Saturday, February 29, 2020

Starcross: Won!

During my first session, I had made some good progress in mapping out the artifact. I had gained entry at a docking bay meant for me, and received a black crystal rod there. Three other ships had already docked at their respective bays, though one had crashed in a spectacular manner, knocking out power to an entire quadrant of the ship. Of the other two, one was flown by a solitary space-faring spider, who was sentient and friendly but resigned to its ship and not immediately helpful. The other was a colony ship of weasel-like humanoids who had settled in their respective quadrant, and I had successfully bartered for their brown crystal rod. A third, red crystal rod was found in an abandoned zoo near the artifact’s fore, guarded by a nest of rat-ants.

The aliens who built the artifact seem to have intended for each of the four visiting species to receive a crystal rod, to be used in some kind of test. Finding them all and figuring out their purpose was no doubt one of Starcross’ major goals.
A mysterious square-shaped object found in the repair room, hidden beneath an artificial forest in the artifact's inner region, completed the array of slotted PCBs in the computer room.

The lights in the room come on and there is a deafening FOOOOM! noise as the computer starts up.

The main display blinks twice, a bell rings, and a gold rod falls from the output hopper onto the floor! A moment later, a previously unseen enunciator panel comes on.

The panel has three banks of four colored lights: red, yellow, green, and blue. The first is labelled with a symbol of the emission of rays: of the lights underneath, the red one is flashing and the yellow one is brightly lit. The second bank is labelled with a stylized docking port and the third with an airlock. Of these two banks, the first yellow one is brightly lit and the other yellow one is flashing. The panel also contains six other lights, each bearing a stylized picture. The first four, all dark, represent navigation, engine, library, and defenses. A fifth, picturing a cage, is brightly lit. The sixth is flickering dimly. It bears a symbol in three parts: the first two parts, in black, are a solid block and a fluid level. The third, in red, is a series of parallel wavy lines.

The colored lights obviously corresponded to the four hallways, and as the yellow hallway had been severely damaged, it only made sense that bright or flickering lights indicated malfunction. The meaning of the first bank indicated by "rays" wasn't immediately clear, but as I knew the yellow hallway's lights were out, this seemed a likely match.

That sixth symbol exactly matched the verbal description of a symbol I had seen previously in the repair room on one of the machines, and as it was flickering, I had to assume this represented the oxygen generator, which I knew from prior experience, was dying.

While fiddling with my inventory to see if I could make any headway in the repair room, it occurred to me that one of my items, a “tape library” essentially consisting of Wikipedia-on-tape, would be worthwhile to the spacefaring spider. It thanked me for the gift, and offered a yellow crystal rod in exchange.

This rod, it turned out, was useful for fixing the lights in the yellow corridor, but it wasn't obvious - nothing seemed to happen when I put it into the yellow-slotted machine in the repair room. The other machine, on the other hand, immediately turned on when I stuck the red rod into one of its slots. And soon afterward, I suffocated on coal gas.

That machine had this description:

Beside it are three diagrams; under each one is a red slot. The first diagram shows four single dots equally spaced around a six-dot cluster. The second shows two eight-dot clusters in close proximity. The third has three single dots equally spaced around a seven-dot cluster.

Molecular diagrams, maybe? The coal gas made me think of carbon monoxide, and while I can’t quite think of how four dots around a six-dot cluster would symbolize that, carbon does have atomic number 6, but the meaning of the four single dots wasn't clear. Meanwhile nitrogen has atomic number 7, and oxygen has atomic number 8, making the second diagram a reasonable representation of O2, and the obvious solution to the problem, if not totally scientific (in real life you do NOT want to breathe pure oxygen for long).

Out of curiosity, I tried the third slot, and asphyxiated in an atmosphere smelling of ammonia. With formula NH3, this told me the single dots represented hydrogen, and the first diagram was of methane, which is actually odorless. The second slot brought the air back to normal, though the computer room’s enunciator panel did not change.

Lights and air on, I explored the yellow hallway.

Three things were of note here. First, a robot mouse wandered this corridor in search of trash. A murine Roomba, so to speak. Second, the yellow airlock was here, and the ruined dock outside of it inaccessible without the space suit that I had bartered for a brown crystal – I’d have to restart the game at some point. Third, a laboratory was accessed through a side passage between the two aftmost rings in this corridor.

Within the laboratory were two disks, a projector firing an energy beam into silvery globe, and a dial which adjusted the size of the globe, revealing a embedded blue rod when shrunk to the smallest size. Shooting it with the raygun freed the blue rod inside, though I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the intended solution. I returned to the observatory, where I tried putting a disk from the lab inside the projector, thinking they might be intended for it, but was told something was already inside. When I tried looking inside, the laser blinded me and then grues ate me in the dark.

I restarted the game, quickly completing the tasks needed to turn on the lights and oxygen, so that I could explore beyond the yellow airlock. Outside, I found the drifting body of a space-suited dinosaur clutching a pink rod, which I was able to take by securing myself to a mooring hook with my safety line.

I had to use Invisiclues to figure out what to do in the laboratory. One clue said that I could use the disks to enter the sphere. Experimentation then found that these were teleportation disks, and you can enter the sphere by shrinking it, placing a disk underneath, setting the sphere to its largest size where it envelops the disk, and then stepping on the other disk, but this is fatal. More experiments revealed a better solution; by putting something on top of the sphere and enlarging it, the object will fall onto the pad below and teleport along with the rod. I’m really not sure why the object is necessary – why doesn’t the rod just fall onto the first disk when you enlarge the sphere? But it doesn’t.

There was one last dock - the green dock where the weasels had parked their ship - and I needed an Invisiclue to find it. There, I found a chunk of smoked glass in the cargo hold, which I could use to safely peer into the projector in the observatory and see see that a clear crystal rod was inside it. In the weasel ship's control room, a skeleton surrounded by offerings held a violet rod. Taking the rod proved fatal; the weasels found this shrine had been disturbed, and killed me. I had to use the teleporter disk to leave before they found out, which took me not to the place where I dropped the receiving pad, but to a garage full of piles of trash... and a green rod buried under one. I could exit from an unmarked passage, but could not find a way back in.

High up in a tree, near the inner space of the artifact was a “drive bubble,” a zero gravity room with a white slot on the wall, and a white rod conveniently floated around here. I took and inserted it, which activated the room, revealing various controls and a black slot. I inserted the black rod, and this shut down everything, including the game.
This was the rod that the aliens gave me as a reward for entering the artifact. Why would they choose to give me the one that shuts down everything and kills everyone?

A twin bubble on the fore end of the artifact, accessed by firing the gun to propel yourself across the length of the artifact in zero gravity, held the last few secrets.

My gold rod opened up the hatch here, and inside, my clear rod activated another five slots, matching the colors of my five remaining rods, not counting the deadly black one. I inserted them in, each one caused a beam of light to project onto the opposite wall, and when I inserted the last, this happened:

The pink screen includes a small square, a large square, and a display showing nearby space. This view shows an empty area with a stylized depiction of the artifact itself.

These squares acted as buttons, which zoomed in and out the display of space, as far out as a local interstellar region. The colored lights only worked when the display was zoomed out to the inner solar system, but no further, and only worked when pushed in a certain order.
  • Brown – Picks a destination for the artifact
  • Violet – Toggles between crash-landing, slingshot, elliptical, and circular orbit modes
  • Green – Toggles between slow and fast speed
  • Blue – Confirm and take off

Only earth is a valid destination; any others would shut down the artifact. It doesn’t seem to matter whether your orbit is elliptical or circular, nor does it seem to matter what speed you have selected, but you must select one before the blue button does anything.

I set in a course for earth, and hit the blue spot.

All the displays flash once. There is a sensation of movement as the artifact positions itself to follow the course you have set.

The artifact, under your assured control, moves serenely toward Earth, where the knowledge it contains will immeasureably benefit mankind. Within a few years, there could be human ships flying out to the stars, and all because of your daring and cunning...

A holographic projection of a humanoid figure appears before you. The being, tall and thin, swathed in shimmering robes, speaks in your own language. "Congratulations, you who have passed our test. You have succeeded where others failed. Your race shall benefit thereby." He smiles. "I expect to see you in person, someday." The projection fades.

Your score would be 400 (total of 400 points), in 373 moves.

This score gives you the rank of Galactic Overlord.

GAB rating: Good

This is easily the best adventure I’ve played since Zork I, and demonstrates a maturity and sophistication in storytelling and world building well beyond those early efforts. This could have been Zork in Space. In some ways it is – the crystal rod collection isn’t far removed from Zork’s treasure hunting, character interactions feel about the same, and even the meta-premise of the game world as a test for the player is shared (though unlike Zork, Starcross makes this obvious pretty early on). But the sincere commitment to its hard sci-fi setting – as well as its cohesive, top-down design (as opposed to Zork’s long and scattershot development cycle) makes all the difference.

Exploring the artifact and making sense of its non-Euclidean layout was a thrill, and its puzzles were both ample and generally well designed. The puzzles, for the most part, challenge the player to logically deduce the meaning of alien symbols or to apply knowledge of the physical world to this strange environment. It mostly avoids the contrivance of having magic-like technology to justify the puzzles and devices, though not completely – the teleportation disks and silvery globe in the lab come to mind, and Invisiclues even lampshades this (“This is a technology so far beyond current human experience that it is impossible to explain. Ask again when you fully understand the details of the Matter Intransitivity Principle of the Dornbrookian Unified Field Theory”).

Starcross was Infocom’s first game to retroactively receive the “expert” difficulty designation, and can be cruel at times. There are so many ways you can get killed, or worse, screw up your game so as to make it unwinnable without you realizing it. These are things I’ve come to expect in these games, and prepare by keeping multiple saves as soon as I have an inkling of what’s going on. In turn, it’s clear that Infocom expects the player to learn through failure. You cannot reasonably learn, for instance, that the silver rod is hidden inside the raygun without giving it a test fire first, which doubly damns you as this not only destroys the silver rod, but also squanders your crucial ammunition. I don’t hold it against Infocom; with the right mindset and preparation, this cruelty isn’t punishment for failure, but a way of receiving pieces of the puzzle. The successful game is won with the knowledge accumulated from dozens of failed games, and the tedium of repeats hastened with frequent use of save files.

Starcross was engaging throughout, its puzzles and spatial challenges kept me intrigued, the puzzles were challenging enough to make solving them satisfying, spread out enough that being stuck on one puzzle did not grind everything to a halt, and the experience was all held together quite well with quality writing and most of all a strongly consistent structure and tone. I induct it into the ivory deck, and award it a harpoon.

My Trizbort map:

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Game 154: Starcross

Read the manuals here:

Starcross, Infocom’s mindbending science fiction first, launches you headlong into the year 2186 and the depths of space. And not without good reason, for you are destined at that point in time to rendezvous with a gargantuan starship from the outer fringes of the galaxy. But the great starship serves a far larger purpose than mere cultural exchange. It conveys a challenge that was issued eons ago, from light-years away – and only you can meet it.

In other words, this is Rendezvous with Rama: The Game. Hardly surprising that a group of MIT alumni would be Arthur C. Clarke fans. In retrospect, this is a perfect concept for an adventure game – exploring a vast, mysterious structure in space, full of logic puzzles that were, in fact, designed by aliens.

By 1982, Infocom hadn’t yet made their famous practice of bundling feelies. Deadline went all out with its forensics, memos, and interview notes, distributed with the game in a package resembling an evidence sleeve, but Zork III of the same year was shipped in a simple blister pack containing little but a simple instruction manual and the game itself. Starcross’ 1982 release came in a package shaped like a flying saucer, but contains only the game, manual, an errata card, and a space map showing locations of massive objects, in 3D polar coordinates relative to your initial position in space.

The manual provides a few paragraphs of backstory. In the 22nd century, humanity has colonized earth’s skies, the moon, mars, and the asteroid belt, but fossil fuels aren’t enough to keep the gears of space age society turning. Like the prospectors of old, searching the unsettled frontier in the hopes of being one of the lucky few to strike a golden claim, you cruise through the asteroid belt in your mining vessel Starcross, in search of an energy-providing quantum black hole.

The game begins waking up to an alert from the mass detector and some derision from a snarky on-board computer. The screen indicated “mass UM24,” and I entered its polar coordinates from my origin as shown on the space map. What does 0 degrees mean in space, anyway? Current heading? Direction toward the sun? Something to do with galactic rotation?
My ship approached the mass, which appeared as a smooth, rotating, cylindrical asteroid as it came in visual range, 5km long and 1km in diameter, with a crystal dome on the fore end. As my ship corrected its course to match the artifact’s speed and heading, the computer announced we were being scanned, and awaited further instructions. I tried to tell it to land, but it refused, advising me to “look around” instead.

As the artifact rotated, different areas of its exterior came into view. A spherical space ship was docked by a blue dome. Another surface by a yellow dome was scorched and littered with debris. A third surface featured a green dome, and had a long silver space ship docked nearby. Finally, a red dome came into view. A giant metal tentacle then grabbed Starcross and slammed it into the artifact’s hull, killing me.

This turned out to not be that big a deal – in Zorkian fashion I was given another chance, and found myself alive on my ship, now docked to the artifact. But I wanted to see if there was a way to avoid getting killed. I tried seeing if I could use the ship’s safety line to secure it to the artifact, or to myself, but there just isn’t enough time to do anything before being pulverized by the tentacle. I tried to think of orders to give the computer, but the few commands that it even recognized had no effect here. Then I found the solution – you just need to stay seated with your seatbelt on, and let the tentacle do its thing and dock your ship in its somewhat violent fashion.

Down (up?) on the surface of the artifact, the red dome had an airlock with a bumpy relief.

A closer examination reveals that there are exactly ten circular bumps or columns on the sculpture: the first is large and centrally located, the second through tenth are smaller and scattered at various distances and orientations. As you go outward from the large bump in the center there are four small bumps, two rather large ones, two medium-sized ones, and then a small one again.

Here, I feel graphics would have helped. Trial and error showed that pressing the fourth bump rewards you with a black crystal rod and entrance to the red dome, and from this, I realized what was going on here. An image showing the bump’s actual sizes and distances relative to each other would have made it perfectly clear what the aliens were trying to accomplish.

Apparently, this space ship was built specifically to visit this solar system, possibly others, and in any event, I wasn’t the first to stumble upon it; at least three others were here before me, two of them docked in their designated parking lots, one of them smashed into little pieces all over theirs. Were they from our solar system, or were they picked up by the cylinder along the way? Had the other two perished? Or were they still on board, after who knows how long?

I entered, and within, I explored a red hall lined with plants, continued northward until the hall ended, and then headed “east” along the inside wall to a green hall, a nondescript room, and a yellow hall, where this familiar message appeared:

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

Oh, come on guys. Must everything be tied to Zork? The backstory expressly states that this is about the future of earth-based humanity. Presumably an earth where people can turn off the lights before going to bed without fear of being eaten by grues.

While Trizborting out the artifact, it became apparent that the usual mapping techniques weren’t going to work out. Although you navigate with North/East/South/West/Up/Down directions, these all take on a different meaning when walking through ring-shaped corridors that circumference the inside of a cylindrical object in space. Walking west from the dark yellow hall returned me to the green hall, then back to the red hall, onward to a blue hall, and finally to the dark yellow hall again. The four halls all ran north and south parallel to each other, but met at the inner-most ring at the fore end of the station, not in accordance with Euclidean geometry that governs typical game mapping techniques, but as lines of longitude on a globe meet at the poles.

Projecting a cylinder onto a flat graph is quite a challenge, but I decided to visualize it as a series of concentric rings (though in Trizbort fashion they’d come out more like concentric diamonds), each one representing a circular cross-section of the cylinder. North would not refer to the top edge of the graph, but rather to the center of it. East and west would be relative directions, and would traverse the rings’ circumferences within the cylinder, while north and south would move across the length of the cylinder from ring to ring. Think of a map of the earth as viewed from above the north pole, if that makes any sense.

The green hall, where the long, silver space ship had docked, had a bustling settlement of wood and mud-brick huts populated by man-sized weasels. A gray one, wearing a tattered space suit, and possessing a spear and brown crystal rod much like my black one, emerged from the crowds, and gestured wildly at my own suit. I complied with its pantomimed request, found the artificial atmosphere to be compatible with my own terrestrial needs, and nonverbally demanded and received the brown crystal rod in exchange.

The settlement spanned several rooms in this hall and in the ring corridors connecting it to the red and yellow halls, some divided by palisade barriers, but none had any immediately obvious purpose. The most interesting were a set called “In the Warren,” an unnavigable maze of randomly connected burrows which would eventually spit me out back in the village center no matter which directions I wandered in. Using items as breadcrumbs was not possible; dropping anything here would cause a weasel man to emerge and steal it.

The yellow hall remained dark and unexplorable, but a side passage in the foremost ring corridor between the yellow and green halls led to a computer room, where Infocom’s bias against micros was all too apparent:

The builders of this ship were obviously still wedded to large mainframes: this one fills the room and is thirty meters high. There is an overlarge switch at about eye-level and an access panel below it, which is closed. The power seems to be off.

Turning it on displayed a useless error message (in English!), but opening the access panel revealed racks of slotted PCBs, and one empty slot.

The blue hall had the most features of interest. Near the foremost ring, a side-passage led to an observatory, featuring a laser holographic projection of the solar system. A side passage in the second ring led to a neglected menagerie of broken cages and dead animals, including one marked “Common Grues,” and another cage occupied by a nest of rat/ant hybrids guarding a red crystal rod. Aft-ward, a ring-section had been pulverized by an unknown energy discharge directed at an armored hatch, which led to an armory, empty except for a single raygun, with only one good shot of ammunition remaining.

Yet another room here had a passage “up” into a region in the interior of the cylinder, from where I could observe a veldt where the weasel men hunted unicorns. At the fore end of this region, I could see the inside of the crystal dome high above. A hatch in the floor of an artificial forest here led to a maintenance room with some more awkwardly described machines:

This room is taken up by two large pieces of machinery. The leftmost has a symbol depicting the emission of rays beside a yellow slot. The other machine bears a symbol in three parts: the first two parts, in black, are a solid block and a fluid level. The third, in red, is a series of parallel wavy lines. Beside it are three diagrams; under each one is a red slot. The first diagram shows four single dots equally spaced around a six-dot cluster. The second shows two eight-dot clusters in close proximity. The third has three single dots equally spaced around a seven-dot cluster. The only exit is up some stairs.

There is a metal and ceramic square here.

I tried putting the metal square into the yellow slot, but it did not fit. I then put into the red slot by the first diagram, and it slid in, unretrievable.

Another hatch, at the top of a tree, had a silver slot next to it and could not be opened.

Lastly, the blue airlock could be found in this hall, in the same ring as the red airlock, which I entered and followed to the docked spherical space ship. Within, an enormous and hideous spider being watched me from a webbed perch, but this was no malevolent Ilwrath-type being. He produced an artificial speaking device, and for the first time gave me some semblance of what was going on here.

"Greetings, creature from Earth. Are you afraid of me? Come closer, I won't harm you."

The spider tells you his name is "Gurthark-tun-Besnap," (or something more-or-less that). Like yourself, he landed here to explore. He failed to control the artifact before it left his system, and has been stranded here for centuries. He sighs. "It's getting a little boring. The other inhabitants of this place are not too stimulating. The computer was some company until it malfunctioned. When we began to approach your system, I got excited! A whole new culture to learn! The end of boredom, for a while at least. I fed your language to my translator, from your radio broadcasts, and have eagerly awaited your arrival." He grins broadly, a fairly horrific sight.

The spider blathered uselessly, and I could find no immediate use for it or anything in its ship.

Alas, I could not explore to my heart’s content and solve the station’s many puzzles in a meticulous fashion. In the style of early interactive fiction, there is a time pressure element. Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork had this in the form of a battery-operated lantern, and Deadline operated on a schedule of events, forcing you to make your discoveries before characters left the premises or otherwise made the case unsolvable. In Starcross, the artifact’s atmospheric generator is malfunctioning, which was first hinted at some time in when the game informed me that the air felt thinner, and sometime later, ran out completely.

As I suffocated, a postmortem epilogue shed some more light on the aliens’ designs.

An expressionless voice seems to be trying to express outrage, but not successfully. "The candidate has not made the necessary repairs in time. This is a disaster. All are now dead, and repairs are not possible. They would not approve. This area will be marked, that is certain." Everything fades to black, and silence reigns.

My Trizbort map so far:

Monday, February 24, 2020

Games 150-153: Early Data East

Data East is one of those developers that never resonated me in terms of branding. I had played BurgerTime on the NES back in the day. City Connection was one of the first NES games I ever rented. I knew about Bad Dudes and its ridiculous plot, had some notion of Robocop and Shadowrun video games, and of SomethingAwful’s love of Karnov, but while other Japanese companies like Konami, Sunsoft, and Irem had established large footprints in the arcade scene and as well as being major third party developers for Nintendo and Sega, Data East just seemed to exist on the sidelines. I played Sly Spy quite a bit at a local pizza parlor in the early 90’s, but it never occurred to me that this was a Data East game until fairly recently. One of the titles I mentioned in this paragraph isn’t even a Data East game, and I’d wager most of you didn’t notice that.

The company was founded in 1976, and according to an archive of their home page, their first arcade games were Jacklot, a token-dispensing blackjack game, and Super Break, which of course is a Breakout clone with “obstacles in front of walls to increase difficulty.” It’s nice, for once, to see an early Japanese arcade developer meticulously documenting their own pre-1980’s history, even if nearly all of them sound like blatant plagiarizing (e.g. “Shooting game that uses a missile to destroy an invader from space while avoiding attacks from invaders”).

The earliest of their games emulated in MAME is that game’s sequel; Space Fighter Mark II.

Game 150: Space Fighter Mark II

And it’s barely distinguishable from Space Invaders. The biggest difference is the color graphics, though tiles are still monochrome. If this is the Mark II, then I have to wonder how primitive the unemulated first one is.

There are some gameplay differences. The invaders start off at a quicker pace, and you really can’t dawdle the way you can during the first few seconds of Space Invaders. And the UFO shows up pretty much constantly, but it now takes multiple hits to destroy, and your laser cannon blasts small chunks out of it like the barriers. Because of the faster pace, you’ve really got to focus on thinning the phalanx width a little bit before you can afford to start taking shots at the UFO.

MAME doesn’t emulate the sound, so here’s a GIF of the last two rounds of play, from the only session that I bothered recording.

GAB rating: Average. It’s a competent enough clone, and I’ve seen worse, but I can’t fathom any reason to play this instead of Space Invaders.

Game 151: Astro Fighter

Astro Fighter reminds me a lot of SNK’s Ozma Wars, which came out around the same time. Both are obviously influenced by Space Invaders, and both advance on the formula in a similar way – by introducing a variety of enemy types, with different movement and attack patterns, which appear in a sequence of phases ending in a boss fight. Their mostly forward movement and a scrolling starfield lend the appearance of a vertically scrolling shmup, even though you can’t actually move vertically, or at least not deliberately.

Ozma Wars is a lot more ambitious, though. Here, each phase has only one kind of enemy, and they all have simple, if not always easily predictable movement patterns. There are also no animations at all, aside from simple explosions; Ozma Wars’ enemies pitched, weaved, rotated, and grew and shrank to suggest 3D movement, but Astro Fighter’s enemies just come at you, unmoved from their single frame of animation until you shoot them.

Like Ozma Wars, there’s a fuel meter to keep a time pressure on you, but in the former game it was a shared energy meter that depleted from elapsed time, from moving, from shooting, and most of all from taking damage. Here, getting hit just kills you, and the fuel meter’s biggest effect is the time crunch. The only way to refuel is to finish a loop, and even losing a life doesn’t refill it! In addition, there’s a cruel punishment for letting even one enemy past your guard; the entire phase repeats, with that much less fuel available, and your ship is kicked forward one rank just to make things even harder.

GAB rating: Average. On paper it’s an upgrade from Space Invaders, but subjectively, I find that this game is a bit boring.

Game 152: Lock 'n' Chase

In 1980, Data East released the DECO Cassette System, an arcade system which operated in a manner similar to cassette-based computer systems of the day. A tape player accepted miniature cassette tapes which would play when the machine was powered on, loading the game data into 32KB of memory. They released 44 games in this format from 1980 to 1985, with the idea that arcade operators could easily showcase the latest Data East games by simply swapping out old cassettes for new, without needing to replace their large and expensive cabinets or change the often incompatible circuitry within. The first, Highway Chase, was a conversion of an earlier ROM-based game Mad Alien, with some minor graphical and gameplay changes.

The system was not a huge success outside of Japan. Arcade operators, who were used to machines that turned on instantly, found the comparatively long load times a nuisance, and the tapes themselves were prone to failure over time. I also must imagine that by 1982, this system’s technology was starting to look dated. The majority of its games, likewise, saw no release outside of Japan.

Lock ‘n’ Chase, released in 1981 as a response to Pac-Man, was one of the more successful titles for this system (though not the most successful – we’ll get to that one later), and was popular enough to receive ports to the Atari VCS, Intellivision, and Apple II.

The bezel of the US version shows some play instructions.

Yeah, so you’re running from “the D.” And their de facto leader is named “Stiffy D.”

Lock ‘n’ Chase is one of at least three Pac-Man variants of 1981 featuring some ability to change the maze layout on the fly. Between it, Lady Bug, and Mouse Trap, this one's implementation is probably the simplest - you can press a button to place a barrier at the last corridor you passed through, but they don’t last long, and only two can be placed at once. The actual barrier placement seems a bit finicky; if you or the “D” are anywhere near the junction that you’re trying to seal off (a common enough scenario since you probably want to use these barriers to get them off your tail), there’s a good chance of it forming somewhere else where it won’t do anything to help, or it might even trap you.

Like Pac-Man, your goal is to collect all of the dots, and four enemies – the cops that initially start on the sidelines – try to catch you. Unlike Pac-Man, and most of the Pac-Man clones for that matter, there’s no way to catch them back. You can, however, score some big points by trapping several of them between two barriers in the lower-left and upper-right corners (the lower-right corner works too but is worth no bonus points). To complicate things, the junctions near the center will have their own doors that open and close on their own.

One neat touch, which I haven't seen in any Pac-Man style game yet, is that to finish a stage, you must escape from the maze via one of two exit doors which swing open upon collecting the last dot.

Frequently, bags of cash or other treasures will spawn near the middle of the screen. Money bags are worth more the more of them you collect, and this also causes the “D” to cry, buying you maybe a second of time to escape from this vulnerable location. The other treasures – hats, briefcases, pocket watches, etc., increase in value with each stage you finish. In later stages, these valuables don’t last long at all, and seem to always spawn at the worst possible times; when you’re far away, or when the most direct path is blocked by a self-closing door, or when a “D” is patrolling the center area. I expect that their appearance is determined by the number of dots remaining in a stage, and that a skilled player can use this to force their appearance at opportune times.

My best attempt made it to level 6 and scored not quite $30,000.

GAB rating: Above Average. There are good ideas here, and for these ideas Lock ‘n’ Chase is a smarter, more strategic take on Pac-Man without losing any of its excitement, but it’s held back from greatness by unreliable controls and a boring maze layout. I’m not really sure how that last part could be fixed, as the game would be too easy if it had multiple long Pac-Man-like corridors to lose the “D” in, but navigating a basic orthographic grid isn’t all that interesting.

Game 153: BurgerTime

The 26th DECO Cassette System tape, originally just called Hamburger, was almost certainly the most successful, given that it had sequels, re-releases, contemporary ports to thirteen console and computer systems, and remains an active IP to this day, with a Nintendo Switch game released in 2019.

I’m sure you know the premise. You, a short-order cook, must prepare hamburgers by stomping on all of the ingredients, while being chased around the kitchen by surly sausages, evil eggs, and pernicious pickles. It’s a lot like working at Dairy Queen, but slightly more hygienic.

One minute quirk that continually threw me off is that although each stage opens with a jingle, typically signifying a few breather seconds before gameplay truly begins, you can actually start moving immediately, and you really should.

Stomping on an ingredient kicks it down to the platform below, where it will dislodge anything there, sending a cascade of ingredients down as far as the plate, and crushing any enemies in this path, which can score you a great deal of points if you can get a large number in a single drop. But this won’t send more than a single ingredient all the way to the bottom, and isn’t very efficient. If you can get an enemy to follow you closely, and drop the ingredient while an enemy is also standing on it, then it will drop as far as three platforms, carrying the enemy with it. If you can drop two enemies at once, it will fall six platforms, which on most levels completes your burger in one swoop.

This is easier said than done though, as the enemies have a nasty habit of blindsiding you from the other end of the ingredient. Pepper helps when this happens, but you really don’t want to be profligate with your pepper; once it runs out, your lives have a way of quickly running out soon after.

My best attempt reached level 6 and scored 62,000 points.

There’s actually a bug in the ROM-based conversion of BurgerTime, which I was playing when I recorded this video. The background layer is rendered one pixel too low, and because of it, it looks like the characters and all of the burger ingredients are floating one pixel’s height above the platforms. The cassette version doesn’t have this bug, but does have long loading times.

GAB rating: Average. I have a beef with BurgerTime. It just feels so sluggish. It’s an original enough game concept, and is mechanically pretty solid, if visually plain-looking, and controls well (though sometimes pepper does spray in the wrong direction for no apparent reason and climbing ladders can be finicky if not positioned pixel-perfect). But, like Frogger, it’s just too leisurely for my taste, and with the chef’s slow, slow walking and climbing speed and so much time spent herding enemies and waiting for them to approach, I got bored very quickly and had little desire to improve on my score.

Also, that damned, repetitive six-second music loop.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Ultima II: Won!

The horde waiting in Legends never really stood a chance. There were a lot of them, sure, and even my Quicksword couldn’t carve through them like butter, but my sundry of items mostly protected me from their magic, the Power Armour ensured I took few hits, and none hit especially hard when they did – the worst of the lot were the wizards, who unfairly hit me with Magic Missile even though I couldn’t cast it back at them.

In the middle of the island, a few more bunched-up baddies guarded the entrance to Minax’s lair.

I killed them, and entered.

My ring allowed me to pass through the force field unharmed, and the demonic guards within just stood there silently. Not everyone was so benign, though.

A lack of pathfinding keeps the thieves away from me, for now

A lone devil chases me through Minax’s corridors

Here, enemies hit for as much as 300 points of damage! I didn’t dare fight back – Ultima II logic dictates that as soon as you do, the whole place turns on you, and you don't want that. Instead I used my Strange Coins to freeze enemies in place when I could not outrun them.

I soon found Minax, who blasted me for a few hundred points of damage with Magic Missile as I approached, though the balrons in the room stood still.

One hit with the quicksword, and she teleported away, leaving her balron bodyguards to pummel me.

I rubbed another Strange Coin, took a few hits running past the immobile balrons, and continued to search her castle, using more coins whenever encountering hostiles.

Minax was behind that game too? Figures.

She was waiting in Chamber Two, on the opposite corner of the castle, alone.

Another hit, and she retreated back to Chamber One, just as her bodyguards entered the chamber behind me, in hot pursuit.

This continued a few more times, chasing Minax back and forth between chambers. Whenever I had to pass a pursuing balron or devil, I made sure to maneuver them as close to a wall as possible before freezing them with a strange coin. If frozen in the middle of a corridor, they can still swipe at you as you walk past them, and hit you with paralysis or sleep spells from a distance of two tiles.

Even through walls

My fourth hit ended it.

Before moving on from this game forever, though, I wanted to try one last gold farming technique, which turned out to be the best one yet, though you must be fairly strong to do it. The Legends world is mostly open, making it easy to funnel enemies toward you. If you can thin out the initial ranks and then spawn and board a frigate, sail it to the north edge of the island, just out of magic range.

Like so

Then, sail due east (or west), loop around multiple times, and watch the enemies bunch up on the north shore. Blast any pursuing sea monsters or frigates. Keep looping until the land monsters seem to stop spawning.

And then blast them to bits with your cannons.

When they’re all dead, check the south shores, east and west of the starting point.

I got 931 pieces of gold in about ten minutes, which is slightly better than my best dungeon delving attempts, but also more consistent, and doesn’t require the micromanagement involved in constantly going back to town for supplies and spells, or deplete your tools.

And if you’re doing this late in the game and get your ring stolen? No problem – you can just buy another one with all that gold, though you might want to ensure you’re ready to take on Minax before doing that.

GAB rating: Below Average, and this is generous. By the standards of today, when it is no longer impressive to have a world to explore, and it is taken for granted that a game will perform quickly enough that simply moving around isn’t a slog, Ultima II is indeed a bad game. All of its improvements over the original have been seen in subsequent Ultimas and other RPGs.

By 1982 standards, Ultima II has the biggest and most varied game world yet. Every town has a unique layout and personality, every dungeon floor is a maze full of its own tricks and traps, discovering and exploring new locations like New San Antonio and Pirates’ Harbour is fun, getting a hold of an airplane is a feat that definitely feels earned, and even late in the game, there’s a sense of wonder in visiting the planets of the solar system and seeing their new vistas, if you aren’t in a hurry to get the game over with by then. But between the horribly tedious gold farming required in order to get anywhere, the somehow too basic and also too convoluted stat upgrade system, the bizarre difficulty curve that ensures nearly every encounter is either a cakewalk or certain death, and the dearth of motivation to bother exploring every nook and cranny, you may well be.

I don’t mind that Ultima hadn’t quite found its groove yet. I don’t mind the silly game world - though it absolutely did benefit the series when they found a more grounded setting for it – and I don’t mind the fact that character progression and related mechanics run completely against modern expectations. Ultima 1 worked well enough despite some very strange game rules; EXP was currency for buying spells and had no other benefit, HP was earned mainly by killing monsters in the dungeon and collected on return to the surface, levels were gained by elapsed gametime and determined stores’ stock but had no direct benefit to the character, and stats were increased by visiting shrines. But figuring out the rules was half the fun, and the systems more or less worked in the context of overall gameplay; EXP, gold, and HP got built up through natural gameplay, towns would get better stuff over time, eventually selling you aircars that would help complete the lords’ quests, and you'd build up your stats naturally while doing them.

But here, the systems don’t mesh well at all. All meaningful progress is tied to gold. You just don’t get enough of it to sustain your life, let alone improve it and buy the things you need to win, unless you go out of your way to farm it. You may as well get all of your farming out of the way at the earliest opportunity, as the reward curve is nonexistent. Magic is completely unusable outside of dungeons, which play a much more limited role than they did before. The main quest critical path can barely be started at all until you have improved your stats to the point where you can kill guards, which is significant. The planets constitute nearly half of the game content, but there’s no reason to visit them except to see weird stuff.

Ultima II is an important step forward for the open world CRPG, and technically far ahead of anything else before it in several ways, but there are big problems with the execution, and it’s just not very fun to play.

My maps of the overworld:


1423 BC

1990 AD

2112 AD

Monday, February 17, 2020

Ultima II: Worlds of Ultima

The only reason you really need to go into space is to visit Planet X and meet Father Antos, but there are eight other planetoids, and I wanted to see all of the sights that Ultima II had to offer. EA managed to screw this part up in their CD-ROM collection, accidentally replacing several planets’ files with files of earth locations from the primary disk, but in the original 1982 release, all of the planets are distinct, though not all are interesting.

You can dive, climb, and steer like you could in Ultima, and there’s a 3D parallax scrolling effect when you do, but there’s no point to any of it. I have to assume that Garriott planned to have dogfighting again, but abandoned that arc after programming the controls.

There are only two meaningful actions in space. The first is entering hyperspace, which requires entering the coordinates of your desired destination as outlined in the manual. Hyperspacing into the sun’s coordinates is, of course, instantly fatal. Each hyperspace depletes one unit of your Trilithium-powered fuel, and for some reason the first hyperspace always drifts off-course, forcing you to try again.

The second, once you arrive at your intended destination, is to land the ship. This necessitates a swap to the long-dormant Galactic Disk, and then brings the ship into low orbit, where landing is quite dangerous.

Did I mention you can’t save in space?



A mostly water-covered planet with a few swampy islands, only the largest is safe to land on. A moss-covered land bridge leads northward to another island, with a dungeon containing many long, linear, tedious corridors, a few truly nasty mazes (including one that’s as wide open as the engine allows, with the ladder hidden on one tile, and multiple mazes that are 90% secret doors), and nothing else of note except a great deal of trilithium at the bottom.



A bunch of twisty, swampy paths through an ocean. No signs of life or civilization.



A heavily mountainous planet with only a few safe landing spots. The narrow crevasses through the mountains all lead to a clearing with a single settlement called Towne Mary.

Towne Mary is a pretty boring place, with the standard weapons, armor, and horse shop, and pub. As with other towns, there were four NPCs with unique quotes, none of them helpful, though there was an unsettling circle of wizards huddled in a corner.

Everyone gets that quote wrong.


An almost earth-like planet, with two main continents separated by an ocean which can only be crossed from low orbit.

On the larger east continent is a dungeon that I didn’t care to explore, and an unnamed settlement heavy with swamp land.

The settlement had a magic shop, church, oracle, fast food joint, and docks with friendly pirates, who let me borrow one of their frigates, though all I could do was sail around the swamp and locate a jester marooned on an island who cryptically told me “YOU’RE HALF WAY THERE!” A merchant near the restaurant wanted a duck. Dupre could be found by the oracle, but I couldn’t get him to part with his duck.

Why a duck?

The smaller eastern continent had a tower, which I also declined to explore.


A single continent, with some interesting terrain, but there’s nothing else. No settlements, no dungeons, no nothing.


A forest planet with winding paths, some leading to a lake, others converging at a lone settlement.

A settlement full of those damned jesters! Jesters programmed to swarm you on sight but not attack unless you hit first, which of course you have to if you get boxed in. This seemed a good place to use my strange coins,which freeze everyone in place for a few turns.

Jesters hanging out at the magic shop.

A jester inside a bunch of trees arranged like a fighter.

A jester inside a jester.

Pac-Man eating a jongleur.

Several oracles.

Fast food.

A “stoned” jester.

A Jester hanging out in the swamp.

I left this cursed place, never to return.


Almost entirely a wide-open plane, except for a settlement in a small mountain range.

Another silly place, not half as annoying as New Jester, the Computer Camp had nothing of importance, but Richard Garriott made a cameo.

A bunch of orcs and fighters walked around the various cabins and stores, and some NPCs who I assume represent Garriott’s friends blathered inanely. A psychedelic “camp fire” burned for 1000 damage when I touched it.


A mostly mountainous planet with few regions safe to land in. The largest area had a dungeon (which again, I avoided), an airplane for easy navigation around the planet, and a town “Makler.”

Four NPCs in the pub all had unique quotes – a bouncer asked “WHERE THE HELL IS YOUR I.D.?”, one pirate reminded me to find Father Antos, and two others told me to seek the clerk in New San Antonio – a clue I doubt you’d be likely to reach space without already knowing. Curiously, this town also had the LB insignia in the middle.

The airplane allowed me to fly around the surface of the planet, where I found one more town, but nothing useful. Two fighters there, Bill and Bob, had this racket going where each one instructed me to give the other money, but nothing ever came of it.

Planet X

It's not mentioned in the manual, but the town in Pangaea gives you the hyperspace coordinates of 9-9-9 to reach this planet, where a single continent spans the globe, and features a town and castle.

The town was pretty useless, with a pub, weapon shop, armor shop, horse shop, and docks, all things I’ve seen already. The bar, called “GET DRUNK AT OZYS,” had NPCs who would only state that they disliked mages. Two fighters in the weapons shop told me to find Father Antos on this planet to earn the ring, but I knew that already. A ship could be stolen from the docks, but on a planet with only one continent, this wasn’t especially useful.

The castle is where I finally met Father Antos. First, I greeted the king and queen (or is it the king and a spy?), who raised my HP for money and told me to seek Father Antos, respectively. Behind the throne were locked doors, leading to the rest of the castle’s rooms. The “kueen’s” bedroom, a sewage-soaked jail full of vile inmates slinging harmful spells at me as I walked through, the kitchen where the cook Sing Lee displayed a bit of casual racism, and finally the chapel.


I hyperspaced back to coordinates 6-6-6, landed in North America, and took the time gate there back to South America in 1990 AD. There, I walked to New San Antonio, and offered 500 gold to the old man under the tree again.

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