Slidin’ away…

Somewhere along the line, I developed a certain weakness for sliding-block puzzles.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, honestly; Apple’s bundled Puzzle desktop accessory always drove me nuts, and I never bothered to finish the World’s Hardest Trick the first time around. Yet somewhere between gnotski during Computational Mathematics lectures and a surprisingly high-quality implementation of Rush Hour during the down moments of my first internship, I learned to stop stressing and love shuffling tiles across a board.

There are a number of games of this type available on the web; a basic puzzle of this sort is pretty easy to implement and have therefore been a staple of newbie flash developers for years. I usually don’t find them particularly notable (although I would like to work in a plug for Wooden Path), but sometimes something really standout comes along.

The Indie Games blog linked last week to a flash project called Continuity. Continuity implements the really clever idea of taking a sliding-block puzzle and combining it with a 2D platformer- the blocks that you’re moving around are pieces of a level, and your ultimate goal is to guide your character through it, collect any keys, and reach a red door. Moving pieces whose edges match next to each other allows you to move between them.

The game starts out fairly simple, but the later puzzles become increasingly mind-bending. It’s a solid implementation of a really clever idea, and I enjoyed it tremendously.

– HC

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Mystic Ark

Anyone who’s been gaming long enough can remember That Game- the one that you heard about and latched onto and followed every tiny detail and scrap of information about. The one that you looked forward to and anticipated for months, through delays and new release dates. The one that you lived and breathed. The one that, once you got it, turned out to be a hollow shell of the game that you’d been promised- the one that dashed your hopes and turned out to be a huge disappointment.

Everybody’s got one of those- you know that you do, too- many of which have titles you’d recognize: Halo 2. Black and White. Spore.

Mine was a little-known Super Nintendo game entitled The 7th Saga.

You’ve probably never heard of The 7th Saga, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s a straightforward JRPG, released in 1993 in the US. It follows the grind-heavy and plot-light Dragon Quest model, but has an incredibly punishing difficulty level than any of the Dragon Quest games and, at the same time, also has a less interesting battle system. The setting was a straightforward 16-bit-RPG Fantasy-but-there-are-lasers-and-robots-around-for-no-goddamn-reason affair. About the only interesting concept in the game is the way the “party system” is handled- you’re given a choice of seven characters initially, and then will encounter the others (who you can recruit or fight against) at various points in the game. The visuals- which, for the time, were pretty impressive- were about the game’s only real high point. The music wasn’t bad, either, I suppose. All things considered, it’s a mediocre game at best, whose primary advantage lay in being a JRPG released in the US at a time when there were very few JRPGs to be had, and even fewer worthwhile ones. A more humane level of difficulty would have helped the game, but even without the punishing difficulty I still probably would have been better off playing Lufia or Paladin’s Quest instead.

There was a sequel to The 7th Saga which never made it out of Japan, by the name of Mystic Ark (I’ve just learned that there’s a second, Playstation-based sequel, too, which there seems to be little to no reference to on the English-speaking internet). It wasn’t a game that I was particularly interested in, but I recently checked my RSS feeds and learned that the intrepid folks at AGTP have translated it into English– so I decided to give it a try.

I wish I could say that I was pleasantly surprised- unfortunately, I cannot.

Although the difficulty level is much more reasonable than The Seventh Saga’s, Mystic Ark is still a straightforward, unremarkable SNES RPG at its’ core. It seems to rely a lot more on puzzles and “trigger quests” than many of its’ contempararies- unfortunately, many of the puzzles seem totally arbitrary and don’t make that much sense, are drop-dead easy, or some combination of the two. Many also seem designed simply to make you wander back and forth through monster-infested territory as much as possible, and more often than not advancing the plot seems to be a matter of randomly talking to people until you trigger an event (one of my personal JRPG pet peeves). The game is seperated into seven different “worlds”, which seem to each attempt to follow a different wacky theme, but the graphics are really too drab and uninteresting to capture this- it’s hard to get excited about a world inhabited by cat pirates which it looks suspiciously similar to a world inhabited by people living inside giant fruit, which looks suspiciously similar to a world inhabited only by children.

The game’s overall storyline never seems to really form into anything cohesive and interesting- it gets a little better near the end, but all-in-all it’s pretty mediocre. Beyond that, there’s nothing really remarkable about it- combat is only slightly improved from The Seventh Saga’s straightforward Dragon Quest-alike, and the presentation is fairly middle-of-the-road for the time when the game was released.

Mystic Ark is an okay effort, I suppose, and its certainly better than it’s predecessor- but it’s nothing spectacular, and it’s not a game which I’d really recommend to anyone. It was only my personal history with the series that convinced me to finish the game at all- and even with that, I had to force myself to complete the last few worlds.

– HC

Light Up the Night

The Protomen LogoI always feel a little weird jonesing for The Protomen, since I can’t help but shake the feeling that I’m the last person to know about them in the first place. I somehow managed to not get the memo about them for like three years after their eponymous first album was released, and in spite of chatter that I know I heard, I was first introduced to them through an AMV linked I-don’t-even-remember-where. This post is full of shame!

Now that those unpleasant admissions are behind me, I should get to the real point: The Protomen are a band who, in 2005, released a rock opera based on the Megaman games. They’ve actually produced something far more original and high-quality than you’d expect from that brief descriptor; their first album took the characters of the early NES Megaman games, mixed them with the darker, post-apocalyptic tone of the later Mega Man X games, and turned them into an Orwellian story about Megaman’s quest to liberate the world from Dr. Wily and his army of robots. Though bleak in tone, it’s got a far wider stylistic range than you’d see from most bands; it’s a catchy, solid album. After this, the Protomen were relatively quiet for several years as a sequence of Code: Not This Shit Again countdowns appeared on their website- but finally, earlier this month, they released their second album- Act II: The Father of Death.

Act II, unexpectedly, is actually a prequel to The Protomen, expanding on the background of Doctors Light and Wily. It’s interesting but unsurprising that The Protomen seem to be moving away from major copyrighted characters- while Dr. Light is the main character of Act II, it also devotes a lot of time to Dr. Light’s wife Emily and the prototype robot Joe. The Protomen seem to assign different styles to different characters- Dr. Light’s blues-y sound or Joe’s so-very-80s rock. There are a couple subtle callbacks to their first album as well- it’s a nice touch.

There are a couple issues with Act 2- the ‘story’, such as it is, feels a little garbled at points. Breakin’ Out is a good song, but I’m not entirely sure where it fits in with the big picture- I’m not sure who’s singing, but there’s no character for whom it makes sense. As with The Protomen, the story is ultimately rather bleak, even if it does have some notable high points. These are minor complaints, though- it’s absolutely worth listening to, though, and a solid followup to The Protomen.

Both The Protomen and Act 2 are available on iTunes- they’re definitely worth checking out.

– HC

On buried treasures and Game Boy shooters

ZAS It surprises me at times how many buried treasures there are out there. I suppose it really shouldn’t; there are a lot of video games released on a yearly basis, and there have been for a great many years. It’s still kind of amazing to me how many excellent games there are that nobody’s really aware of, languishing in the godforsaken backwaters of a ROM site’s list-by-name index, waiting to be discovered.

This brings me to Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS, a game first brought to my attention by ShellShock over on the Hardcore Gaming 101 forums, which- as far as I know- he first discovered while researching an exhaustive article on Game Boy shooters for his site, Blame The Control Pad. Simply put, it’s one of the most technically impressive Game Boy games I’ve ever played and is a solid, fun, well-designed shooter as well. It doesn’t deserve the obscurity it exists in.

ZAS is a vertically-scrolling shooter; it has both the wide-open stages which are typical of vertical shooters and also more claustrophobic stages with walls and obstacles, similar to those in most horizontally-scrolling shooters, or the vertical sections of Life Force. The game alternates between the two until the fifth and final level- the first and third stages are ‘open’ stages, while the second, fourth, and final stages follow the Life Force model. Your ship’s only real gimmick is that it has two small, option-like ships which hover beside it- these can either be retracted for a narrow, powerful shot or extended for a wider attack. Beyond that, there really isn’t a whole lot to it- there are ‘shield’ pickups and straightforward weapon pickups, but your the gameplay is fairly straightforward beyond that.

Level design is where ZAS shines. Many shooters, particularly from the NES era, have a certain pervasive sameyness- stages all feel the same, and enemies are either repeated or reskinned versions of the same ones you’ve seen previously. This is not the case in ZAS- each stage features unique enemies and a unique ‘feel’. The stages themselves are fairly standard shooter material, but they’re solid and fun to play through.

Graphically speaking, ZAS is very impressive for a game boy game- although everything’s reduced to the typical creamed-spinach-color sprites of the original Game Boy’s palette, ZAS’ sprites are pretty impressive. Through a bit of a clever technique, ZAS’ designers have actually created a parallax-scrolling background on the Game Boy. They have accomplished this feat by actually using a pair of backgrounds and flipping back and forth between them- which, given the low refresh rate of the game boy’s screen, actually looks pretty good on the hardware it was intended for.

ZAS is a surprisingly good game- it’s a technically impressive project that deserves much more attention than it’s gotten, particularly in the obscure-game-hunting circles.

– HC

R.I.P., Manifesto Games

For my first real entry- the Dark Spire review having been an edited repost- I wish I had better news. Alas, this will be yet another post full of sadness.

Greg Costikyan’s Manifesto Games has been mentioned a handful of times on this blog. It opened in 2006 as a digital-distribution channel for independent games. It offered independent game developers a unified service through which to sell their wares, avoiding both the difficulty of selling through a physical, brick-and-mortar distributor and the hassle of developing a ‘store’ and payment system on their own. It was also intended as a single interface for gamers to by games through- sparing them both the trouble of using one custom-built store out of hundreds and the worry as to whether a given developer was legit or not. In addition, Manifesto offered digital distribution for some older games- Jagged Alliance 2 was available there long after there was no way to obtain it from normal retailers.

Unfortunately, it was not to be- early in June of this year, Manifesto Games closed its doors.

I think the big issue that Manifesto had was one of support- it never seemed like they quite got the critical mass of support from developers that they needed. Certain genres were always better-represented than others; while there was a decent selection of point-and-click adventures, I never found any shooters on the service that I really liked. More than once, I’d see this-or-that game mentioned in Manifesto’s forums only wait for it to appear and find that it never actually materialized on the service. Manifesto never seemed to capture any support from the Japanese doujin scene; I consider this to be a big loss for the company, as that could have proven to be a trojan niche. Most of the “big-name” indie games- as much as such things can exist- seemed to avoid Manifesto, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me.

The good news is that other services have stepped up and seem to be succeeding where Manifesto failed; Steam and Stardock’s similar Impuse service have both captured a reasonable selection of indie games in addition to their big-name products. Even PSN and XBLA seem to be doing the same to some extent. Good Old Games provides a similar digital-download service specializing on older games; their catalog contains a lot of big-name titles and is steadily growing. New challenger Rockin’ Android seems to be making a go of releasing translated doujin games as well (although their release dates all seem to have slipped a little, which is somewhat worrisome).

Still, I’m going to miss Manifesto- it’s a shame to see it go, and I think the indie game community is poorer for having lost it.

Man, that was depressing. I promise next time I’ll yammer about Touhou or something.

– HC

Dungeon Crawlin’ Goodness

The Dark SpireThe Dark Spire, released earlier this year on the DS, is actually pretty old news. The gaming press, however, largely seems to have ignored it and very little buzz has developed about it even in areas focused on obscure or niche games. I’ve opted to repost this review- both since I have nothing else ‘lined up’ to post here, and because the game needs more love.

Unfortunately, before I talk about The Dark Spire, I have to talk about Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, as I feel obligated to every few months.

Nobody’s heard of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land. In 2001, it was a fairly early PS2 release and an indirect descendent of the venerable Wizardry dynasty that began in the earliest days of commercial gaming. Like those games, Tale of the Forsaken Land was a first-person dungeon crawler; you journeyed to a town, recruited party members, accepted quests, and explored the One Big Dungeon. While it retained the oldschool structure and feel, though, it mixed in a good dose of new-school sensibilities- the notoriously uneven difficulty of the Wizardry series was balanced out, some additions were made to the bare-bones Wizardry combat system, the dungeon and its environs were rendered in pretty polygons, actual characters were added in addition to the generic party members, and an actual plot was added to drive the action. While the plot eventually resorted to a set of standard anime tropes, it took its time getting there, sending you through a setting that is more unusual than it appears at first, and populating its world with an array of interesting, likable characters. The art style is more westernized than most Japanese RPGs, and- if nothing else- provided a welcome change from the “Generic Anime” look that so many of the JRPGs of the time had.

It had its faults, sure- the graphics were very first-generation-PS2 and the level designs in the latter third of the game were significantly weaker than what had come before, but it was fun. It was refreshing. It is quite possibly the most enjoyable RPG I’ve played in the past five years, and since then I’ve been trying to hunt down something else like it and failing.

While there was a sequel to Tale released in Japan, it never made it across the pacific. The ‘mainline’ Wizardry games- particularly Wizardry 8- actually moved away from the traditional Wizardry model in the unimportant cosmetic ways and did not have the interesting storyline or more humane difficulty level that had been part of Tale’s atraction. The emulated and translated Shin Megami Tensei games weren’t really what I was looking for, and at times seemed entirely constructed of rough edges- my wierd relationship with this series is the stuff of another post, but at any rate they didn’t scratch the right itch. I picked up Deep Labrynth shortly after I picked up my DS hoping for something similar to Tale, and was sadly disappointed to find a mediocre action-RPG instead. Etrian Odyssey retained the feel of some of the early games, but lacked Tale’s plot and kept the punishing difficulty curve of the originals (and I can’t say I enjoyed drawing my own map, either).

This brings me to The Dark Spire, the most recent first-person dungeon crawl I’ve invested in for experimental purposes.

The Dark Spire is very heavily influenced by the original Wizardry games- it’s an unapologetically oldschool dungeon-crawl through the titular Dark Spire. You control a party of four custom-generated adventurers, rolled up with random stats and assigned to one of four initial classes (Fighter/Theif/Mage/Cleric). There’s some ability to customize characters through ‘buyable’ skills, varying from the useful (“Lockpicking”) to the bewildering (“Dancing”)- not all of these have immediate effects, and some are mere prerequisites for more useful things. As is the oldschool way, most of this is not explicitly explained ingame- you’ll have to decipher a lot of it on your own (or possibly grab a FAQ, but what fun is that?).

The equipment and battle system draws a lot of inspiration from older editions of Dungeons and Dragons; you’ve got an armor class that starts at 10 and goes down as you equip more armor, and weapons don’t seem to bear any indication of attack power save price. A number of ‘special’ attack and defense commands (to, say, make a strong attack at the cost of AC or counterattack when defending instead of reducing your AC) are available based on your class, level, and equipment, but the internals aren’t really documented at all. Price seems to be a rough indicator of a weapon’s power, but again, it’s going to take a while to muddle through everything.

The graphics and sound are very nice. The music is catchy, and I really dig the chunky, stylized comic-book look and feel everything has. The HUD could use a little work- the menu system isn’t the easiest to use, and the developers have used seemingly-random abstract icons to indicate what type of item a particular item is. As a bit of a gag, a “classic mode” is available, which replaces the dungeon walls with wireframes straight out of the early Ultima games, enemies in combat with 8-bit sprites, and the music with chiptune remixes. It’s entertaining for novelty purposes, but I can’t see myself playing it that way for a long time.

The overall package and presentation is good, and it brings a new-school approach to interface which does away with a lot of the little warts and annoyances that mar many of the older games I’ve mentioned above. The Dark Spire has fewer, more lethal combats than Etrian Odyssey or the Shin Megami Tensei games, which I personally find more palatable. The difficulty is roughly on parity with the oldschool games that The Dark Spire imitates, although the presence of quicksave and quickload commands helps. Despite the fact that many of the game’s features aren’t documented at all, I feel like I have a much better idea of what I’m doing than I did in Etrian Odyssey. Part of this is likely thanks to the more straightforward character development system and familiar D&D-ish class selection as opposed to Etrian’s MMO-derived and wierdly-named selection (I know what a Theif does, but what the hell is a ‘Landsknecht’?). The fact that character development is more level-based than skill-based also makes me feel like I’m less likely to make an unfixable and irrevocable error in charcter ‘builds’.

The down side to all of this is that the plot- well it’s thin, bordering on nonexistent. This is pretty much de rigeur for a game of this type, but Tale did such a good job of it that I’ve been hoping for something more ever since. It’s a bit of a shame that it seems to have fallen by the wayside here.

Have I found another Tale of the Forsaken Land? Well, with the apparent emphasis away from plot in The Dark Spire, the answer, sadly, appears to be not quite- but what I have found is a solid dungeon crawler which seems to be lacking many of the warts that typically mar the genre. As an Atlus game, I expect it will disappear from store shevles without a trace in another few months, but at the time of this writing, EBGames.com carries it for a paltry ten bucks- at that price, I’d say it deserves your consideration.

– HC