Archive for March, 2007


Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Puzzle games are easy to conceptualize: you make the player do some (usually fairly simple) repetitive task over and over until some force makes him stop. The goal being to either not stop for as long as possible, or to solve a series of puzzles, and sometimes both. Polarium satisfies all of these criteria, and brings to light one of the bigger failings with puzzle games: although they are easy to conceptualize, they are hard to make engaging.

Polarium seems to be a puzzle game based around the Nintendo DS stylus, you’re given a grid with squares that are either black or white. It’s your job to make all of the tiles in one line are one color (either black or white). You do this by dragging your stylus from one side of the playfield to the other. You can meander all you want within the playfield, but your start and end points must be on the sides (one on each). Complete a path and all the tiles that your stylus passed over will flip and change color.

The game sounds sufficiently generic enough to be a decent puzzler. It’s got the requisite simple task, the endless mode, and the puzzle mode. But for some reason, or possibly a combination of reasons, this game wasn’t that fun. I might have had something to do with the fact that my hand kept obscuring my view of the play area, or maybe I suddenly don’t like games that require manipulation of colored tiles (not likely). I think the single biggest reason that I didn’t like this game is that it just seems barren and lifeless.

A game like Meteos wouldn’t nearly as fun without the modicum of presentation present. Too bad it’s so completely missing from this one.


Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

About a week ago I found out that Shadowgate started life as a game for the Macintosh. I was probably unaware of this since I never actually owned a Mac or used one for more than about an hour. Shadowgate is one of those games that I saw in just about every NES video game guide. The game seemed to be at least marginally interesting. Shadowgate is a point-and-click adventure, which is really just one step up from a text adventure, and all that means is that instead of just getting a description of the room you’re in, you get a description of the room you’re in and a picture of the room you’re in. A picture you can poke, prod, and explore.

Shadowgate tasks you, some guy whose name I forget, to enter some wizard’s castle, whose name I also forget, to solve puzzles in a precise sequence to simultaneously prevent him from summoning some crazy netherworld beastie and become king of the land. And trust me, when I say precise sequence, I mean precise sequence. More often than not, if you do the wrong thing then you = dead, which makes the game slightly more frustrating. Try to get the dragon’s treasure without having a shield = you dead. Break the wrong mirror (there are three) = you dead. Go through a trap door without tieing off a rope to lower yourself down = you dead. Don’t have the mundane item that’s the answer to the obtuse riddle the sphinx-lady gives you = you dead. You let your torch go out = you dead.

You die. A lot.

That’s partially understandable, if you didn’t die and restart from your last save so often, the game wouldn’t seem very long. The constant deaths and restarting the game increased replayability at the cost of broken controllers and sleepless nights spent wondering what to put in Bottle 3.

Knowing all of this, I still wanted to give the game a try, but to this day I’ve never seen the NES incarnation ‘in the wild’. Fortunately, a Game Boy Color port (Shadowgate Classic) was released some years after the NES faded into history. I played it almost constantly for about a week, trying to catch up on the several year old story, before the puzzles became too obtuse for me to solve without resorting to online assistance.

Was it everything that I psyched myself up to believe it was? No, not really. Was it a good game? Up until the part where the clues range from non-helpful to nonexistent, then it became slightly annoying. But I was too invested to put the game down, so I hinted my way through the last 5% or so of the game. It was worth it.

Wario Land

Monday, March 19th, 2007

Yes, I actually own a Virtual Boy. I even bought a few games for the thing. Most of them weren’t too bad, and Wario Land was actually pretty good.

The Wario Land series is kind of like the Super Mario Bros. series with a couple of differences, primarily that Wario isn’t adventuring to achieve some greater good like rescuing princesses or defeating giant spiky-shelled turtles, he wants to get money and treasure. Fair enough.

The story in Wario Land is pretty much irrelevant. You start out in a cave and must work your way across the stage, then up an elevator, then across a stage, then up an elevator. Mix in a couple of boss fights, and that’s pretty well it. What I found weird was that all the stages are laid end-to-end through the entire game, meaning that if you saved while on the last stage and wanted to go back to the first stage to pick up something you missed, you could, but you’d have to go through the entire game backward. It makes some kind of sense, but it’s still a little tedious. Especially once you start trying to collect the hidden treasures. Yeah, there are hidden treasures, one per stage, and you’ll want them all if you want to see the real ending. Awesome.

The thing about the Virtual Boy, the ‘hook’ if you will, was that it could do pseudo 3-D. It used two screens to provide slightly different views to each eye, tricking your eyes into thinking that they were looking at a 3-D image. It was a whole lot like looking at slides through a Viewmaster, except everything was shades of red on a black background. This is why screenshots of Virtual Boy games don’t do them justice. You can only get a feel for the depth by actually playing the games on the actual hardware.

Wario Land uses this pseudo 3-D to make the action happen on two different planes. You can think of each level taking place on a city street. You can walk along the sidewalks leap across to the sidewalk on the other side of the street at particular points, but you can’t actually walk in the street itself. Wario Land uses this to the fullest. You have to use both ’sides of the street’ to solve several of the stages, enemies will pop out of the background, gigantic spiky balls will swing into and out of the foreground. You even have to leap back and forth to fight the last boss of the game. It’s all done really well.

If this had been the pack-in game instead of Mario’s Tennis, would the system have sold better and not have died a premature death? Eh, no, probably not. As good as this game is, it doesn’t overcome the huge flaws in the design of the Virtual Boy: It takes batteries, but needs to be used on a table or other flat stationary surface. It eats six Double-A batteries almost as fast as the Game Gear. It apparently gave some people headaches (although I wonder how many of those resulted from people didn’t know how to properly adjust the focus and IPD). That’s not really a recipe for success.


Sunday, March 18th, 2007

Lemmings is one of those games that just keeps popping up from time to time to give people who have never experienced the simple yet addicting game a chance to play it, and give the older gaming crowd a little bit of the old nostalgia.

For the three of four of you that haven’t heard of this game, the premise is pretty simple: Lemmings fall through a trap door into a stage filled with various forms of Insta-Death(tm). The Lemmings will march forward, only turning around when they hit something. It’s your job to dole out your compliment of jobs to the Lemmings to create a safe path to the exit door.

It sounds easy enough, and in the beginning it is pretty straightforward. The levels are broken up into four difficulty levels: fun, tricky, taxing, and mayhem. The Super NES version also had an additional difficulty level, Sunsoft, that we’ll get to in a couple of paragraphs.

Fun is pretty easy, almost mind-numbingly so. It introduces you to the game, how the controls work, and what all the different jobs do. You almost have to try and not complete these stages.

Tricky is slightly tougher. You’ll have to learn how to corral your Lemmings and send a lone wolf over to construct the path to the goal.

Taxing starts to ramp up the difficulty. Your allotment of jobs will be smaller than you want, and the Lemmings will begin to find ways to kill themselves almost immediately after landing in the stage. Controllers may get thrown.

Mayhem is just cruel. Your time is shortened even more than Taxing, so you get to work faster. There are paths made of steel that you can’t burrow through and are filled with various Lemming-killing devices that you won’t see until a Lemming is working away and is unceremoniously squished, just half a screen from the goal. A goal which, incidentally, is placed in a place that’s not immediately obviously easy to get to.

And then there’s the Sunsoft levels. Bonus levels created by the team that ported the game to the Super NES. They’re hard, but not quite as hard as the Mayhem levels. Well, except for the very last one. It was hard enough that I decided to call a Nintendo Game Play Counselor after nearly breaking my controller in half. It turns out that the solution is pretty easy once you know what it is, but the extremely short time limit still makes it pretty tough to complete, so I never did.

This game has spawned a number of sequels and spinoffs on almost every computer and game console, but I never played any of them. For me, the Super NES version is the definitive version of Lemmings.

M. C. Kids

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

Games based on the mascots for food products are nothing new. Terrible games based on the mascots for food products are also fairly easy to some across. Now, a game that’s based on a mascot for a food product that’s not awful? That’s something special.

The story of the game goes something like this: The Hamburglar hamburgles Ronald McDonald’s magic bag that he uses to do… magic things. Ronald is apparently pretty useless without his magic bag, so he enlists the help of two kids, Mick and Mack, to get it back.

You can’t just wander around McDonaldland willy-nilly to look for the bag, you have to scour the areas for ‘cards’. Collect enough cards, move on to the next area. It’s pretty standard as far as platform games go, but it’s the execution that makes this game stand out. Levels are large and the activities are varied. Rather than just make a mad dash to the end of the stage, some of the stages force you to use your brain a little. I particularly remember a stage that consists of a large number of false exits, and going through any of the fake ones will immediately end the stage but not let you continue. Some stages even play with the gravity. With gravity reversed, you will lose a life by falling off the top of the screen, adding an extra dimension to parts of the game.

This game apparently did not sell well, which is going to make it a lot harder to find nowadays, and that’s a bit of a shame. If you happen by it, by all means give it a whirl.

Kid Chameleon

Friday, March 16th, 2007

The premise to Kid Chameleon sounds like it should be a pretty good game: You play the part of some kid that’s really good at video games, natch. There’s some new Virtual Reality game on the block that happens to be kidnapping kids, so you go in to beat the game, and maybe get the kids back. Nothing too out of the ordinary there. The hook is that you, Kid Chameleon, can use the different helmets scattered throughout the levels to get mysterious powers.

So, the basic flow of the game goes something like this: Enter level → find helmet(s) → collect diamonds → use power(s) granted by the helmet(s) to find the exit → repeat. The levels don’t really have a flow to them, they’re all pretty generically interchangeable. The do seem to get more difficult the further you progress in the game, however.

The main problem I had with this game was not the disappointing powers granted by the helmets or the derivative platforming/collecting action, but it was the unforgiving nature of the game itself. Extra lives in the game are nigh nonexistent, and continues are incredibly precious. You spent three hours getting to level 40? Out of continues? Too bad, you get to start over. Each time you play, odds are you’re going to get just a little bit further, which is normally a good thing. When each trip through the game can take easily two or more hours, then it starts to become tedious.

And then there’s the ending… or lack of. For a game as long and difficult as this one is, it’s slightly disappointing.


Thursday, March 15th, 2007

Although I was introduced to Civilization on the Mac, the majority of the time that I spent with the game came from the Super NES version.

I didn’t even know there was a Super NES version until I happened into my local Waldensoftware, where I found a lone copy sitting on the shelf. Waldensoftware was observing the practice of putting empty boxes on the shelves, and keeping the ‘goods’ behind the counter, so when I purchased it, for some reason I did not get the technology tree insert that told me what technologies led to what other technologies. So I got to learn the entire tree by trial and error. However, I was supplied with an unusually thick manual.

Civilization, at least the original incarnation, places you as the ruler of a tribe of people that you build up into a world power with one of two goals: world domination or launch a rocket into space to colonize another planet.

At its heart, Civilization is a strategy game, and can really be thought of as a glorified board game. Each tribe will move all of its units, adjust its cities, check expenditures, and adjust whatever minutiae, then it’s the next tribe’s turn. You have to manage a somewhat-complex balance of resources, money, citizen happiness, research funding, transit systems, gathering resources, creating trade routes, military training, your war effort, fending off barbarians, diplomacy, and the building of Wonders. It sounds like a lot, but you have no time limit on how long your turn lasts, so you can ponder and tweak to your heart’s content. I had the most fun seeing how many Wonders I could cram into one town.

Each Wonder that you built provided the city that it was built in with specific bonuses, and my capital cities were full to the gills with bonuses. Imagine a town that had the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus, J.S. Bach’s Cathedral, the Pyramids, Michaelangelo’s Chapel, the Great Library, and the Great Wall. It was a little crowded, but also completely awesome.

This game is also one of the two games that I own that actually makes use of the Super NES mouse and isn’t Mario Paint. In a game like this, mouse support totally makes sense: you have to point and click to do everything. I’m reasonably certain that this game is responsible for both wearing out my left mouse-button and completely wearing away the textured surface in the middle of the rigid plastic mouse pad.


Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

For one Summer I actually owned a Game Gear. I ended up selling it pretty quickly after I bought it, partly because I couldn’t afford to keep replacing the 6 AA batteries with a lifespan of about two hours if you were lucky (no exaggeration), and I thought that being tethered to a wall by using the AC adapter completely defeated the purpose of owning a hand held system in the first place. Mostly, it was because I became absolutely sick with the pack-in game, Columns.

Columns was the game that would spend the most time with, mostly because I couldn’t afford to buy any other games after blowing all of my funds on a system, an AC adapter, and a backpack full of batteries. I’m not going to lie, spending the amount of time I did playing Columns might have influenced my decision to get rid of it.

Columns is a typical puzzle game. You’re given pieces that consist of three panels stacked up to form a vertical bar. You must, for reasons unexplained, sort the bars in such a way that three or more of the same color line up in any direction so they can disappear. You can change what ‘column’ the piece will land in, as well as the order of the colors in the piece. You play until you can’t fit any more pieces in the playfield.

I logged a couple dozen hours in the game within a few weeks, and then hit on a strategy that, in retrospect, should never have worked. Heck, even then I thought that it shouldn’t work. I decided to just play the game by randomly filling up the field on both sides, leaving a one-column wide hole in the middle. I would then fill up this hole and attempt to make matches. I wasn’t trying to win, I was just goofing around with the game. I ended up playing this strategy for over two hours. I played so long that we had to switch to AC power just before the batteries died. I played so long that my hands went numb. I played so long that I decided that I never needed to play Columns again in any incarnation.

Skuljagger: Revolt of the Westicans

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

I played Skuljagger one time, a pretty long time ago. As a game it was pretty forgettable: you run around some generic island to collect gems and buckle the swashes of some pirates. Oh sure, your power-ups consisted primarily of gum, but gaining powers by eating candy has also already been done by Boys and their Blobs.

It’s probably about now that you’re wondering to yourself, “Well, why would anyone want to play it then?”

Excellent question!

As it happens, in the game’s heyday you could actually call a specially-crafted phone number and Skulljagger himself will insult you. Mercilessly, even. Who would care how bad the game was when you could call a number for free and have some pre-recorded pirate call you a quaking pus-bag? I called the line pretty well daily over the summer of 1992, pretty much every time I went by a payphone. If memory serves, there were only three monologues delivered by our pirate-captain friend. The last one was exceedingly short and sounded like Skulljagger recorded it while sitting on the top of a moving semi on a windy day, and although I can’t remember the exact wording of the message, I do remember the crappy game. That’s worth something, right?


Skullduggery: Adventures in Horror

Monday, March 12th, 2007

It’s no secret, I would have no problem putting it on a tee shirt and wearing it out in public: I like, but am terrible at, text-adventure games.

Text adventure games should be perfect for me. I like reading things, I like to think that I’m reasonably intelligent (I may not be, but I like to think I am), and I like solving puzzles. Text-adventure games bring together all three of these things to tell an interactive story that is fueled by imagination. Text adventure games were borne by necessity. Older computers didn’t have the graphical horsepower to push amazing visuals, and even if they did, storage space was at a premium. You couldn’t just put crazy-high resolution pictures in your game. This was in the days before the Internet, so unless it fit on a couple of disks or took more than an hour or so to download from your favorite BBS, then it wasn’t getting played. It was too much hassle.

The classic format of a text adventure game is presented entirely in the second person, putting you directly in the middle of the action. You are the prime mover, if you will. You can envision the entire world as being divided up into discrete ‘rooms’ laid out on a grid. You can generally move in any of the cardinal directions, and sometimes, if you were lucky, the diagonals. Your goal was to MOVE throughout the rooms, PICK UP and EXAMINE items, SEARCH for clues and attempt to solve whatever mystery you were presented with. In the case of Skullduggery the mystery is: Where is the secret treasure that was hidden by your ancestor?

Skullduggery presents you with the standard description of what’s around you, and has the standard one line at the bottom of the screen to type the cryptic commands to your avatar. One of the things that makes it stand out is the map. Skullduggery has a somewhat crude map made out of ASCII characters (letters numbers and symbols) that shows roughly where you are, and largely removes the need to sit there with a pencil and graph paper to keep track of your movements.

The writing in the game is reasonably good, especially taken in consideration with the minimap. They come together to give the locales a sense of scale that is refreshing as you search the countryside to solve the puzzles.

Oh yes, the puzzles. Like any good text-adventure game there are puzzles. You have to PICK UP and USE the right items in the right order to proceed. The only problem is that many times you have either no clues to help you or the clues are so obtuse they may as well be written in Esperanto. For example: One part of this game has you putting a corpse (I won’t even go into how you even get the corpse in the first place) on a Ouija board, killing yourself, crossing the river Styx, fishing a bottle out of the river, filling up the bottle with river water, going to the other Ouija board, getting the corpse (the Ouija board is apparently a magic portal of sorts), taking it to an altar, setting it on fire, putting the ashes into the jar of river water, setting the ashy river-water on the Ouija board, letting the Grim Reaper resurrect you, going back to the first Ouija board, retrieving the jar, and using the contents as one of several ingredients in a magic potion. As a wide-eyed kid playing this on his monochrome computer, I figured out how to to cross the river and get the water. And that’s about it. And it wasn’t for lack of effort, I poured at least two dozen or more hours into this game, and just couldn’t make any headway.

Years later, in January of 2007, I found a text file on some website with the solution and a copy of the game from an old shareware site. I downloaded both, played through the game, and finally know what happens to the protagonist when you don’t have him commit suicide out of frustration. It turns out that if you know what you’re doing you can finish the game in about two hours or so. All in all, it was a good afternoon.