Friday, December 29, 2023

Games 391-392: Balloon Fight & Ice Climber


We're reaching the end of the Famicom's prehistoric era. 1985 would be the last of those primitive years when its games felt like extensions (when they weren't conversions) of early 80's arcade hits, taking little advantage of the system's scrolling abilities and being constrained by the 40KB limits of its own cartridges. The stateside release of the NES, introducing Super Mario Bros., changed everything, and these back catalog games would be introduced to the U.S. as budget titles.

January (some sources say late 1984) saw the original Japaneses release of two such games - Balloon Fight and Ice Climber. As with many Nintendo games from this era, both were available in the U.S. as part of Nintendo's "VS." arcade machines series, but I believe the NES/Famicom versions are the original design.

Game 391: Balloon Fight

I first played this with my wife, who beat me on the first round, but we hadn't recorded video. I replayed with "B" along with Ice Climber.

Balloon Fight is pretty much a Joust clone to the point where I find I don't have a whole lot to say about it. Instead of riding an ostrich and jousting other knights off theirs, you have a pair of balloons and fly around an arena by flapping your arms, and try to fight a flock of bird people by popping their balloons with your feet while trying to prevent them from doing the same to you. It's slower, floatier, and more forgiving than Joust, and if anything, the concept is less outlandish.

Designer Satoru Okada must have taken pity on your fingers, though, because unlike Joust, Balloon Fight lets you auto-flap by holding the 'B' button. It's a welcome addition over the tiring manual button bashing in Joust.

Nintendo's early games often had extra modes, and Balloon Fight features one called "Balloon Trip" where you fly in a neverending journey to the west over an endless sea, dodging screenfulls of lighting bolts and popping stray balloons for bonus points. It's solo-only, but kind of fun, and I dig the catchy, playful music by sound engineer Hirokazu Tanaka.

GAB rating: Above average. This is one of the better early Famcom titles, but I'd rather just play Joust again than play this. Balloon Trip is alright, but the main event takes too long before it gets challenging.

Game 392: Ice Climber

January's other notable Nintendo game takes its cues mainly from the original Mario Bros. (which itself owed much to Joust), but it isn't just an arctic-themed clone.

Back in the NES days, Ice Climber was barely a blip on my radar. I must have seen some screenshots in books, but I never played it, and never gave it any thought until its protagonists Popo and Nana returned as playable characters in 2001's Super Smash Bros. Melee.

If you watch the video - this is our first and only attempt at the game - you can probably feel our frustration vicariously. Mario Bros. already had pretty slippery controls, but Ice Climber's are twice as awkward, especially with its high-arced jumping trajectories that barely clear any kind of horizontal distance whatsoever, making the main task of ascending a mountain of icy platforms a real annoying challenge.

Time after time, our jumps would miss platforms that seemed close enough, causing our hapless nutaqqak to fall, sometimes to their chilly deaths. But you can't just jump from the very edge of each platform either - there's a good chance of hitting your head on the invisible edge of the platform you're aiming to land on, or just sliding off.

Moving cloud platforms on the later stages add even more "fun," requiring precise timing to land on them (they are solid from below, unlike in Mario games where you can simply jump onto them from directly underneath), and even more precise timing to jump from them and onto an ascending platform, and if you miss and live, you've got to wait for what feels like ages for the cloud to wrap around the screen and come around to your position again.


I particularly loved the parts where I had to jump off a cloud to smash ice blocks above me, fall down and repeat until the hole above was wide enough to jump through. While yetis spawn and repair said hole. And if you take too long, a polar bear in sunglasses and a Speedo comes by and forces the screen to scroll upward, likely killing you. And when you respawn, the game just loves placing you right in the path of an unavoidable yeti who kills you again. Yay!

Fun bit of trivia - in an early example of regional censorship, the original Japanese version features baby seals as enemies.

Somebody call the IFAW.

GAB rating: Below average. "B" thought that Ice Climber might be more fun if we took the time to overcome the learning curve of its weird jumping mechanics and platform collision detection, but I feel less charitable. First impressions count a lot for arcade-styled games. It wasn't fun for either of us, and even in the 15 minutes we played, seemed awfully shallow and repetitive. Another fossil best left frozen in Nintendo's crevices.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Game 390: Thexder

Ugh. I think I'm pretty good at action platformers, but Thexder, one of Japan's most popular homespun computer games of the 80's, is one of the hardest I've ever played, and it's hard for all the wrong reasons.

One of the first titles by Game Arts, a fairly prolific Tokyo-based studio, Thexder originated on the PC-88, which is the version I am playing by way of the M88 emulator, before being ported to other systems including the Sharp X1, FM-7, Family Computer, MSX, PC-98, and others. Sierra On-Line took notice and created licensed, localized ports to PC, Apple IIgs, and Amiga, boasting "the best selling action game from Japan" and "over 500,000 units sold" on the cover.

You control Thexder, a Macross-inspired (I assume) giant robot equipped with a powerful tracking laser, energy shields, and the ability to instantly transform into a jet and back, and your goal is to navigate 16 maze-like levels, blasting through a variety of abstractly shaped aliens.

Now, I've had timing and input-related issues with PC-88 games, with almost no exceptions. The common thread is that things run fast, but not smoothly. This proved irrelevant in The Black Onyx, but annoying in action-rpg'ish games Hydlide and Dragon Slayer, and so disastrous in Sokoban that I had to switch to a port.

Here, things aren't completely unplayable, but there's a twitchy, jittery quality to everything, which would be tolerable if Thexder weren't so utterly unforgiving. Enemies come in from offscreen fast, and three seconds of unshielded contact with an enemy is all it takes to destroy you from a full energy meter. Which you won't often have the luxury of anyway; activating shields depletes 10%, inevitable little mistakes will cost you energy here and there; and even firing the laser cost some energy. Sometimes your laser insists on tracking unreachable targets - or even non-targets like pools of lava - while the real threats glide right over your ordinance and smack you around from behind. Sometimes inputs get dropped in the frenetic action, especially when trying to turn around, or transforming into the jet, which bafflingly requires pressing the "down" direction. And sometimes you just don't activate the shield quite fast enough to prevent damage, which means 15% for each half-second of your reaction time.

Speaking of jet transformation, this is one of the most difficult basic abilities I've ever seen. You transform very fast indeed, though not quite frame-instantly, and the moment the transformation completes, you start scrambling forward at mach five. Steering up and down to slip into tunnels, or around enemies, is entirely too finicky. Sometimes I'd just want to fly up, but to do that from a standing position you have to hit down to transform, then press up almost but not quite immediately - too fast and it won't register, too slow and you just fly into a wall and transform back into a robot. A dedicated "transform" button would have been so much better, thank you very much!

Destroying certain enemies replenishes energy, and some of them even increase your energy maximum. It's crucial that you find them. But, you can't just take your time on each level, advancing inch-by-inch and exploring every pathway to destroy everything - starting in level 2, if you take longer than about a minute and a half, you get mobbed and die.

You get one life, and when you die, that's it, you restart on stage 1. Not only has your execution got to be spot-on, but you've got to memorize each level, know when enemies are coming, and know the optimal path that gets you the bulk of the energy-boosting targets while avoiding the encounters that aren't worth your while. Frankly, it's more exhausting than fun.

There is one little trick - beat a level without using your shields at all, and you get a whopping 30% increase to your maximum energy, and a generous energy recharge besides. This is absolutely worth doing on level 1, and probably not feasible anywhere else.

I made it to level 3 before giving up. Even with save states, Thexder doesn't feel worth the effort.


GAB rating: Bad. I really wanted to like this one, or at least to be able to see it to the end, but Thexder's choppy controls and completely merciless gameplay take it into borderline unplayable territory. It feels like a shoddy console-to-PC port, but this is the original. And the Famicom port is apparently even worse!

I can't help but continue to wonder if this is an emulation issue. Almost every PC-88 game I've played feels a bit too fast, like playing an ancient PC game on a system clocked higher than what it was designed to run on. But other PC-88 emulators I've tried have the same issue, so, I don't know. If anyone has any advice on the matter, or can point out that I've been playing Thexder completely wrong and need to be taking X, Y, and Z approaches to get anywhere with it, I'd love to give it another chance. Barring that, though, I'm moving on.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Mindshadow: Won!

Welcome to Mindshadow's final chapter - Luxembourg! I explored and Trizborted this new area; it's perhaps the biggest one yet.

Just north of the airport was an inn, which we can only assume is the one that a clue in England told us to meet "Bob" at.

Poor Bob.

Searching him reveals his ID card, and a note advising us that "Jared" is in room 207. "THINK" recalls him as a lowlife, presumed dead in a car accident. Guess not.

Inventory starts to be a problem, and I have to start discarding items that seem useless.

Further north is a bank, and to the east, a "mountain wilderness" area.

It's another MOTLP! But at least this time there's no quicksand. I found no purpose to this area yet, though I noted that one room was described as a "remote" mountain wilderness and featured two trees instead of one.

Northwest, I enter the grand hotel, where the clerk tells me I am at room 202.

Eight rooms are here, and no doors are locked.

Room 202 proves dangerous!

Room 207 proves deadly!

The others are mostly harmless.

There's a cute Psycho reference if you attack him with your cleaver.

Room 202 is the important one. After ducking an obvious booby trap, a parchment here reveals a clue.

Back to the mountain wilderness it is!

I was wondering when I'd find a leaflet.

The leaflet is a safety deposit box slip, which I take to the bank.

There is a gun inside the box! I haven't got any better ideas, so I go to room 207 and shoot Jared.

The message - "Jared-- beware. William was seen flying into Luxembourg."

So I use the command "THINK WILLIAM." And end the game.

Yay, I have lawyers who can defend me from my inevitable premeditated murder charge!

Incidentally, you can trigger the game's victory condition at any time. The power to recall was in you all along. You think Myst can be beaten quickly once you know how? Mindshadow can be won on the first screen by thinking about the subjects TYCOON, BOB, ARCMAN, JARED, and WILLIAM. I tried it. Let's see how far your "wealthy industrialist" status gets you while marooned on a desert island, Arcman.

GAB rating: Average. Interplay was never known for their adventures, and Mindshadow is okay, I guess. Certainly better than The Demon's Forge, but by 1985 adventure standards it's nothing special. Despite the Robert Ludlum spy thriller inspiration and a box cover promising mystery and psychological intrigue, Mindshadow is very much a run of the mill quest in the Adventureland mold that barely explores its own conceit. The whole angle of being an amnesiac recovering his own identity is a big adventure game cliche by now, but here it just feels like an afterthought.

The Apple II graphics aren't bad, and I enjoyed the writing - it's no Infocom, but it's more entertaining than the perfunctory prose seen in Scott Adam's Questprobes, or in those Sierra Hi-Res Adventures that I suffered through a few years back. Some of the game's responses to my off-the-cuff actions were cute and unexpected. Puzzles are mostly on the easy side, but I'll take that over unsolvably obscure, which tends to be the alternative when the formula is still stuck in the Adventureland get-object use-object format. When I needed them, the Condor's ingame hints were both amusing and a welcome alternative to Internet spoilers. More adventures could have used this! And Mindshadow is relatively free of annoying adventure game conventions like hunger, darkness, and non-Euclidean mapping. Even the mazes are straightforward.

But still, in the end Mindshadow is a brief, primitive, and unsubstantial adventure that doesn't offer much that we haven't seen before.


Luxembourg map:


Sunday, December 3, 2023

Mindshadow: Bourne on a pirate ship


We resume Mindshadow onboard an old schooner, passage bought for the price of a bottle of rum, and still no memory of our identity.

The boat is a somewhat small area, with a telescope on the starboard stern, an anchor on a winch secured by a chain, and a portside deathtrap of a lifeboat where a blank canvas has been stashed. Below deck, the ship's surgeon remarks on my head wound, and further down the ship's crew gives me a chilly reception.

I couldn't figure out what to do next, so I used my final condor hint.

As an aside, if I had a real copy and ingame saving worked, could I have just saved before taking each hint and reloaded? Or would it be like the Gobliiins trilogy where if you try to do that, the hint you just spent doesn't come back?

For now, I'm not cheating the system, but I did make an emulator save before just punching people. The manual encourages this. Hitting the captain and surgeon proves fatal, as does hitting the crew, but "PUNCH MAN" within the quarters does the trick.

Past them, the galley.


The cleaver seems to be the only object of note here. Interacting with other objects gives amusing but unproductive results.

The cleaver chops the winch-chain, freeing the anchor.

The starboard telescope sights the Royal Navy flagship, to which I sneak off by the gangplank, avoiding the furious captain.

I map out this new area at the English shore quickly. It's a bit smaller than the initial island, and there are no quicksand mazes.

In the south docks, an old fisherman fishes.

I am certain I need that pole.

A babbling drunkard on airport way gives me a hint.

East, past a commercial street, an unwakeable man sleeps in the dead end of an alley.

Searching him produces a hat and £210.

Northward is Rick's Cafe.

I check in my hat - you don't have to in order to enter, but if a game lets you do something, there's a reason for it.

Drinking Rick's cocktails is fatal.

Examining it first is the correct move.

Immediately recalling The Demon's Forge and the first puzzle that stumped me, "FOLLOW MAN" gets me to a new area.

For the first time in the game, I get a response from the "THINK" command.

It's cryptic, but it's something.

I relieve myself, wash my hands - both commands are recognized - and leave, grabbing my hat on the way out. Except, it is not the right hat!

All the way north, a seedy, suspicious store holds no wares whatsoever.

Obviously he sells the forged tickets, but I'm not sure what to say, and besides, I have no money. "BUY TICKET" prompts him to ask me what for, but nothing I answer seems acceptable. Not AIRPLANE, LUXEMBOURG (the plane's destination), nor MERCHANDISE, SUCCESS, BOB, TYCOON, or whatnot.

Returning to the fisherman, £5 buys his pole, which fishes a newspaper out of the sea.

The bum by the airport also accepts cash, and gives me the password "CHANDRALT." The shopkeep is receptive and sells me a ticket for my remaining £200.

Seems like there's nothing else to do, so I take the plane.


Map of the ship:

Map of England:

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Game 389: Mindshadow

Read the manual here:

In 1985, Activision is a much bigger name than Interplay.


Ah, Interplay. The long troubled publisher of famous PC classics like Descent, Fallout, and Freespace, and some not-so-classic games like Boogerman and Clay Fighter, their early era as a third party developer for big-name publishers like Activision and Electronic Arts is almost uncharted territory for me, and one of the backlogs that I'm most excited to explore.

Mindshadow, a text adventure that loosely adapts the plot of The Bourne Identity, is formally their first original product as a software house, though informally I consider founder Brian Fargo's The Demon's Forge to be a predecessor.

Based on some discussions I had with former Interplay employees David Lowery and Rebecca Heineman, I believe that even though Mindshadow's earliest release was on the Commodore 64, it had been developed first on the Apple II, and ported from that to C64, Atari, and PC. An enhanced Amiga port came later in 1985 and was converted to Atari ST. I believe that for the most part, Interplay's early games followed the same process, using Apple II as the 8-bit master platform and Amiga as the 16-bit one, at least until becoming a PC-focused developer in the 90's. In short, I'm playing the Apple II version of this game, as I consider it most likely to be the original version of it and most of Interplay's early games.


The first thing I did was launch the "living tutorial," which opened up a slide-show presentation that teaches the player the basics on how to play adventure games. And honestly, it's a pretty solid and well-written primer! Even veteran text adventurers, all too familiar with the frustration of playing find-the-verb, getting useless "you can't do that" prompts to what seemed like logical actions, and wondering just how you were supposed to know a scene had interactive objects X, Y, and Z in it, might appreciate some of the guidance here. Compared to Adventureland, which offers a bare-bones "command me with 2-word sentences" directive, and the nearly useless advice to "try another word if I don't understand," this tutorial is generously informative, with a better overview of its parser and mapping mechanics than most paper manuals of the era do.

Mindshadow's paper manual isn't anything special in comparison, offering few further substantial gameplay instructions, and not much backstory either - you're stranded on a beach with amnesia and have to figure out your own identity before the game's objective can be revealed. Apart from standard text adventure how-to, the manual also provides some shortcut keys, explains that a "HELP CONDOR" command will grant you context-sensitive hints from the almighty condor, and that a "THINK" command may be used to reflect on certain material clues and unlock your memories.

Graphics draw pretty fast, but you can still see the line rendering process.

I began Trizborting - I went north to the hut, kept going and saw a sign warning me of quicksand. Soon enough, I found the quicksand.

Can't say I wasn't warned!

And over the next half hour, I wound up seeing that death scene a lot. The southern part of the island only has about six rooms to map out, but past the warning sign is an early MOTLP, where every room looks like this:

Mercifully, navigation is orthogonal. North, east, west, and south are your only options, and heading south from a node that you went north to enter takes you back to where you came from. You don't even need inventory breadcrumbs to map this place out. Unmercifully, there are twelve deadly quicksand pits in this maze, and more steps lead you into one than not.

There was another beach at the end of the maze:

Some of Mindshadow's scenes are animated.

No major epiphanies here - just a bottle of cheap rum sitting in a steamer trunk.

Going back to the other side of the forest, I entered the hut, but couldn't figure out anything to do here.

Eastward, a washed-up boat could be stripped for scrap steel, but the wood is useless.

Further east, the jungle dead-ended, but I picked up a vine.

The vine is used to descend a cliff southward.

The text description suggested to me that we're meant to light a fire here, and an "abrasive" rock implied flint. I thought the hut might be a source of straw - it indeed was. But straw couldn't sustain a fire; I'd need some fuel.

Oh, but don't think you can leave the cave carrying all the stuff you brought into it!

Around this point, I learned that saving doesn't work with the WOZ copy of the game I had been playing. I'm not sure if you're supposed to format a disk, or if it's an issue with write-protection, or something else. At least you can use emulator quicksaves.

Stuck for the first time, I summoned the condor, who gave me a not-too-subtle hint to try digging. This uncovered a map.

A little late for that now.

Still stuck, I summoned him again.

Back to the beach, I guess.

Why would you think of doing that on your own?

Maybe I needed to start a fire here? Bringing the stuff back from the cave, two items at a time, I did, summoning the captain.

Obviously the rum is your ticket.


Map of the island:


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