. My best game scored a little over 1,200,000 points, clearing two Death Stars and ending during in the trench of the third, so this bonus accounted for nearly two thirds of my best score.

GAB rating: Good. This was one of the last vector games ever made, and one of the best. The technology just lends itself incredibly well to fast 3D action games with minimalist aesthetics, and it's kind of a shame more weren't made. The shooting action here is fast, furious, well varied, and both immersive and fun, though it's a bit difficult for my aging reflexes.

Star Wars sold a very respectable 12,000 units - a far cry from the wild successes of earlier hits like Asteroids and Centipede, but it was becoming clear that the golden age of arcades was reaching its sunset. Within a year, Atari's B-team rushed-out a non-vector Return of the Jedi video while the film was still in the public's eye, while the core Star Wars team developed a proper sequel The Empire Strikes Back. Both were flops - Return of the Jedi was panned as graphically unimpressive, and Empire Strikes Back, being mainly sold as a Star Wars conversion kit, found few buyers willing to change a machine that was still turning a profit.

Star Wars is good played in MAME, but to get the full experience you've got to play in the deluxe sit-down cabinet. The feeling of sitting down in an X-Wing cockpit, the unusual flight yoke, and the look of a genuine vector monitor, where the enemy shots just glow in a manner that practically assaults your eyeballs, can't be emulated. I've been lucky enough to have this experience at the American Classic Arcade Museum in New Hampshire, where they have Star Wars in both upright and sit-down formats, and I sure hope they can survive this pandemic without having to sell off pieces like it.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Games 220-222: Zilec Electronics & Jetpac

At the peak of their heyday and for many years after, Rare was perhaps the most internationally celebrated British game developer of all time, thanks in no small part to their lucrative, multi-generational partnership with Nintendo.

Officially, Rare would have you believe that their history begins with Jetpac, a 1983 release by their founders Chris & Tim Stamper for the ZX Spectrum microcomputer. This is the earliest game in the Rare Replay collection of 2015, it's included in Donkey Kong 64's minigames, and even their collected works compilation of 1988 begins with Jetpac. Jetpac is indeed the next whale on the list, but any reading on the subject of their history beyond Rare's own curation shows that it goes back further than that, though things do get rather murky.

Wikipedia's page on Ultimate Play the Game states, citing a 1983 computer magazine, that they claimed to be "the most experienced arcade video game design team in Britain," but there are no contemporary lists of their prior arcade game credits, and what's available lacks veracity. The article on the Stamper brothers mentions "12 arcade games" but cagily states that most of them were kept secret and sold to major developers. One of the few listed there is Gyruss, which I find preposterous.

Digital Antiquarian writes that in 1979 they began their careers at Associated Leisure, developing arcade conversion kits for the British market. Their manager, Norman Parker, convinced them and their friend/co-worker John Lathbury to join his startup Zilec, which developed games in-house.

The earliest Zilec game emulated by MAME is Vortex, and according to a thread on Spectrum Computing Forums, the names of John Lathbury and Chris Stamper appear in the ROM code. Vortex is a crummy Asteroids knock-off with choppy gameplay, lackluster graphics, and strange controls that require you to hold the fire button to thrust.


The next, 1981's Enigma II, is a vertical shooter that lift ideas from a number of other, better contemporaries, most notably mimicking the look of Phoenix, though it's not without some original ideas, like having limited vertical control via fuel-burning thrusters.


The Stampers' earliest sourced credit is 1982's The Pit, though not as its original designers. Electronics shopkeeper and tinkerer Andy Walker had custom-built a multi-game system which was demoed at trade shows in London and Miami. The Pit proved its most popular title, but Walker's system just wasn't suited for mass production, and needed conversion.

The historical record gets muddy here. The Golden Age Arcade Historian writes that Walker licensed the game to Centuri and Zilec and suggests diverging versions; that Centuri rewrote the game to run on their own boards, while Zilec had the Stampers port it to Galaxian-derived hardware for English arcades. An interview with Walker published in Retro Gamer seems to be the source for this. However, MAME shows no significant differences between the Zilec and Centuri versions, nor gives any indication that they run on different hardware. A third version, licensed to Taito for Japanese distribution, likewise appears identical.

For what it's worth, it's very easy for me to believe that The Pit uses Galaxian-derived hardware, as it uses Z80 processors, the same background resolution, and similar tilemap graphics. Centuri's in-house games of the time, on the other hand, used M6502 processors and had 256x256 bitmap graphics. I believe Walker is mistaken about Centuri's role; that Zilec developed the extant version (possibly giving the job to the Stampers), and that Centuri was the U.S. distributor.


Game 220: The Pit


 
Holy smokes, this is Boulder Dash. Can't be a coincidence.

Digging and boulder-dropping might have been seen before in Dig Dug and Mr. Do! (incidentally, Walker claims The Pit influenced both, but personally I don't find his anecdote credible), but not like this. In those games, dirt and rocks are tools for destroying your enemies. Here, navigating the terrain and grabbing the diamonds is your ultimate goal, and the boulders are obstacles to impede your path. There are enemies, but they mostly wander aimlessly.

You can "win" without collecting all of the gems, but if you're going for a high score it's pretty much required; collecting six will double your bonus, but collecting all seven will triple it. I managed this three times before the game got too fast to handle.


GAB rating: Above Average. The Pit, whether the Stampers had anything to do with it or not, is pretty fun! There's almost an Indiana Jones-like feel in places, especially the main gem room where disturbing the treasure activates a deadly arrow trap.

But there's an almost fatal flaw - the controls are horribly twitchy. Often times you've got to dig a space with absolutely perfect pixel precision, and while sometimes you can bump against impassable terrain features to align yourself, this isn't always a possibility. The worst example of this is the single-tile bottleneck passage above the acid pit, which you must exit through to return to your ship, and the moment you enter this room, the floor begins to drop under your feet, giving you no time at all to adjust your position to the precise pixel alignment necessary.

Also, turning around to shoot a pursuing enemy is risky, as you're likely to just fumble into his deadly grasp.

To be fair, The Pit is otherwise a rather easy game. There's only one level, with only two possible boulder layouts, and everything is pretty deterministic. Still, it's frustrating when virtually every death feels like the fault of the controls.

Also, can I just say, I find the death animations in this game oddly horrific.


Mobygames directly credits Zilec's next game to the Stampers and Lathbury, whose names all appear in the ROM code.


Game 221: Blueprint

If this isn't the first "Rare" game, it's the first that feels like one, with its quirky humor, its sentient googly-eyed things, and generally weird Britishness.

 

The Pac-Man inspiration is obvious, but this one's pretty unique as far as maze games go. There are ten houses, and eight of them have machine parts that you must bring to the 1:1 scale blueprint to assemble your contraption. Enter a house that doesn't have a part - either because it never had one, or because you already took it and forgot - and you get a bomb, which you've got to dispose of before it explodes and kills you. Sometimes it's a short-fused red bomb, and depending on how far away you are from the bomb disposal pit you might not even have a chance to get rid of it even if you sprint, which depletes from a meter. Sometimes a monster emerges from the pit and tries to sabotage your machine, which isn't a big deal as the parts just collapse and you can reassemble it with too much trouble, but it's better to just catch it and drag it back to the pit to avoid this altogether. As a non-diegetic time limit, a monster chases your girlfriend, costing you a try when he catches her, and occasionally knocks over flower pots which bounce around the level in a semi-random fashion, killing you on contact.


 

Once you assemble the machine, you have to start it up, and then awkwardly use it to destroy the monster. I could never quite figure out its controls - it seems to fire tennis balls when it wants, in the direction it wants, and if they hit the monster, great.

Then it repeats, with a monster wandering the maze to slow you down and perhaps make the memorization aspect a bit more difficult.

GAB Rating: Average. There's nothing really wrong with this game, but I didn't find it all that challenging or fun.

 

The Stampers' independent studio - Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd. - did produce one arcade game, Dingo, which bears their logo, and was licensed through Jaleco rather than Zilec. This is, to my knowledge, the only game predating Jetpac that is officially credited to them. I don't care to play this game in depth - I personally found it simplistic and dull - but I just wanted to acknowledge its existence.


Game 222: Jetpac


Jetpac might not actually be the first "Rare" game, but it was the first that the Stampers produced and distributed independently, and their first to be designed for the home microcomputers that were quickly taking over Britain. They targeted the 16KB ZX Spectrum, being cheap and popular, but thanks to their experience in the regimented arcade industry, they worked with a professionalism more characteristic of American imports than of the so-called bedroom programmers who coded the majority of the British market's homespun computer games on their own budget machines.


The product is a pretty solid and original arcade-style game that controls well and clips at a decent speed and frame rate, though the visual limitations of the popularly priced Spectrum certainly show.

Your goal is to assemble a shuttle from pieces lying around the stage - we can see this assembly goal previously in Blueprint - and then fuel it while avoiding or shooting deadly comets, and collecting any valuables that might land in your vicinity. Then you blast off to the next planet to collect more fuel and treasures while deadlier fuzzy aliens attack. Come to think of it, we've also seen this interstellar looting before in The Pit.

There are eight stages per loop, each with a different type of alien threat. Notably, each of the eight types of aliens have completely different movement patterns, and need different tactics to avoid. The final and most difficult type are these googly-eyed frog-like monsters that pursue you relentlessly, but you're fairly safe from them (and most  other things for that matter) on the upper-right platform. Only stages 1 and 5 require you to assemble the shuttle. There are four shuttle models in total, and you'll need to go through the game loop twice to see them all.

Although it plays like an arcade game of the time, Jetpac plays much more fairly than most, given that Ultimate already has your money and can't munch your tenpence any further. It's not completely fair - sometimes fuel appears on the edges of the screen, where aliens are likely to spawn without warning, but I managed to loop through the game twice anyway. Figuring out the safety zones during the more difficult stages made all the difference.

GAB rating: Good. Sure, it's ugly and repetitive, and the sound effects all sound like farts, but you know what? It's original, inoffensive, and I had fun playing it.


Ultimate Play the Game continued to focus on the ZX Spectrum as late as 1987, but their best titles all had releases in 1983 or 1984, and virtually every list of top games on the platform contains a few of them. Later titles sold well enough but had lukewarm critical reception. 1988's "Collected Works" compilation contained 11 of the 13 house-developed Spectrum games, missing only the well-received Underwurlde, and the not so well-received Pentagram. There were also a few Commodore exclusives, which were downright reviled.

Jetpac remained one of Ultimate's best selling and best reviewed titles of all time. Though a May release, it continued to topped the Spectrum sales charts by the holiday season. Any ranking of the games by Ultimate usually have Jetpac or 1984's Knight Lore at the top, and every list of top games of the platform that I've ever seen has one or both on it. It sold 300,000 copies - an astounding figure considering the Spectrum itself only reached 500,000 sales in 1983. Jetpac had one immediate sequel - Lunar Jetman on the Spectrum later that year. Years later in 1990, Rare produced Solar Jetman for the NES, and in 2007, a remake Jetpac Refuelled on XBLA.

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