Friday, September 23, 2022

Game 338: Panorama Toh

An English splash screen gets my hopes up that I might be able to play this one through.


Title screen, undithered


Uh-oh.


Panorama Toh, the second game published by Nihon Falcom (programmed once again by Yoshio Kiya), is the earliest JRPG I've seen yet, even predating The Black Onyx by a year.

Sadly, I knew quite early on that I wasn't going to be able to finish this thanks to the language barrier. But I gave it a try, just to find out how much of it I could see, in anticipation of the more widely covered Dragon Slayer.



 

We have a very Ultima-like interface and game world, though the world is hex-based and fits on one screen. I have no idea why I'm here, or what my goal is.

I went exploring, and promptly fell into a pit.


 

The game prompts you for a command, but unfortunately I have no list of valid ones. Through brute force exhaustion I found these ones got responses:

  • U - No obvious effect but the game beeped and produced a non-generic message (and cleared it faster than I could have read it even if I could read Japanese)
  • F - Eat food. Prompts you for how many rations to eat, and you regain 10 stamina each, but if you hit 200 stamina then the game beeps and you go down to 30, presumably having barfed.
  • J - Jumps. Futilely.
  • C - Call, maybe? Produces a message, but repeat actions result in a native coming to your rescue.

 

To the north, a tree bore bananas which I knocked down in a minigame whose rules I didn't really understand.


Further up north, the hexes surrounding the pyramid turned out to be a river. My attempt to walk on water didn't quite work.

Thankfully, a boat fished me out.


Inside the pyramid. The dots in front are loose gold.

 

I wandered around the pyramid, mapping as I went.


Here and there, I'd find what looked like trapdoors. The 'K' key allowed me to smash and grab something.

'U', 'H', 'J', 'L', and 'C' also give responses.


Natives occasionally attack, taking gold but not doing damage.

'A' kills them easily, but they will spawn and attack when you're idle, making mapping annoying.

Further in, I ran into Dracula, who ate me.



Restarting, and exploring the overworld some more, some other encounters I found included:

  • Getting bit by a snake in the woods. This leaves you immobile, but you can call for help, and a native will eventually come by and cure you in exchange for food. If you don't have enough, you're screwed, as far as I can tell.
  • Trees that bear not just bananas, but sometimes cherries, or even roast meat! Sometimes the food falls on your head, causing damage (and you don't get the food).
  • Packs of tigers, who can be bypassed by giving them food. Attacking is risky.
  • Caves, sometimes guarded by a troll, but always too dark to explore.

 

Entering a town in the middle of Panorama Toh. '@' signs are thieves who take your gold.

 
Here's a stock JRPG visual grammar - the shopkeeper's face while you buy stuff

 

I tried to translate what I could here, using Google Translate and my feeble attempts to distinguish the various angled, curved, and squiggly lines in the low-res katakana soup. (updated - corrected my errors from a commenter below)

  1. Ladder
  2. Rope
  3. Katana
  4. Drugs
  5. Translator
  6. Key
  7. Shovel
  8. Hammer
  9. Radar
  10. Light
  11. Battery
  12. Rosary
  13. Powered suit
  14. [Leave store]
 

Incredibly, this guy pays you to take his stuff! Buy the powered suit, though, and it's game over.

This also happens if you buy too many things.

 

I made a few more discoveries, many of them only possible because of the commenter's translation.

A guard rebukes me at the castle in the southwest.

The town in the west can be entered by bribing the guard. I think you need a translator to do this.


Entering the porno shop gets you a glimpse at some ASCII muff... and a night in jail with a pickpocket.

The northwest town.

The bar. This was the last thing I saw before another game over happened.

A torch and some batteries let you see inside the caves, and the radar, I'm assuming, gives an automap.

Some monsters are easily killed with your gun.

Keys open chests. I'm not sure what's going on here - my gold counter did not change.

Other monsters shrug off your attacks.

The ladder lets you escape pit traps.

Drugs cure snake bites.

You can lasso food trees with the rope, but this didn't ever seem to get me the food.


This is as far as I expect to get without a manual or a translation. I didn't find anything in the caves except for monsters, minor treasures, and exits to other caves on the island. I thought that the rosary item might let me get past Dracula in the pyramid, but it did not. Either that or I failed to discover the correct way of using it.

As we can see here, this is more than just an Ultima clone, even if things aren't terribly polished or sophisticated (but then neither was Ultima). Despite the primitiveness, we can already see the JRPG identity starting to take rudimentary form, and that made it worth the effort of playing. No GAB rating today - it wouldn't make much sense to rate a game that I couldn't play properly.

The next game isn't going to be Dragon Slayer as originally planned. We've got one more ancestor to cover first.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Game 337: Galactic Wars

Predating rival studios Square, Chunsoft, and Atlus by years, Nihon Falcom is said to be Japan's oldest and longest continually operating JRPG developer, if not their biggest or most famous. Founded in 1981 as a computer store, they would sell and later publish software made by their own customers, and by 1989, become put on the international map with internally developed hits Legacy of the Wizard, Sorcerian, and of course Ys, one of the longest-running JRPG series of all time.

Until about 2004, with the release of Sony's PSP, their games had been almost exclusively developed for computers, with console ports of their most successful often outsourced to third parties. The TurboGrafx CD, relatively unpopular outside of Japan, was their most widely supported console. Consequently, they never quite became the major industry player that their prolific back catalog would suggest, and few of their games made whale status, and fewer still attain it naturally. Data Driven Gamer's projected scope is not representative of their decades-long history, and I do not expect to cover series Legend of Heroes, which like Ys, continues to this day and is arguably more popular.

1984's Dragon Slayer, said to be one of the foundational JRPG titles of 1984, seemed important enough to select as a discretionary whale and an entry point to Nihon Falcom. Two prior games seemed important to cover as ancestors, and the first, Galactic Wars, is one we are fortunate still exists. Game Preservation Society chronicles the story of its creation, initially on a Casio computer rented to then-hobbyist programmer Yoshio Kiya, and digital archiving of a PC-8801 conversion.


Thanks to Redditor mattarod for translating this, and to Pzychotix for further translating ingame dialogs. Some minor revisions for clarity are my own.

  • This is a simulation war game. You are the supreme commander of the Allied forces.
  • The Third Reich forces, commanded by the computer, relentlessly attacks for control of Space Area M-23.
  • Input commands with numbers, following the prompt in the bottom-left of the screen.
  • Input is performed entirely with the numeric keypad.
  • There are initially three SEARCHERs (reconnaissance aircraft) in M-23, but you can only fly one at a time.
  • Once you discover an enemy, it will be revealed on the radar for three turns.
  • If it attacks, it will be revealed for 20 turns.
  • Enemies flee when it seems they are about to be destroyed.
  • When you exit the space area, damaged fighters will be revived, so try not to chase them too far...
  • Good luck!!
  • Please select a level. [1-3]

 

 

The game is, weirdly enough, a copy of Avalon Hill's Midway Campaign! Planet-M23 serves as a stand-in for Midway, two ships (Falcon and Unicon) are your task forces, and all three are capable of launching aircraft, of which there are three types. Bombers attack enemy carriers, fighters can either accompany bombers to attack carrier CAP or be assigned to CAP themselves, and attackers I assume are like bombers but worse. Or maybe better.

Two additions to the formula make Galactic Wars different. First, the game runs semi-realtime; orders are carried out in turns, but you only have a few seconds per turn to make them. Second, there's an unarmed "Searcher" craft that flies six times faster than your own carriers and can be used to help spot enemy ships. Sadly, I never quite got the knack of using it.

I had Falcon, Unicon, and Planet M23 arm all of their ships - having them below deck serves no purpose as far as I can tell - and send them on a southwesterly direction while the searcher, which isn't listed in the roster and is difficult to see on the map, flew around space aimlessly. Eventually, Falcon encountered the enemy "Alzas."

Too bad I'm not entirely sure what's going on here.

Some animations played out, and from what I can tell, Falcon got lightly damaged by Alzas' attackers and bombers.

That same turn, "Specter" was sighted.



I moved my ships in closer to Alzas, and let all of bombers unload.


A few rounds later, Alzas was destroyed, but Falcon had been badly damaged in counterattacks, losing half of her fighters in CAP.

After rearming the ships, assigning full CAP to both, and sending them toward Specter, a third ship "Gorgon" showed its face, right in M-23's airspace.


Gorgon did a number on the planet, though it would have been far worse without the CAP assignment, and I retaliated right away, on a now defenseless aggressor.


That leaves Specter to deal with. Ideally, I'd want to bait it with the battered Falcon and then wear it down with Unicon.

Something even better happened. Specter didn't even know it was about to be double-teamed, until it was already in range! Its ships apparently were below deck. I hit it hard with unaccompanied attackers and bombers, and unprotected by CAP, did 90% lethal damage in one round, while Unicon shrugged off some token retaliation. One more attack and it was over.



I won handily... on the easiest setting. But I'm okay with not trying again on something harder.

GAB rating: Average. No points for originality - this really is just a copy of Midway Campaign, but the addition of manual searching does make the game better, just not a lot better. The timed rounds, on the other hand, are kind of annoying to deal with, expiring way too soon, and the fact that some of the ingame prompts go away faster than you could reasonably have a chance to read them makes me think this might be a bug or an emulation problem.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Ports of Entry: U.S. Gold

U.S. Gold's primary business was importing games by U.S. developers for European distribution, but had also published some developed locally or internally. For my intents and purposes I'm interested only in the latter category.

Unknown lead platform:

 

Heroes of the Lance

Released for Amiga, Atari ST, & PC in November 1988

Ported to Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum in 1988

Released for Commodore 64 in July 1989

Ported to PC-88 & PC-98 in October 1989

Ported to Sharp X1 in December 1989

 

Human Killing Machine

First released for PC & ZX Spectrum in 1988

Released for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, & Commodore 64 in 1989


Wikipedia states that 1989 is the general release year while Mobygames states 1988 for PC & ZX Spectrum.

 

Dragons of Flame

First released for PC in November 1989

Released for Amiga & Atari ST in December 1989

Released for Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum in 1990

Ported to Commodore 64 in 1990


Italy 1990

Released for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, PC, & ZX Spectrum in 1990


 

OutRun Europa

Released for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Game Gear, Sega Master System, & ZX Spectrum in 1991

 

Winter Olympics: Lillehammer '94

First released for PC in 1993

Released for Game Gear & Genesis in February 1994

Released for Sega Master System in July 1994

Released for Amiga & SNES in 1994


Wikipedia states that the Amiga version is 1993 while Mobygames states 1994.

Tiertex developed the Sega & SNES versions, while PC and Amiga were done internally.

 

Select chronology: 

 
 
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Dropzone Atari 8-bit 1984 1985 port to C64
Heroes of the Lance ??? 1988-11 Same-quarter releases on Amiga, Atari ST, & PC
Same-year ports to Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum
1989 release on C64
1989 ports to PC-88, PC-98, & Sharp X1
Human Killing Machine ??? 1988 Same-year releases on PC & ZX Spectrum
1989 releases on Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, & C64
Dragons of Flame ??? 1989-12 Same-quarter releases on PC, Amiga, & Atari ST
1990 releases on Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum
1990 port to C64
Italy 1990 ??? 1990 Same-year releases on various computers
OutRun Europa ??? 1991 Same-year releases on Game Gear, Master System, & various computers
Winter Olympics:
Lillehammer '94
??? 1993 Amiga, PC, & various consoles

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Won!

Hitchhiker's Guide, in a way, feels like a predecessor to the "time loop" trend that exploded in indie adventure games around the late 2010's and reached critical mass in 2021. Living, reliving, and jumping around the events of earth's destruction, the ensuing havoc suffered by humanity's last survivor, and the events leading up to it, it's up to you to discover the right sequences of actions to manipulate the timeline so that you not just survive but also can complete the game's final set of tasks.

There's diegetic manipulation via improbability drive, and non-diegetic manipulation via conventional saving/loading and restarting. It's just a pity that, with so many ways of locking yourself out of victory in ways that can't be reversed with the improbability drive, "restarting" becomes your de facto method, squandering a lot of potential in the concept.


I restarted and played out the opening acts as I had before, only this time I stopped to feed the dog, as I now knew was required. The next few sequences - escaping earth, getting the Babel Fish, enduring the Vogons, activating the improbability drive, etc., played out normally. Things diverged at the war chamber scenario, where the grateful warlords dropped me off at the Heart of Gold, now miniaturized, and apparently inside someone's brain.

Wandering around, I soon found a particle inscribed with words.

  Sense, Common for:
     Dent, Arthur
   (for replacement,
  order part #31-541)

 

Taking it scored some points and ended the scenario.

I cycled through the rest of the scenarios, still done by repeatedly throwing the switch at the improbability drive until randomly arriving at an uncompleted one, but now faced an additional hazard - randomly materializing inside my own head, to spectacularly fatal results. I could find no way to avoid this except by saving before throwing the improbability switch.

Eventually I completed them all, brewed my tea, saved the ship, got my tea (and my no tea, an action now possible with my auto-logikosectomy), and used the tea to warp into the whale.

I thought that I might be able to use the hitchhiking device to escape with the flowerpot and the rest of my stuff, but it failed. The device's other function called tech support, who uselessly told me it was out of warranty.

Back on the Heart of Gold, I could open the locked room by possessing tea and no tea simultaneously (something I knew about from prior reading long ago), but entering is immediately fatal if you don't drink the tea first. Marvin lives inside, and once the ship lands, can be asked to open the hatch for you. I did, and he asked me to meet him in the access space with the "right" tool.

Turns out this bastard won't tell you what the "right" tool is until you're there, and it will always be something you aren't holding in your limited inventory.

Zaphod's toolbox was on the ship, and I thought I might be able to use it to carry all of the tools, but it was locked, and I couldn't find a way to express my desire to force it open with one of the many tools I gathered in my travels.

I reloaded a much earlier save and found that in Zaphod's scenario, the key to the toolbox was underneath his seat. Inside the toolbox, a magnifying glass and laser-sighted wrench.

After refinishing this scenario, I tested my theory. It turned out to be dead wrong - the game just won't let you carry the toolbox into the crawlspace unless the toolbox is empty.

Turning to a walkthrough yet again, it said I had to collect four pieces of fluff and put them in the flowerpot. Capricious as this might seem, the Guide will actually clue you into this if you think to ask it about fluff, which of course I hadn't until just now.

One ancient legend claims that four pieces of fluff lie scattered around the Galaxy; each forming one-quarter of the seedling of a tree with amazing properties, the sole survivor of the tropical planet Fuzzbol (Footnote 8).

The guide also revealed my problem with the device - I had simply activated it at the wrong time and broken it.

I reloaded a save from near the start to repeat the improbability drive scenarios, this time making sure any fluff encountered came back with me. The first piece, of course, had been in Arthur's pocket the entire time. The rest of them were found in other characters' scenarios:

  • Zaphod's scenario, under his seat. By putting the fluff in the toolbox, it will be found there later.
  • Ford's scenario, inside his satchel. Arthur is too polite to open it, but as Ford, you can give Arthur the fluff, and then have it once the scenario ends.
  • Trillian's scenario, on Arthur's jacket. Putting it in her handbag, which Arthur doesn't mind rummaging through, lets you retrieve it on the Heart of Gold later.


After, once again, working my way back to the inside of the sperm whale, I, once again, found the device broken. By working my way backwards with saves, I found the precise moment it (silently) broke - when the missiles launch.

The walkthrough gave me a solution one last time - bring nothing to the sperm whale, not even your gown. The indescribable "thing" will come with you. Put the flower pot inside the thing - yet another action that absolutely nothing indicates is a possibility except for trying it - and you'll find it on your return to the Heart of Gold.


I'd had just about enough, and thankfully, the end was near. I put the four pieces of fluff into the flowerpot, and a sprout grew. I took it into the ship's sauna, and it bore fruit, which I ate and received a vision of handing Marvin a laser monkey wrench. On planetfall, I got the wrench, asked him to open the hatch, met in the crawlspace, gave it to him, endured one last bit of passive aggressive whining, and finally,

>d
You step onto the landing ramp leading down toward the surface of the legendary lost planet of Magrathea. "Announcement, announcement. This is Eddie (the shipboard computer). Someone is leaving the ship on a strange planet without wrapping up all nice and warm. It'll all end in tears, I just know it..." The voice fades behind you.

Ramp
The wind moans. Dust drifts across the surface of the alien world. Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian appear and urge you forward.

Slowly, nervously, you step downwards, the cold thin air rasping in your lungs. You set one single foot on the ancient dust -- and almost instantly the most incredible adventure starts which you'll have to buy the next game to find out about.

Your score is 400 of a possible 400, in 582 turns.

By the way, there WAS a causal relationship between your taking the toothbrush and the tree collapsing at the very beginning of the game. We apologise for this slight inaccuracy.


GAB rating: Average. Like the novel, this game is a classic. Also like the novel, it's not for everyone, including me. This makes it a tough one to evaluate - it's a well crafted, technically polished game with some truly clever bits and it largely succeeds at what it sets out to do, but too often its greatest success was pissing me off.

Hitchhiker's strengths are prominent - the writing, partly contributed by Douglas Adams himself, is some of Infocom's strongest yet, and when it's not merely cribbing passages from the book, shows plenty of medium awareness. Vivid descriptions make the various locales become alive, the characters like Marvin, Ford, Arthur, and Eddie show personality throughout with economical scripting and dialog (although Zaphod and Trillian, sadly, do not), and most of all, the very parser becomes an impish surrogate for Meretzky and Adams, purposefully misleading you and snarking with sarcastic wit. With only about 30 rooms, most of them part of small self-contained areas, Hitchhiker boldly de-emphasizes the exploration that defined adventures since their namesake (it doesn't even have a lantern!) in favor of a focus on interactions, dynamic events, and puzzles. Conventions of the genre, well established even by 1984, are parodied and subverted, sometimes cleverly, sometimes not, but seldom played straight.

Trope deconstruction is a tricky business, though, especially in a video game. When you spring a "gotcha" moment too obviously, the effect falls flat and it feels forced instead of clever. That isn't a problem here, but when it doesn't spring at all, not even subtly, the player has no way of figuring out they've been had, and frustration ensues. Consequently, some puzzles in Hitchhiker are indeed clever and make you feel clever for figuring out the trick, while others just evaded me completely until I had to look up the solutions, and as I got close to the game's end, this frequently meant being forced to restart large portions of the game again and again while also being annoyed at the solutions' obscurity.

The Heart of Gold, reached about 25% of the way into the game, is where things really fall apart for me. A time traveling non-linear meta-puzzle of seemingly unrelated sequences that tie into each other isn't a bad idea at all, but two aspects made it torturous. First, there's the sheer tedium of performing repetitive actions until you randomly jump into the desired scenario. I got horribly sick of pulling the switch, waiting until smell returns, smelling a shadow, getting killed, waiting until hearing returns, listening, and going back to the bridge to pull the switch again and hoping that this time it gets me somewhere with an uncompleted task. Second, surviving a scenario without completing all of the required actions, most of which you probably won't even deduce are required until you reach the endgame sequences, locks you out of that scenario, forcing you to replay this tedious and lengthy portion (and everything after it) again and again.

Two things could have fixed my gripes - first, just let the player pick a scenario after improbability driving, determined by the sense used. None of this waiting around for a sense to randomly return - that's fine for the Vogon hold and other parts where there's only one location to warp into, but for this midgame portion, let sight bring you to Ford's scenario, hearing bring you to the warship, feeling bring you to Zaphod cruising in his speedboat, smell bring you to the beast's lair, and taste bring you to Trillian sipping wine at a dull party. Then, don't lock out the player from a finished scenario. Let me go back and search time and space for fluff once it dawns in on me that the fluff is important without having to reload and repeat most or all of the game!

Hitchhiker is ambitious, polished, and well made with impressive attention to detail, but overall I didn't like it.


I thought the best aspect of Hitchhiker was the sardonic narration, which isn't easy to convey in a normal playthrough, as so much of it is triggered by going off the critical path and doing things that don't advance your progress, but are recognized by the prompt anyway. So here are some of my favorite parser responses, presented in postscript.

>turn on light
Good start to the day. Pity it's going to be the worst one of your life.

 

>don't wait
Time doesn't pass...


>enjoy poetry
You realise that, although the Vogon poetry is indeed astoundingly bad, worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school. With an effort for which Hercules himself would have patted you on the back, you grit your teeth and enjoy the stuff.


>carve name on memorial
Whose name? The Beast's name? Your aunt's name? One of the Infinite Unknowable names of Buddha? How about the name of Fred who runs (or rather ran) your local chip shop? At least that's a short name -- you might have time to write it before the Beast eats you.

>carve "fred" on memorial
Concentrate. Learn to distinguish between genuinely helpful suggestions and mere sarcasm.


>talk to g'gugvunt
You are clearly the worst diplomat that ever lived, and are about to become the worst one that ever died. That is an even worse insult in the G'Gugvunt tongue than "look up marvin in guide" is in the Vl'Hurg tongue.

 

Maze
This is part of a spongy gray maze of twisty little synapses, all alike.

 

You look around. You notice the bulldozer properly for the first time. You notice Arthur's house. You notice the workmen. The penny drops. His HOUSE is about to be demolished. You feel like a complete...what's the word?

>idiot
Thank you. An idiot is exactly what you feel like.


>w
Upon entering the room, you are battered by tidal waves of depression. In fact, a lethal dose.

    ****  You have died  ****


>marvin, open hatch
"Humans are so depressingly stupid. Are you aware," he asks, "that this ship is in space, that space is an almost perfect vacuum, and that the hatch is the only thing holding in all the air?"

Your serious allergic reaction to protein loss from matter transference beams becomes a cause celebre amongst various holistic pressure groups in the Galaxy and leads to a total ban on dematerialisation. Within fifty years, space travel is replaced by a keen interest in old furniture restoration and market gardening. In this new, quieter Galaxy, the art of telepathy flourishes as never before, creating a new universal harmony which brings all life together, converts all matter into thought and brings about the rebirth of the entire Universe on a higher and better plane of existence.

However, none of this affects you, because you are dead.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Time is an illusion

Previously on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, our hapless protagonist narrowly escaped being caught in his own house mid-demolition, subsequently narrowly escaped Earth's destruction by catching a ride on a ship in the demolition fleet, endured horrible poetry, and acquired a valuable Guide, Babel Fish, and atomic vector plotter, before being forced out the airlock and, most improbably, catching another ride on a different ship.

 

Once again, I regained my senses one at a time. Ford recognized this ship as the Heart of Gold, and after introductions to the crew Zaphod Breeblebrox and Trillian, ditched me for the sauna.

The Heart of Gold is a small area of only eight immediately accessible rooms, but for the first time yet, I was free to explore.

  • The Bridge's main feature is a console for Eddie, the shipboard computer. Also found here are Ford's satchel, a handbag containing a pair of tweezers, and a molecular hyperwave pincer.
  • A short corridor below deck connects the rest of the rooms. Marvin, the paranoid android, wanders around here spreading ennui. A room to the west is sealed by a door that won't open until you can impress the computer with your intellect.
  • A featureless entry bay connects to the north. The name implies there is at least one other.
  • The galley has a "Nutrimat" machine which dispenses unsatisfying imitation tea. Zaphod may enter and dispense himself a pan-galactic gargle blaster. A carton here contains a gun.
  • The parser dispenses many warnings before entering the engine room, but nothing of interest is found there.
  • A hatchway connects access to the space hatch, and a small access space for servicing the hatch mechanism.

 

I was stuck here and had to look at a walkthrough. The parser is lying when it says the engine room is empty - keep looking, and you find a portable improbability generator, an ionic diffusion rasp, and a pair of hypersonic pliers.

Some of this sci-fi junk had to be useful, but without any clues what any of it did, so I consulted the Guide on each thing. Most pertinently, I learned that improbability may be generated from an atomic vector plotter and "Brownian motion," which is found in hot liquids. By dipping a "dangly bit" of the former device into the tea substitute and plugging in the portable improbability drive, I could warp to a dark cavern and get torn apart by a Bugblatter Beast (my gun didn't help).

Death just took me back to the Heart of Gold, where I activated the drive again. This time it took me to a battlecruiser's war chamber, where I grabbed an "ultra-plasmic vacuum awl" before becoming swallowed by a dog.

Another vignette took me to a house party in the past, as someone else, presumably Trillian, where a socially awkward Dent responds favorably to the removal of a tuft from his suit, and a hostess that we're informed we don't like follows you around everywhere. Eventually, a party crasher named "Phil" picked me up and brought us into space, and darkness again.

In a fourth vignette, as Breeblebrox (this time I typed "who am I" to confirm my temporary quantum leap identity), I drove a speedboat to steal the Heart of Gold. The boat smashed into the rocks, ending the scenario.

A fifth scenario QL'd me into the past of Ford Prefect, where I got to experience the game's opening act from his perspective, first giving Arthur his towel back, then convincing Prosser to lie down in the mud, escorting Arthur to the pub for beer, and finally watching him blunder his way off the doomed planet, right as the Vogons came on time to destroy it.

One last scenario was real quick - getting gunned down by Vogons on their flagship.


I figured each scenario had a task to complete, and reloaded to try them again.

The Guide had informed me that the Bugblatter Beast is phenomenally stupid, specifically pointing out that it believes it cannot see you if you can't see it. Closing my eyes wasn't obvious enough, but putting a towel on my head was, and this bought me enough time to enter its inner lair and carve my name on its memorial, tricking it into believing it already ate me. I then retrieved a "Nutrimat/Computer Interface" from a corpse and, through a non-interactive but characteristically absurd side-vignette, got sucked into a black hole and warped back onto the Heart of Gold.

I put the board into the galley Nutrimat, and when I activated, it was flabbergasted by the very idea of making tea, and rebooted itself. Meanwhile, Eddie announced that nukes were inbound. I scrambled up to the bridge, plugged the portable improbability drive into the console (I had previously tried this and it had done something detrimental to the ship, but from that experiment I knew it to be an option), and pulled the switch, transforming the missiles into a sperm whale.

The plotter, used with the real tea, now finished brewing, unlocked a new scenario, inside the belly of a whale plummeting to terra firma. It didn't last long at all. I noticed soon after that my inventory was gone, and reloaded.

Going back to tea substitute, I found the scenarios occurred randomly. Trillian's came next, but I couldn't think of anything new to do. Simply getting picked up awarded points, so I figured this was likely the complete sequence.

In Zaphod's scenario, I got his boat to launch me up onto a raised dais by steering it hard to port at the last moment, but couldn't figure out how to escape the cheering crowd there. From a walkthrough, I learned I just had to wait for Trillian to show up and take me "hostage," setting up a standoff with the guards. I figured the guards could be ordered to drop their rifles, but I had to look again for the next and final step - order Trillian to shoot the rifles.

Next, I redid Ford's scenario, and after receiving points and returning to the Heart of Gold, Eddie announced we made planetfall and was jamming the hatch while scanning for habitability.

It took several more cycles of activating the improbability drive in tea substitute before re-arriving in the last unfinished scenario of the group - the war chamber. The improbability drive repeatedly warped me into scenarios already completed (and now instantly fatal) - but eventually I did land there. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do here, apart from grabbing the awl, which itself awarded no points.


A walkthrough revealed, infuriatingly, that success depended on an action all the way at the beginning of the game; buying a cheese sandwich from the pub and feeding it to a dog.

Utterly. Ridiculous. It's bad enough that I had to restart the game after getting so far in, but the action performed is obscure and nonsensical. I tested and found that Ford's scenario technically gives you a second chance to perform the required action, but the time-loop setup, complete with a temporal paradox condition that, should you fail to perform Ford's predestined actions, boots you out of the game with the message that your actions destroyed the universe, strongly suggests that there is nothing else to do here.

The game does clue you in, subtly, that the dog at the start is also the one that winds up eating the miniature space fleet that you wind up being on. In fact, in Ford's scenario, it clues you in again, which I had picked up on before turning to a walkthrough, though at the time I assumed it to be a clever bit of attention to detail and not a sign that my intervention was required. The connection between a dog gulping during the earth's last moments and a warship getting swallowed is, if not exactly logical, at least consistent with Adams' particular brand of illogic.

But even with foresight knowledge that the dog at the start of the game will eat you later, there's no indication that you can buy sandwiches at the pub, let alone that feeding them to the dog will prevent this event from happening. You'd have to stop to examine the shelves in the pub to even know there are sandwiches there, which you're not likely to do as Arthur because the world is ending (and Ford is urging you to hurry up and drink your beer), and you're not likely to do as Ford because the world is ending (and the parser is urging you to hurry up and not cause a time paradox). Never mind the Babel Fish, this is the game's truly evil puzzle.

So far.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Game 336: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Read the manual here:
 
Get Frotz (if native Windows execution is your wish) here:
http://www.davidkinder.co.uk/frotz.html
 



Steve Meretzky returned to science fiction for his third Infocom game, this time collaborating with English author Douglas Adams with 1984's cutting edge "electronic mail" technology to adapt his novelized BBC radio comedy hit into a suitably absurd interactive fiction title. Hitchhiker's, as it's listed on Infocom's sales sheets, quickly became their second biggest hit after Zork I, even as text adventures as a whole were commercially on the decline.

Infocom retired the folio packaging format by 1984, and this "grey box" offers more feelies than most, but they're mainly cheap gag items - a pair of black cardboard shades, a "Don't Panic!" pin, some fluff, a plastic bag allegedly containing a microscopic space fleet, and no tea. Most relevant are two demolition orders, and the manual, taking the form of a humorous brochure for the eponymous Hitchhiker's Guide, essentially a tablet that runs Space Wikipedia.


I have to confess that, although I have listened to a few episode broadcasts on NPR, watched the BBC TV series, and seen the ghastly 2005 feature film, I never finished reading the book. Something about Adam's narration-heavy prose, no doubt a positive to his many fans, doesn't quite click with me, with the nonstop digressions, tangents, and syntactically weird sentences that lead you around a garden path and make you forget how they began by the time they finish. This style works better for me as a radio program than a novel, like listening to a stand-up comedy routine that happens to also tell a story, one without too much concern for pacing or consistency. In any format, though, Adam's bleak, ultra-nihilistic outlook leaves me cold, even despondent.

In any event, the manual does advise that familiarity with the book is useful for solving the game's initial portions, but that things diverge pretty quickly. I do not expect my failure to complete the book to be much of an impediment to playing the game. I am also not playing completely blind, having learned of some of its most notorious puzzles previously by cultural osmosis (e.g. the Babel Fish puzzle).


>i
You have:
  a splitting headache
  no tea

The game starts in Arthur Dent's bedroom, spinning around his hungover head. Little does he know that his house is scheduled to be demolished in a few minutes, and Earth not long after.

First actions - get up, turn on the light, put on a dressing gown, and take some aspirin. Afterward, you can get your screwdriver and toothbrush, and pick up a big pile of mail on the porch, but not dawdle, as the bulldozer is already here (as you pick up the toothbrush a tree outside the window collapses. There is no causal relationship between these two events, lies the parser). As is canon, you delay it by lying down in defiance of councilman Prosser's stern warnings.

After waiting in the mud a few turns, the bulldozer stops in its tracks, and Ford Prefect comes by to offer a towel. Here comes the game's first mean trick - take it, and you've softlocked yourself. Ford walks away, leaving you alone in a stalemate with the bulldozer until you yield or the Vogon space fleet comes by and annihilates the planet. You must instead continue waiting for a few more turns, until Ford notices your predicament, and then the plot converges back to its track as he talks Prosser into taking your place so you can go to the pub.

Through trial and error, I found the next sequence of events. Drink beer until there isn't any left, while Ford casually brings up the imminent destruction of the world and Arthur is too drunk to care. Leave the pub before Arthur enjoys himself too much. When the Vogon fleet showed up, a mysterious "thing" escaped from my inventory. Ford produced a thumb-shaped device, which when activated correctly, warped me up into the dark hold of a Vogon destructor ship, blind and disoriented.

The prose onboard (finite permutations of you can see nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing, and are not entirely certain who you are) suggests a variant on the MOTLP, but the trick is to realize it says nothing about smelling, which will bring you to your senses quickly.

Ford gave me some peanuts, advised me to consult the Guide, and took a nap. A few subjects produced semi-meaningful, if not immediately useful answers:

  • Vogon
  • Vogon poetry
  • Bugblatter
  • Earth

 

Most subjects were simply described as among the Great Unanswered Questions, and the Guide suggested a list was available, but I found no way to successfully summon one, though one spectacularly unsuccessful attempt did wind up destroying an entire galaxy.

For now, the Guide was not immediately useful in escaping the hold, which I soon realized was the location of the infamous Babel Fish puzzle. I'm happy to say that the puzzle, which I had known of previously though not its solution, isn't nearly as unsolvable as its reputation suggests. The solution is ridiculous if described in isolation of the gameplay experience, but in my effort to find it, each failure was a hint toward the intended next step of the correct sequence of actions.

For instance:

>press dispenser button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and through a small hole in the wall, just under a metal hook.

...cues you to block the hole with something. My first instinct was to hang up the towel, but after a few frustrating attempts to get the parser to understand this idea, I realized I was meant to use the gown (and the towel's purpose became clear soon after). The main problem here is you have limited time and limited Babel Fishes, but that's what save files are for.

With the Babel Fish acquired, I soon learned two things through its universal translation powers:

  1. The password to a display case containing a valuable vector plotter is found in Vogon poetry.
  2. The captain is on his way right now to torture us with his poetry.


He arrived, and dragged me and Ford to his cabin for a session. From prior reading long ago, I knew a counterintuitive action was needed here:

>enjoy poetry
You realise that, although the Vogon poetry is indeed astoundingly bad, worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school. With an effort for which Hercules himself would have patted you on the back, you grit your teeth and enjoy the stuff.

"You looked like you enjoyed my poem. I think...yes, I think I'll read the NEXT verse, also!"


"Gashee morphousite, thou expungiest quoopisk!"

After his grand finish, I had just enough time to snag the vector plotter before the guards threw me out the airlock.


To be continued...

(owing to the very linear nature of the game so far, I don't see any need to post a Trizbort map).

 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Ports of Entry: Oxford Digital Enterprises

Unknown lead platform:

 

Trivial Pursuit

First released for MSX & ZX Spectrum in 1986

Ported to Thomson TO in 1986 by Ubisoft

Released for PC in March 1987

Released for Amstrad CPC, Amstrad PCW, & Atari 8-bit in 1987

 

The Hunt for Red October

Released for Amiga, Commodore 64, and PC in 1987

Released for Atari ST in March 1988

Released for Mac in December 1988

Released for Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum in 1988

 

Yes Prime Minister: The Computer Game

Released for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, & ZX Spectrum in 1987

Ported to BBC Micro in 1987

Released for PC in 1988

 

Trivial Pursuit: A New Beginning

Released for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, BBC Micro, Commodore 64, & ZX Spectrum in 1988

 

The Amazing Spider-Man

Released for Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, & PC in 1990


Select chronology: 

Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Macbeth Commodore 64 1984
Trivial Pursuit ??? 1986 Same-year releases on MSX & ZX Spectrum
Same-year port to Thomson TO
1987 releases on Amstrad CPC, Amstrad PC, Atari 8-bit, & PC
The Hunt for Red October ??? 1987 Same-year releases on Amiga, C64, & PC
1988 releases on Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Mac, & ZX Spectrum
Yes Prime Minister: The Computer Game ??? 1987 Same-year releases on Amstrad CPC, C64, & ZX Spectrum
Same-year port to BBC Micro
1988 release on PC
Trivial Pursuit: A New Beginning ??? 1988 Too many to fit here
The Amazing Spider-Man ??? 1990 Same-year releases on Amiga, Atari ST, C64, & PC

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Game 335: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Star Wars' early video games just can't seem to get a sensible release order. First, in 1982, Parker Brothers released Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600, skipping the first movie entirely. Then in 1983, as Return of the Jedi hit theaters, they released a tie-in game for the 2600, 5200, and Atari computers, along with the unrelated Jedi Arena, while Atari themselves had their hit arcade game based on the original 1977 film. In 1984, Atari rushed out an original Return of the Jedi arcade game while the movie hype was still strong, and Parker Brothers ported Star Wars to consoles and computers, completing the 2600 trilogy in an incorrect order. And finally, in 1985, Atari released Empire Strikes Back in arcades, completing their trilogy in a different but also incorrect order.

Atari's 1984 game is my end point for this brief retrospective, producing yet another wrong chronology (Empire->Star Wars->Jedi). Star Wars interest revitalizes in the 90's, and with it are many successful licensed video games, starting with JVC's Star Wars and Super Star Wars, the latter finally kicking off a congruous game trilogy after the former fails. In the interim years, the UK gets an 8-bit computer puzzle game based on the short-lived Droids TV series, while Japan gets an inexplicably weird platformer by Namco and a flashy computer remake of the original arcade game with cinematic-like camera angles and sound.

For now, this is the last Star Wars game on my agenda, and it's a dark horse, having been developed by Atari's "B" team while the core Star Wars team continued work on a proper vector-based sequel. Using a flight yoke for control but otherwise a 2D axonometric driving game/shooter, it was a foregone conclusion that Return of the Jedi would be a disappointing step down from its predecessor.

The below video is played at medium difficulty, which is required to see all three stages, but also played with the maximum number of lives allowed. Other than that, there are no cheats.


Return of the Jedi is pretty much Spy Hunter combined with Zaxxon, and like those games, it's frustratingly difficult. It was a struggle to complete a single loop of even "easy" mode where the second stage is skipped. So much of its challenge, though, comes from the difficulty of dodging obstacles at high speeds, especially trees which are already hard to see against their similarly shaded backdrops, and infuriatingly, have unclear collision boxes that make it a guessing game to determine precisely how close you can skim by one without crashing. On top of all that, the analog flight yoke controls just don't provide enough finesse, and the viewing angle is confusing. Maybe it's easier with genuine Star Wars controls, but I managed Star Wars just fine with a flight stick.


Stage 1 has you race through Endor with stormtroopers in pursuit and is probably the hardest stage. The standard tactic is to speed up, putting some distance between you and them, and then when they draw in closer, quickly decelerate and ram them from the side or shoot them from behind. Speeding up is always dangerous, though, as it means less of a chance to react to incoming obstacles. Not speeding up will inevitably end badly as a stormtrooper shoots you from behind at too closely a range to dodge. Ewok traps can also take out troopers behind you, as long as you pass through them first. Flying ewoks are the worst, dropping rocks indiscriminately. They killed me about as often as they killed stormtroopers.

Make it to the end and C-3PO nonsensically declares "Wonderful! We are now a part of the tribe," referencing the movie in a manner that makes no sense in the context of the game.



Next, you play Chewbacca piloting an AT-ST to rescue Han and contend with malevolent logs that magically roll toward your legs while also avoiding lumber piles and rock traps. You can swivel your head to hit targets to your side but this seems completely pointless. In one of the game's cleverer touches, this stage, like the film's climactic chapter, alternates back and forth with Lando making his approach toward Death Star 2.0, where you are accompanied by two X-Wings and blast TIE Fighters and turbolaser towers while Lando chatters nonstop. Writing tip - announcing I have a bad feeling about this while laser explosions are already going on all over the place feels lazy and forced.


Finally, with the shield generator down, you enter the Death Star's framework and race toward the core, with TIE Interceptors in pursuit. It's basically just a repeat of the Endor bike stage with the same tactics and difficulties except for the difficulty of spotting trees - the barriers here stand out just fine, though their collision boundaries are still a bit wonky. There are even traps in the form of loose scaffolds that collapse after you pass under them, destroying any fighters behind you. No flying ewoks here either.

Shoot the core reactor and you have to fly the stage in reverse as the station explodes. The controls confusingly invert vertically but not horizontally, but overall this is not hard.

 

GAB rating: Bad. Return of the Jedi plays bad, looks bad, and sounds bad. This is by far the worst of Atari's Star Wars games. I get why, given Atari's financial problems, the lukewarm state of the U.S. arcade industry, and urgent need to ride the movie's hype wave, it had to be rushed, but I can't help but wish it had been delayed a year or two and given proper attention. Imagine what might have been possible with a 3D polygonal engine on the hardware of the unfinished Air Race prototype!

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Game 334: Montezuma's Revenge

If 1983 was a curiously solid year for computer platformers, with games like Alley Cat, Lode Runner, Jumpman, and Manic Miner offering richer set-piece and puzzle-oriented gameplay experiences compared to arcade offerings, 1984 brought a more curious trend; a nearly unprecedented explosion of exploration-focused platformers. Pitfall II, Jet Set Willy, Bruce Lee, Impossible Mission, the not-yet-covered Below the Root, and this post's subject, Montezuma's Revenge, all offer interconnected worlds of varying degrees of openness filled with collectable items, and all seem to have been developed without knowledge of each other, or of any obvious predecessor (1983's Spelunker and Pharaoh's Curse have been noted as earlier examples but I am not aware of any direct lines of influence). We're still a way's off from when Metroid codifies the genre with an emphasis on progression and unlocking permanent upgrades and tools through exploration, but for now, Montezuma's Revenge is the closest thing I've seen yet.

A partial map of Montezuma's pyramid

 
As fedora-wearing adventurer PANAMA JOE, you have excavated a lost pyramid somewhere in Central America, but to seek its priceless treasures you must also survive its corridors filled with spiders, snakes, and booby traps. If this premise sounds a little, shall we say, inspired by Hollywood's second-biggest movie event of two years prior, designer Robert Jaeger claims he never heard of Indiana Jones before making this. I don't believe him.

Two doors, one key, one rolling calavera. Which way first?

Montezuma's pyramid, entered from the top, consists of 100 rooms distributed over ten stepped floors, widening to 19 rooms at the base, which contains the exit in its very center. This is no quick descent to the bottom, however - walls, ladders, and other barriers make for a sprawling maze, and an abundance of locked doors can sometimes force you to backtrack to find the correctly colored key. Furthermore, the lower rooms are darkened, and deadly to explore without a torch. Not every room must be explored (and not every room is unique; many are just copies or variants of each other), but some of the most valuable treasure rooms are out of your way. Mapping is a useful and encouraged skill.

Gotta come back here when I have a key for the blue door.
There's one! Good thing I have a sword to deal with the bonehead below me.

Progress is gated by keys and torches (the only semi-permanent upgrade), but also collectable are coins, which award 1000 points each, hammers, which grant temporary invulnerability to creatures, and most valuable of all, swords, which allow a one-time disposal of an enemy in your way and a 2,000 or 3,000 point bonus for skulls and spiders, respectively. Depending on your path, you may even have an overabundance of these items - only five may be carried, the torch takes up one permanently once found, and for what I assume is a programming error that Jaeger didn't bother to fix, you can't even collect treasure when your inventory is full. Sometimes I would backtrack to use up items.

I'm still not sure how to get this key and live.

Passing this tricky room gains you passage to an all-important torch. Lucky thing you don't have to do it in the dark... yet.

Montezuma's Revenge is, despite some Metroid-like trappings, still very much born out of the Donkey Kong era of design and mechanics, and PANAMA JOE'S fragility is just something you need to deal with. Several rooms require knowing just how far you can fall with pixel precision, as dropping by anything slightly more than his height is lethal. The various critters infesting the tomb aren't too bad and can mostly be easily jumped over, but often the combination of them, short or moving platforms, and traps can make for a very tricky timing situation if you don't have a spare sword. That said, the game is generous with extra lives, awarding one every 10,000 points, but you can expect to use them up pretty fast. At least the death animations are pretty funny.

Complete the pyramid, and in arcade game fashion, you'll loop back to the beginning with an empty inventory and do it again after a brief bonus round intermission of looting Montezuma's vault. Subsequent loops are made more challenging with the addition of monsters, rearrangement of doors, barriers, and keys, and with each loop an additional floor is plunged into darkness, requiring you to either find the torch sooner or deal with navigating blindly. Paths that worked before become sealed off while other, longer, more dangerous ones open up.

In a clever bit of design, the first loop configures the barriers as such that only the pyramid's left half may be explored. The second loop allows only the right, and from the third onward, the whole 100 room pyramid is accessible, though the left and right halves remain partitioned in a manner that there's no way to traverse from one to the other without re-ascending to the upper levels first. You generally don't need to visit both halves to finish the pyramid - they both converge at the bottom at the very center, and contain enough keys to open their respective doors - but depending on the pyramid's configuration, one may be easier than the other, especially with regards to finding a torch.

The farthest I could make it is the sixth loop, at which point almost the entire pyramid is darkened, and you have no choice but to blindly navigate multiple floors before you find a torch. Not only that, but one of the game's few mercies - removing from the room the creature that killed you - is removed, and the increased creature population just turns so many rooms into frustrating death pits that no longer become any safer after repeated failures.

 

Rather than record a video of a multi-loop run, I made one showcasing a grand tour of the third loop, which can be selected at the start of the game. Here, I explore every room of the pyramid, and collect every treasure and item except for redundant torches, as they take up inventory space that you can't spare.


 

GAB rating: Good. Montezuma's Revenge does exploration-based platforming well, and I had fun tackling and retackling its ten-level pyramid maze, despite some repetitive elements and some frustrating rooms.

 


I didn't play it, but Jaeger's 1983 prototype is available as well, and has a few features that were cut from Parker Brothers' 1984 release apparently for space reasons. I don't understand why this was necessary as both versions require 48KB and no cartridge version was made for computers (a 5200 port uses 16KB ROM so perhaps features were cut to ensure version parity). The most notable feature is Montezuma himself as a final boss at the pyramid's base, not yet programmed in a manner that he can be beaten (but he can certainly kill you). Other features include:

  • An animated title screen that plays a POKEY rendition of Spanish Flea
  • A slightly different protagonist "Pedro" who wears a charro's sombrero and poncho
  • Extra ambient details around the pyramid, like cobwebs and pottery
  • Better door-opening animation
  • Burning ropes
  • A bat enemy that serves as a time pressure, attacking if you spend too much time in any given room
  • A post-death animation showing your extra Pedros standing in a line, one of them stepping up to take the deceased's place

 

Montezuma's Revenge was quickly ported to several platforms - Apple II, Commodore 64, & PC, but also to the contemporary consoles Atari 5200 & ColecoVision, and in 1989, an enhanced port to Sega Master System, but curiously, not the NES. A retro-styled remake hit mobile phones in 2012 and Steam in 2020, but furthermore, as of this writing, Jaeger's production company Normal Distribution LLC has completed and plans to distribute physical releases of a long-belated NES port, and has teased a "Director's Cut" of the original Atari version, restoring the features cut by Parker Brothers.

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