Monday, April 15, 2024

Wrecking Crew: If I had a hammer

Wrecking Crew has couple of secrets lurking in the depths of its NROM - what would a Mario game be without a few? I had some glimpses at them in past sessions though never quite cracked their inner workings. Until now.

Unfortunately, one secret isn't worth puzzling out, and another is so obscure that it feels like it wasn't meant to be found.


In past sessions, I had occasionally heard a cheerful tone after smashing a wall, leaving behind a letter 'M.' Sometimes I'd also find an 'A' in this manner. In at least one occasion, I even found an 'R', but never more than that.

Spelling "M-A-R-I-O" (or "L-U-I-G-I" if you're the second player) earns you an extra life, and the method is obscure but straightforward. Each level simply has five invisibly designated walls that you must destroy in sequence for the prize. All of the other walls are irrelevant and can be destroyed at any time. The catch is that if you destroy any of the prize walls out of sequence, you get no letter from it (or any subsequent walls), and no clue that you did anything wrong.

It seems that repeated trial and error on the same level is the only way to uncover the hidden sequence, which of course will cost you more lives than it gains you. I suppose you could learn and memorize all of the sequences ahead of time and then hit them all on a replay and earn tons of lives, but it hardly seems worth it.



The obscure one is so well known that "wrecking crew nes golden hammer" is one of Google's top autocomplete predictions, but the method to get it is crazy.

I had noticed on occasion that after setting off dynamite, it might spawn a valuable prize, like a pig, a cat, or a Santa Claus costume. But it wasn't often, and never a golden hammer.

As it turns out, some levels - not many - contain "prize bombs" which may yield a prize if you set it off under correct circumstances.

  • There is at most one prize bomb in any given level, and there is no way direct to tell it from the others.
  • To yield a prize, it must be the third bomb detonated. So you can't get this on levels with two or fewer bombs.
  • The prize given is determined by this logic:
    • Take the level number.
    • Add the number of times you swung the hammer.
    • Divide by 8 and keep the remainder.
    • A remainder of '1' gets you the golden hammer. Any other remainder gets you a lesser prize.
 

The golden hammer is terrific - you move faster, you swing much faster, you demolish the heaviest walls with a single tap, and you can bonk Spike right on his stupid head with it. You can even bash and stun regular enemies, though the timing is very difficult and risky, and will cause some of them to speed up once they recover.

Getting it also changes the music - there's a whole other tune that only plays when you've got the golden hammer - and it lasts until you lose a life.

Despite the hammer's usefulness, I decided to ignore it and keep playing without trying to find them. The prospect of discovering one whether by accident or by figuring out the method fairly seems remote at best, and it wouldn't last long even if I did. And at least one of the levels would have been impossible to beat with it!


Level 46 - Picking right up where I left off last session, six enemies haphazardly walking around the stage and no opportunities to barrel-trap them! The eggplant men don't pursue you, but they move fast and their Amidar-like patterns aren't always easy to predict.


They can be trapped, though, but it takes some patience and perhaps some luck. When the coast is clear, wreck one of the upper ladders, climb down the ladder below it, move out of the way, and wait for an enemy or two to climb right back up the lower ladder into the negative space before you break the lower ladder beneath its feet, trapping it there.

It took me a good number of tries to pull it off perfectly three times, but I got all of the enemies out of my way in this manner eventually.


Level 49 - One jam-packed demolition site! Big ladders on either side give your enemies plenty of chances to surround you, and all those ladders in the middle give you plenty of chances to escape them (and of course the fireballs)... until you start smashing them.

I'm not really sure how I beat this one - my various attempts to be smart or clever just would inevitably just get me trapped and killed, often by a fireball coming in one direction and an enemy coming from the other. I did discover that enemies above you can be delayed a bit by smashing a ladder just as they start descending it, which helps but isn't a surefire victory strategy. Breaking either of the big ladders before you've cleared all of the upper floors will definitely screw you over in the end. But mainly I just ran around a lot, kept my distance from enemies when possible, and eventually had a run without any unlucky inescapable fireballs.


Level 54 - Six enemies and not a lot of escape venues despite the apparent complexity. Good news is that there are several opportunities to trap them. Bad news is there are even more opportunities to trap yourself in a softlock situation. But that makes this one of the more logic-driven stages in this session, which I consider a good thing.



Level 57 - Oh man, talk about a pain. Six eggplant men would be bad enough, but you have to deal with Spike too, and he loves to ruin your day by bashing out a ladder or support before you're done using it.

You want Spike out of the picture here. If your timing is really good (or you're just very lucky), you can get him to knock out a support and drop a barrel on his own head, but this takes frame-perfect and pixel-perfect maneuvering to pull off.

 

An easier method, one I discovered by accident, is just to drop one of the barrels and then lure him on top of it, getting him stuck there. The eggplants can be enstuckened in a similar way.



Level 60 - Another dense level, with ladders on both sides. Two barrel traps can eliminate up to two of your enemies, but Spike won't make it easy for you.

Getting him to drop a barrel on himself makes things less chaotic, but certainly not easy, and that leaves only one barrel to eliminate one more enemy with. Dealing with three enemies and fireballs as you run around the site breaking everything isn't any picnic, but it's better than your starting conditions.



Level 62 - Probably the hardest level of the session! It alone took me a good hour to solve, and the solution feels dirty. Incidentally, this one is impossible if you have the golden hammer.

The wrenches can be lured into the doors, and with the correct timing, trapped inside permanently.

The upper eggplant man will walk around in a loop for awhile until you smash the upper-left ladder, and then will eventually drop down into the central area with his twin, leaving you free to smash the gray blocks (don't use the dynamite or you might free the wrenches).

After that you have a problem. Both the leftmost and rightmost ladders need to be destroyed, but they can only be smashed at their bases - and breaking either one will trap you on that floor. Destroying the support below the left ladder is no good either; that will drop the lowermost rung out from the ladder, causing the rest of it to be suspended in air with no way of breaking it.


 

The solution - drop down into the central area, carefully, so that you don't get caught by the eggplants here.

Tap the thick wall once, cracking it but not destroying it (the golden hammer will destroy it, which you don't want yet). Break the isolated wall and ladder here.

Then you must tap the dynamite, but you have to be standing at a pixel-perfect position just a bit right off center. You want to be at the rightmost pixel of the explosion's radius. Too far right and you'll avoid the explosion and be trapped on the floor and probably get killed by an eggplant. Too close to center and you'll fall down and be trapped between two barrels on the bottom floor. But if you do it right, you'll set off a chain reaction that destroys the row of walls behind you and the leftmost ladder, and the explosion will knock you down to the bottom floor, where if you stood at the perfect position, you'll be able to walk right through the barrel that would otherwise be trapping you, and finish the level.

And the whole time, you can get blasted by fireballs. Sheesh - I know the fireballs come at periodic intervals, but I really wish Wrecking Crew gave you a fireball warning timer. Nothing's worse than a perfect execution ruined because a fireball comes at you and there's no way to dodge it.

 

Level 64 - This reminds me a bit of level 57 with its horizontal layout and minimalism. At least Spike isn't here.

You need to use the bottom floor to do most of your ladder traversal, but this is where the six eggplant men all tend to wind up, and they reverse direction when bumping into each other, making it a nightmare to try to slip into their ranks. Knowing that you can scroll the camera up and down when the game's paused can help you to decide whether to descend a ladder on one side of the platform you're on versus the other.

The most dangerous part is dropping down to clear out the bottom floor, teeming with eggplants, which is best done with the dynamite.

 
 

Level 70 - A complicated level, and what would a complicated level be without Spike thrown in to screw things up for you?

Ruin things for me he did indeed, and my efforts to trap him under a barrel failed repeatedly. Until I wound up accidentally trapping him and one of the wrenches above a barrel instead.

 

After that, trapping the other wrench and clearing the stage was a piece of cake.

 

This last session was about over three hours of gameplay, and my principal experience here was frustration. Which beats boredom or hopelessness, but the moments of joy from solving a good puzzle have been vastly outnumbered by the moments of relief from passing one that I failed a dozen times.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Wrecking Crew: Breaking walls

I've been a bit busy lately with some personal and professional issues and haven't had much time for games, but I squeezed in about an hour and a half for Wrecking Crew this week. As with when I covered Lode Runner, I've made notes on a few of the more interesting/frustrating levels.

 

Level 28 - Four Gotchawrenches chase you up the ladder... and the fact that they don't all move at the same speed makes it impossible to corral them into a single unit that you can easily avoid. Once you disembark from the ladder, you either go left and smash down a row of walls before dropping down onto the floor below, which might not be safe, or you go right, wrap around to the left side of the screen and drop down all the way to the bottom, which definitely won't be safe. This level also just loves spawning fireballs to come at you from the left just when you get off the ladder.

This one probably took me the most tries out of all the levels I finished during this session.


Level 30 - In retrospect, I think I missed an easy solution - smash the supports near the bottom so that the barrels come down on the Gotchawrench's heads, taking them out of the picture. With two of them in the picture, though, the two pockets of walls on the second floor are deathtraps where the only way to leave is climbing down the ladder, where a wrench might be goaltending.

Instead, after a few false attempts, I wound up dropping down into the left pocket right at the start, smashing the walls, and climbing down before the Gotchawrenches could block off my escape. Then, evading them, I climbed to the top, demolished the top row, and climbed down the middle, breaking the walls there, before dropping down to the right and finishing in the right pocket.


Level 36 - Eggplant men don't pursue you, but walk in semi-predictable patterns, climbing ladders wherever they can. Breaking the ladders beneath them makes them tumble into the bottom level, and you'll have to deal with that later. This can be a big problem if they're too spread out or if some of them have reversed their direction.


Level 40 - A nasty stage where the ladders are the only way to get off a level. Find yourself in a situation where a wrench (or fireball) gets on either side of you, and you might not have any escape. Dynamite will destroy the adjacent ladders, so don't use any of it until you're done on the floor above. It can be tempting to use it to stun the wrenches, but they'll recover and get faster each time.

 

Level 43 - Four Gotchawrenches and Foreman Spike. Spike just loves tapping opening the doors on the stage, enticing the wrenches to pass through to the background and out of your hair... until he opens a door somewhere else and they pass right back through to the foreground and into your hair.

As with other stages with long, unbroken platforms spanning the entire floor, fireballs can be a serious threat, spawning and giving you no opportunity to get away by dropping down.



Level 45 - This was the second most difficult stage of the session, after level 28. There's no escape from the Gotchawrenches; anywhere you can run from them will dead-end. So you've got to drop barrels on them, and you've got to do it without crushing or dead-ending yourself.

Even after getting both of them, there's still the non-trivial task of getting to all of the destructible walls in one pass.


Not quite halfway done, but I'm neither bored with this, nor excited to continue playing.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Game 408: Wrecking Crew

Mario and Luigi's final outing in their prehistoric, pre-SMB era is weird. In two months time they'd settle on their lifelong careers as a plumber brothers, but first they'd moonlight as a demolition team in a puzzle platformer not a little reminiscent of Lode Runner, with perhaps a bit of Door Door thrown in. There's even a Lode Runner-style level editor, though the save/load function requires the Japan-only tape deck peripheral.


Your goal - demolish 100 buildings by destroying all of the gray walls and ladders with your hammer and whatever dynamite is lying around the site. Your opposition - sentient wrenches, killer eggplants (not the first or the last time Nintendo would vilify eggplants), errant fireballs, and the foreman Spike (Mario & Luigi are non-union).

The main puzzle element comes from figuring out the logical order of element destruction - you have to knock down everything gray, including the ladders, but destroying a ladder or support pillar too soon could leave a wall or two inaccessible, making the level impossible to finish. This isn't terribly complicated compared to the challenges faced in Lode Runner, but the enemies make things complicated in a hurry; you haven't got many means of fighting them, and by the time you reach the early teens, you'll need to figure out ways to manipulate their movement so that you can reach tricky spots without getting surrounded. Fireballs, which periodically come shooting off the sides of the screen, can also ruin your day if one happens to spawn at a time that you don't have a route to get away from it.

Then there's Spike, who follows you around, breaking stuff with his own hammer, and loves to "accidentally" bash through things and hit you on the other side, sending you plummeting to the bottom of the site. He's usually more of a nuisance than a threat, and can even be helpful on occasion by breaking stuff or sometimes knocking you down to an otherwise inaccessible part of the stage, but he can also screw you up by knocking you into an enemy or inescapable pit or demolishing a key ladder or support beam too soon.

Eat it, hard hat.
 

Spike also shows up every four stages for a bonus round contest to find a gold coin hidden inside a concrete wall for some points. It's somewhat mindless luck, though not without some room for strategy - you could just try to smash the wall more efficiently than Spike and have more chances, or you could actively try to interfere.


Wrecking Crew is alternating players only, not even offering Luigi a palette swap, though Vs. Wrecking Crew would add simultaneous play. Like Ice Climber before it, you can start on any level you wish, effectively giving you unlimited continues - running out of lives has no consequence except resetting your score.

If you care about that, though, the game has one bit of arbitrary cruelty. If you get stuck in such a way that you can't die, you have to reset the game, and therefore your score. They even programmed the select button as a game reset button - why not have it just reset the level and cost you a life? This is no oversight either; they deliberately made it possible to get stuck and force a game reset; should a barrel fall on your head, you don't die, but become trapped inside the barrel. Forever. Even fireballs will not kill you.


I don't care about that, though, and I'm only concerned with completing as many of the 100 levels as I can.

 

Level 12 was the first to give me trouble. In retrospect it's not especially difficult, but the key here is realizing that once you leave the central area, there's no going back, so demolish everything inside first. Spike can ruin things for you, but arranging a little "accident" of your own will send him tumbling to the bottom and keep him out of your hair for awhile. The only safe way out is by knocking down a support beam near the top level, letting the ladder fall down, and using it to climb over the barrels.


19 was another tricky one. The dark grey walls take three swings to knock down, and demolishing a whole row takes a pretty long time - the Gotchawrenches have a tendency, if you stick around on one floor for too long, to flank you on either side giving you no chance to escape. Fireballs are also a threat to the player who stays on one level too long. And of course there's Spike, whose attacks will send you down to the bottom level where there's no escape, but two can play that game.


24 was the most difficult yet. Four Gotchawrenches and Spike, and only one ladder on the left side to ascend levels makes it all too easy to find yourself surrounded. And if Spike breaks this ladder, you're screwed. Smashing the ladders on the fifteen floating platforms provides you with a moment of safety... until the fireballs start coming and force you to drop down to a lower platform which could very well be a deathtrap.


I am currently on level 26 and things aren't getting any easier. I don't think that Wrecking Crew's mechanics lend themselves to the same sort of puzzle complexity as Lode Runner's - at least not without demanding Championship Lode Runner-like levels of precise AI manipulation, and I'm praying it never goes that far. But this one's going to be a multiparter, which is a first, I'm pretty sure, for any console game.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Game 407: Graham Gooch's Test Cricket

"After Nintendo Soccer, we tried to play a Commodore 64 cricket game, and boy were we in trouble."

"Because neither of you know how to play cricket?"

"Because neither of us know how to play cricket."

 

We tried, but I gather, in retrospect, we weren't missing a whole lot by not knowing what we were doing here, because like a lot of other computer sports games of the day, Graham Gooch's Test Cricket appears to be a pretty simplistic and barebones simulation, and more or less plays itself if you let it.

 

The first game published by U.K. software house Audiogenic Software, the company could be seen as a continuation of Supersoft or of Audiogenic Ltd depending on how you interpret their history. Rather than try to puzzle out which predecessor company's extensive back catalog of pre-1985 Commodore games to retrospect, I settled on neither and went straight for Test Cricket.

I did read the basic rules beforehand, which are not explained in the manual. Presumably if you're buying this game, you already know. For the benefit of readers who, like me, have only had exposure to baseball (barely 5% of my readers are from countries where cricket is more popular than baseball), I'll offer a brief, probably inaccurate summary of how it works.

The goal, like baseball, is to score more points than the other team does. Teams alternate between batting and fielding - the fielders bowl the ball in an attempt to eliminate the batter, the batter hits back in an attempt to score points for his team. But while baseball has rapid eliminations and challenging score conditions, cricket is exactly the opposite. Strikeouts are not a thing, and runners are not vulnerable; batters are primarily eliminated by striking the wicket behind them, and most professional players can score upwards of 20 runs per out. In baseball, three outs ends the half-inning and causes the teams to switch. No such luck in test cricket - the half-inning only ends once all eleven batters are eliminated, and this can literally take all day. A full two-inning game can last up to five six-hour days.

Mercifully, Graham Gooch's Test Cricket doesn't demand you play all week, as you can also play single-inning games with limited overs. Unfortunately, the shortest game is still 40 overs (240+ bowls) per side. We got bored and stopped playing after 11, long before I had my turn to bat.

I haven't even said anything about what it was like to play, and I really can't say much at all. The match is always England vs. Australia. Each player selects their team from the available roster and assigns roles, and only their names are shown - the game offers no stats to help you make your decisions. There are two modes of play - arcade and simulation - and the main difference is that in arcade mode, you control the batter semi-directly by pressing the joystick fire button to swing, and must time it correctly in order to connect. In simulation mode, this happens automatically, but you can direct the batter's strategy with secret joystick commands, and in both modes, you can cycle players in and out of the action between overs to manage fatigue. Bafflingly, only simulation mode is allowed with two players, and I can't see why. The system has two joystick controllers!

Apart from that, there's really no interactivity. You bat, if you hit correctly then you'll see a little animation of runners crossing the field, and you'll see some game stats between overs.

GAB rating: N/A. This is more of a hands-off simulator than a game you actively play, and holds zero interest to me as someone who doesn't even care about popular American sports, let alone cricket. But as a sim, it seems very limited compared to, say, SSI's Computer Quarterback and Computer Baseball.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Game 406: Soccer

This past weekend, I was in downtown Boston, visiting my friend "B." It was absolutely pouring, and we spent the evening playing obsolete sports video games, when neither of us have cared about sports in decades.

 

In the above video, I play USA, "B" plays Brazil.

Soccer is the first game credited entirely to Nintendo's internal studio Intelligent Systems, though it has none of the team's signature traits yet, feeling much like Nintendo's earlier bare-bones sports titles. At least this one has a halftime show.

Does soccer even have cheerleaders?

The game was a struggle for both of us. One of the biggest control issues was selecting players to pass to or switch control to - in theory, using the d-pad selects a target teammate in the direction pushed, highlighting them and allowing you to pass or take control, but in practice it often just refused to highlight the right teammate, causing us to pass to the entirely wrong one. And teammate AI is chaotic and often useless when left to their own devices.

Occasionally one of us would foul with an illegal pass, and we'd have no idea what actually triggered it. The manual notes that software limitations prevent Nintendo Soccer from completely and precisely implementing official IFAB rules, but we'd still see offside penalties despite not passing the last defender.


 

The screen also does not scroll smoothly, but only scrolls when the ball reaches an edge of it, making offense a frustrating exercise in blind advancement - you don't get to see the goal or its defense situation until you're already very close to it!

But the real fundamental problem here is that NES Soccer is slow. Players awkwardly dribble the ball like small children just learning the sport, pushing it forward a bit, running up and pushing it again, which makes crossing the field clumsy and boring. Shooting goals is the nail in the coffin - it is so slow that we were able to block shots with our goalies ever single time, and I don't see how assists could accomplish anything but give the goalie even more time to react.

Just to test against the theory that maybe we were just bad at offense, I played against the computer at maximum difficulty, and made no attempt to keep the ball away from my goal. I still blocked it every single time.

The level 5 AI also made an offside pass and two out-of-bounds kicks as my whole team stood still and laughed.

GAB rating: Bad. It's not completely broken like Tennis, but the only thing fast about NES Soccer is how fast its annoying little problems add up, and a soccer game where you'll never score until the final penalty kick session feels pointless.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Game 405: Jump Jet

 

Jump Jet, listed on Mobygames by its 1988 Amiga release title Harrier Mission, simulates author Vaughan Dow's day job as a Sea Harrier FRS1 pilot. Flying a single-seat, single engine, subsonic jet fighter capable of VTOL thanks to its angled thrust nozzles, you must launch from your carrier, locate an enemy fighter, pursue and destroy it, and return to the carrier and land on it safely.

Getting this to work correctly was slightly tricky. First, there was the issue of realizing that no Commodore 64 game called Harrier Mission exists. Jump Jet is the correct title. Second, I found two disk images floating around. One of them refused to load. The other had completely unintelligible speech, and I couldn't quite put it out of my mind that this wasn't right, or that something else might be wrong too. But ultimately I wound up playing a T64 tape image, which loaded much faster than the disk version, and offered clear-sounding radio chatter (mostly "Mayday-mayday-mayday. I'm bailing out!" given my piloting skills).

The Sea Harrier's distinguishing characteristic is its angled jet nozzle, which may be oriented in four directions:

  • Vertical, used for VTOL and hovering. At this orientation, pitch controls forward/backward movement rather than altitude, and banking controls lateral movement without turning. Thrust power will control rate of climb.
  • 45°, used to build airspeed from hover. Thrust power controls rate of climb and forward acceleration; pitch and banking don't do very much at all.
  • Rear-firing; only effective when airspeed exceeds 180kn, otherwise transforms your jet into cannonshot. Handles like a conventional jet with maximum level speed of 600kn; pitch controls altitude, banking turns, and thrust controls acceleration.
  • 45° reverse, used for rapid deceleration. 
 

This is definitely more of a flight simulator than Dow's previous Flight Path 737. Gameplay is still stratified into phases, but where Flight Path 737 immediately ended the trip when you didn't follow procedures correctly, Jump Jet simulates the flight physics just enough to make you face the ramifications of your failure. When it can't do this (stalls are still not a thing, for instance), a warning light flashes, and too many of these will abort the mission.

A multilingual manual offers five pages of English instructions - this affords more detail than the two pages of terse liner notes offered by Flight Path 737, but is still a bit inadequate for explaining exactly what you need to do. There is also some flat-out incorrect information; the manual says that the skill level is selected by the computer and automatically advances upon a successful mission, but you have access to all five from the start. I had to trial and error my way through the first two, and faced a showstopping difficulty on the third.


Below is a walkthrough of skill level #2, "Flight Lieutenant."


Takeoff

Way easier than taking off from a runway. Pretty much the only way you can screw this up is by forgetting to lower the flaps first. The manual notes that a real Sea Harrier is equipped with 6,600 pounds of fuel, full arms, and must take off from a ski runway, but in this simulation, we only have 5,000 pounds, four missiles, and can take off from rest.

  • Press F to lower the flaps.
  • Press 3 to fire the jets vertically.
  • Hold '+' to increase thrust to maximum. At >75% power, you will ascend, and the silhouette over the landing zone shrinks.
  • At 50ft, the scene changes.

 

Takeoff, scene 2

 

  • Press 2 to fire the jets at 45°. You'll move forward, away from the carrier, almost immediately.
 

Sea flight

 

Here, the game switches to a first person sim-like perspective, and it looks kind of nice at first, with its animated waves, clouds, and horizon. But then you notice the cheapness of it all; there's almost nothing to look at here, banking doesn't tilt the horizon, which simply goes up and down in response to your pitch but is unaffected by altitude. Even Hellcat Ace on the Atari, a game I noted for its primitive pseudo-3D visuals and gameplay, was more convincing than this!

Your goal here is to locate the enemy fighter, which is represented by a triangle on the radar. The only other object here is the carrier, which spawns at a random distance and orientation from your origin even though you just took off from it.

  • Press 'R' to enter radar mode. Note that this will take flight control away from you until you exit radar mode, so don't do anything stupid like entering a dive before doing this.
  • A cursor will appear on the radar screen. Use the joystick to .slowly. move it onto the triangle and then press the fire button.
  • The enemy fighter will be 'selected,' and its distance to you will show on the radar.
  • Wait until your speed accumulates 180 knots, if it hasn't yet.
  • Press '1' to activate rear-firing thrusters.
  • Press 'F' to raise your flaps.
  • Press 'U' to raise the undercarriage.
  • Use the joystick to pitch up until you have attained at least 1,000ft of altitude. Do not let airspeed fall below 180 knots - reduce your pitch if it falls too low.
  • Use the joystick to level.
  • Use the joystick to bank and rotate to face the enemy's direction, and then level.
  • Approach to a proximity of 5 miles.

 

Dogfight

 

Here things become a real horror show of programming shortcuts as you finally see the enemy flit about all over your screen like an ant on crack. You see, the enemy plane doesn't fly in pseudo-3D space with any sort of attempt at modeling flight physics, but is merely a sprite that moves around your 2D screen space, moving up or down as it pleases, but never leaves your screen no matter how you maneuvers. You, unfortunately, still have to obey flight physics, which is why you'll want to approach with a somewhat high altitude; aiming downward makes you dive, and the enemy can't crash into the sea, but you can. A simple distance parameter causes the sprite to enlarge once the gap closes. The goal is to get the sprite inside your reticle and pull the trigger, which instantly destroys it. If the distance closes to 2 miles, it destroys you. Disengagement is impossible; you kill or be killed, and if you run out of missiles, tough luck.

The trick here is to use the reverse thrusters. Can't close the distance if you're moving backwards!

  • Press 'M' to turn on your missile sight.
  • Press '4' to engage reverse thrusters.
  • Use the joystick to get the enemy into your sight.
  • Fire.
 

Return to carrier

  • Press 'M' to turn off the missile sight.
  • Press 2 to fire the jets at 45°.
  • Press 'R' to enter radar mode. Again, make sure you aren't diving or banked, or this will go badly for you.
  • Use the joystick to move the cursor onto the carrier and press fire.
  • The carrier will be 'selected,' and its distance to you will show on the radar.
  • Use the joystick to bank and rotate to face the carrier's direction, and then level.
  • Wait until your speed accumulates 180 knots, if it hasn't yet.
  • Press '1' to activate rear-firing thrusters.
  • Reduce pitch, and approach carrier to a proximity of 5 miles. Level before altitude reaches 200 feet.
 

Carrier approach

 

This part was probably the most difficult to figure out. You've got to get very close to the carrier and enter a hovering descent, but the graphics and display don't make this easy to judge.

  • When the carrier comes into view, bank to center it.
  • Approach with an altitude as close to 200 feet as you can.
  • When somewhat close, level the plane and press '4' to activate reverse thrusters and rapidly decelerate. The exact distance will depend on your approach airspeed - you want come to a stop close to the carrier, but you don't want to overshoot.
  • When airspeed approaches 0, press '2' to activate 45° thrusters and reduce thrust power.
  • Adjust your thrust angle and power as necessary to inch forward.
  • Once you are very close - the carrier should be close to the bottom of your screen but not off it, press '3' to activate vertical thrusters and set power to 75%. You will decelerate and hover.
  • When airspeed reaches 0, reduce thrust. You will descend.
  • When altitude falls below 200ft and the game thinks you're close enough, the scene will change. You may still need to adjust thrust angle to get closer.
 

Landing

 

This part is tricky - almost certainly the most difficult part from an execution standpoint. And on higher difficulties it is so much worse.

If you enter this scene going more than a few knots, it's entirely possible that you might just fly away from the carrier before you have a chance to do anything, which aborts the landing and returns to seaflight mode, causing the carrier to magically spawn somewhere at random again! Yes, this happened to me, and it is frustrating.

  • Press '3' to activate vertical thrust.
  • Set thrust to 75%.
  • Use the joystick to pitch and bank to maneuver over the landing zone until you are directly over it and in a steady hover. This is very sensitive.
  • Press 'F' to lower flaps.
  • Press 'U' to lower undercarriage.
  • Reduce thrust. You will descend.
  • At 30 feet, the scene changes.

  

Touchdown

  • Increase thrust to 75%.
  • Use the joystick to pitch and bank to maneuver over the landing zone until you are directly over it and in a steady hover. You may lose altitude while doing this, and may need to increase thrust to avoid landing too soon, but easy does it - you don't want to climb too high either.
  • Reduce thrust below 75%. You will descend and land.
 

With higher difficulties, you must destroy multiple targets before landing, and the manual says there is a lower tolerance for warnings but I found this is incorrect; you fail after nine regardless of setting.

But the true difficulty factor is the weather. Being jostled around during seaflight is bad enough, but on levels 3 and above, you also have to fight the wind while landing. And I found this impossible.

Crashing your jet into the deck? That's six demerits.


GAB rating: Below average. Jump Jet is more ambitious than Flight Path 737 and gamier, so I feel I can evaluate it as a game, but the core here is bare bones compared to games I've called bare bones.

It's too bad, because there's some promise. The VTOL aircraft is cool. The presentation isn't half bad, with pleasing colors and animation. Ingame speech is pretty decent quality, the instruments are clear, readable, and well laid out, and the multiple perspectives involved with takeoff and landing, which itself is something I haven't seen in any earlier combat flight sim, are a neat touch.

But there's not enough to do here, and the flight simulation is half-baked and unconvincing. Air combat is pathetic - like an arcade game from the 70's, but honestly, I can't even think of one of those that doesn't look and feel better. Compare to Hellcat Ace, from three years earlier on Atari hardware, where the horizon tilted as you banked, up to two enemies could be present at once, and they at least seemed to follow the same flight physics as you, able to climb, dive, and maneuver off-screen and behind you. I called that simplistic.

It will be awhile before we return to Anco Software for a bona fide whale, and I'm not sure I feel all that enriched by this retrospective series, but hey, they can't all be winners.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Game 404: Flight Path 737

The green rectangle is just for show; instruments tell you everything.

The first of two Anirog games by professional jump jet pilot Vaughan Dow, Flight Path 737 is a flight simulator in the same sense that Activision's Space Shuttle is - very little of the physics of flight is actually simulated, but rather a simplified model of the procedure is, which you must follow to taxi, take off, ascend to a safe height, pass over a mountain range, and descend into a valley beyond and land on the runway safely. Do anything incorrectly and it is an instant fail, with a sometimes confusing abort message to announce your mistake.

"Accent to slow?" What? Ohhh... you mean ascent too slow!

Make no mistake, this is not an easy game. You will be needing to watch your airspeed obsessively. The safe speed range for any given phase is tight - deviate from this even a little bit and you fail The optimal speed range is even tighter, and on higher difficulties you cannot afford to stray from this or you will hit the mountains, or miss the runway, or just run out of fuel. There's no autothrottle; only keystrokes to adjust in 10 or 20 knot increments, and it increases or decreases on its own with pitch, drag, or, on higher difficulties, random engine fires. While climbing or diving, you'll need to adjust it constantly, and that's all the while keeping an eye on your other gauges and remembering everything else you need to do.

Gameplay is semi-realtime; with PAL timing, the game accepts one keystroke command and/or joystick direction per second, and instruments update at about this rate. It takes some getting used to, but it gives airspeed adjustment a tick-tock rhythm; one tick it goes up by five knots because you were diving, then you hit F5 and the next tock it goes down by five, and you repeat until an event happens.

A complete run takes no more than ten minutes, and six difficulties are offered, which I completed in sequence. "Part-time" is where things started getting really difficult.

Difficulty Mountains Runway Engine fires Landing tolerance Crosswinds
First solo 5000 feet 3 miles No Moderate No
Stunt pilot 6000 feet 3 miles Yes Moderate No
Part-time 7000 feet 2.5 miles Yes Strict No
Experienced 8000 feet 2 miles Yes Strict Yes
Professional 9000 feet 1.8 miles Yes Strict Yes
Test pilot 9200 feet 1.5 miles Yes Strict Yes

 

Below is my first and only successful "test pilot" run - the only such video on Youtube to my knowledge. There were many unsuccessful runs.

 

I did find that the cassette inlay instructions are a bit confusing and sometimes incomplete. Discovering the correct procedure took some trial and error, and in the process, I rewrote them for my own benefit.

Remembering the safe airspeed rules is paramount. You should always be paying attention to the ASI indicator, and always maintain a safe speed, no matter what else you are doing.

  • Airspeed must never fall below 160kn.
  • Airspeed may not exceed 200kn while the flaps are down.
  • Airspeed may not exceed 250kn while the undercarriage is down.
  • Airspeed may not fall below 180kn while the flaps are up.
  • 180kn-200kn is the only safe range for raising or lowering the flaps.

 

Taxi

  • Press F1 once to increase ground speed to 20kn.
  • Press V to lower the flaps.
  • Use the joystick to correct runway heading. Center once aligned.

 

Takeoff 

  • Press F1 eight times to increase ground speed to 180kn.
  • Pull joystick back to increase pitch and take off.

 

Ascent 


On all difficulties except first solo, engines can catch fire any time from here until the final approach! Pay attention to the FW indicator and if it lights up, immediately stop what you're doing and hit 'E' to extinguish it. Then adjust your throttle to recover any lost speed.

  • Increase pitch to +5.
  • Maintain airspeed between 185kn-200kn.
  • Once altitude passes 300ft, press F to raise flaps.
  • Press F1 to throttle up.
  • Press A to raise undercarriage.
  • Press F1 repeatedly to reach 410kn.
  • Press F3 every two seconds to maintain 410kn airspeed.

 

Cruise

  • Once altitude is within 400ft of the mountain tops, use joystick to level pitch.
  • Press F7 repeatedly to lower speed to 180kn-200kn.
  • Press V to lower flaps.
  • Press Z to lower undercarriage.
  • Use joystick to correct runway heading. Center once aligned.
  • On higher difficulties, it may be necessary to begin RH alignment early and multitask.
 

Descent

  • Once 'GW' light turns off, you have cleared the mountains. Depending on how long it took you to perform RH alignment, this may have already happened.
  • Use joystick to lower pitch to -5. Airspeed will increase 5kn per second as you dive. Let it approach 200kn, but never exceed it.
  • Press F5 every two seconds to maintain airspeed.
  • When the altitude is about equal to [distance*100], press F7 once and raise pitch to just one notch below level.
  • On test pilot mode, you will be very lucky if this is above 500ft. It's entirely possible that you completely pass the runway during descent! In which case, too bad.

 

Final Approach

  • Reduce airspeed to 160kn-170kn. Maintain during final approach.
  • At 10 distance, an ILS light flashes.
  • At higher difficulties, this has probably already happened.
  • White means you must lower your pitch.
  • Red means you must raise your pitch.
  • Green means you are on track to land.
  • Once green, set pitch to -1.
  • At higher difficulties, crosswinds interfere with your RH. Adjust accordingly.
 

Landing

  • Once altitude reaches 100ft, increase airspeed to 170kn-180kn.
  • Once altitude reaches 0, immediately level pitch.
  • Press R to activate reverse thrusters.
  • Press F7 repeatedly to reduce speed to zero.

 

 

GAB rating: N/A. More of an education product than a full-fledged game. Like other computer flight simulators, I don't feel it makes a great deal of sense to evaluate this as I would a game designed to entertain, but I don't get the impression that this is the most polished or most professionally-developed product out there. Microprose's Solo Flight outclasses this in every regard imaginable.

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