Friday, July 25, 2014

Hydlide - A Journey of Hate, Dismemberment, and Discovery

Enter 1990 (maybe early 1991). Hot from months of playing through Final Fantasy(my introduction to the genre), I needed a new RPG to play, but I found my funds seriously lacking. So what do I turn to? The small wall of $20 games at the local Toys R Us. Obviously. And of that lean selection of 15 or so games, there was one that caught my eye, with the description of "Action fantasy role playing" on the back of the box. With a joy that only children with extra funds can know, I bought Hydlide, unaware in the slightest the impact this game would have on my life as a gamer.

Oddly enough on the car ride home I began to feel a bit of trepidation about my purchase. See, that particular wall of cheap games had bitten me before when I purchased King's Knight. Lured in by the price and the promise of "Action Adventure" on the cover, I had bought it without any research. It turned out the game wasn't bad, rather I didn't agree with the "Action Adventure" wording on the front of the box. As I sat in the back seat of my parent's station wagon with my new game, I tried to console myself that this time would be different. I had read the tiny review in Nintendo Power, and everything seemed fine, and the people at NP wouldn't steer me wrong. I opened the box, and everything changed forever.

Hydlide is an action-rpg developed by T&E Soft and published by FCI (in North America) in June of 1989. While the reception in the West was less than warm, Hydlide is a well liked and well respected game in its native Japan. Often seen as the successor of Dragon Slayer and the predecessor to Ys, Hydlide helped innovate this unique branch of action-RPG with regenerating health and two modes of action (attack and defend). This made progress much easier than in Dragon Slayer, where one had to stay close to shelter or risk loosing it all. In Hydlide one merely has to disengage the enemy, hide and wait for your health to come back. Easy-peasy. Fight, hide, fight, hide, rinse and repeat. Jim (the character you are controlling) will slowly gain experience until you level up and you can tackle stronger monsters. And you will be running and hiding. A lot. See, while this game is progressive in its own genre (in its own day), from 1989 and after it is a punishing and tedious game and offers little reward outside of The Grind. You remember <a href="">The Grind</a>, right? Created in a different time, Hydlide could have been subtitled The Grind. But don't mistake this statement, as grinding in Hydlide is very different than in many of it's predecessors and contemporaries. In Hydlide, one must be very patient and crafty in your movements. Remembering to click on the "Save" button (which allows you to load from that point should you die) is essential to success, as otherwise death is permanent. Die in this game without saving or generating a password and all will be lost. Taking on too many enemies with too little health or no escape and you will die. Neglect to use magic on certain enemies or explore (which will net you essential items) and you will die. Press an attack too much head-on on an enemy (pretty much any enemy) and you will die. Yet even with all this, there is a certain something about this game that had kept it in my mind.

Within a few minutes of playing Hydlide I knew that I had made a massive mistake. Granted, I was very well versed in making horrible gaming decisions (Victory Road instead of Simon's Quest, King's Knight, ignoring Dragon Warrior until 1994), but there was something else going on here. For the first time I was told to turn down the sound when playing a game. After an hour the sense of dread was amazing in it's visibility. I imagined I was almost green. I imagined my parents would have used this as an object lesson. $20. Gone forever, never to be seen again. Thinking about another game I could have gotten, all those quarters for the arcade, all those rentals at $3 a day, made me physically sick. I felt helpless and sick. And I would play this game, because that is what I did back in those days. But there was a missing piece of the puzzle. So disgusted in my poor choice of games that I was pressing forward to finish the game (and perhaps bury it in the backyard) that I was not saving the game. I was using the password, but I was dying constantly and having to start over. I would play for an hour, record my password, and turn the game off, having only made a bit of progress (if any at all). I was not playing the game the way it was meant to be played. See, a conservative and dedicated person correctly utilizing the save system can finish the game in a few hours. A stupid kid who only basically understands the mechanics of the game but understands the save system perhaps six or seven hours. I played the game for several months of one hour sessions, never getting far. Within the year the I decided to punish the game in the harshest way I could think of: I removed the game chip and buried the Hydlide case in the backyard, a fate not even reserved for the likes of broken Cobra and Foot Clan action figures. As for the game chip I kept it in a case near my other NES games, just so it would know how much I hated it (as if that was a thing). I wouldn't play Hydlide again for over twenty years. But I did think about it. Occasionally.

Part of the reason I like to share my personal anecdotes on gaming subjects is to help me understand how this wonderful yet often expensive hobby fits into and affects my life. So how does one deal with a game that one abjectively hates so much that one would actively shun it?  My eventual answer was repurchase a copy of it, along with the Japanese version, a sequel, and a remake. Makes sense, right?  No, I don't understand it either. But yet I still cannot deny the fact that while this is a frustrating and often tortuously plodding game, it still has its place in history, not only of the NES (and Famicom), but of the action-RPG genre as well. Now I'm not suggesting you should buy the game, or if you already own it actually play it. What I am saying is that the next time you pass it in your collection, the next time you see it at your local game store, the next time you see it on a garage sale table or thrift store shelf, maybe spare a thought for it, knowing the importance that this game had and the ripples it created in some of the games that you enjoy.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

MechAssault: Done in One Shot

The MechAssault games released on the original Xbox represent one of the last pushes of the BattleTech franchise to reach mainstream popularity.  Unlike the console ports in the previous decade (which with the exception of two games were all ports), special consideration was taken to appeal directly to the console gamer with a new game franchise within the BattleTech universe, which I believe was actually a pivotal moment for this type of thing.  While I lack the burden of proof, it seems likely that a direct port of MechWarrior 4 would have been easier, considering the "off the shelf" hardware of the Xbox.  Instead the game was designed with the console gamer in mind, taking away a lot of the micromanagement and customization options of the PC games in favor of a more streamlined weapon and mech organization.  There are few breaks in the story, as you go from briefing, to mech selection, to mission profile, to mission.  All mechs come with a prepackaged set of weapons organized into three categories (ballistic, energy, and missile), with no switching between mechs; if you want a particular weapon load-out you have to use that particular mech.  A nice addition (and also maddening to sim purists, I imagine) are power-ups.  You can upgrade your weapons two additional times (up to a level of three) with power-ups littered through the game.  Sometimes under buildings, in trucks, and always within attacking mechs, these also add a bit of greatly needed strategy to the game, as unlike the main weapons of each mech, these upgrades have limited ammunition, and the game is often designed to take advantage of this.  I can't tell you how many times I fully upgraded my weapons and hear the "mech approaching" music only to see it preceded by a flock of worthless tanks.  Luckily for us there are also health power-ups scattered about the landscape, which helps remind you that this is a console game.  Video game logic, right?

One of the few carry-overs from the PC games is the need to manage heat buildup. While I never really noticed this until near the end of the game, it nonetheless necessitates your attention, especially when you consider the basic weapons of each mech have unlimited ammunition.  Environment plays a part in this as well, as walking into a body of water will help cool you mech off, while fighting on "lava worlds" will cause you to overheat much more quickly.  Luckily the afore mentioned power-ups allow for less heat buildup than without your basic weapons do.  Again, video game logic.

The visuals in this game, while not stunning compared to today's games, nonetheless still manage to hold up.  There are plenty of details and visual treats to be had here.  Shoot at a building and see glass explode in tiny shards from the windows, and watch as mechs take gradual damage then light up in a satisfying explosion, which also affects the buildings, equipment, and terrain around them.  Sound is equally impressive, with great weapon sounds and explosions to be heard.  If your sound system has a sub-woofer you will also feel them a bit.

But with all of this there has to be faults, right?  Indeed there are.  The weapons, fully powered up are very unbalanced.  Once might think that the slower and heavier weapons (PPCs and mortors) would be the most powerful, but you are much more served wading into battle with your regular machine guns powered up to the maximum.  You will shred enemy mechs like paper with this tactic.  Also, while taking away the big choices the PC games had to offer surely makes for a more simple experience, it also introduces another problem, that when one takes away the customization and general mech options (powering down, dumping coolant, grouping weapons), it lays bare the main fault that the entire MechWarrior franchise has, which is that at heart it is a game where you walk around your enemies in a circle and shoot them.  This is less true in MechAssault, but only in that you zig-zag instead of strafe.  But the greatest issue with this game is the camera.  Released only a few years before Resident Evil 4 innovated the over-the-shoulder camera, in MechAssault we are a few dozen feet behind and above our mech.  While this simplifies aiming without locking on, it makes anything behind the mech fair game to obscure the action.  Smoke and slightly shorter buildings are pretty common annoyances.

Despite that last paragraph (which had to be said), I really enjoyed this game from beginning to end.  While single mech-to-mech combat is a little bit simple, mixing it up with two, three, or more mechs becomes a great exercise in tactical combat, especially taking into account the splash damage the destruction of mechs causes.  The game, while a bit easy, managed to entertain me throughout, even though I pretty much skipped the entire story.  It's really no wonder there was a sequel to this game.

So that is that.  The game is great and is a definite recommendation to those that enjoy the BattleTech universe or just third-person shooters in general.  It is pretty cheap on ebay and even Amazon (in some cases less than $5), but due to no backwards compatibility it requires an original Xbox to play, which unless you happen to have one on hand or a friend whose you can buy, trade, or borrow, can be prohibitively expensive to ship.  A better way to play such a title (should you not have the original hardware) would be to purchase it on Xbox, but as far as I know it is not available on the Xbox On Demand service or in the store for sale.  I'm not sure why, though it is perfectly reasonable that MS doesn't have the license any longer.   Due to the low cost of the MechAssault, I would really recommend trying to pick up an original Xbox to play it.  This could be your gateway to play some awesome exclusive Xbox games that will are obscure enough to never appear on another system, and given the null state of Xbox emulation, likely never will again.

(Sorry about the lack of screenshots.  I currently have no way to get pics of this game, and since I was unable to get any of the original press shots of the game sans watermarks I don't really feel comfortable posting them.)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Ultima IV: A Spicy Woman

Last time we talked I stupidly walked into some poisonous swamp, then died a pointless death as I wandered about, idly hoping the poison would eventually wear off.  Of course this did not happen, so as I died and prepared to reload (or whatever approximation this game has), I found myself being revived by Lord British in Britain Castle.  I briefly explored the castle, then saved and quit.

Since then I've talked to a few people about this game, and have heard that the game is actually an "open world" experience and contains no overarching story.  Very interesting.  So, I've still not read through the instruction booklet, which I've already paid for once (with my life) and I'm sure it will happen again.  Soon, even.  It was suggested that I skip this game in favor of some of the latter Ultima titles (even the Ultima Adventure games, which are also freebie GoG games), but for now I will ignore this advice.

So I exited the castle and decided to have a look around the town of Britain, which for me means talking to people and taking notes.  Whilst on this journey, I came across a spicy woman.

Needless to say the conversation went downhill from here

I'll be honest, I wasn't super ready to ask her what made her so spicy, but this was after encountering the drunk wandering around the building armed (the guy above the Armour sign).  Turns out her name is Pepper, and she is a fighting bard.  I wonder if the original description of this woman had something to do with the way she looked, or if this is something she goes around telling everyone she is.  Plus, is pepper spicy?  I mean, this Britannia so far seems rather old-worldy, so maybe they don't have anything outside of pepper.  Maybe paprika is spicy to them as well.  Imagine what one could do with a bottle of Cholula and a plate of tacos in this world.

Anyways, Pepper.  Alas, I did not ask her to "join," as I need to read the manual about the implications of this action.  The reference card suggests acquiring companions immediately, with up to seven allowed, but I want to read up on the classes a bit more first.  A fighting bard (Pepper's class) does sound useful, but all in good time.

I would like to propose something, even though it has likely been proposed before, either by the Ultima people themselves or the hordes of fans that exist.  While each of the Ultima games often share common elements (names, locations, and sometimes history), they are autonomous and not directly related or relatable from game to game, much like some of the details in the Space Odyssey series by Arthur C. Clarke aren't always exact.  Anyhoo:

Things to do:
  • Research the classes to better (perhaps) prepare a team to venture forth to...  do something.
  • Learn how I go up in experience, and if this will better prepare me.
  • Read the frigging manual!  I imagine it will provide me with many answers to these basic questions.
  • Once this is done I will work on getting a party together to start on those dungeons
On a separate note, I have been experimenting with different ways to run this game (and other DOS games) so that I can play it using the same save data whether I am at work or at home (basically anywhere I am at a computer).  My current solution is to run a Linux Mint 17 (Cinnamon) on a USB pendrive with Wine installed.  So far this is working well, but I may want a larger solution with support for Virtualbox in the future, perhaps using a USB hard drive (as opposed to a pendrive).  There is a portable Virtualbox, but who knows.  Any suggestions will be appreciated.

One other thing.  I find that sometimes I have difficulty playing this game, at times just starting the game, talking to a few people, then turning it off.  I may start playing two different games so that I don't get burned out on one genre (or decade).  I imagine when this game starts to grab ahold of me this will change, but we will cross that bridge later.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Ultima IV: A Fairly Good Start. Sort Of.

A badly cropped image of the Ultima IV intro screen

SLIGHT UPDATE: Before bed I happened across Ultima IV Gold, which is a fan update that fixes the long loads times and a score of other bugs for the original C64 release.  While this kind of sounds cool (plus I really like the C64), I really feel the need to commit to one platform, which will be the IBM port.  If anyone has any compelling arguments as to why I should go for the C64 Gold fix, I would love to hear about it.

So after installing the GoG game through Wine (I use Linux), I was greeted by the DOSbox emulator.  Also, there was silence, outside of the burping/flatulent sound from the PC beeper.   I should have been ready for that, as I am not completely without historical knowledge of the PC (and I did watch some intro videos).  Okay, I'm done with the sound thing, I promise.

I really like the whole intro, how the Avatar appears from the moongate, wages a battle,  takes over a ship, then proceeds to blow up a bunch of monsters with it.  Seems contrary to what I've heard about this game, but still cool.  What I'm trying to do is to put myself in the mind of someone playing this game back in '85.  So while I was kind of disappointed for reasons mentioned in the second paragraph, the whole intro really kind of drew me in.  Actually getting pretty stoked to play this game.

Okay, before I begin I have one more tiny tangent.  Moongates, right?  According to the reference card the appearance and destination of the moongates have to do with the time and phase of the moon, which is something I've seen before.  See, back in 1998 I purchased both Ultima Online and the Prima strategy guide, which was about six months to a year before I actually had a computer to play it on.  I purchased it based solely on an article in a magazine.  Because of this I spent a great deal of time pouring over the strategy guide in preparation for playing the game, some of which happened to do with traveling using moongates.  Now when I finally got to play the game I was disappointed to learn that moongate travel has nothing to do with time or moon phase, but rather running through it without getting ganked by another player (hopefully).  Okay, tangent over.

So my first hour in game was rather uneventful.  After answering questions to the gypsy woman I ended up with a tinker.  The game started me outside of the city of Minoc (due to my class?).  I blundered around and came to terms with the controls, talking to people here and there.  While the keywords of the conversation are not highlighted, I believe this is the same conversation mechanic from The Real Texas, which if I understand borrowed it (in turn) from Ultima VI.  I've also been taking notes, which the manual recommended.  So far this is mostly about the people I meet, such as this:

  • Mike Ward, a ranger, says that the rune of the Skara Brae (his home town) is missing.  He is also trying to get a room for some reason, but I don't know how to help him with this (might not be able to).  Join?

I thought it seemed random that a ranger would be named, Mike Ward.  Something to expect more of later on?  Another:

  • Gimble is going to die soon from a tsetse "byte."  I originally thought the spelling was due to the use of old English, but this does not appear to be so.  A pun, perhaps?
I ended up spending ten minutes reading up on tsetse flies from a website that appears to be written for English speaking Africans and people living in tsetse infested areas.

I learned something important today.  Remember that "culture" shock I mentioned when I first started this?  How my console RPG upbringing hasn't prepared me?  Today, while wandering around Minoc looking for NPCs to talk to I stepped on some sort of poison ground (poison swamp?), which poisoned me, shortly after which I died while looking for some soft of cure.  I think I was a bit disappointed that it didn't wear off on its own, but whatever.  Lesson learned.

After I died I expected to have to start over again, but instead I awoke in the court of Lord British.  I think I will be looking over that map after all.

I think that is enough for now.  Until next time.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ultima IV: A Decision

I always feel the need to provide some exposition before actually writing something, but this time I think I'll just write a blog entry.

I've never actually played Ultima IV before, which I have been told is kind of a shame.  But considering my arcade and console-centric upbringing, it kind of makes sense.  It's not like ever played a CRPG before (I actually own quite a few of them)I think I can even say, with no hesitation whatsoever, that I have never actually played a CRPG game to completion before.  I have watched several videos about Ultima IV (and the Ultima series in general), as well as read several articles about it (and them).  I think the videos by Noah Antwiler, The Spoony One, stands out the most for me.  Not for being the most on point or informative, but for being the most vulgar, which has managed to somehow wash the words and sayings of all the other sources away in my mind, which is how I would like it to be.

Now choice of platform.  I think the obvious choice for someone like me would be the NES version, however that seems to be the easy out and defeats the purpose of wanting to experience computer games to begin with.  A little more research on the Hardcore Gaming 101 entry shows that this game was originally made for the Apple II, which I might have already know.  The C64 version also appears quite nice, though the HC101 author complains of very long load times, which I am not super keen on.  Oddly enough he didn't note the same for the Apple version, which would have likely had the same problem. The IBM version appears to be the most widespread of them all as it was repackaged many times over the years.  Also, I know for a fact that this version has a fan "upgrade" patch, and can be obtained for free from GoG.  So it seems I will be choosing between the Apple II, the C64, and the IBM port.  After a long think (about two hours while I did housework), I decided on the IBM port, almost entirely due to the GoG thing, which offers a version I don't have to monkey with as well as several bits of documentation.  While the Apple version sounds great (I like the intro music), but I wasn't able to find any documentation, which is unfortunate.  The C64 also sounds great but is noticeably less colorful (at least in the intro sequence). Oh, well, time to move on.

Now the rules: I will do my best to avoid any reviews and completely avoid any FAQs, though I will use the included documents from GoG, which include the manual, spellbook, reference card, and interview with Richard Garriott.  The map will be used sparingly and the cluebook not at all (if I can manage it).  I am allowing myself to use the article on Hardcore Gaming 101, as it doesn't appear to have anything outside of historical information.

So, first things first, flip open the reference card (as it were).  It appears that the game uses individual keys for actions instead of sub-menus.  I did see something like this during the ten or so minutes I played of Magic Candle on the C64, so not a total surprise.  Glad I am reading this, though.  It is nice having basic instructions.  I wonder how many kids played through this game without trying the instructions first.  I'd love to hear about it.

Well, at least traps auto-disarm when opening chests.

After reading the card I really feel I should peruse the manual as well.  I don't think any of my previous experience with RPG games will serve me at all, so I think I should have some sort of firm base when I fire this game up.  I'm currently loading the manual into my phone so I can check it out tomorrow whilst on break at work.  Should be interesting.

Bye for now.

Actually, I just realized that I did an exposition in the beginning, even though I didn't want to.  Oh, well.