Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Trial of New Posting

"That's only twenty dollars." said the Office Depot sales lady.

"I know."

Out of one of the deep pockets of my Miami Heat Starter winter coat I produce a bag about eight inches in diameter full of quarters, nickels, dimes, and possibly some buttons and lint that added up to another twenty bucks.  I could already hear the sighing of the customers standing behind me in line.  After what seemed like a eternity of counting the lady deposits the bills and coins into her machine, prints me out a receipt, and a bag holding my very first personally bought video game, Mechwarrior 2 for PC.

I'm not entirely sure how I heard about this game, but my best guess is CNET on TV.  Yes, back when CNET had a show on TV called CNET Central.  Great show overall, back before I discovered TechTV.  But they had a segment called "Buy It, Try It, Skip It" during which John C. Dvorak would talk about various software and whether it was worth buying, trying, or just skipping.

It was during one of these segments that he showed Mechwarrior 2, before it was actually coming out.  I was dropped.  Dvorak called it a Buy It.  So I did, after saving for months.

For those not in the know, Mechwarrior 2 is a game based on a world owned by FASA Corp. in which groups and nation states battle for control of resources and territory.  The majority of the wars involve tanks and soldiers and aircraft, all scifi.  But a few of the lucky ones get to drive battlemechs, mechs for short.  They are gigantic walking tanks equipped with enough weaponry to equal a small modern cavalry division.

There are many groups, but the plot behind Mechwarrior 2 is that a particular group decides they have had enough of the fighting, or something, and flew far away to another group of habitable planets.  There they adopt a clan culture based on the Mongolian culture.  With a lot of Russian influence as well.  After a period of time, the clans decide to go back to Terra (Earth) and take it back from the Inner Sphere (fuck if I know). Two clans get into an argument about how to go about it.  Clan Wolf (The Wardens) believe the Terra is sacred and should be protected as it is, while Clan Jade Falcon (The Crusaders) beleive they should conquer Terra.  So as all arguments are settled in the clans a Trial was called.  This one was called a Trial of Refusal or something or other.  It gets really really complicated.  But anyway, you get to choose which side to fight for and play as a young mechwarrior rising in the ranks as this trial goes on.

Clan Wolf

Clan Jade Falcon

A very large database of back story and information about how the Clans came around and the history of the universe is revealed in the command centers.  Which are beautifully rendered and animated locations where you can click around and read.  I spent hours just reading about this universe.  It was fascinating.  Then I tried to read some books based on this world and got bored quickly.  I'm not entirely sure what happened there.

Anyway, the game is a point of view shooter as you drive a mech and complete missions.  There were many varieties of missions; base defense, convoy defense, invasion, assault, even reconnaissance.  The graphics were fairly basic, but my computer at the time could barely handle it.  I had to play without textures turned, which says a lot about the computer power of my PC at the time.

There was a very large selection of mechs to choose from, from light to heavy weight.  And each had their own purpose and equipment that it could carry.  But the beauty of it was that each mech was fully customizable as far as weapons and equipment.  If you wanted a heavy weight mech with flying jets, you could do it.  It'd be hard, but you could.  Customizing your own mech was a large part of the game proper.

The main cockpit view.

I want my mech equipped with and ice cream dispenser.

I played this game to death, had to get my money's worth.  Each side had their own set of missions but in both you could rise in ranks and command an entire group of mechs.  There was a lot to this game.  Including a pre-rendered cutscene for the beginning and end of each side's campaign.

The manual that came with the game was fairly thick and had nice descriptions of each mech and the culture of the clans, as well as various terminology.  I would spend a lot of time just reading the manual.  I did grow tired of the game eventually, after memorizing each mission by heart and re-engineering every mech in the game to my liking.

In college I tried playing Mechwarrior 3 and 4, but those never really had the novelty of this game, I had already done everything they wanted me to do many times before.

Funny enough I still have this game.  The box and all.  Maybe I'll pass it on to my kids.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In which I remember when Final Fantasy characters weren't whiny teenages.

Look, let's get this out of the way first.  Fighter, Black Belt, Red Mage, Black Mage.  That's all that needs to be said about that.  I congratulate you for beating the game with a group of four black mages, I really do.  But  seriously, us normal people need a good mix of skills to be able to get through this Japanese monster of a game.

I am of course talking about Final Fantasy.  One.  Back in those days it was just Final Fantasy.  The creator didn't really expect there to be another one.  Hence the name.  But you can go read about that on wikipedia.

Final Fantasy Manual Cover

So I'm not entirely sure how I actually played this game.  But smart bets are on Alex's NES, either at my house or at his house.  Not sure where we actually got the game, as I don't think he actually owned it.  And I obviously owned neither an NES nor NES games.  Let's say the Final Fantasy fairy gave it to us.

As a reverse departure, this game actually allowed the player to both pick and name your characters, four total, before you start the game.  Allowing a sense of personalization that really was lost in the later chapters of the series.  And really, starting from the seventh iteration the characters took a really unfortunate turn for the whiny.  I guess Square knew their audience, whiny Japanese teenagers.  

So who cares you ask?  It's simple really, imagination.  If I name the characters I can also make up their backstory.  If the characters don't speak, then I can speak for them.  The major storyline of the game is up to the game creator, but the individual character interactions and thoughts are up to me.  And there is something to that.  This is one of the advantages of older games that I talked about in a previous entry.  Hyper realism and the introduction of cutscenes and character interactions in games have turned role playing games from an active intellectual exercise into a passive one.  We now watch the events instead of really participating in them.  You really have to hand it to Valve in not giving Gordon Freeman any lines in Half Life for this, totally different genre but the thought process is similar. 

Anyway, you pick your four characters, the Light Warrirors.  And you begin the quest to find the four Orbs to save the world from... some bad guy.  But that world is VAST.  It's very large.  It's big.  Not only that, but you can actually wrap around the map, as if you're circumventing the planet.  Oh yeah.  Airships.  The characters can travel on land, by ship, and by airship.  There aren't enough airships in the world.  There are many locations on the world map, but there are like five towns total.  Not only are there only about five towns, they are all essentially the same.  Weapon shop, armor, magic shop, item shop, inn.  Some random people to "talk" to, who say the same thing to you every time you speak with them, and one person who will give you a hint to the next location to go to to progress the game.  There is also the dwarf town, which is nice.  If you're into that sort of thing.

The world.


I won't go into the entire plot as it is overly complicated and needlessly complex, as all Japanese role playing plots tend to be.  The plot is not the story.  But there was a lot to see and a lot to do.  Many dungeons to explore and secret locations to land near with your airship.

Blah blah blah blah.

Unlike the later Final Fantasy games, this one really gave you the reigns to explore the world at your own speed.

The first city, and its port.

The game itself was a grindfest, but you visit many locations and are given a large variety of monsters to kill over and over and over.  To gain the levels necessary to get to other, more difficult, locations to kill more monsters.  You went through dungeons, underwater caverns, castles, and a damn space station.  Space station?  Don't ask me, but you can battle a mech there.  There was only one, and I never ran across it.  Probably for the best as I've heard it's very difficult.

The mech.

So you battle monsters, you gain experience, you gain levels and equip stronger weapons to battle more monsters.  The gameplay is fairly repetitive, but there was variety in what you killed, what you equipped, and what you saw.  Fighters could wield weapons, mages could wield rods and staves and cast spells.  Black belts punched hard.  But the Red Mage, the Red Mage could do it all!  He could wield weapons, he could cast spells, and he had a bitchin' wide brimmed hat.

And then of course there were the bosses.  The giant bosses.  Each one guarding either one of the orbs or the princess.  And then your heroes become manly!  Yeah, I don't even remember how that worked.  But at some point your characters lost their giant heads and became much more heroic looking.  Probably some kind of level hurdle.

Smaller head, bigger bodies.

This game really opened up the world of role playing games to me and showed me how much I enjoy exploring foreign worlds.  This is actually the game that led me to explore others like the entirety of the Goldbox editions of Dungeons and Dragons games, as well as a large number of other Japanese role playing games.

A witch.  One of many odd characters to meet.

It's a shame that the Final Fantasy series really took a nosedive and lost its roots.  There was a lot to the worlds created in Final Fantasy.  But money speaks loudly and there are a lot of whiny teenagers out there.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

In which I buckle some swash.

In the olden days of video gaming, open world games were actually fairly rare.  They were generally linear in nature, whether they followed a particular story line or a continuous level progression.  One of the games that broke that mold was Pirates!  Yes, that exclamation point was part of the title.


This game by the way had the most educational DRM I've ever come across.  Starting the game proper required answering a rather interesting historical question about the trading routes and conflicts in the Caribbean Sea.  The game came with a book which contained the answer, and frankly was interesting to read by itself.  Of course having received all my Commodore64 games in a less than legal fashion I didn't have that book, luckily I did have a giant pile of printouts of the Pirates! book, the Wasteland journal, and other game literature.  By the way, game literature is an odd thing to say, but there was some good stuff in there as far as fiction reading.  Especially the Wasteland Desert Ranger Manual, or whatever it was called.  But that's for another time (Fallout fans keep an eye out).

Anyway, enter the answer, start the game.  Then you get to pick the time period to play during, the country of initial friendliness, and a core skill concentration.  Fencing, always pick fencing.  From that point you start with a letter of Marque and a sloop.  At this point  you are entirely free to explore the entire Caribbean Sea.  Its towns and settlements are open to exploration.

I guess one wonders what you can actually do in this game.  Basically anything you want.  Chase and capture merchant ships, siege towns, woo governor's daughters, and find parts of treasure maps that lead to vast riches.

The game modeled wind speed and direciton, as well as dangerous reefs.  There was a fairly developed trading system with towns that had variable resource demands.  Speaking of towns, the towns themselves had several locations that you could visit.  Such as a tavern, a governor's mansion, and trading post.  The tavern was really the most important location, that was where you could recruit more crew members as well as buy parts of a treasure map.

That town is going to get it!

There was a lot of detail to the game.  You could trade goods without having a single battle, or you could become a fearsome pirate with a reputation that stretches across the entire sea.  Of course that means you can't land in any town to restock.  But that choice was left up to you, which is a large accomplishment for an older game.

Ship ahead!

Boarding a ship usually led to a fencing match.

I put a lot of hours into this game and I'm glad I did.  This game really had a lot going for it.  Funny thing is, I still play to this day.  Firaxis games released a remake a few years ago for all sorts of system, one of which is the PSP.  It was actually quite amazing how closely they mimicked the original, smartly.  They ruined none of it, except maybe that weird dancing mini-game.

But back to the game.  A single career would last gameplay hours, which stretched into many real world hours.  I had many friends come over and play it with me, though the game itself was single player.  And you thinking about it, you really have to hand it to the programmers for designing such a detailed game using a single button joystick for a controller.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In which I rescue a... explore the... collect all the... what is this game about again?

I'll be honest with you, I have no idea what this game is about.  I have no idea why it's called what it's called.  I don't know the goal of the game nor the reasoning behind anything I did.  But it was some of the most fun I had on my Commodore 64.  The game in question is called Hades.


One is left to assume that the games takes place in the Greek underworld, Hades.  The rest is sort of left to the player.  Unfortunately, I played this game before I read the myth of Orpheus.  His little trip to Hades would have made sense as a topic for a game.  There's a princess to rescue, or at least a woman.  There's various denizens of hell.  And there's little circular coins to collect, I guess.

Pools of water, moving walkways, and Pi.

Anyway, the game was clearly made in Holland, which is still a vibrant scene for Commodore 64 programming, believe it or not.  The demo scene in Europe is huge.

The game itself consisted of jumping and running through a vast, VAST, labyrinth of broken landscape, pools of water, moving walkways (both vertical and horizontal), platforms, and doors that had to be opened.  There were no enemies to speak of, which was kind of novel.  It was the player against the landscape, and the landscape was difficult.  I guess there was a nominal point count, with each coin collected goes up.  But that was par for the course for old games.  For me, I just wanted to see how far I could get. So there were points that I used as markers of progress.  I never did beat it, but getting to the very long horizontal walkway was a breakthrough.  There was a long vertical climb after that that I never made it past.

The player was introduced very early on to basically all the challenges that he would meet along the way.  The very first thing the player encounters is a large pool of water that he can't walk through.  This gives the player the immediate feedback that the only way to get to the other side is to jump, the only "advanced" mechanic in the game beyond walking.  A small platform with a long horizontal platform to walk on sit above the pool, clearly showing the way.  And just past that is the first moving walkway.  These, plus variations on the themes and some doors, are the only interaction the player has with the game.  And that was plenty.  The creators of the game put a lot of thought into level design, if one can all the cavern a "level".  There were multiple paths to go, all of which led to a reward for exploration, but not all of which led to further progress.

Typical area of HELL.

For being as simple as it was, there was a surprisingly large amount of atmosphere.  The basic columns and medieval brickwork gave it a baroque look.  The lack of enemies really made it a desolate and lonely landscape.  There was no music, but only the squeaky sound of your jumps and the sound of moving platforms.  The closest comparison to this game would probably be Prince of Persia, if you removed all the swordsmen.  And greatly opened up the architecture.

I'm not entirely sure if there's a boss to fight at the end, if there was one assume it would be Hades himself.  But given the lack of any attacks whatsoever, whether jumping on top of or shooting anything, I doubt it.  But I always wondered if there were more caverns to explore or if this was the only one.  I can only imagine what else there could be in store given how large and difficult this first cavern was.

I've scoured the net for this game, in any form, but it's next to impossible to find.  I don't know if the creator ever went on to anything bigger and better or if this was a one off.  But the guy, Stefan Posthuma, clearly had talent.

This game had an ending!  Someone actually managed to do it.  Doesn't look like there's much relation to the Greek underworld, nor a second cavern.  But it's still a damn good game.

Monday, February 28, 2011

In which I slay werewolves and skeletons.

One of my first encounters with the Nintendo in the US was a much more significant occasion than I would know at the time.  I was probably, again, around 12 at the time.  My parents either didn't believe or couldn't afford, or it just wasn't something they did, in babysitters.  Which meant that when my parents went to see their friends, I'd be brought along.  This would actually lead to many encounters with retro games.  In this case, it was one of their first friends in the US, and these friends had a son somewhat older than me.  Obviously enough he owned a Nintendo with several games.  The rest of the games he had I don't actually remember.  But one game he owned I would remember forever.  At the time, I had no idea that Castlevania was a "thing".  Specifically, Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest.

Only much later would I realize the vast expanse that is the Castlevania franchise.  With sequels going from ancient Japanese Famicom games and up to now.  Anyway, this was the game I picked and played every time we went over to their house.  Initially I of course had no clue what I was doing.  All that I knew was I was this guy, and I had this whip that I used to hit monsters with.  I had no clue that Dracula was the main villain, or that my character had a curse placed on him due to a previous game.  Or why the hell I was collecting random body parts.  One of which was  ring, so I'm not sure how that even works.

Did you know finding a rib can give you a shield?  I didn't either.

The appeal to me?  Adventure!  This game was full of exploration and discovery.  You walk through towns.  With forests between towns.  And dark and evil mansions that have to be found.  Multiple branching pathways.  And those damned pools of water that required you to kneel for a certain amount of time with a particular crystal.  Whose idea was that?!  Talk about arbitrary conditions.  White crystal + kneeling for 10 seconds = underwater mansion, apparently.

The changes between night and day gave the game a certain realism.  It was dangerous at night.

The towns had townsfolk who would talk to you, sell you things, or heal your wounds.  There was a clear sense of purpose, even if the path was rarely clear.

It would be many years later until I realized the importance of this game to the Nintendo canon.  It would also be much later that I would actually beat the game.  But beating it was much less enjoyable than actually walking through the world.  Even having played the later sequels, this particular game has a special place.  No other Castlevania had the kind of mix of open world adventure and a sense of purpose that Simon's quest had.  Even Symphony of Night, with its free to explore castle felt closed in and claustrophobic.   

This game really colored all my future gaming and the games I would play would be compared to this one.

And then there's the music.  The amount of "hits" this game had was pretty amazing.  There are plenty of games for the NES that had memorable themes.  But not many had an entire series of tunes that I can still remember.  Few series inspired CD collections of both classical and modern rock covers of their music.  This one did.

To a large extent I realize I'm fawning over this game.  But it's hard to be impartial for a game that shaped my gaming world.  As well as a game that's considered one of the great classics of NES games.  It certainly was not without its faults.  The time limit was annoying, the crystal mechanic was senseless, and the mansion bosses were mostly easy and unmemorable.

But damn was it a fun game.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How I learned about the nature of the universe

I learned very early on that the universe I live in has a tendency towards equilibrium and balance.  I had a friend in the first year or two of our immigration to the US named Alex.  He was a good guy mostly, kind of prone to peer pressure, but I can forgive that now.  He and his family had immigrated to the US earlier than my family, and thus they were somewhat better off than us.  So naturally he had more and/or better toys than I did.  Naturally, being a newly Americanized boy, he had GI Joes.  And boy were they fun to play with.  My closest encounter with "action figures" (really though they're just dolls) was one I found in a junk yard in Italy, who I found out maybe two years ago was a B-list She-Ra villain named Mantenna.  Though the one I found had no arms or weapon, mostly a torso with what apparently were four legs and bulging eyes.  But for a poor immigrant kid in Italy, that wasn't half bad.


Anyway, back to the story.  Alex's GI Joes were awesome, he had vehicles and guys and all sorts of stuff.  I had one GI Joe, a B-list bad guy with a golden helmet and rode a motorcycle/tank, that I would bring over.  

Found it!
Dictator Hover Tank


So one day we're in his living room playing with GI Joes and his mom comes home carrying a rather large box.  The box, it turned out, contained a new GI Joe airplane, the SHARC.

GI Joe SHARC, submersible space plane

My little 12 year old heart was so jealous and so sad that I couldn't have one.  I had to beg and plead with my sister back then to buy me a GI Joe action figure, getting a SHARC Submersible Space Plane was out of the question.  So he opened that baby up and played with it while I just sort of looked on.  Soon enough I decided to go home, he lived walking distance away obviously.  So now you're wondering, "I didn't come here to read about toys, I came here to read about video games you grew up with."

As I walk in the door with a sad look on my face, I can still remember the feeling, my mom greets me.  "Misha, come here, look at this."  I follow her to the little bedroom of our apartment I can hear some kind of beepy music playing.  As I get to the door I see my dad sitting on my  old swivel chair in front of a Commodore 64 computer!  It was seated precariously on my tiny little white painted desk.  The keyboard/mainboard, the monitor, the disk drive that was the size of a microwave, another disk drive, a tape drive, and a shiny black and red joystick.

Commodore 64

QuickShot II Joystick

I was shocked, my jaw was probably down at chest level and my eyes must have been about three inches wide.  It was incredible, all thoughts of GI Joe planes had left my mind.  Now, I don't know what drove my dad to get this computer that particular day.  He has said that he wanted me involved in computers ever since the old country.  But why that day, probably just random chance.  He could not have picked a better day if he tried.

I don't know what game was loaded, but I'm sure it was something amazing.  My dad eventually pointed to the two boxes of disks laying on my bed.  Each about 8 to 10 inches long and absolutely filled with 5-1/4" disks.  There must have been on the order of a thousand games in those two boxes.  I would never make it through all of them in the time I had the Commodore, but by golly I was going to try my hardest.

And that's how I knew the universe maintains a balance, for everyone.