Sunday, May 29, 2022

Game 320: Summer Games

 

It's not much of a coincidence that our first round of Commodore 64 whales (finally!) postdate our final Atari 2600 whale by only a few months. Atari had dominated the North American market for years up until the infamous crash, all but taking down its competitors along with it and sending rippling effects to the arcades as well. It wasn't until after Atari sales bottomed out that the C64 games market gained a chunk of that ceded ground. The computer itself, though an incredible seller as early as 1983 thanks to its budget price and high RAM spec, initially went underappreciated as a games machine. Even visionaries like Danielle Bunten Berry failed to grasp the power of its VIC-II chipset, unmatched in its sprite and scrolling capabilities by any contemporaries except for expensive arcade PCBs and the Famicom.

It's also not much of a coincidence that Summer Games, the first of these C64 whales, bears a strong resemblance to Activision Decathlon from the previous year. Epyx had just merged with developer Starpath, whose unsuccessful Supercharger product sought to expand the Atari 2600 with more RAM, higher resolution, and bigger games, and one of its unfinished prototypes was the dismally named Sweat!, an attempt to improve on the aforementioned game. The concept, if not the programming or any particular gameplay mechanics, planted Summer Games' seeds.

I did give Sweat! a cursory look and can conclude it is not suitable for review as an ancestor - it's barely playable in this unfinished state, and does not inform our understanding of Summer Games' evolution beyond some aesthetic design choices.

Sweat! would have featured parallax scrolling, multicolored sprites, and 7 sprites in a scanline.

The format of Summer Games is familiar, but the disciplines are more varied and complex than their Decathlon counterparts, which in Activision's interpretation amounted to little more than waggling the stick and pressing the button at a precise time. Only the 100m dash and the pole vault are recycled, and the rest of the games are new.

Summer Games does have an option to play all of the games in sequence, but without a Decathlon-like scoring system for evaluating overall performance, we didn't see much point. When playing individual games, may can choose whether to practice or compete. The main difference is that practice allows quick replays but has no player registration and no awards, while competition has you register each player's name and nationality ("D" objected to the exclusion of her Portuguese heritage, and hissed at my suggestion of representing Brazil instead), and gives you each one shot at the game before awarding medals, acknowledging broken records, and dumping you back to the title screen.

I had a session with "D" and "B," where we first sampled all of the games, and then played our favorite events in competition, giving each of them a practice round or two first. I recorded it, but unfortunately the video completely crapped out during the first several minutes, ruining most of the high dive event, which we did first. I've cut out the ruined portion, starting with the tail end of the high dive event, and even that is choppier than it should be, as are a few later parts.

 

Unlike those prior decathlon games, you really do need to practice each event before you can be even competent at it. You'll want to read the manual too, as most events have more involved controls than the Decathlon predecessors.

 

I must note here the Commodore 64's greatest and most infamous weakness. The disk drive, by far the most popular format in the US, is painfully slow. In VICE, with accurate 1541 timings and a G64-format disk image, it takes a good two and a half minutes to get from system boot to gameplay, and another minute to load each subsequent event. The warp speed emulation option helps some, but you have to take care not to overshoot the loading sequence and miss the event itself.


The first event, the pole vault, is one of the most frustrating, but what I find interesting is that it mirrors Microsoft Decathlon almost exactly. First you select the bar height, and then select a pole grip height - the lower your grip, the easier the timing demands will be on the subsequent actions, but higher grips allow higher jumps. Then, as the runner enters the screen, press down to plant the pole, up to kick into a handstand, and finally fire to push off. Microsoft Decathlon also made you manually run by alternating left+right, but apart from that and some timing differences (and the C64's colorfully animated presentation), these are the same game.

The strict and confusing timing requirements made the event frustrating to all of us. Figuring out when to plant the pole was a matter of trial and constant driving into the runway or mat, and even after I could consistently get it into the box, I could never figure out the ideal kick-up time. Most of my vaults would sail right into the crossbar with no indication on what I did wrong. At least Microsoft Decathlon gave you feedback on your timing errors.


None of us could clear even the lowest bar consistently enough to make a competition worthwhile, so we moved on to platform diving.

The judges watch in horror as the diver fails to surface.

Here, your initial score is determined by how close to perfectly vertical you are when entering the water up to a maximum of 50 points, which is then multiplied by a difficulty factor determined mainly by how many rotations you completed before entering. Your only input is to control the diver's tuck level, which determines rotation speed. You need to straighten out at just the right time so that you enter the water head (or foot) on, and the faster you're spinning, the harder this will be.

I found the best strategy is to go right into a full-tuck right off the board, straighten out just before landing, and hope for the best. You just don't have time to slow down gradually, and a perfectly executed dive with the second-fullest tuck scores you barely more than 100 points, which you can easily beat with a fair-to-middling full-tuck dive.

 

The next event is the 4x400m relay.


Where Activision Decathlon destroys your joystick and your arm with a 45-60 second marathon of intense waggling, Summer Games goes for a more strategic game of stamina management. Joystick neutral maintains pace, joystick left 'coasts' to regain stamina, joystick right expends stamina to sprint, and the button passes the baton.

The rules on gaining and expending stamina are a bit obscure, and I'm sure that with some analysis one can calculate the optimal strategy. I found that constantly alternating between coast and sprint got me under the three minute mark fairly reliably.

All of us thought this was one of the better events, and we played it in competition mode, where two players may race simultaneously. As the C64 only has two joystick ports, the third has to race the computer.

 

The 100m dash goes right back to arm-breaking mercilessness.


It's a Decathlon-style joystick waggle game. We all thought this one was lame, but at least it's short.


Gymnastics comes next.


It's somewhat like the pole vault, a bit more complex, but the timing is so much easier, and the event so much more doable as a result. Time your jump to hit the far end of the vault board, time the push-off from the horse for maximum power, and then hold up to tuck and somersault, and down to straighten out for a landing. If you land off-balance, correct it with left or right. You can optionally perform a Yurchenko vault by holding right on the stick as you hit the springboard, which boosts your score but increases the difficulty of the push-off timing. With full power, up to three flips can be performed before landing, and this matters more to your score than sticking the land (though you've got to do both to get a 9+ rating).

In the competition, you get two vaults, and the scores are summed. We all did pretty crummily in competition here despite the practice. Consistency is key. Nevertheless, all of us thought this was one of the better events.


400m freestyle relay is the next event, and probably the most technically impressive in the game.

 

Horizontally scrolling a complex, multi-color scene of this resolution is something you just don't see on contemporary computers or consoles other than the Famicom. The effect is complicated, but playing the game is pretty simple; 99% is simply tapping the button in rhythm with the swimmer's arms. The rest of it is pushing the joystick left once you reach the end of the lane to reverse, and pushing right again to launch the next swimmer, both of which can be done a bit early to save a good fraction of a second.


The next event is 100m freestyle but this one feels like a cheat. It's just the same swimming event again with a single lap instead of four. We didn't do either of them competitively.

 

The final event is skeet shooting.


So it's not exactly Duck Hunt, or much of a C64 technical showcase, but it's challenging without being obtuse. Speed matters more than precision; you get a very generous hitbox on the targets, but you only get one shot per. Your aim slowly drops when the stick is left in neutral, adding the challenge of anticipating how high to lead your shot.


GAB rating: Average. Summer Games is certainly improvement over the monotonous Activision Decathlon (and Konami's excessively harsh Track & Field), and from an audio-visual perspective, a good example of early C64 material, but none of the games here hold much lasting value. The best of them are rather basic and easily mastered, and the two Decathlon events here kind of stink.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Ports of Entry: Ocean Software

Unknown lead platform:

 

Batman

First released for Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum in March 1986

Released for Amstrad PCW in June 1986

Released for MSX in 1986

 
Amstrad CPC is more colorful than ZX Spectrum, so it can't be ruled out, but both are fairly monochromatic overall.

 

The Great Escape

Released for C64 & ZX Spectrum in 1986

Ported to Amstrad CPC in 1986

Ported to PC in 1986


This is mostly monochromatic on any platform, suggesting original Spectrum design.

 

Robocop

First released for C64 & ZX Spectrum in 1988

Released for Amstrad CPC & MSX in 1989

Ported to PC in 1989 by Astros Productions

 

C64 seems most likely, as it's the most colorful platform.


Target: Renegade

Released for Amstrad CPC, C64, & ZX Spectrum in 1988

 

Rambo III

Released for Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, C64, MSX, & ZX Spectrum in 1988

Released for Amiga in 1989

Ported to PC in 1989 by Banana Development

 

Batman: The Caped Crusader

Released for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, C64, & ZX Spectrum in 1988

Released for Atari ST in March 1989

Released for Apple II in December 1989

Released for PC in 1989
 

Batman (1989)

Released for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, C64, MSX, & ZX Spectrum in 1989

Ported to PC in 1990 by Astros Productions


F29 Retaliator

Released for Amiga and Atari ST in 1989

Ported to PC in 1990


2D elements (such as the cockpit) in the Amiga version use 32 colors to Atari ST's 16, although the 3D view only uses 15.

 

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Released for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, C64, PC, & ZX Spectrum in 1991


Amiga does 64 colors to Atari ST & PC's 16.

 

The Addams Family (16-bit)

First released for SNES in March 1992

Released for Amiga and Atari ST in 1992

Ported to Nintendo Super System in 1992

Ported to Genesis in 1993

 

Epic

Released for Atari ST & PC in 1992

Ported to Amiga in 1992

Ported to PC-98 in 1993 


PC version appears to use 256 colors in VGA mode.

 

Pushover

Released for Amiga, Atari ST, PC, & SNES in 1992.


Weirdly, Amiga is only 16 colors here, while SNES is 32 and PC is 48.

 

Jurassic Park (8-bit)

First released for NES in June 1993

Released for Gameboy in 1993

 

Jurassic Park (computer)

Released for Amiga & PC in 1993

 

Mr. Nutz

First released for SNES in August 1994

Released for Gameboy & Genesis in 1994


SNES seems most likely as Gameboy & Genesis credit "sound conversion" to outside sources.

 

Heart of Darkness

First released for PC in June 1998

Released for PlayStation in July 1998


Select chronology: 

 
8-bit era:
 
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Hunchback Oric 1983 Initially an arcade game
1984 ports to various microcomputers
Top Gun Amstrad CPC 1986
Batman ??? 1986-3 Simultaneous releases on Amstrad CPC & MZX Spectrum
1986 releases on Amstrad PCW & MSX
The Great Escape ??? 1986 Same-year releases for C64 & ZX Spectrum
1986 port to Amstrad CPC by James Software
1987 port to PC
Head Over Heels ZX Spectrum 1987 Same-year ports to various microcomputers
Platoon Commodore 64 1987 1988 ports to NES & various microcomputers
RoboCop ??? 1988 Same-year releases on C64 & ZX Spectrum
1989 releases on Amstrad CPC & MSX
1989 port to PC
Target: Renegade ??? 1988 Same-year releases on Amstrad CPC, C64, & ZX Spectrum

 

Early 16-bit era:
 
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Rambo III ??? 1988 Same-year releases on Atari ST & various 8-bit microcomputers
1989 release on Amiga
1989 port to PC
Batman: The Caped Crusader ??? 1988 Same-year releases for Amiga & various 8-bit microcomputers
1989 releases for Atari ST, Apple II, & PC
Batman ??? 1989 Same-year releases for various microcomputers
1990 port to PC
F29 Retaliator ??? 1989 Same-year releases on Amiga & Atari ST
1990 port to PC
Terminator 2: Judgment Day ??? 1991 Too many to fit here

 

Late 16-bit era:
 
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
The Addams Family NES 1992-1 1993 ports to Game Gear & Sega Master System
The Addams Family ??? 1992-3 Same-year releases on SNES, Amiga, & Atari ST
Same-year port to Nintendo Super System
1993 port to Genesis
RoboCop 3 SNES 1992-9 Same-year port to Nintendo Super System
1993 ports to Game Gear, Genesis, & Sega Master System by Eden Entertainment
Epic ??? 1992 Same-year releases on Atari ST & PC
Same-year port to Amiga
1993 release on PC-98
Pushover ??? 1992 Same-year releases on Amiga, Atari ST, PC, & SNES
Jurassic Park ??? 1993-6 Same-year releases on NES & Gameboy
Jurassic Park SNES 1993-11
Jurassic Park ??? 1993 Same-year releases on Amiga & PC
TFX DOS 1993
Mr. Nutz ??? 1994-8 Same-year releases on Genesis, Gameboy, & SNES

 

32-bit era:
 
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Wetrix Windows 6/12/1998 1998 port to N64, released before PC version
Heart of Darkness ??? 6/26/1998 Same-quarter releases on PC & PlayStation
Silver Windows 1999-5 2000 ports to Dreamcast & Macintosh

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Ports of Entry: Origin Systems

Unknown lead platform:

 

Ogre

First released for Apple II in August 1986

Released for Amiga, Atari 8-bit & C64 in December 1986

Ported to Atari ST and PC in 1986 by MicroMagic

Ported to PC-88 in April 1987 by SystemSoft

Ported to Macintosh in July 1987 by MicroMagic

Ported to MSX in 1987 by SystemSoft

 

Space Rogue

First released for PC in September 1989, but Mobygames lists this as a port by Impression Software.

Released for Apple II & C64 in October 1989

Ported to Macintosh in November 1989 by Technology Works

Ported to Amiga, Atari ST, FM Towns, PC-98, & Sharp X68000 in 1990


Select chronology: 

 
Apple II era:
 
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Exodus: Ultima III Apple II 1983 Same-year port to Atari & C64
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar Apple II 1985-11 Same-quarter port to C64, 1986 port to Atari
Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony Apple II 1985-12 1986 port to C64
Ultima I Apple II 1986 1987 ports to C64 & PC
AutoDuel Apple II 1986-2 Same-year port to C64
1987 ports to Atari 8-bit & Atari ST
Ogre ??? 1986-8 Same-year releases on Apple II, Amiga, Atari, & C64
Same-year ports to Atari ST & PC
1987 ports to Macintosh, MSX, & PC-88
Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny Apple II 1988-3 Same-year ports to Commodore 128 & PC
1989 ports to Atari ST & Commodore 64
Times of Lore Commodore 64
1988-10 Same-year ports to Apple II & Atari ST
1989 ports to Amiga, PC, & ZX Spectrum
Ultima Trilogy Apple II 1989-5 Simultaneous ports to C64 & PC
1990 port to FM Towns
Space Rogue ??? 1989-9 Simultaneous releases on Apple II & C64
Same-quarter ports to PC & Macintosh
1990 ports to various 16-bit computers

 

DOS era:
 
Title Date Contemporary ports
Wing Commander 9/27/1990
Ultima VI: The False Prophet 1990 1991 ports to C64, FM Towns, & PC-98
Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire 1990
Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi 1991
Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2 - Martian Dreams 1991
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss 3/27/1992 1993 ports to FM Towns & PC-98
Ultima VII: The Black Gate 4/16/1992
Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue 1992-9
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds 1993-1
Ultima VII: Part Two - Serpent Isle 3/25/1993
Strike Commander 4/23/1993 1994 ports to FM Towns & PC-98
Wing Commander Academy 1993-8
Ultima VII: Part Two - The Silver Seed 1993-8
Wing Commander: Privateer 1993-9
Shadowcaster 1993 1994 port to PC-98
Pagan: Ultima VIII 3/15/1994 1995 port to PC-98
Wing Commander: Armada 1994-9 1995 ports to FM Towns & PC-98
Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger 1994-12 1995 ports to 3DO & Macintosh
The Complete Ultima VII 1994
BioForge 1995-7
Crusader: No Remorse 1995-9 1996 ports to Playstation & Saturn
CyberMage: Darklight Awakening 1995
Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom 1996-2 Same-year ports to Macintosh & Windows
1997 port to Playstation
Crusader: No Regret 1996-9
Ultima Collection 1997

 

Windows era:
 
Title Date
Ultima Online 9/30/1997
Wing Commander: Prophecy 12/11/1997
Ultima IX: Ascension 11/26/1999

Monday, May 16, 2022

Ports of Entry: Electronic Arts

This list excludes the majority of games credited to EA's subsidiaries (e.g. EA Vancouver, Visceral Games, DICE, etc.) and second-party studios (Ozark Softscape, Bullfrog, others). Other Ports of Entry posts will cover them later.

 

Unknown lead platform:

 

Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer

First released for PC on June 1987

Released for C64 on October 1987

Ported to Apple II on November 1987

Released for Macintosh on July 1988

Released for PC-88 on 1988


PC-first development seems likely given the earlier release, but it could still be a conversion from an early C64 build. Tandy/EGA modes only use 4 colors, weirdly, though composite supports 16. The Yeager photo is much higher quality in the C64 version.

The PC code is the baseline for the Apple II conversion, even though C64 is 6502-based.

 

Ski or Die

Released for Amiga, Commodore 64, & PC in 1990

Ported to NES in 1990 by Konami

 

Amiga does seem to have a more natural color palette than PC, but overall they look very similar. C64 is noticeably chunkier.

 

Space Hulk

Released for Amiga & PC in 1993

 

The PC version uses 256 color VGA while Amiga is limited to 32 colors, suggesting a downconversion.


 

NBA Live 95

Released for Genesis & SNES in 1994

Released for PC in 1995


The SNES version has an earlier roster than the others, suggesting to me it was developed first.

 

NBA Live 96

Released for Genesis on 1995

Released for PC & SNES 1995-1996

Released for PlayStation on March 1996

 

There's conflicting information about the releases. Mobygames says that the PC and SNES versions were developed by Hitmen Productions and released in 1996. Wikipedia says the PC version was developed by EA Canada and both were released in 1995.


There two appear to be two distinct version categories here, anyway. There's the 16-bit Genesis/SNES versions which use isometric graphics, and the DOS/PlayStation versions which use the 3D Virtual Stadium engine (but with sprites for players). It is not clear to me which one was developed first, but I have two possible narratives.

If we go by Mobygames, then my best guess is EA developed the Genesis and PS1 versions internally, and Hitmen Productions ported them to SNES and PC, respectively.

Wikipedia's releases, however, say that Hitmen Productions did the 16-bit versions while EA Canada did the 32-bit versions. If this is the case, then I think they should be regarded as different games.

 

NBA Live 97

Released for PS1 & Saturn in October/November 1996

Released for DOS/Windows, Genesis, & SNES in 1996

 

Once again, release information is conflicting, but sources are agreed that the Genesis & SNES versions were externally developed, as was the Saturn version.

It seems likely to me that the lead platform was either PC or PS1. Mobygames says both were internal EA productions while Wikipedia says the PS1 version was done by EA Canada.


Select chronology: 

 
Apple II era:
 
Title Date Contemporary ports
Pinball Construction Set 1982-11 1983 ports to Atari & C64
Hard Hat Mack 1983-10 Same-quarter ports to Atari & C64
1984 ports to Amstrad CPC & PC
One-on-One 1983 1984 ports to Atari, C64, & PC
Will Harvey's Music Construction Set 1984 Same-year ports to Atari, C64, & PC
Amnesia 1986-8 Same-year port to PC
1987 port to C64

 

Early 16-bit era:
 
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Starflight DOS 8/15/1986
Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Simulator ??? 1987-6 Same-year releases on C64 & PC
Same-year port to Apple II
1988 releases on Macintosh & PC-98
Skate or Die Commodore 64 1987-11 1988 ports to Apple IIgs & PC
Will Harvey's Zany Golf Apple IIgs 1988-10 Same-quarter ports to Amiga & PC
1989 port to Atari ST
Kings of the Beach DOS 1989-3 Same-year ports to C64 & NES
688 Attack Sub DOS 1989-4 1990 port to Amiga
Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs DOS 1989-9
Budokan: The Martial Spirit DOS 1989-11 Same-quarter port to Amiga
1990 port to Genesis
Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula DOS 1989-12
Centurion: Defender of Rome DOS 5/29/1990 1991 ports to Amiga & Genesis
The Immortal Apple IIgs 1990-11 Same-quarter ports to Amiga, Atari ST, & NES
1991 ports to PC & Genesis
Ski or Die ??? 1990 Same-year releases on Amiga, C64, & PC
Same-year port to NES by Konami
LHX: Attack Chopper DOS 1990
Chuck Yeager's Air Combat DOS 1991

 

Genesis era:
 
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Road Rash Genesis 1991 1992 ports to Amiga & Atari ST
Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf Genesis 1992-11 Same-quarter ports to Sega Master System & SNES
1993 ports to Amiga & Lynx
Road Rash II Genesis 1992
Space Hulk ??? 1993 Same-year releases for Amiga & PC
Urban Strike Genesis 1994 1995 ports to Game Gear & SNES
NBA Live 95 ??? 1994 Same-year releases on Genesis & SNES
1995 release for DOS

 

32-bit era:
 
Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Road Rash 3DO 1994 1995 port to PlayStation
Space Hulk: Vengeance
of the Blood Angels
3DO 12/1/1995 1996 ports to PC, PlayStation, & Saturn
NBA Live 96 ??? 1995 1995 release on Genesis
1996 releases on PC, PlayStation, & SNES
NBA Live 97 ??? 11/1/1996 Same-year releases on DOS/Windows, Genesis, PlayStation, Saturn, & SNES
Privateer 2: The
Darkening
DOS 1996-12
Nuclear Strike PlayStation 8/31/1997 Same-quarter port to PC

Friday, May 13, 2022

Game 319: Karate Champ


Aren't you a little old for video games?

 

Few genres have proven so resilient to evolution as fighters since Street Fighter II carved the modern template into stone with a well placed uppercut. This isn't to deny the genre any advancement since, but fact is, decades later, Street Fighter II and its contemporaries feel nowhere near as foreign as Wolfenstein 3D does compared to later shooters, or King's Quest to later adventures, or Ultima Underworld to later dungeon crawlers. The modern fighter differs from its codifying ancestors mainly by degrees of breadth and complexity. Groundbreakers that carved out a niche within this niche have at best coexisted with the Street Fighter formula, but even the most successful have yet to truly revolutionize it.

The fighting games that predate Street Fighter II, though, are a diverse array of weirdness, as one may expect from a landscape where dozens of developers all have different ideas on how to simulate a martial arts tournament without having any one particularly successful example to take notes from. Technos Japan & Data East's Karate Champ is, in my opinion, the first attempt of significance, and the first to directly influence many key elements to come, even if the holistic experience feels both primitive and alien.

Karate Champ sides more toward simulation than most, with its realistically proportioned and fluidly animated practitioners, its limited but authentic set of karate strikes, and full contact kumite rules. There are no health bars here - each hit scores a full or half point depending on the difficulty of the move and the skill of its execution, and the first to score two full points wins the match. There's a weighty, physical feel to the movement, where every footstep forward or backward counts discretely, and each strike is a commitment that can be reversed at any point but never taken back (i.e. you can do a fakeout roundhouse but forget about kara-canceling a fully extended foot).

Move execution itself is probably the most unique aspect of Karate Champ. Lacking any face buttons, the cabinet presents you with twin 4-way joysticks, and each combination of directions performs a different action. Some combinations are even context sensitive -  for instance, pushing forward on the right stick performs either a front kick or reverse punch depending on how close you are, and pushing back on the left stick normally backsteps, but may also cause you to block incoming strikes (sound familiar?)


Moves differ by reach and speed, and the quicker ones never score you the full point. Any move is a bit risky; slower moves can be blocked, dodged, or just plain miss, exposing you to counterattack, and quicker, short-ranged moves require moving in close, risking a hit from a long-reaching strike as you step in. The system is a little intimidating at first, with so much presented up front, and expecting you to memorize a matrix of unintuitive lever motions just to do basic moves, but basic moves is all you get here.

I soon found a strategy that let me win consistently for quite awhile.


Flip over the opponent, and the AI will invariably try to swat you out of the air. And nine times out of ten, it will miss. Then you can position yourself in just the perfect spot to deliver a back roundhouse to the face for a full point. Or if you land too close, you can use a quicker move for an easy half point. Even if you screw up and completely miss, you can still sometimes salvage the half point in the ensuing melee, and it's no tragedy if you fail. The AI rarely uses full point moves on you, so you only need this gambit to succeed two or three times to win the match, but you must fail four times to lose it.

You win some, you lose some. Mostly I win some.

This cheesy tactic got me all the way to 8th dan (that's how karate tournaments work, right?) where a 9th dan promptly beat my ass.

This is why you always wear a cup.

Karate Champ also has score-boosting minigames between matches, and likely inspired the same in Street Fighter & Mortal Kombat in the years to come.

Haven't you learned? Always wear a cup.


Granted, it won't help much here.

 

I'm pretty good at the cinder block chop.

So, even though Karate Champ doesn't really play much like what we expect of a fighting game, there are a lot of elements pioneered here. That universal side-view format where fighters face each other and nonsensically can somersault over one another but not walk around, controls being reversed depending on which way you face, a variety of punches and kicks, squatting, jumping, and blocking, minigames between matches, and multiple venues are all seen here. It even made me think of Mortal Kombat when the students applauded after winning the opening round in the dojo.

 

One crucial genre element not seen here, though, is competitive play. Even though the cabinet has a two-player mode, all you do is take turns against the AI. And that brings me to the "versus" version.


Titled "Taisen Karate Dou" in Japan and simply "Karate Champ" in the U.S., this is for all intents and purposes a different game from the original, though I have not seen a single game database catalog it as such. It plays the same, with some tweaks to the physics and AI, and more challenging minigames. The venues are completely new and much more varied, more in line with Street Fighter's urban rumbles than solo Karate Champ's tournament setting. The voice samples are a lot clearer, though the (still) goofy-looking referee sounds like a teenage boy with a stuffed nose in the U.S. version.

The main difference, of course, is the addition of two-player versus matches, in which the white and red karatekas fight a best-of-three format match to impress a girl who appears to be ten at the oldest.

"I like being strong"... ?

I played a set of matches with "B," a somewhat avid fan of fighting games. I've cut out a few of the embarrassing early matches in which neither of us has any idea what we are doing, but left one of them in.

 

As you might expect, it's a very different game against an opponent who isn't bound to a rigid script. With one-hit knockdowns, it becomes a tense game of reading your opponent, anticipating their moves or baiting them into a mistake that you can exploit. When a plan doesn't work out, discipline tended to fail as I'd flail around, often executing the entirely wrong (and nearly as often useless) move in the ensuing panicked melee.

GAB rating: Good. This rating is for the "versus" variant; solo play gets "above average" as while the fighting mechanics are otherwise solid, the computer doesn't make for an enjoyable opponent for long. But the methodical, simulation-like gameplay holds up well in two-player mode, and is rewarding of smart, skillful play, as any fighting game should.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Games 316-318: Wild Gunman, Duck Hunt, & Hogan's Alley

I've been playing a lot of Point Blank lately with my newly-arrived Sinden Lightguns. The configuration software could stand some improvement from a usability and aesthetics perspective - it looks like a Visual Basic 6 program, and you do need to interact with it a bit before playing, but all of that is easily forgotten once the gameplay starts proper. The guns feel solid and accurate, and are compatible with my 4K LCD without needing any sort of external tracking devices like its competitors do. I did feel a bit apprehensive at first, as the cursor did follow where I was pointing, but was extremely jittery, and I played around with settings a lot, but it turned out all I really needed to do was turn on a patterned screen border, which I found stabilized things nicely when I set it to be 2% of the screen width and otherwise used its default settings. It didn't even need calibration - the gun just knows where it's aiming at, and unlike guns that that rely on IR tracking, it doesn't need an onscreen reticle to show you where you're aiming. You can aim with your wrist, you can aim moving the gun laterally as you keep the barrel level and perpendicular to the screen (or not), and it just works.

One downside is that the Sinden Lightgun will not work if it's too close to the screen. The documentation recommends being 2.5 times as far from it as the screen is wide. So no cheating by putting the gun right up next to the picture tube.

Of course, this post isn't about Point Blank, but is specifically about what I call Nintendo's Zapper Trilogy - three light gun shooters which debuted on the Famicom in 1984, and saw stateside release for the NES in October 1985. I used iron (plastic, rather) sights for all of these games, as you would in the 80's, with the only additional bit of aiming feedback a crosshair that appears after shooting, simply because these games wouldn't be very interesting to watch on emulator footage otherwise.

As these games are pretty basic, and don't lend themselves well to a lot of words, I'm going to cover them all in one post.


Game 316: Wild Gunman

 

The first Zapper game, a callback to one of Nintendo's earliest arcade games, was first released in Japan in February 18th, 1984.

First of all, this is what the original Japanese Famicom Gun looked like:

Photo from an eBay auction

 

Like many other early Nintendo games, a trend we saw as early as 1978's Block Fever, there are three game modes to pick from. I played them all, briefly.

 

Game A, like the 1974 FMV arcade game, squares you off against a series of increasingly quick gunslingers, and they're polite enough to indicate ahead of time exactly how much time you've got to outdraw them. Fire before their eyes light up, and it's a foul, you lose a life.

Weirdly, this mode doesn't really care what you're aiming at. As long as you're pointing the gun at the screen, it will register as a hit. This makes the game much too easy, so I challenged myself by forcing myself to keep the gun held at my hip pointed down, quickdrawing once I heard "fire."


It's not challenging or interesting, but I'll at least say that the presentation is decent enough. The graphics are pretty good for the era, with big, detailed, cartoony sprites, and the 'fire!' voice sample is adequately clear. "D" found the animations pretty amusing. "One guy gets his pants shot off, another gets his hat shot off, and another just dies!"


Game B gives you two opponents at a time and is much more challenging.

 

You still don't need to aim with precision - hitting the half of the screen with your target is good enough - but now you've got to shoot twice. Or not, as sometimes they'll trick you by only having one gunman draw, and if you shoot at the one who didn't, it's a foul. Having the faster gunman not draw is a dirty trick that Game B will pull on you when you least expect it.


Lastly, there's Game C, a free-for-all shootout at the saloon.


It's basically whack-a-mole with a Western setting. A little more aiming precision is needed here, but not that much. If you shoot anywhere near the window or door where a gangster pops up, it's a hit. This was my favorite mode by a wide margin. That said,

GAB rating: Below average. Wild Gunman was the least popular of the 1984 Zapper games, and it isn't very substantial, or very good. It's not even satisfactory as an introductory Zapper game, because it barely involves aiming. Nintendo would release a better and more successful one soon after.

Contrary to some lists, Wild Gunman was never enhanced and released for the Nintendo VS. System arcade board, as multiple early Famicom titles were. The only arcade outing it saw, apart from the 1974 original, was on the later PlayChoice-10 system, featuring no meaningful differences from the Famicom cartridge. Though in 1989, a faux prop version did appear in a certain famous movie.

No, there's no way to play it.
 

Game 317: Duck Hunt


Now we're talking. The ducks. The clay pigeons. That damned dog laughing at you when you miss. Duck Hunt is iconic, synonymous with the very Zapper peripheral needed to play it.

Duck Hunt was first released in Japan in April 21, 1984, and could possibly be based on a toy that Nintendo released in 1976, which itself uses a miniaturized version of the technology found in Laser Clay Shooting System, their first electro-mechanical arcade game.

Like many of my readers, I'm sure, the Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt cartridge came bundled with my NES back when I had one, and Duck Hunt is the only one of these initial Zapper games that I played on it.

Game A releases ten ducks, one at a time, and gives you three shots at each. Bag six of them and you move up a round, miss five and you lose. It's much too easy and pretty boring, to be honest, and though "D" and I had some fun taking turns, I didn't bother recording any footage of playing it. Instead, the below video starts with Game B, which releases two at a time and still only gives you three shots at each pair.

 

If you want something non-violent, Game C offers clay pigeons to shoot, in what I'm pretty sure is supposed to be a callback to the original Laser Clay Shooting System / Mini Laser Clay. They're faster, smaller targets than the ducks, but I think this mode is overall easier than B, as they're predictable. The easiest time to hit them is at the peak of their parabolic trajectories, though depending on how rapidly the targets are released, it might not be possible to hit both this way. Here, after a perfect round 6, I failed on round 7, partly because of a difficulty spike, but also because my arm was getting tired.

GAB rating: Above average. Duck Hunt's a classic, and this was fun in short doses, but I'd rather be playing Point Blank. "D" disagrees and insists I note that she'd give have given it a "good" rating.

 

Duck Hunt, unlike Wild Gunman, did get a genuine arcade release in Nintendo's "VS." series. In fact, this was the game's first release in the US, predating the NES's launch by several months. There's no game selection, but instead, rounds alternate between Game B and Game C. It's made more difficult than the Famicom game, with ducks that fly faster and more randomly, and clay pigeons that come out simultaneously. Every missed target docks you a life too, you're only afforded five, and I'm quite positive that the aiming is bugged, though this could also be an emulation problem.

The real bonus, though, is the newly added bonus round that follows even-numbered rounds. Here, at last, you can shoot the dog.


Game 318: Hogan's Alley

 

The term Hogan's Alley, which originates from an 1890's newspaper comic, refers to any number of police training facilities where exercises are performed in a simulated urban environment. This game, the third Zapper title, came out in Japan in June 12, 1984, and offers three marksmanship games based around this theme.

Of the three Famicom Zapper games of 1984, this one certainly offers the most variety. I played and recorded all three in a session for the video below.

 

Game A is a shooting range. Three targets pop up, and you must quickly identify the gangster (or gangsters) and shoot. Do not shoot the innocents. Or the cops.


You're allowed ten mistakes before the game ends, and when you have less than a second to shoot two targets, it's nearly impossible to get both. But this is still the easiest mode, and also the most boring, and feels like practice for Game B.


Here, we have a run through the titular alley, shooting at pop-up targets and avoiding the occasional bystander. I had some trouble with not shooting the professor, as I'd often mistake him for the red-haired criminal in the very brief duration you're given to recognize him. It's overall reminiscent of Wild Guman's gang mode, but more difficult, and more fun.

 

Lastly, Game C has you plinking at tin cans in the air, trying to land them on ledges. If nothing else, it's different from anything before it.


Shooting these small targets into their cubbies takes both skill and strategy, especially if you're going for a good score, as the bottom hole is worth a whopping 5,000 points compared to the next one up of only 800! But it's the most difficult and risky one to aim for, so my strategy became to not worry about points until there's only one can left, and focus on getting the bonus with that one. As with the other games, ten misses loses the game.

GAB rating: Average. Hogan's Alley is the hardest of the Zapper trilogy, and offers more variety than Duck Hunt, but it isn't as much fun. It's also the blandest looking, with its unanimated cutout targets and equally cardboard-looking environments. The challenge and variety does place it a bit above Wild Gunman in my book, though "D" once again disagrees and would rate them the same.


Nintendo released a Vs. Hogan's Alley too, but there's nothing special about it. It's a bit faster than the Famicom game, you only get five misses, and the rounds cycle through all three game modes without having any kind of exclusive bonus round.


This excursion into the past was fun and somewhat nostalgic, as the Duck Hunt was the only Zapper game I ever owned, but even then it didn't hold my attention for very long when I could play Super Mario Bros instead just by hitting the reset button, and none of these launch Zapper games held my attention long in 2022 either. The Sinden Lightgun is a cool product, still, and thankfully works with so much more than old Zapper games. Speaking of which, I'm going to go play some more Point Blank (curse those impossible "very hard" stages!).

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Game 315: Tetris

Prior to the explosion of mobile phone gaming popularity, Tetris may have been the most widely played video game of all time, and might still be. It's nearly impossible to really quantify a statement like that, but Wikipedia estimates 70 million physical copies sold, well outstripping contemporary 80's megahits Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros., and this figure doesn't include those who played the many computer shareware versions and clones, or the arcade versions, the web versions both authorized and unauthorized, the dedicated handheld machines, the early cell phone versions, or the Microsoft-developed version that came with Windows Entertainment Pack.

The biggest slice of that 70 million figure no doubt goes to Nintendo, whose Gameboy pack-in irrevocably associated Korobeiniki & Troika with the game for generations of westerners, even as mobile app gaming has long replaced Nintendo's stranglehold on the market. My own first exposure to Tetris was Spectrum Holobyte's 1988 release on the Macintosh, and long held that to be the definitive version in my own mind. Today, over 425 million people have purchased paid downloads on their phones, and an untold number that could be in the billions have played a freemium version without paying.


An unusual property of Tetris is that, unlike any other massively successful computer game, there's no such thing as a Tetris imitation. The rules are simple enough to be described in their entirety in a few pages of plain English, and anyone who knows how to program can likely program it without looking at any code from another version. Space Invaders launched a thousand imitators that did little to distinguish and yet were not Space Invaders, but an imitation of Tetris, even a poor one, is still Tetris, so long as its rules are followed. The physics, scoring system, and shape distribution may differ. The look and feel, including music, can distinguish one version from the others. Tricks that work in one version might not work in another. A release may have the official Tetris seal of approval, and it may not. Any game that follows the basic rules of Tetris, regardless of anything else about it, is Tetris. Just about the only other computer game I can think of that this holds true for is Sokoban, which ironically plays differently from the standard ruleset in its original format once you reach its second act surprise.

This brings us to the state of Tetris in 1984, when there were no Gameboys, when Spectrum Holobyte just shipped its first game GATO, Bullet Proof Software's greatest success was bringing Wizardry-style dungeon crawling to Japan via The Black Onyx, and activities east of the Berlin Wall were cloaked in secrecy. Tetris was just a thing that some nerd programmed at a Soviet computer lab when he was supposed to be working. It had quickly spread throughout Moscow, disrupting productivity and wasting CPU cycles anywhere prestigious enough to have its own computer, but remained unknown outside the iron curtain partly due to pre-perestroika politics, and partly due to incompatibility with the Electronika 60 it ran on, a rackmounted machine based on the PDP-11 minicomputer that the west had long abandoned as a gaming platform in favor of personal computers.

To emulate this early version of Tetris, I followed a Youtube tutorial which combines SIMH and MESS. This is not quite the original version of Tetris - footage of the game running on Soviet hardware shows that the blocks are, indeed, shown as solid blocks, and not square brackets later used for PDP-11 compatibility. More notably, this version, as all extant versions of Tetris do, features a scoring system and incrementing speed, which did not feature in the 1984 build according to Wikipedia. Vadim Gerasimov, author of the first IBM version, suggests these were backported into the Electronika version.

 

You might want to mute this video. The IE15 terminal being emulated emits a shrill beep every time you complete a keystroke. I muted my speakers while playing, anyway.

If you want to play this version too, here are some notes that are not explained in the tutorial:

  • Press the single-quote key to type a colon for the initial launch command (RUN DL1:TETRIS)
  • The game is controlled with the numpad, and controls are:
    • 7 - Left
    • 9 - Right
    • 8 - Rotate
    • 4 - Increase game speed (careful!)
    • 5 - Hard drop
    • 1 - Toggle preview
    • 0 - Hide instructions
  • When the game prompts 'ВАШЕ ИМЯ?' it is asking for your name to register on the high score board.
  • When it prompts "ЕЩЕ ПАРТИЮ?" it is asking if you want another game. Type "D" for dа!

 

This is Tetris, as I remember it for the most part, though there's definitely a touch of exotic appeal going on here, with the Cyrillic text and the unconventional platform, so far removed from a Gameboy or even a personal computer. It feels like running software you weren't meant to see, on a computer that wasn't meant to be emulated. You almost have to imagine yourself at a museum, standing in front of a 70's-era terminal connected to a refrigerator-sized computer rack, and seeing green phosphorous bricks fall into a well, knowing that this is more or less how Tetris was conceived, and that whatever format you're accustomed to, ultimately derived from this industrial monstrosity.

The gameplay is, unfortunately, harmed by slightly unresponsive controls, which caused me to make a few really costly mistakes. The numpad control mappings are a bit awkward too, and you've got to be really careful not to hit the '4' key by accident or else you prematurely speed up the game. It also never gets nearly as fast as commercial versions (let alone TGM), but with the unreliable controls, this is probably for the best. Scoring is handled strangely too, with points awarded for placing pieces, more points given for hard dropping them early (typically in the range of 20-50 per share), and no reward is given for clearing lines except breathing room.

GAB rating: Good. Tetris is unimpeachable, and you don't need me to explain why. The original Elecronika 60 version isn't the best version, but wound up being surprisingly playable and complete. I had fun playing it, and could easily see myself wasting more time playing it again, even with access to far improved versions.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Game 314: The Tower of Druaga


Masanobu Endō's Tower of Druaga is full of secrets. Nasty, dirty little secrets. Endō put some pretty obscure secrets into his prior release Xevious, giving it an ethereal sense of mystery and an illusion of greater depth than what it really had, but while Xevious's secrets were for fun and scoring, this tower pulls the scaffolding out from under you for failing to unravel its enigmas.

Immensely popular in Japanese arcades, it remained exclusive there, apart from an obscure European release of its sequel, until Namco included it in a PlayStation compilation disc to no particular celebration. Nevertheless, it had long left its mark in history, spawning a multimedia franchise, and becoming a foundational title in the development of Japanese action/adventures, paving the way for international hit The Legend of Zelda. For this reason, I have selected it as a discretionary whale.


Approach this game blind - I'm afraid I didn't, having read spoilers on Druaga's tricks years ago - it first appears to be a leisurely, if unforgiving dungeon crawl, somewhat visually reminiscent of PLATO's dnd, where the slime monsters roaming the corridors pose little threat so long as you move carefully and keep them at a sword's length from you, taking heed of protagonist Gil's seconds-long period of vulnerability when he draws or sheathes his sword. The time limit is more of a concern, and puts you at the mercy of randomly generated mazes. Sometimes you'll have to travel the most roundabout route to nab the key and walk back to the exit door on the return trip, running out of time thanks to Gil's painfully sluggish gait, causing the level to spawn deadly and persistent fireballs. Other times the key and door will spawn right next to each other, and you'll clear the floor in seconds.

On the second floor it's more of the same, with black slimes that move a bit faster than the green ones. Floor three introduces knights who have swords of their own, but don't seem to harm you so long as yours is drawn. Floor four adds a wizard who teleports around and zaps you with lighting magic, giving just enough warning to point your shield in its direction.

And Druaga laughs, for the tower's first secret is that you failed her challenge almost as soon as you started. No matter how perfectly you play, it's only a matter of time before you get zapped by an invisible wizard, slain by an invulnerable knight, annihilated by a dragon, or simply get stuck in a maze with no exit.

You may or may not have noticed the occasional treasure chest appear while roaming Druaga's mazes. And you may have assumed these treasures are like the fruits in Pac-Man or the vegetables in Dig Dug - bonus collectibles that just appear sometimes worth extra points. As a matter of fact, you need them. There's one per floor, and the condition to trigger its appearance is different on every single floor. You need most of these treasures to win. Except for the ones that do bad things - you definitely don't want those, but good luck figuring out which is which.

For instance, on floor 1, killing three slimes unlocks a pickaxe which can break through walls, but will eventually break if overused. And on floor 2, killing two black slimes unlocks boots that upgrade your walking speed to something more manageable. These first two upgrades alone make a profound difference, but you need so much more, and the trigger conditions get sillier and more impossible to guess the higher you climb. On floor 7, for instance, you may get a stronger, silver pickaxe, but only if you purposefully break your standard one on this floor and not any earlier.

I played first without any further spoilers to see how far I could get. The answer is floor 12. At this point, you're bombarded with spells from invisible casters, and trying to deduce the location of the item needed to see them, or the method to trigger its appearance, had long ceased to be reasonable.


I then played to completion using a play guide. A total spoiler, certainly, but it was either do that and see the rest of Druaga's content with compromised play integrity, or stop playing altogether. I also made use of a secret continue option, activated by holding the sword button before pressing start, which allows continuing on the floor where you met a game over instead of having to restart from the bottom. Beating the level after a continue even gets you back all of your points! This feels less cheaty simply because the method seems no less absurd than many of the other secrets you've got to discover to win the game. You must still be careful, though, not to let your pickaxe break, for if it does then you've got to restart from floor 1 to get it back.

I jotted down some thoughts while playing.

  • Floor 5 is a nightmare of wizards popping in and out all over the place and I suffered multiple Game Overs here despite arriving fully equipped. Sometimes they flank you, or appear while your sword is drawn, and there's nothing you can do to prevent a life loss. Unlocking the mandatory-to-win treasure here requires blocking their magic while moving, which is a great way to accidentally walk right into one or get blindsided through a perpendicular corridor. Eventually an easy floor layout got generated and I passed it.
  • Floor 9 has a pretty obscure treasure chest method of crossing two very specific tiles, but this one's bad. This time the floor layout was easy and I beat it quickly.
  • Floor 10 sucks. You've got to deflect a red slime's magic spell for a necessary gauntlet, but I could stare one down for multiple seconds and not trigger its attack, only for it to launch one immediately when I draw my sword to defend myself from one of the currently-unkillable knights roaming around the maze. And sometimes they only spawn in short, winding corridors where standing far away is impossible and standing close is suicidal. Eventually I got it but I don't know how.
  • Floor 13 expects you to touch the door without the key and then kill every monster. Absurd enough to expect the player to deduce it, but then half the monsters are fire wizards that tend to fade in and out of existence faster than you can possibly side-swipe them, leaving deadly hot embers in your way that you just have to wait to die down, and that's if they even teleport into a place where you could reach them. I eventually cleared this by allowing blue slimes to trash a good sector of the maze, giving me free access to backstab the wizards when they happened to spawn there.
  • Floor 20 has a pointless treasure, granting extra power for the duration of the level. How do you trigger it? Open the level exit (without killing any enemies). Of course, some of the treasures are worse than pointless.
  • Floor 21 expects you to stand still for 5-10 seconds to make the treasure appear. What if something tries to kill you during these 5-10 seconds? Too bad.
  • Floor 24 wants you to swing your sword in the starting position. I exhausted three lives doing exactly that, getting zapped by wizards mid-animation. And then, a few tries later, I realized I broke my crucial pickaxe when the game spawned me right in the corner, where swinging your sword against the indestructible outer wall breaks the pickaxe. Fuck! Good thing at this point I saved a state, or else I'd have to restart the whole game.
  • Floor 26 - Finally, a real upgrade! Most of the treasures past the first four were simply key items required to find later chests, one-time use items, monster-specific protection items, or traps. The hyper gauntlet found here makes your sword draw much quicker.
  • Floor 29 - They seriously expect players to figure out that they need to rotate the joystick three times to trigger a chest? The reward, though, a golden pickaxe with unlimited swings, is awesome. The game actually becomes almost reasonable in its difficulty for several levels after this, except for the teleporting wizards that shoot through walls. And the chests unlock conditions.
  • Floor 36 - I got torched by an offscreen dragon. Not fair. Otherwise this level is easy because the only other enemies are fire wizards, whose magic won't hurt you at this point.
  • Floor 41 - I died so many times here because of those stupid teleporting wallhacking wizards. Gotta love when four of them teleport in and shoot a barrage at you from multiple unavoidable directions! Or when one teleports in right when you're cutting down a wall and shoots you before you can react. Or when one teleports in right when you're about to kill a wizard and shoots you before you can react. Or when you successfully block a spell and move in for a kill, except that wasn't one wizard, that was two wizards occupying the same spot, and the second one shoots you with a follow-up shot! One time a wizard was invisible because he teleported behind the key sprite and shot me while concealed by it!
  • Floor 42 - Invulnerability to blue will 'o wisps was nice while it lasted.
  • Floor 44 - Finding the required treasure requires killing the four wizards here in a specific order. Ridiculous. Even if you guessed that the method here involves killing them in a specific order, that's 24 possible permutations.
  • Floor 45 - Now there's two required treasures, and the method to get one of them involves killing five enemies in a specific order. And the other treasure spawns from the start, with no indication that there's a second, but if you get the non-hidden treasure first, it's cursed and you've screwed up your game.
  • Floor 52 - Finally, armor that protects you from lightning magic! Only one hit per life, but this is so much better than nothing.
  • Floor 54 - I spawned in this level less than a second away from a now-lethal blue will'o wisp. On the bright side, the treasure here protects you from red and blue.
 

Ishtar appears on floor 57. 


But she's a fake. Kill her, and then kill the lizard knight, to spawn the ruby mace weapon, which one-shots dragons.

Floor 58 contains the final treasure, a blue crystal rod, and requires you to touch three invisible triggers in sequence to spawn its chest.

Floor 59 is the final battle. It might have actually been a fun challenge if I weren't numb at this point.


First you have to kill a knight. Then wizard snipers spawn, but though all of their spells are deadly, only one of them is real, so no picking them off one by one - you've just got to guess until you stab the right one. And your hyper armor won't help here - it will save you from a hit, but in doing so reduces your invisible energy meter to nil, making it impossible to fight Druaga once she spawns.

Kill the right one and a dragon spawns. No problem if you got the ruby mace two floors ago. And then Druaga attacks, who isn't nearly as challenging as the wizard snipers (but still pretty deadly).

 

At last, Ki awaits on floor 60! No monsters here, just one last puzzle to solve - get Ishtar, place two of three crystal rods (you got them all, right?) in their spots which mirror the invisible triggers on floor 57, bring Ishtar to the spot opposite her throne, pick up Ki there, and place the third rod in its place to finish the game. Do anything out of order, break any walls, or just run out of time and you don't merely lose a life - you get "zapped' back to a floor on the teens and lose most of your treasures. And continuing won't get them back.

This wasn't worth it.

GAB rating: Bad. Druaga's local popularity and influence can't be denied, but this isn't a good game on the surface, the secrets needed to get anywhere are so unfair they feel like parody, and it still wasn't a particularly enjoyable experience with a walkthrough windows side-by-side with MAME. I'll accept that what I did isn't the intended experience or setting, and perhaps that makes my evaluation unfair, but I can't see how any alternative would have been better. Reportedly, a culture of note-taking and sharing secrets sprung up surrounding Druaga, but still, many of the secrets are so ridiculously obtuse that I can't fathom how anyone could have had the money or patience to discover them.

The concept of item-based progression is an appealing one, and so is the idea of exploring a world full of secrets that grant permanent power upgrades when discovered. It satisfies that RPG-like itch of watching your character become more powerful over the course of the game without the common RPG pitfalls of grinding or overlevelling, and is well suited to games with action trappings, as The Legend of Zelda eventually demonstrated. It's just not implemented well here.

I'd thought about ways Druaga could have been improved without retroactively turning it into a Zelda clone. The hideously arcane secrets would have had to been dramatically softened, perhaps eliminated altogether by just spawning the chest without requiring a trigger, or at least giving a clue. My next problem was the frequent unavoidable deaths from the wizard snipers, and I thought that maybe Gil's health could, first, be made visible on screen, and second, upgradeable by killing monsters for XP, to the point where a shot or two might be survived. Turns out, the PC Engine port does almost exactly that. Ishtar gives you hints before each stage, and "courage" can be accumulated throughout the game and exchanged for stat upgrades including additional health, which is shown onscreen in this version.

No, I won't be playing it.

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