Friday, 27 December 2013

Resonance (2012/PC)

Adventure games are a difficult entity. Not only to publishers and gamers due to their lack of selling power and replayability, but even when they’re really good, you can only gush so much about them without ruining things. Giving examples is hard, and plot revelation is a bit of a minefield. The better the story, the more you want to write about it, so the more you have to fight it. That's been the case more than once with a Wadjet Eye point-and-clicker, and Resonance is no exception.

There’s no getting away from the fact that a lot of games that are published under the Wadjet Eye banner recall the heyday of the adventure genre in the 1990s. Of course, this era is the yardstick by which all adventure games are measured, and on the evidence of what’s been put out in the years since, will continue to be so for some time. Many of this publisher’s titles go beyond that comparison, though, and are often directly comparable to specific titles. Resonance, as well as Gemini Rue before and Primordia since, all appear to be disciples of Beneath A Steel Sky, as if the year was 1995 and 320x240 window resolution was still considered to be acceptable. All three titles share the Amiga classic’s themes of dystopia and advanced technology, as well as moral quandaries. That’s not to say that each game tries to emulate Beneath A Steel Sky in too literal a sense, as each title has its own distinctive style and visual palette within similar graphic confines. The ancestor’s classic images of skyscrapers and futuristic industry are most readily seen in Gemini Rue, but the similarity is partially dispelled by the latter’s intertwining dual story thread, which often steps away from the generic sci-fi facility. Indeed, the beginning of the game almost evokes film noir, with the lead character in a coat, seeking shelter from the rain on a dark night outside some gates. The level of futurism is in fact evocative of Dreamweb at such times, answering the unasked question of what that title would have looked like if it wasn’t presented in plan view. While Primordia is presented mostly in shades closely resembling black, Resonance is a little more tangible. Its palette ironically paints a pleasant enough modern city, set perhaps an envisaged decade ahead of the 2012 release date. The steel-and-glass of modern architecture is spliced with the crumbling brick foundations of less affluent boroughs and stereotypically-cast public transport. Dystopia is merely a looming concept that grows in stature as the game progresses, rather than a way of life for the inhabitants.

Your line-up is the cop, the scientist,
the nurse and the reporter
A noirish introduction for the
old-fashioned detective
There’s more to the controls than informing you that pointing and clicking is involved. To get the most important feature out of the way, the answer to the question dripping off of the tip of the tongue of every gamer discussing this aspect of the genre is “Yes, there is dragging, not just pointing and clicking”. To buck the trend and cover all of the trivial points first, one of the weaknesses is not being able to change your destination once you’ve clicked, and another is the freeze when clicking to move on in a long walk. This, in a game with such a short visible travel zone and high level of panning for an adventure title, means frequent, metronomic clicking to a greater extreme than most adventure games. You could let Guybrush Threepwood cover a decent distance over five seconds with one click in The Secret Of Monkey Island, but you’re clicking about ten times as often here.

The inventory is still the mainstay
of the genre
Memories and objects outside of
inventory are used in the same way
The real meat and bones of the controls recalls another classic title, and pushes forth a concept that’s new to me. The four characters, initially playing through standalone paths, quickly converge as the plot thickens, and your roving band of non-misfits is pressed into Maniac Mansion-style teamwork, although the need to swap around inventory items and make use of “special abilities” of certain characters (such as the policeman being a bit stronger and a bit dumber than the particle physicist) is kept fairly low-key. What I found novel was the concept of long-term and short-term memory banks. This was a real double-edged sword in what it gave to the gameplay. Particularly with short-term memory, you can’t just learn something by examining a scenery-bound object and then go and chat to someone and have it appear as an extra dialogue option, so filling up your short-term memory with stuff is a slightly annoying habit that you need to get into. You then drag what you want to discuss with someone from your bank either onto that person, or into a box above the dialogue options at a convenient time, and it’s usually at this point where the character decides upon discretion. On the other hand, particularly with long-term memories, the process takes figuring out tasks out of the character’s hands and places more of it with the player, which serves to deepen the level of puzzling you have to do. The lack of narrative leaps made without direct input from the player makes the game more immersive in a non-atmospheric way, and makes you feel a lot more satisfied when finding solutions. The memories also provide good ways of providing helpful titbits and preserving key points without making you feel like you’re having a hint system rammed down your throat or like you’re playing a game that’s too easy.

The story itself is a captivating one, with threads starting off loose, quickly intertwining and winding up very taut, and suddenly splintering off again. There is no perfect satisfactory ending, which will infuriate some players. But, more so than in films or books, the important parts of the story in adventure games are sometimes the points that you control rather than cutscenes provided as a reward for solving puzzles. This is Resonance to a tee, as most of the story unfolds in the middle of the gameplay. This is about enjoying the ride more than reaching the end.

Bennet can keep his cool inches away
from his stake-out target
The job flusters him a bit more
when murder and science are about
Your four characters, set in the supposedly grim but very generic-looking Aventine City, are Tolstoy “Ed” Eddings, a bespectacled dweeb of a mathematician, Detective Winston Bennet, a hardboiled cop with emotional and physical baggage, Anna Castellanos, an inwardly disturbed nurse, and a well-connected freelance journalist Raymond “Ray” Abbot, who is continuously derided as a blogger, which as we all know is the worst kind of person, let alone writer. We start with Ed going to visit his superior, Dr Javier “Javi” Morales at his laboratory to discuss some potentially dangerous new technology. A blackout occurs, and a very peculiar explosion at the laboratory stands as the key driving event for most of the game. The four characters are drawn in one by one by the death of Dr Morales, each by an apparent sense of vocational duty, although we are aware by this point that Anna is a relative of Morales. The game goes forth with the four characters seeking answers about the technology that caused the explosion, with each character using their social status to get access to different areas (such as Bennet being allowed access to the Police Administration headquarters on account of being a police detective). Some one-frame puzzles that you get in the cheap-and-nasty puzzle titles of the day do appear, but they’re nothing more than the occasional break from the dialogue-driven puzzles that move most of the game forward. A gamut of plot twists is pretty much a requirement, but Resonance doesn’t disappoint, and all but the very sharp and the very lucky will be caught surprised a couple of times. The characters are not fully developed, but this serves the purpose of keeping us guessing and focused on the story itself. There are a few silly sides like a score count and Steam achievements, but they’re not in your face and you don’t have to care about them other than worrying that you’re near the end.

Bennet can take one other character
up to interrogation in police HQ
The hospital is more open, but only
Anna can gain access to certain floors
The overall tone is pretty serious, far more so than Beneath A Steel Sky. The slight humour involved usually revolves around the reporter’s output being a blog, the occasional sexist lapse of the aging detective, and a receptionist’s dating exploits. It’s actually quite refreshing in a way, as almost all point-and-click games (and indeed many outside the genre) are compelled to refer to rubber chickens, the “death” of the genre, or some other not-so-subtle nod to veterans of the LucasArts 1990s titles that still seemingly form a large part of the target audience of today’s independent point-and-click publishers.

The narrative compels you with
a magnetic force
The game asks us to make a simple scientific leap of fiction that’s easily digestible to the point where we can openly accept it as a driving force for the entire plot. In a game that isn’t set deep into the future or the fantastic, that’s quite an achievement. Resonance breaks very little new ground despite the memory mechanics, but in spite of the obvious heritage (as shown by the sheer number of older game titles referred to in this review), it still feels fresh. What we lack in gameplay or graphical creativity, we get back in pure narrative, and this prioritisation shows in other Wadjet Eye titles like Gemini Rue and even the very different-looking Emerald City Confidential. Like a good book, you can put Resonance down when you’re done with it and feel satisfied. It’s a gripping story that’s well told, not just a game with a plot that boasts being playable and challenging, and that’s what defines most of the best adventure games.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Lemmings (1991/Amiga)

Every so often, the gaming community is captivated by a simple puzzle game. Often enough, it’s a passing gimmick with pretty colours, or an import from puzzle books, newspapers, card games or board games. Solitaire, Scrabble and Sudoku all spring to mind as examples with varying degrees of success, with the foremost being a mainstay of Windows for many years. These imports made the leap because they’re something you can do between phone calls, data entry, or whatever other tasks people are trying to avoid whilst being paid to do some actual work. The more immersive puzzles, particularly in a fickle modern era, tended to have their fifteen minutes and that was about it.

Of the enduring ones, many were simple enough to move out of an immersive atmosphere. I remember playing Tetris on dedicated handheld devices, and that was what feels like a lifetime ago. Often copied more or less directly, or with twists and updates, of which there have been plenty on the Flash game circuit, Tetris is an immersive but faceless game that can have any personality whimsically stamped onto it, which made it so ubiquitous. Such games that came with their own personality were always more likely to be rejected by the remodelling scenes, as a budding game creator would need to rip off the theme, attempt to deconstruct that theme, or come up with a contrived alternative. A lot of people who create remakes of these games are fans of the originals, and may see that efforts to alter what they deem to be a classic as a disservice. Even concepts that are fairly bland don’t lend themselves to being overwritten too comfortably. Can you imagine flower-power-themed Breakout, flying demonic squirrels raining down a nutty hell in Space Invaders, a robot-flavoured Pushover void of shameless product placement and the inimitable Colin Curly, or a toasted sandwich-munching Pac-Man trying to justify his purchase of the gimmicky toasted sandwich maker he saw on that shopping channel he was inexplicably watching, intoxicated, at half past two in the morning for reasons that even he doesn’t understand? While the sheer absurdity of these suggestions had me drifting off into the realms of “what if” before I’d even completed the sentence, you don’t really want to imagine alternatives (although the SNES version of Pushover did indeed have a transmogrified theme, and this particular Pac-Man ideology would actually provide a vague narrative for his wife to have divorced him and go and make a name for herself). You look at the efforts made in earnest to copy these classics, you play them, and you get a yearning to play the original regardless of how much you enjoyed the update.

Lemmings is one of those really inimitable games, but one that’s shown an uncharacteristic endurance, and the flames of nostalgia burn brightly worldwide. I have seen ambitious re-themed takes on this gem from 1991 on the Flash circuit, and I’ve seen them done well. The truth is, even though they’re good, they leave you with a stronger feeling than just “I wish it had the original theme”. The feeling you get is “I need to play the real thing, I miss it, I crave it, and it shall be mine”. While almost every sequel ever produced makes the discerning gamer shrug and think “I preferred the first or previous version, depending on the game and depending on how nostalgic and probably correct the author is constructing my imaginary vehicular persona to be”, even the updates to the Lemmings franchise make you desire some quality time alone with the original to erase any memory of playing the sequels, because it just isn’t the same.

A lofty introduction indeed from someone whose praise for most of their favourite games can be boiled down to a singular sentiment of “it’s a great game, in spite of the many flaws listed, dissected and magnified by the needlessly malevolent but undeniably accurate author who avoids imperfection by not assigning numbered ratings”. So what is it about Lemmings that makes it so well regarded?

For beginners, the clue is in the
name of the level
Do as it says, and the lemmings will
find their way to the exit
Simple enough that a
child could do it
The controls are simple and easy enough to grasp. You grab the mouse, you aim it, and you click it. You need the mouse to do pretty much everything. Select the task/ability to assign, select the individual lemming that you wish to perform, and… well, that’s more or less it. Not entirely, though. You can scroll edges with the mouse, click on the mini-map for a fast screen reposition, and click on the “paws” button to temporarily stop the game. The best joke in the review isn’t even mine! How am I supposed to top that? The keyboard is largely redundant apart from the option to press the P key for a more efficient pause with whichever hand you’re not using the mouse with, which will be the left hand assuming your parents raised you correctly. This allows you to most quickly assign parts and juggle coinciding builders more efficiently, although it won’t be necessary for players on the easy levels or people with quick mouse skills. If you’re using a trackpad, you might struggle a bit, but remember that those things don’t actually exist, so you may need to reconsider your place in history.

If at first you don't succeed...
...blow it all to smithereens!

It's as if they knew...
The initial levels, dubbed a “fun” degree of difficulty, are so easy that a small child can do them, yet the addictive play makes the slow learning curve more than bearable for a highly skilled master of logic to work their way through, providing ample opportunity for you to learn how to win the game, and more importantly, how to lose it. Plenty of margin for error is available to discover the myriad of ways in which you can allow your lemmings to die, or outright kill them, from letting them fall from too great a height without umbrellas, to leading them into water, fire, lava, green liquid of undisclosed quality, through the level floor, into weird spinning blades and a host of hazards and booby traps both displayed and hidden, to exploding them all! The “nuke” button is very handy for this, and is also the way in which you’re supposed to reset the level. It’s not really some giant bomb flying into the level and killing every living creature in sight, so much as every lemming getting a headache that causes them to explode more or less simultaneously, which is much less disturbing.

Naturally, you progress through increasingly difficult levels, many of which have names that are puns based on inserting “lemming” or “lem” into a phrase such as “you live and lem”. It’s very satisfying. The “tricky” levels are there to challenge the youth of today who aren’t very good because they’re too busy customising their Sims, or soldier outfits, or Wayne Rooney’s beautiful face. The “taxing” levels are for people like you who have the staying power to complete over sixty levels and stick through half of a review like this, and the most challenging “mayhem” levels are for people like me, who are excellent. If you’re feeling cocky, you can skip sets of levels entirely by choosing your difficulty from the menu, where you can also enter codes for completed levels. Pencil and paper at the ready for the end of the levels if you’re not feeling so bold, need to leave, or enjoy replaying a puzzle that you just completed, which makes you a bit odd. Not that I’m judging.

The Sydney Opera House?
A decapitated albino Edwardian
hedgehog? Or a completed game
of four-dimensional Solitaire?
The sound is excellent. I say that because my experience is with the original Amiga version, also known as “the best version”, “the correct version”, “the only version that matters”, and simply “the version” by everyone who wrote this review. The music has been rearranged for almost every single port, same melodies, different chip sounds. The Windows tunes sound like an eerie foreboding precursor to the cheerfully bland music featured on The Sims games, the SNES renditions sound like the Harry J Allstars did a “Liquidator”-style cockney pub reggae mix, the Turbografx-16 port could be easy listening or the backing track to a Bonnie Tyler b-side, and the NES versions are woeful to the point of being genuinely amusing. I know the technology in the Amiga is supreme and such a pinnacle will never again be reached by civilisation, but come on, you can do better than that. I can do better than that. The Sega Megadrive version sounds okay, but the heavy bass notes and the slight tackiness make it sound more appropriate for a side-scrolling platformer like Chuck Rock II: Son Of Chuck or Jazz Jackrabbit or some such surreal endeavour. We have to go to the original version to find the sounds created by the venerable Tim Wright, as they were meant to be heard. Original tunes, rearrangements of public domain music both classic and contemporary (at the time), and even a treatment of a piece he’d originally crafted in his demo scene days just prior to the Lemmings project, from the Puggs In Space demo. Nothing here was going to top the charts (even though some of them already had), no praise for the ambitious utilisation of two entire orchestras for Mr Wright. He just did what good game music makers did in the good old days, making an exceptional bunch of very nice little pieces that happened to complement the pace and the atmosphere of the game, as well as neatly juxtaposing its underlying dark elements of fiery hell, fatality, suicide for the common good, liberal abuse of a myth, and lemmings carrying umbrellas.

There isn’t an awful lot else to discuss about the game because of its superficial simplicity. It came in a nice box, with artwork that was naturally of a higher resolution than the game itself, and was on two floppy disks. It would appear that all that’s left to do is wax lyrical in a summary whilst wildly swinging at either it or something random, as is customary for my highly stylised reviewing technique, which is in no way embittered by the passage of time.

Some of the puzzle restrictions are
a little backward, although they're
nothing compared to the fashion
sense of these lemmings
Lemmings successfully bridged
the gap from thematic puzzler to
international multi-platform hit
with droves of fans of all ages
Lemmings isn’t one of these modern games full of some randomly-generated levels of generic difficulties that has a million different configurations that are basically the same to increase replayability. The levels have been carefully crafted by the Psygnosis team out of love, care, passion, and notoriously wild orgies. If you want to play a puzzle game that didn’t come out of a newspaper and isn’t thematically void, make sure it’s Lemmings. Not Lemmings 2: The Tribes, not Lemmings Revolution, and definitely not Lemmings: Gritty Reboot Directed By Tim Burton. Fight to keep that man away from the franchises you love if you still care about them. Not that I do, because all that matters is Lemmings. Get it, play it, and thank whoever it was that made you play it, unless it was someone other than me.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Super International Cricket (1994/SNES)

Yearly editions of sports games are some of the biggest moneyspinners for the likes of Electronic Arts, and the bane of used game stores. Wandering through the shelves (well, wandering past the shelves, readers should recognise that the author is a dignified and respectable shopper) for used Playstation 2 titles in the late 00s gives you an idea of what doesn’t last. The later and greater titles in series are much harder to come by (SSX 3 took several visits to find), whereas some staples could almost be assured of a place in any sizeable display of used PS2 games. Poor Lara Croft was very much a victim of her own success, and the Legend and Anniversary editions, enjoyable as they are, found themselves presenting Ms Croft as the femme fatale of the discount pile. Given that the PS2 market was very much in its death throes, you could typically pick up any given title for a fiver, even less if a bundle or bulk deal was thrown into the bargain. The sports games, on the other hand, had their own separate box. It wasn’t a shelf. It didn’t need to be a shelf, because you already knew what was in there. Mountains of blue boxes enveloped in plain white, fronts emblazoned with “FIFA two thousand and something” and a couple of smug millionaire footballers trying to look tough, belying hours upon hours of training for dramatic injury simulation. These mountains are kept from flooding onto the shop floor only by the distending walls of the makeshift cardboard frame that houses them, and the glue from previously applied discount stickers that failed to entice my kind into spending £15, nor a tenner, nor a fiver in exchange for relieving the shop of the wastes of space. Punctuating the swathes of football releases lay golf, rugby, wrestling, and American rules football titles, with the occasional tennis or cricket title cropping up. These abominations could barely shift their load at the lofty price of five for £5, such was their instant appeal and subsequent antiquation in spite of the woefully small amount of progress the next title brought to the party of sports titles, new trainers, dirty calendars and cheap beer.

Of course, things weren’t always this way. The likes of football and cricket games were once a flourishing allegory of a blossoming spring. In the early 90s, Sensible Soccer and its follow-up Sensible World Of Soccer, along with other titles at the time, were bringing new tricks into the mix faster than Linford Christie on steroids. Of course, Europe was always football crazy, and the world cup tournament we remember as Italia ’90 fanned the flames fiercely. Such fervent demand didn’t exist for cricket, with Great Britain and Australia the only major computer gaming nations to take the thinking man’s sport seriously at a time when five day test matches were still very much the undisputed pinnacle of the game. A look back into the naturally shallow history of cricket games recalls Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket, a breakthrough in the mid 80s that saw both arcade and simulation modes introduced, and a basic level of playability had been achieved. Unfortunately, that’s as far as it went, and the sluggish development of cricket games continued into the 90s. A couple of sequels later, Graham Gooch’s World Class Cricket was blazing the trail on the home computer front, leaving Ian Botham’s Cricket burning in its wake. By now the platforms had allowed the graphics to look vaguely realistic, there was a wider selection of shots available, and bowling was something of a challenge. The game was woefully sluggish to the point where it was genuinely consistent with test match pace though, and this wouldn’t do if the game of cricket was to see the insides of a games console.

The folks at Beam Software produced International Cricket for the NES in 1992, unrivalled, and it looks like we should be thankful that it was confined to Australia, being garish, noisy, and looking more like a broken copy of Streets Of Rage on a faulty monitor than a cricket match at times. Nevertheless, with competition persisting with absence, Beam again was to create the only cricket game for the next generation.

Super International Cricket does not resemble its predecessor. It’s unrecognisable. Released on the SNES in the places that cared in 1994, you could almost be forgiven for thinking “here we go again” when booting the game up. The menu music loop sounds like it’d be more appropriate for something like Defender than a sports game. Nevertheless, a little exploration of the menu gives you an idea of a little extra control that you have. Once you delve into the teams you can pick your XI, and it’s actually worth rummaging through your squad of 16 for the best skills and best bowling options.

The main menu looks and sounds
all too sinister for me, but things
lighten up further along the way
Mullet Man can bat, and he can
catch, but he's slower than
Tony Christie on steroids
The graphics are a remarkable improvement. Once you get beyond the menu, which had offered little in the way of promise other than fake identification photos for players, you get to see what they’ve done. The player sprites aren’t as articulate as Graham Gooch’s World Class Cricket, but they’re much more properly animated. Where the aforementioned was a very flat view which gave depth perception something of a miss, this is tilted so far down that you barely see the entire wicket as a fast bowler, and judging height becomes more of an issue. Overall, it looks like an actual computer-generated cricket game rather than animated sketches. You could more easily picture Gooch’s endorsement in a 1970s episode of Paddington Bear, although it’s Super International Cricket that features such tomfoolery. The game is underscored with a subtle but very buoyant loop of Caribbean flavour, some of the superimposed images are sillier than others, and at the end, you see the winning team’s mascot. The game has a mildly camp nature to it, but pulls it off quite well. There’s a little match conditions notifier at the coin toss, but I can’t tell if the implied hardness of the ground has an effect on the bounce. The game is a little reduced in speed and comes across as a little bit gritty, but it feels more uniform than the lightning fast strokes that batsmen played on other games.

Silly backwards Australian scoring
confuses the rest of the world
There is a very healthy shot selection on display when it’s your turn to bat. A couple of defensive shots, drives, cuts, slogs, and even leaves are available. The problem is that your control of these shots is somewhat limited, and the strokes are bundled into the four buttons. X covers the defensive, Y covers off-side shots, A has the leg-side shots, and B deal with straight hits. You don’t really get to choose which shot it chooses, it makes a loosely-calculated guess based on where the ball is pitching relative to the batsman’s position and, strangely, on whether or not you made the batsman move position. The shoulder buttons do have somewhat useful functions. The L button makes it easier for the opposing team to catch you out. Unless you feel like you’re in the right spot to hit a six and believe that the computer will play the correct shot, the “add loft” function is something you’d never use. The R button adds more power to your shot, but unless you’re trying to mishit or block for a quick single, you’d never not use this button. Perhaps sacrificing these functions to use the shoulder buttons to give greater control of these shots would have made batting more enjoyable, or maybe even just one shoulder button to change the shot and the other button for some sort of super-slog function. Having said that, trying to play the game as it is without using the shoulder buttons makes the game, particularly batting, criminally boring. Running between the wickets is logical, up and down, but for some reason the batsman running towards the striker’s end doesn’t seem as keen to dive to make his ground as the one heading towards the bowler’s crease, which can prove very annoying at times.

Pre-match report
Post-match report
As a bowler, things are a little more simplistic. You have four types of delivery courtesy of the four action buttons (these change depending on the type of bowler), and four speeds controlled by the shoulder buttons. Looking at that setup on the surface, I’d say they’ve struck a healthy, playable balance. However, because it takes one button to start the run-up and another to commit to the bowling action, it seems like there was an opportunity missed to use two-button combinations, which could be used for sixteen different types of delivery for any given bowler, or, more realistically, four variations of each of the four types of delivery. It’s all very well being able to swing, seam and spin the ball, but how much? There isn't even an option for a fast bowler to bowl in a straight line. Bowling as it is presented is slightly less fun than batting, but certainly more than a functional frustration.

Fielders are best left to
their own devices
The fielding options don’t give you immense freedom to crowd one area of the field, but there is a good degree of versatility, and the interface is very nice and simple, highlighting a given area well, the player’s basic fielding stats and face for recognition, and a giant hand that picks up the puny players by the head and drops them into position at your leisure. Fielding in practice is a lot less joyous. You can choose which end to throw to, knock the stumps over, swap which player you want running for the ball, appeal for a wicket, and make a diving stop. It sounds like a tidy package. However, the fielders never do anything intelligent once you gain control of them. They’re allowed to run maybe 50% faster, but won’t just pick up the ball. Instead, you have to make a diving stop. The fielders never dive in the right direction, and you have to do it so the outstretched hand lands on the ball, or else move your fielder into the path of the ball well in advance if you can, and then let it stop it by itself. A potentially great feature is ruined.

A good turn of speed can
avoid an embarrassing run-out
The field setting is nice and
easy to use
The AI is, of course, limited. This is a Super Nintendo, after all. As a bowler, you can bowl a specific line that narrows the batsman’s reasonable shot selection, and bundle eight or nine fielders into a limited arc, and bowl even the toughest side out for under twenty runs. It’s a little bit trickier as a batsman if you want to play properly, but as you can see where the ball is pitching in advance, you can move your batsman into the correct position to play whatever shot suits you. Otherwise it’s down to tricking the fielders into mistakes to pinch extra runs. The stat that makes the biggest difference in this game is speed. A batsman could have the best stats in the team, but if he’s very slow between the wickets (the best batsman usually is in this game), you will hate him. There are two extremely fast reserve batsmen in the Australian squad, so you could pick them as the opening pair and grind out singles if you cared more about winning than having fun. Even without doing that, you’ll appreciate the decreased run-out risk. When trying to fill a given spot in the side to a batsman or bowler, speed is your primary reference. On top of everything else, it helps an awful lot in the field, and is still a good benefit when playing against a human, which, as usual with sports games, is by far the superior way to enjoy the game.

A swing and a miss, perhaps...
...but the boundaries were pushed
It’s easy to dismiss Super International Cricket, and in terms of playing it today, that’s a fair call. After all, not too far into the next year we saw the release of Konami’s International Superstar Soccer, which still plays pretty well, is a lot of fun, and looks good, and this hasn’t held up anything like as well. However, to dismiss the game in terms of the development of cricket’s representation in the industry is another matter. When compared to International Cricket, the follow-up really is “super”, and was good enough to enforce a follow-on. Beam Software and other companies ensured that cricket games would be improved for both home computers and consoles. Cricket 96 and Cricket 97 were big improvements, most notably in playability, offering a much more agreeable level of control. It just so happens that these two titles were published by a certain Electronic Arts.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Space Invasion II / Dodge Em / Galaxy Wars / The Amazing Adventures Of Harry Haddock (1995/Amiga)

Whilst I recall taking a greater interest in Amiga Format in my youth than Amiga Power, Amiga Action, and CU Amiga, one of the best-remembered Amiga magazines I had was a copy of Amiga Action. I was more interested in games than articles, and Issue 69 provided a great “Comic Relief Bonanza” in 1995, with no less than four floppy disks supplied. There was a demo of Turbo Trax, a demo of The Speris Legacy which I have to admit to never touching (even from a young age I’ve never been much for those RPG thingies), and a full version of the annoying but tuneful platformer The Blues Brothers as the comic relief fundraiser. All very exciting, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Who needs flashy menu screens?
Space Invasion II
Remind you of anything?
Disk 2 was what stayed with me, however. On this disk was a collection of four simple public domain games from Kevin Gallagher and his Towerbyte Software crew in Grimsby. Gallagher did some arcade game adaptations with AMOS for the Amiga, and the first of these to appear here was Space Invasion II, a much-improved, and no less cunningly disguised, conversion of the classic Space Invaders. While the original had been quite crude, this version introduces bases, and brings back Towerbyte’s favourite “in space but on the ground” background in more detail. There’s not much you can say about the gameplay, other than that it’s a realistic Space Invaders experience, save for the background. A third version in 1998 would see the black background employed with smoother movement, but where the original conversion was lacking, this was the version that essentially matched up in terms of gameplay. Evidence that some of these games were rushed is only evident in the menu here. The surprisingly long music clip (the length of the title music of the games appears to be what takes up so much of the space on the disk that decreed that there wasn’t enough room for a proper title screen for selecting the games) pumps ominously over scrolling text filled with mistakes like “scoreing” and “lazer”. I accept that some acronyms such as radar have been assimilated into the language as words in their own right, but the letters still stand for something, and “ztimulated” isn’t part of it.

Dodge Em
Dodge Em is the second game on the disk, and it’s a charming little action/puzzle where you have to navigate a “coarse” in your car collecting dots (akin to Pac-Man) whilst avoiding the evil “on-comeing” cars travelling in the opposite direction that try to crash into you and take one of your three lives (not shown). As well as more typographical errors, which I’ll avoid commenting on from now on, Dodge Em stands out for having a very limited canon of sounds. An effect for moving around the menu and picking up dots, an effect for changing lanes (tyre squealing), and an effect for crashing (kicking a metal dustbin) are all there are in this game, giving it a real barebones effect. Enemy cars get faster and more numerous as you beat levels to give an appropriate challenge, and you need to be a smooth operator to beat level 4.

Galaxy Wars
I've seen that background before
The third game on this disk sees us move from arcade-influenced gaming back into the territory of direct conversion, and Galaxy Wars isn’t even disguised with a name tweak. Certainly less famous than the Space Invaders franchise, Gallagher again gives a largely faithful conversion. Your white tracker shifts your white rocket missile that you need to guide through the white whizzing meteorite asteroid rock things to hit the white space saucers that are trying to drop zigzag-shaped bombs on you so you can take them out, score points, and beat that level, and get a high score with your three lives. If not for another very long piece of menu music and another iteration of the stock space/terrain background, you wouldn’t notice much difference at all. As with Space Invasion II, Galaxy Wars is another successfully addictive arcade conversion.

The Amazing Adventures
Of Harry Haddock
Harry's a real fish out of water,
with an irresponsible diet
Level 2 (of 2) takes place at night
The fourth and final game in this collection sticks out like a sore thumb for so many reasons. The Amazing Adventures Of Harry Haddock (labelled as Harry The Haddock on the disk sticker, presumably to save space) is not an arcade conversion or even as directly influenced by a classic arcade title as Dodge Em is. It’s a pure platformer that’s wrong on so, so many levels that it qualifies as pure madness. You load the game up, and once you’re there, you’re treated to an Amiga style instrumentation of the Baywatch theme tune. As if that wasn’t bad enough, while a piece of example level scrolls left and right, you get a face full of the titular character, with his lifeguard shorts, eyes that stick out the top of his head, enough bright red lipstick for the entire Baywatch cast, and a giant surfboard (not seen in game). So you press fire as soon as you can to get rid of this garish experience, and things get dark. The loading screen features another giant-sized image of Harry posing with a floppy disk. He seems to be wearing sunglasses that are apparently the colour of haddock hide, which is a bit weird. Then, when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, you hear the background music for the game itself. It’s another Amiga style instrumental, this time of Whigfield’s late 1994 hit “Saturday Night”, cementing the game’s musical score as not only a musical time capsule of sorts, but possibly the worst of all time.

Look at his skin, look at the shades
Once you’ve recovered from that shock, you need to play quickly. Harry has a time limit for completing a level, of which there are a whopping two. To score points, you need to collect all sorts of junk from multicoloured diamonds, stars and coins to presumably edible items such as burgers, cake, coke and canned apple juice, all of which come with various sparkling, swallowing or slurping sounds. You need to jump Harry across the level, and his rapid spring up and slow float down are an unusual quirk that needs a little getting used to. Harry can move so fast that he can’t walk down a downward slope, he just floats over the top, one of a few signs that the game was rushed. Most platforms are solid lumps, but you do get a couple of mobile ones and disappearing ones to keep the interest up. The main hazards are the birds, crabs and occasional octopus that move around a platform typically minding their own business, but are deadly enough to kill Harry upon contact. The other enemies are time (you lose the whole game if you run out of time, no life-losing mechanic here) and, bizarrely, water. Harry, a haddock, a fish, needs to stay out of water to stay alive. I accept that anything else would warp the idea of a platformer somewhat, but this makes absolutely no sense. The gameplay, like your typical Towerbyte game, is simplistic but lasting, and this playable game with all of its horrendous features makes it a shining example of the “classic for all the wrong reasons” category, which most prominently features Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.

This little disk is far from perfect, but it is special. It brought arcade gameplay into the home in a spectacularly low budget fashion, and provided a huge amount of time-killing potential. Especially armed with a joystick, Space Invasion II and Galaxy Wars offer similar but acceptably different bona fide arcade experiences, and are a pleasure. Dodge Em has a slightly shorter shelf-life, but is an interesting spin on an all time classic. The Amazing Adventures Of Harry Haddock is, well, amazing. It’s wacky, it’s fun, it’s crazy, it’s outrageous, and by the time you’ve shaken yourself out of the mind-crippling shock that the sheer idiocy it throws at you, you’re already hooked. Even in a gaming age where not so many titles could be accused of glossing over substantial gaming in favour of neat graphics and sounds, Towerbyte Software demonstrated that if you gave them nothing more than a little beer money, they could give you hours of fun, but not in that way.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Slam Tilt (1996/Amiga)

Liquid Dezign was a group that was born from the Digital Illusions group that made pinball games in the early 90s. That brand had punched out the first of 21st Century Entertainment’s series of pinball games. 1992’s Pinball Dreams was a great little number for the time, but looked dated, flat, gaudy and simplistic after only a few years, with one of the four tables featuring a music chart theme that beggars belief. Later in the same year came Pinball Fantasies, also with four tables, which played and looked about the same, unsurprisingly. Pinball Illusions came along in 1995 and brushed up the graphics a bit, but 21st Century decided to call on Spidersoft to produce Pinball Mania in the same, which was diabolical.

At this point, pinball madness had almost run its course. The same tables began appearing in multi-pack compilation after compilation and saw a lot of porting. 1996’s Slam Tilt stands out as the last memorable standalone pinball game of the time. The PC port a year later featured different menu screens but was very much the same game. Sure enough, its four tables would go on to be lumped in with compilations just like the rest of them. As a package, it really stands out. From the icy metal patterned box to the audio, graphics and gameplay, Slam Tilt puts the works of Digital Illusions to shame. Supposedly the last first-release to get a review published in an issue of the Amiga Power magazine that scored 90% or better, it was put out into an Amiga scene in its death throes, Commodore having declared bankruptcy years earlier. Nevertheless, it’s a polished effort that deserved to be ported to the PC.

The sound is very crisp and clear, with a lot of urgent twists to the music when you’re on specific tasks. There was no overhaul in the sound department on the port, and it’s not hard to see why. The game makes the audio of the Digital Illusions titles sound like cheap one armed bandit machine noises that you find in tacky arcades and Sonic The Hedgehog games. I half expected Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to be playing faintly in the background with Pinball Dreams. Why is “Thriller” the same song that gets stuck on in a permanent loop in those places anyway? As a man perpetually stuck in the past, even I find these outdated tips uncomfortably obsolete.

The bold claim on the box that Slam
 is "The Pinball Game" is just a
description, and they like to remind
you of what you're about to play
The menu screen is a little bland,
but that's the biggest complaint
you'll have about the game, and it
was changed for the PC port
The graphics are something else. So it’s 2D, who cares? The 3D games don’t fare any better, and the camera panning and zooming here is spot on. Rather than focusing all their attention on creating the shiniest ball you’ve ever seen (I can almost see my reflection in the balls used in Pinball Illusions), they work on everything else. The rails and ramps look better, the backboards are painted in well, and the flashing lights have great shading. Then there’s the faux-LCD display at the top. Sure, it tells you your score and how many balls you’ve used, but there’s much more to it. Animations from the amusing to the creepy punctuate the game modes just as well as the sound does, and there’s even a minigame or two on each table where you go interactive with it.

The LCD screen plays host to fun
little side games like "throw knives
at silhouettes armed with cannons"
The gameplay is simple (it’s pinball, after all) but sickeningly addictive. The ball zips around at a good rate, never trapped for too long. The targets aren’t especially challenging to hit, so you always feel like you’re ready to amass a heavy score once you’ve either sussed the table out or read the manual. You’re more prone to losing the ball down the middle or down the side lanes than in other games, so you often find yourself thwarted and driven to have another go. It’s a frustrating way to get addicted to a game, but it really works. The lights are clear indicators of where to shoot, so picking up what you have to do is pretty easy. On the rare occasion that you get a minigame that enables the video, it’s either so self-explanatory that it requires no thought (shoot the thing with this moving reticle) or instructions flash up if more than one button is required (flippers to steer, launch to shoot, or flippers to button-mash). I wouldn’t say it adds a whole other dimension, but this is a good thing, and these games are fun little sideshows rather than making Slam Tilt something other than a pinball experience.

Mean Machines - a nice easy start
The four tables that are featured are largely excellent. “Mean Machines” will likely be the one that you play first. It’s first on the list and the easiest to put down a big score on. It’s a good table, but arguably the weakest. It looks overcrowded, has a weird “overheat” function which doesn’t do anything but annoy you, and is probably the most regurgitated theme in pinball computer game history. With the bad points out of the way, its numerous positives include its easiness as a beginner table, vast ramps, a third flipper with more than one option available, and the same benefits that every table here has: amusing twists on the theme (chicken races, stock car smash ups), lots of different modes to unlock, and fast and exciting gameplay.

The Pirate - a fine yarrrdstick for all
computer pinball games to compare to
The second table, “The Pirate” is the only table that really differs from the standard in terms of themes (cars, space and spookiness are all common tender), and offers something different to the other tables as well. Rather than losing a top corner to “fill the three flashing lights to get a bonus upgrade”, it has a funky “magna table” random bonus box thingy, and a much greater emphasis is placed on multiball games. Multiball is a function on every table, but it’s at its best here, and while the music on this table is particularly good, nothing beats the hilarious background music for the “Crocedile” [sic] multiball. The modes are fun, the table is a little more challenging, and it isn’t too crowded, so there’s plenty of room for a giant compass and a cave thingy. The table runs smooth as silk, and is my personal pick.

Ace Of Space - right up there
with the best of them
A close runner up is “Ace Of Space”, which runs a little slower, but makes up for it with some of the best game modes out there. From the predictable “Space Race” to the interactive “Death Planet” (the best video minigame on offer) to the ridiculous “Blam” (shooting ramps to destroy random targets such as a UFO, space station, a banana, the monkey from “The Pirate”, a space cow… wait, what?), there’s a full range of shenanigans for everyone. It’s well packed without being cluttered, and if it wasn’t for the slightly slower pace and the pointless zigzag in that left hand rail that shouldn’t exist, this would be a very serious challenger to “The Pirate”.

Night Of The Demon - this table
is horrifically hard to dominate
The final table is the much tougher “Night Of The Demon”. The ramps are harder to shoot, and it’s noticeably sparse. While it’s slightly less playable than the other tables, the twisted and silly humour prevalent in the other tables comes into full bloom beneath the creepy veneer of this morbid theme. The relative lack of modes and options (the only table without a third flipper is the one that could really have used one along with a couple of extra ramps) do make this table suffer compared to the last two, but its difficulty does appeal to the more hardened pinball veteran.

The multiball feature can get a
bit overwhelming at these speeds
The camera pans well, so you
always know what's going on
It’s not big and it’s not clever, but Slam Tilt hits the sweet spot. Not overambitious on the number of tables, the Liquid Dezign crew from Sweden put a lot of work into the industry standard of four tables, and the results are great. Decades on, the game doesn’t look remotely dated, and if you can play it, it’s as good as any modern pinball game out there. Colourful and intense, you don’t find yourself sitting around for too long waiting for your balls to drop. Even the high scores present good, challenging strata. Without setting yourself harsh restrictions, Slam Tilt will decimate your free time.