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Coda 08-16-2019 02:22 PM

Game Mini-Reviews
I've tried out a bunch old games recently, in part because of a retro arcade in my area and in part because of some impulsive "huh, that sounds interesting" moments of looking up stuff I heard about. I thought it might be interesting to write up my thoughts on them.

I'm not going to give any of these games numeric scores, but I'll conclude with my recommendations.


Game: Wing of Madoola
Developer: Sunsoft
Platform: NES (Japan only)
Year: 1986

This definitely isn't a diamond in the rough. In fact, it's pretty rough. But... it's not terrible either.

Things start off pretty sparse. There's no animation on the title screen, not even a message saying to press start. At least the music here is decent. Sounds sort of Pokemon-ish.

If you press start, then you get a status screen showing what powerups you'll eventually be able to get, but you only have a sword right now, then you get dropped into the game. It seems this is one of those games where you have to have read the instruction manual, because there's NOTHING in the game itself to tell you who you are, what you're doing, why you're doing it, how to do it... The music is all right. Not great, but not bad.

The gameplay is kind of clumsy. It's more controllable than Castlevania, at least, but it doesn't have the kind of polish that Super Mario Bros had. You have minimal control over your jump while in the air, and your jump (before you get upgrades) is even shorter than Mega Man's. The hitboxes on your weapons are small and there's a dead zone where your sword can't hit between the frame where it's above your head and the frame where it's in front of you.

It's also ridiculously punishing. You start with 1000 health, but making physical contact with a boss deals 400 damage, and there are no extra lives -- if you die even once, you start the game over. (However, like Super Mario Bros, there's a cheat code you can enter at the title screen to continue the game.) Healing items are rare. And it's possible to skip powerups that you need in order to complete the game; at one point, I got stuck in a valley I couldn't jump out of because I had missed a set of boots. I recommend a walkthrough.

And yet despite all of these complaints, the game isn't without its charm. It looks pretty good for 1986 -- the environments are more colorful than Metroid and more varied than Super Mario Bros, and the sprite work is mostly good (if a bit flat, but that's typical of the era). The game world is surprisingly large, especially relative to other contemporary titles. Once I got used to the awkward controls, I found it reasonably enjoyable.

Would I recommend it to someone looking for a good game to play? Certainly not. But I also won't tell you to stay away from it. It compares favorably to other games from 1985-1986 and capably demonstrates the technology of the time.

Coda 08-17-2019 11:56 AM

Another day, another review. This one I played in the arcade and I've had these thoughts rolling around for a long time.


Game: Journey
Developer: Bally Midway
Platform: Arcade
Year: 1983

This is such a weird concept for a game. The band Journey had its instruments stolen by aliens, and each member of the band has to traverse a different level to get it back so they can put on their interplanetary concert.

Even weirder is the game itself. Each level is completely different. It's like six different games smashed together into one. Each one has completely different play controls and objectives. About the only thing consistent across them is that you shouldn't touch the rainbow-flashing objects. In one, you're bouncing off of drums flying around, and once you've bounced on all of them they turn into a spaceship that you have to use to shoot down the stuff trying to keep you from escaping. In one, you've got to dodge between spinning death beams from a top-down view to get to the bottom of the screen. In another, you've got to jump over death beams on conveyor belts Donkey Kong style. In one, you put on a jetpack and navigate through a cave full of spikes to pick up your instrument and then fly back out. In one you jump between pillars that rise and fall to reunite with your instrument, and then you blast your way out again.

You can do those five stages in any order, and then the band goes and performs their concert. This is actually the sixth level, which I didn't even realize when I played it -- you have control over the bouncer at this point and you have to block the fans from rushing the stage and stealing the instruments. It's just a high score bonus round; you can't win, and once the instruments are stolen, the game starts over at a higher difficulty level, ad infinitum.

Adding to the weirdness is that the player sprites have digitized black-and-white photos of the band members for heads. There's also a lot of weird imagery scattered around the game based on their album covers.

The music is lo-fi 8-bit chiptune renditions of some of the band's songs. Apparently the arcade cabinet is also supposed to have a tape reel inside that plays a loop of another song during the attract mode, but this wasn't present in the machine I played. Since this game is over 30 years old by now I imagine that the tape wore out ages ago. But still, background music during gameplay was pretty new in 1983, and it's pretty good. (I mean, it helps that I like Journey, but still.) (Edit: Turns out it was supposed to play during the final level, not during the attract mode. This was a nice concept, it would have made the performance sequence feel even more rewarding, as that would have been a far higher level of audio fidelity than the game had exhibited before, so it would have been a big impressive finale.)

The play control is, as I mentioned, different for every level. Some are better than others. The jetpack stage has the best play control, the spinning beam level works fine, and the jumping mechanics in the platformer stages are inconsistent with each other. Nothing is downright BAD (though definitely not what modern players would expect), but the inconsistency can be offputting.

All in all, it's a quirky, bizarre little compilation of mini-games. Taken in that light, I give it a big recommendation. It's a lot of fun, at least for a while.

Coda 08-18-2019 11:37 PM

This is one I had heard about as a kid (mostly thanks to the Game Genie code book) but never actually saw anywhere I could actually play it, and it never really got any coverage in anything I had read, so all I really knew was the name. When I was reminded of its existence, I decided to look it up and give it a try


Game: The Magic of Scheherezade
Developer: Culture Brain
Platform: NES
Year: 1987 (Japan), 1989 (US)

I didn't quite know what to expect from this game going in, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Right off the bat, the graphics look really good for 1987, and they still hold their own in 1989. The music is well done. The sound effects aren't bad. The play control in the overworld is pretty good, although there are still some rough edges, especially around collision handling. And the subject matter is honestly something that doesn't get a whole lot of attention outside of the story of Aladdin.

And it's got time travel that's surprisingly well written! The translation is better than most games of its era. Still a few issues, especially when it comes to names. A proper translation would have required fluency in not just English and Japanese but also Arabic, with a familiarity with fiction from the Middle East. But it still does a pretty good job. (And no, "mashroob" isn't a mistranslation; that's actually a real thing.) And I have to wonder if some translation choices were actually to intentionally distance it from the source material -- "Alalart" for example is probably a mistranslation of "Ararat", but it makes sense to choose a unique name in the context of the game.

And the solar eclipse mechanic is interesting. It's not super deep, but it's novel, and it's worth paying attention to.

Sadly, it isn't without its flaws. The game balance is really inconsistent. It has a level-up mechanic that gives you more health, magic, and attack power. It TRIES to keep things balanced out by automatically advancing you to the maximum level for the area when you complete it, so you always start each chapter at a predictable level. But there are just some choices that matter way more than others. There's basically no reason to play a sage except for the one small period where you're forced to. Magic user is almost universally an inferior choice to fighter. And this means you can basically ignore most of the weapons in the game. And some of the "great" magic is basically useless. I never cast Raincom or Libcom. (Libcom isn't COMPLETELY useless, but revive magic isn't very helpful if you make sure your party stays alive.)

And then there's a weird turn-based RPG battle system that triggers on screen transitions, mostly randomly although there are a few places where they're scripted. After playing a Zelda-style action-RPG, getting thrown into a Dragon Quest-style menu-based RPG is weird. There's some interesting complexity to the battle system. You collect party members through the course of the game, and you learn formation tactics that let you counter certain enemy groups with massive attacks that have special effects. But it's almost universally better to just avoid the fights if at all possible. Since it's not action-based there's really no amount of skill that will let you get through the fights without losing a fair chunk of HP and magic, and while you do get increased rewards from the fights, you could just grind in the overworld a little to get most of the same for less risk and spend less time doing it.

But ultimately, I think the game's weaknesses are just polish issues. It's otherwise a great game that I solidly recommend -- generally fun to play, a good story, some fun humor in the dialogue, and characters with personality. It's limited by the technology of its time and it's a little rough around the edges, but it's not hard to see the game it could be.

Coda 08-19-2019 11:55 AM

The last three reviews were fairly positive, but don't count on this being a "Coda recommends old games" thread. Today, I'll be reviewing two games at the same time because of how closely they're related.


Game: Tron
Developer: Bally Midway
Platform: Arcade
Year: 1982

Game: Discs of Tron
Developer: Bally Midway
Platform: Arcade
Year: 1983

I'm going to review these together because Discs of Tron was originally intended to be part of Tron, but the programming wasn't done in time for release, so it got spun off into its own game. That was probably for the best.

Tron and Journey have a lot in common: They're both early arcade games by Bally Midway featuring popular licenses that ended up being compilations of minigames that barely hold together. After completing all of the minigames, the game loops around. And by virtue of their common heritage, they have similar quality and style of graphics, sound, and play control.

But that's about as far as the resemblance goes, in my opinion.

Tron was wildly popular in 1982. The arcade game actually made more money than the movie, and the movie was a smash hit in its own right. Journey was a wildly popular band, but its members didn't think they needed a video game, and the game's reception at the time was lukewarm.

It's comprised of four sub-games. You don't know which one you're going to play before entering the level, although if you lose then going back into the same level will be the same game. The game has a joystick, a knob, and a button. Some games use all three at once.

The game mode that's easily the best is the light cycle game. It's a classic, and while it didn't spawn the genre it certainly defined it. It plays as you would expect a light cycle game to play. There's nothing wrong with it. It uses the joystick for movement and the button for an accelerator.

One game mode has you piloting a tank, trying to take out the enemy tanks in a maze. It's slow-paced and the collision handling is very strict so navigating the maze efficiently takes practice. If you're imagining Atari's Combat... well, don't; Combat was better. The only advantage it has over Combat is that you can control the turret independently of the tank itself, so you can move in a different direction than you're aiming.

The other two game modes have you on foot, carrying a blaster. In one, you're trying to punch through the MCP's shield to get through to the light cone on the other side. In the other, you've got to escape to the warp in the middle while fending off a swarm of enemies. There's nothing especially wrong with the play control (aside from the size of the hitboxes not matching the size of the sprites), but it's sort of awkward to move with the stick, aim with the knob, and shoot with the button. You get used to it, for sure, but the world should be thankful that twin stick shooters decided to go with a second stick instead of a knob.

There's no fanfare between iterations. Once you've cleared all four game modes, you go back to the map and it's all filled in again, waiting for you to pick one. I have no idea what the ending is. I'm not good enough at it to get through to level 12 and I can't find any videos of what happens after clearing it.

I wouldn't say that Tron is a terrible game. But it's... kinda... boring. It's slow-paced, it's got inconsistent difficulty, it's repetitive, and if there's a part you like then you're going to just have to wait between opportunities to play it. If it were faster to get into the levels (and if the tank mode wasn't such a slog) it might have been more engaging. I don't think it stood the test of time. (Journey didn't stand the test of time either, but its superior pacing, simpler controls, and better music make it -- at least in my opinion -- more enjoyable in short bursts.)

And then there's Discs of Tron. If this had been included in the 1982 release, it would have slowed down the pacing even more than it already was, and it wouldn't have had the opportunity to receive the extra polish that it got from the extra development time and standalone release. As it stands, it wasn't anywhere near as popular as the first game.

And Discs of Tron is hard.

You have to avoid falling off of the platforms on your side of the field while using the knob to aim thrown discs at one or more computer-controlled opponents. You can push the knob down to aim lower and pull the knob out to aim higher. (I actually didn't know about this, but I saw the enemies aiming up and down.) You can bounce the discs off of the walls, and they bounce back to you so you can throw them again. You can jump between the platforms, but if you time the jump wrong (or if you just fail to jump) you fall off and die. If a shot gets bounced off of the ceiling, then it can hit a platform, which makes it shrink.

Your opponent(s) meanwhile throw discs at you, as well as generating sparks that either fly straight or try to home in on you. And of course, they can jump between platforms, too, so it's sort of like playing inverse Pong to score a point. On later levels, barriers appear in the middle of the field to make it even harder to aim, forcing you to bounce off the outer walls, and the platforms move around, forcing you to maneuver more.

Fall off the platform? You die. Get hit with a disc? You die. Get hit with a spark? You die.

I really can't recommend playing Discs of Tron. Tron itself might be interesting to try out, but you're not missing out on anything if you skip it.

Coda 09-04-2019 01:07 PM

Got busy and couldn't post reviews for a while, but I was reminded of old DOS games, so I'll post a few of those too.


Game: Excelsior Phase One: Lysandia
Developer: Castle Software
Platform: DOS (later, Windows)
Year: 1993

The first thing you'll notice when starting up the DOS version of this game is that it looks like it has graphics, but those graphics act remarkably like text. It's a clever trick on the developer's part to be able to make a game world that's this large with this much variety without exceeding the capabilities of the computers of its time -- it actually loads up a custom font, so sprites are just two-character sequences and item icons are just one. This gives it access to more colors and higher resolution than what CGA graphics were capable of producing.

Of course, the game was released in 1993, and Super VGA graphics were pretty standard at this point, so the cleverness of this trick isn't as significant as it seems. Still, it allowed the game to run on older hardware, which was surely a significant plus at the time, and even in 1993 it was still pretty common to have painfully low memory limits and tightly limited disk space, and using then-current graphics would have dramatically limited the scope of the world.

And it really is a huge world! It's not only big by the day's standards, it's still pretty sizable by modern standards. Three castles, 19 towns, 7 multi-floor dungeons, and a bunch of other smaller locations. The overworld map is like 50 megapixels.

It's missing a lot of modern niceties in open-world RPGs. The lack of a quest log makes it a little tricky to keep track of what you're doing. And the quest chain isn't all that noteworthy in its own right -- collect the three amulets, join the Resistance, collect the three items you need to defeat the big bad (each of which sends you off on a multi-step series of side quests), then use them to clobber the boss and win the game. But the story is told well, and the frame story outside of the in-world story is interesting. (You're a rookie extradimensional cop, basically, and your job is to go to worlds where other extradimensional threats have disrupted the proper way of things.)

There's a reasonable variety of equipment, a large list of skills, an even larger list of spells, and several playable classes. Magic has an alignment system, with MP costs determined by how closely your alignment matches that of the spell you're casting, and each cast pulling you a little bit closer to the spell's alignment. Combat is turn-based, and unless you have the ability to attack twice in a round each turn consists of either moving one step, casting one spell, using one skill, or making one attack. Do one of these things, and then every monster in the world gets a turn, even the ones you can't see. This means that if you try to play it like a Zelda game you're going to get your butt kicked, but if you stop and think and act strategically it's hard but (assuming you grind sufficiently instead of rushing it) more or less fair.

The puzzles are much less fair. They're about what you would expect from adventure games of the era, which is to say obscure and mindbreaking and you probably will want a guide. You CAN solve it entirely with the hints in the game, but it takes the kind of lateral, not-entirely-logical thinking that has fallen out of favor in modern gaming.

But overall, if you like this genre of RPG, then Excelsior Phase One is an excellent example of the type -- solid mechanics without being overcomplicated, a better story than most, and enough variety to keep things interesting.

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