Archive for February, 2008

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Friday, February 29th, 2008

I was kind of a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation the TV series while growing up. This was probably because I had spent years watching the original series after school at the behest of my mom. It was ‘her’ sci-fi series of choice from when she was growing up. So when the new series came about it was like I got a whole new series just for me.

Eventually, at its peak of popularity, video games were made. And I felt this overwhelming urge to play them. So a friend and I rented the TNG offering for the Super NES and gave it a whirl.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

One of the things that we noticed was that the game had built into it a large database of Star Trek universe minutiae in the form of data files of some sort on the computer. We spent literally hours poring over the info, learning all about phasers and shield harmonics and Class Y planets and lots of other completely useless information.

Then we took it back to the game rental store.

It would appear that we never actually got around to playing the ‘game’ part of the game. I assume that it had something to do with sailing around interstellar space, fighting Romulans, forming away teams, and occasionally visiting a star base… but I don’t actually know.

I don’t consider my rental fee wasted, though. I think I got at least that few dollars’ worth of enjoyment out of the game.

Kung Fu

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Quick, Thomas! Your girlfriend Sylvia has been kidnapped by ninjas. The mysterious Mr. X is keeping her at the top of a five-floor dojo of sorts where each floor is filled to the bursting point with progressively more and more generic bad guys. Thankfully Thomas is trained in all areas of Kung Fu: jumping, kicking, kicking while jumping, punching, the works!

The game goes like this: you walk to the left, fighting bad guys that mostly all go down in one hit. Right before you get to the stairs to go to the next floor, there’s an unusually ‘unique’ guy waiting to bash your skull in. Kill him and you get to go up the stairs. On the next floor you walk to the right, but it’s the same song and dance. Keep this up until you get to the top floor where your girlfriend is being held captive. Beat the snot out of Mr. X and you win the day, get your girlfriend back and then get to start the game over with more of the generic ninja fodder thrown at you.

You have to love the sheer simplicity of this game. It can be summed up in the two sentences on the attract screen. It gives you just about the flimsiest excuse possible to fatally maim dozens and dozens of ninjas just because they kidnapped your girlfriend for an unspecified reason. And although I never quite had the chops to finish this game, I’ve seen it done. Apparently, once you get good, the game takes about 10 minutes to finish. Interestingly, that’s also the same amount of time it takes to play it if you’re not good at it.

So, everyone’s a winner.

The House of the Dead

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

Like a lot of games in my local arcade, The House of the Dead was turned down so low that I couldn’t really follow what passed for a story. I have a hunch, though, that it didn’t really matter. All I know is that two ‘agents’ (‘Rogan’ and ‘G’) have to fight their way in to a mansion, where they have to stop mad scientist Curien. This Curien fellow is apparently some kind of crazy biologist and he’s experimenting on people and other life forms, turning them into zombies, and creating other abominations.

You run through the courtyard and eventually through the lab(s) killing… er… re-killing everything that moves. You do this with your handy-dandy light gun.

The game is a rail-shooter, but with a bit of a twist. Depending on what you hit (i.e. how well your aim and reflexes are) you can go down different paths. Even though they all lead to the same end, they do give you a slightly different experience on your playthrough.

The only problem that I had is that my aim’s not that good. The game requires pinpoint accuracy, and I can only manage blunt pencil-point accuracy on a good day. But, like any good arcade game it can be beaten if you have enough credits. I’d say that this game was easily finishable if you had a fist full of quarters… and a pocket full… and a backup wagon full on standby.

Oh, and the incoherent story? I quit worrying about stories in video games making sense a real long time ago.


Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

The story in Half-Life is very convoluted, and not all of it makes sense, but it’s overall pretty good. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail, but the gist of the story is that Gordon Freeman, a scientist, is involved in some kind of experiment (the nature of the experiment is kind of vague). The experiment goes horribly awry and creatures from an alternate universe start invading the research complex. The military is called in to assess the situation (i.e. kill anything that’s still moving) and you, as Gordon, have to fight your way out.

The story is much longer, and much much more convoluted than I’ve gone into here. You have to kind of piece everything together using clues given to you by listening to the conversations between the remaining scientists, the security guards, and the hired military force.

I guess I like this game because it’s not your typical first-person shooter. It actually tries to tell the story as you’re playing it rather than in cutscenes in strategic places. This makes it a lot more immersive and really puts you in the shoes of Gordon, the silent protagonist. In fact, you never see Gordon in-game, and he doesn’t make a sound (other than some heavy breathing at the beginning), which kind of makes you mentally fill in the blanks with yourself.

The single-player portion of this game is really good, but I really had a lot more fun playing multiplayer. Sure, it’s pointless running around and shooting anything that moves, but the sheer amount of weaponry available makes a lot of play styles viable. One of my favorites was using the Gauss Gun to shoot people through walls. Hard to do, but oh so satisfying.

This was also the game that taught me the correct definition of the word ‘irony’.

As it happens, I had obtained this game in a … less than reputable method. I decided that it was a good enough game that I really should go out and buy a legal copy. So I went to my local Wal-Mart one evening and purchased it. When I got home I opened the box only to find that in the box was a jewel case (with a key), but in that jewel case was a CD-R with a pirated copy of the game on it. Someone had opened it, copied the disc, put the disc in the jewel case, kept the manual, and re-sealed the box. So, yes, in an effort to legalize my copy of a game, I purchased an illegal copy of said game. That was one of the more difficult things to explain to the cashier at Wal-Mart. Trying to convince her, and eventually the store manager, that I had bought the game less than 15 minutes prior (I lived real close to Wal-Mart at the time), and that with current CD writers that there was absolutely no way I could have gotten the game home, copied it, and then tried to return it. And even if I did, why would I tell them I did it? They eventually capitulated and let me exchange my game for a good copy, but I made sure that I opened it in the store to show them what the box contents should look like.

Police Trainer

Monday, February 25th, 2008

It’s unusual to see a game, especially an arcade game, that doesn’t feature you trying to guide your character to some noble goal: saving the world, rescuing folks in distress, or trying to survive in a futuristic maze of death. But Police Trainer doesn’t ask you to do any of those things. Instead it asks you to perform a series of exercises to become a police officer in Metro City.

All this game is is a series of drills designed to make you better at wielding a gun. Though the situations that are presented are strictly police-officer friendly, playing this game will actually make you better at other similar games. You’re constantly drilled on accuracy, speed, pattern recognition, analysis, and combinations of the above. The better you do, the better ranking you get, eventually making your way up to chief of police. And you’re really motivated to do just that, since the last six or so folks who did that are the only ones allowed to put their names in the high score table.

Police Trainer

I played this game an awful lot, regularly blowing through my ‘two for one’ token allotment and could actually see a marked improvement in games like The House of the Dead. It’s like investing in one was paying dividends in the other, which was a completely foreign concept to me.

But I think that my favorite Police Trainer moment was during one Saturday night at one of my local arcades. The off-duty police officer that was hired to keep the peace decided to play some games to pass the time, and he decided to play Police Trainer. His reaction time was a little low, but his accuracy was spot on, which is kind of cool, but the image I have of the police officer, in full uniform and in proper shooting stance, playing a video game about police officer training was just ‘meta’ enough to make this one of my all time favorite shooters.

Pokémon Blue

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

You’ve no doubt heard of Pokémon by now. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been over ten years now since the series first came out. But it did, and sure hit the US like a sack of wet cats.

So what is the game, exactly? The best I can describe is that you go around, capture creatures (the titular ‘Pocket Monsters’), teach them special moves, and combine them to make your unbeatable team. There’s a story in the game, but it’s largely irrelevant. It’s just an excuse to slowly introduce you to the mechanics of the game. The real meat of this game is figuring out how to make your unbeatable team, and you have lots of choices.

I got this game during my Sophomore year at college. I didn’t actually have a driver’s license at the time, so I needed something to kill the time on the bus to and from school. So I got very familiar with this game. I thought that mixing and matching monsters and moves to create your perfect unbeatable team was just about the best feature that I’d seen in a role-playing game up till that point. The only thing that I didn’t like about the game was that you really needed to have friends who also play the game to get the full experience.

See, there were two versions of this game, Blue and Red, and a third, Yellow, that came out later. Each version has a different subset of the total 150ish total creatures, which means that in order to actually build your perfect team, or just to see all of the monsters available, you have to trade monsters with someone who has a different version. I suppose that’s not going to be a problem for most people, but most of the folks I went to college with either didn’t play Teh Game Boyz, or they did it so covertly that I couldn’t find any. I did manage to convince one of my non-college friends to get the complimentary version to mine, but I don’t think he really got into it so much. In fact, so far as I know, he hasn’t yet finished the very straightforward and non-complicated story portion.

I should probably check out his progress on that.


Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

If you’ve ever seen the Smurfs television show, you already know way more about the weird little blue things than you really need to to get the full amount of fun out of this game.

Like just about every game I had for my Atari 2600, I didn’t have a manual for this, so I don’t really know what’s going on. All I know is that you, in control of Generic Smurf have to rescue Smurfette. I assume she’s been kidnapped by Gargamel, but he doesn’t make an appearance. All he did was capture her and put her on a shelf over his kitchen table.


It’s not just smooth sailing, though. Gargamel or no, there are still numerous hazards to deal with. Hawks, snakes, spiders, fenceposts, rivers, kitchen chairs, two-inch drops, and more are in your path and every one of them is instantly fatal. But you’re not completely helpless. You have two (yes, two!) kinds of jumps. A feeble hop, and a soaring leap. Your feeble hop doesn’t actually do anything worthwhile, but you can’t do your good jump without doing it first. So every time you come across an obstacle, you have to hop twice to get over it, like you’re on some kind of tiny pogo stick.

This game has six screens filled with anti-smurf everything. None of them are particularly hard to navigate. You just need to jump at the right time to not actually touch anything except the ground (it and air are the only two non-fatal things in this game, walking into a wall kills you). You rescue Smurfette and then have to do it all over again, except with more enemies, and maybe some of the screens will repeat themselves. You’re going to see everything this game has to offer within ten minutes of turning it on.

And the thing is, I used to play this game a lot. A whole lot. It was probably because I was too uncoordinated or to dim to remember that you have to jump twice to actually jump over anything. Once that finally stuck, I sailed through the game about a dozen times in a row without losing a life. And that would be the last time I would ever play this game. My streak has crested 20 years so far.

Here’s to another 20.

Nightshade: Part 1 The Claws of Sutekh

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Metro City is in a bit of a bad way. Sutekh, formerly Waldo P. Schmeer turned evil criminal mastermind, is organizing the local criminal factions together for his budding world-domination scheme. Unfortunately Vortex, the local spandex-clad superhero, is nowhere to be found. So what’s a city to do? Someone needs to step up and meet the challenge head-on. That person is Mark Grey, mild mannered bookworm. But once he dons his fedora and trenchcoat he becomes Nightshade, amateur super hero. Unfortunately, as soon as he starts his crime-busting career he’s caught, tied to a chair, and left next to an exceedingly dangerous bomb that’s going to explode ‘any second now’… We join the action immediately after said chair-tying and have to save Nightshade, diffuse the trap, escape the sewers, and foil the evil villain’s plans.

Time to get started.

Nightshade is kind of like those text-adventure games that I like so much but am really bad at combined with action games that I also like a lot, but am also reasonably good at. Its blend of these two game types would be good enough for me, but the game also has some of the best writing I’ve ever seen in a game. Even today it holds up.

So what is is you actually do in this game? The short answer is that you travel the city, thwarting evil, and generally trying to figure out what happened to the previous hero when he tried to do what you’re doing. Unfortunately, when you start out nobody knows who you are, so you have to beat up local thugs and do good deeds to up your popularity. Do that and folks will be more willing to help you in your quest.

You’re probably also going to fail at this the first few (dozen) times you try it. Lose all your life somehow and you’ll be captured and put into an ‘inescapable’ death trap. Fortunately, four of them aren’t actually inescapable. Unfortunately, the fifth one is. So you get five chances to win the game. And for a while you’re going to need every single one of them for figuring out how to disable the Ludicrously Overpowered Electric Torch, what Uncle Rodney’s Crunchy Weasel Flakes are for, and why there’s a lone box labeled “Herrings: Red” on one screen.

This game is my favorite game on the NES. I played it to death trying to figure out the inventive puzzles, and just to see the dialog. I also had competitions with my friends where we would compete for rankings. The game gives you a percentage complete and a corresponding ranking depending on how much of the game you’ve completed. Though it’s a bit flawed, I’ve managed to get 100% complete without actually finishing the game, meaning I’ve gone from ‘Complete Weed’ status to ‘Hero of the City’ status without actually saving it. Ah well.

As much as I like this game, I almost never played it. I saw the spread it got in Nintendo Power and thought it looked OK, but it’s when I went to a friend’s house and he had rented it. We spent most of that weekend trying to unravel its secrets, but were ultimately unsuccessful. I would then rent it several more times, but didn’t purchase it. This was mostly because I was unemployed and the game was too rare to show up at any second hand shops. But, in a stroke of almost unfathomable luck, several years later Wal-Mart was clearing out some of their very old stock of video games. How old? Well, Nightshade came out in 1991, and Wal-Mart was selling Nintendo 64s, which came out in 1996. So, prehistoric stock in video game years. In the bin was a cache of NES games, including Startropics, Startropics 2, and a lone copy of Nightshade. I’m not willing to say it was fated for me to get this game or anything. That might be a little much. But, I know enough to grab a deal. A great game for a system of yesteryear (that I still have in working condition) for a paltry $5?

Yeah, I’m not passing that up.


Thursday, February 21st, 2008

I’d be willing to bet that unless you’ve been living under a rock in some impoverished land for the last 20-odd years you know about the Ghostbusters. I certainly had my fair share of memorabilia related to the series, but never actually picked up the game. It turns out that I didn’t need to, I saw all there was to see in a couple of evenings of renting it.

The game’s real straightforward. You drive around the city catching ghosts for money. You use that money to upgrade your equipment so you can catch more ghosts and buy gas. Eventually, when the ‘PK Energy’ gets high enough, you face off against the main antagonist of the first film, Zuul.

The running around and catching ghosts thing is real easy, and kind of fun. But when you go to the final showdown, the game does a complete 180° turnaround and turns into a tedious annoyance. See, Zuul is on the top of a multi-story building and you have to get up there to take him/her/it out. You walk up the building one step at a time by alternately pressing the A and B buttons. It takes about 30 or 40 steps to go up a flight of stairs and there are about 20 flights of stairs in the building. So you end up wailing on the buttons, trying to go up the building while trying to avoid the ghosts. Your arms will be screaming by the time you get to the top.

And once you get there (I cheated and used a turbo controller) you have to face off against Zuul. I never actually figured out how to beat him/her/it. I assume you have to hit Zuul a lot of times with your proton pack, but I just didn’t have the reflexes to do that, especially after I cramped up my arms walking up that never ending staircase. I almost feel bad about that, but since I’ve already experienced most of the game, the feeling passes pretty quickly.

Diablo II

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

I really liked the original Diablo game, but found it to be a little repetitive after a while. So I was kind of interested in the sequel, which promised to expand the story started in the first game.

A few months after I heard about it, I picked up my copy and started playing. The game is a lot like the old game, convoluted story intact. It so happens that the hero of the first game, after killing Diablo, shoved the rock containing his soul into his own head, in an attempt to contain it, and then wandered off to the East to destroy it. You follow him in an attempt to do the same.

The game takes a lot of the more annoying things about the first game and fixed them. Probably the most important thing that was fixed was that your character can run, which solves the problem of the low-speed chases in the first game.

The game does boil down to just being the same as the first game, but just more. You still run around hitting things until they quit moving, but you have more ways to do it (more classes) and more things to bludgeon your enemies with (more loot). Instead of going down dozens of levels in a dungeon under a town you do a few quests in a wooded area, a few quests in a desert, a few in a jungle, and a few in Hell. But the ending is fairly wide open. It turns out that a while after this game went on sale that an expansion was announced. But it wasn’t an expansion in the normal sense. It was the final chapter of the game. I was pretty upset that I had to pony up another couple of Jacksons for the rest of the game that I was playing, so I passed on it for a long time.

I did acquiesce eventually and pick up the expansion, but not for several years. We’ll talk about that another time.