Archive for November, 2008

Oh yeah, TI-99/4a games!

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Now, my family was always very tech oriented, but we didn’t always pick the most popular systems.  Oddyssey2 instead of Atari 2600? Yep. TI-99/4a instead of an Apple II? You betcha!

Still, I’m not going to complain. Everyone else had the common stuff, so I got to see more than my share of it, and I got to see the less well known but often amazing games available for the underdogs. In the case of the TI-99/4a, some of those games were actually pretty good, and at least looked better than the damn C64 stuff.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to get emulated games for the system, and legal to boot. I guess the Texas Instruments folks realized they weren’t about to get a huge Jakk’s Pacific deal for their stuff? If you download Classic99, it comes with ROMs for many of the most classic games.

But wait, there’s more! This “Dreamcodex” fellow (a Mr. Howard Kistler) has ported some of these games to Java, complete with fancied-up graphics! Let’s see what he’s done.

Hunt the Wumpus

Old Wumpus meets new Wumpus.

Old Wumpus meets new Wumpus.

This has always been one of my favorites. It’s simple, challenging, and very logic based. He got the basic gameplay here fine, which isn’t too much of a task, but where he really knocked it out of the park was making it look pretty with all new graphics without tossing the appeal of the nice basic circular room layout. Even his all new death and victory screens manage to be unique without losing the charm of the classic. My heart used to skip a beat when I accidentally walked into the Wumpus, and I find myself equally startled and terrified by the updated monster face.

ARGLE BARGLE! (click for retro terror)

ARGLE BARGLE! (click for retro terror)

I know this game originally existed in text form, and there have been a dozen variations on it each with their own ideas, but I grew up on this one. It’s the version I know and love, and I don’t adjust well to change! Don’t ask me to change! Here I have the version I want with nice new pretty pictures, and I can even play it right in my web browser! This has definitely replaced minesweeper as my time-wasting puzzle game of choice.

The game does leave out the classic blindfold mode (where the map only shows the current room you are in) but I can live without that. At that point I’m sure I could just go back to the basic text adventure version of the game.

Tunnels of Doom (Reboot)

Tunnels of Doom is a game that even now seems way ahead of its time. The graphics may be poop, but so was everything then. The real meat, the gameplay, was still basically valid in the later Ultima games in the end of the 80s.

Look at all this great stuff!

Look at all this great stuff!

That’s right, while bogged down crawling through dungeons in Ultima V, I had a flashback. The dungeons worked nearly exactly the same as this 82 classic, down the “3D” dungeon movement and the overhead tactical combat. Of course, Tunnels of Doom lacked a huge epic story and a massive overworld and quests and NPCs, but the dungeon crawl bit was pretty much the perfection of a formula that worked up until “real-time” took over even the beloved RPG genre.

Wow!  THREE DEE!

Wow! THREE DEE!

In addition to neat, pseudo-3D dungeons and real time combat, the game featured unique things like an excellent vault-cracking minigame (not unlike mastermind) and the ability to bribe your enemies for safe passage.  You were also battling a timer in some quests, as well as the need to keep fed.  Fortunately, the update gives you a nice bar on each side so you can always track your characters’ stats, as well as time and rations.  A nice change, because you had to expect to return to the store fairly often for upgrades and supplies.

Rats, the cannon fodder of the RPG world

Rats, the cannon fodder of the RPG world

Now, due to the control options available at the time, both the original and this remake require memorization of a lot more specific key combos than anyone is used to by today’s standards, but at least the remake effort included a snazzy, comprehensive manual and benefits from modern interface decisions and larger keyboards. Also, those who remember the original game may remember having to load and save your games with a clunky audio tape drive (ok, there was a floppy, but nobody could afford it). It is a huge blessing of modern computers to no longer have to wait for up to an hour listening to “The Greatest Hits of 1200 Baud Modems.”  This is one game where the original is a little too much of a pain by modern standards to sustain the nostalgia, and I’m glad the remake takes it to a bearable level.

All the excitement of stats.

All the excitement of stats.

The really hardcore amongst us may remember that you could make your own custom dungeon scenarios, complete with custom classes, monsters, and weapons.  The remake comes with amazing set of tools that allow you to actually import those old scenarios.  Mostly I just played the original quest, but that’s a great feature, and it’s nice to see someone put the effort into making those files available to a modern audience.

Munchman/Munch Mates

Totally not Pac-man.

Totally not Pac-man.

Munchman (the remake is called Munch Mates) isn’t really a classic to me as I never played it much. I’m more of a Chisolm Trail kinda guy, but as far as Pac-man clones go, this one is pretty solid. In this one, you fill in spaces instead of clearing them out, but the end result is the same. I wouldn’t say it’s as creative as K.C. Munckin, but it’s good fun.

Here we have an above and beyond kind of situation, where the remake brings in a new maze for “Munch Missy” and a version of the maze based on the prototype of the original game. Oddly enough, this runs unplayably fast on my Vista machine , but this is probably an issue with my Java install itself rather than the game (it works fine on my laptop with XP).

Now, if these newfangled graphics are too much for you, or you miss some of the other TI-99/4a games, you can always check out Classic99 (linked above). I’m mostly going to stick with these, because Tunnels of Doom and Hunt the Wumpus were always my classics, and it’s nice to be able to play visually solid versions of them without loading up an emulator. But hey, if anyone decides to update Parsec or Chisolm Trail, let me know!

I had Count Chocula for breakfast this morning.

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

…and it was every bit as horrible as I remember. I should at least thank Target for that trip down memory lane. I’ve never understood “chocolate” cereals. Cocoa Puffs? Cocoa Krispies? Keep ‘em!

Get him fast before he becomes an archduke.

Get him fast before he becomes an archduke.

I still always had a soft spot for this one. It has a vampire on it! I have to at least try to like it!

Oh well, back to Cookie Crisp and Lucky Charms for me.

Top 5 Atari 2600/VCS Games

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Sorry I’ve been neglecting this site. There’s been some busy times. With video games…

But on that subject, let’s talk about some of the best games to have ever been available in the homes of young folks. I didn’t have a 2600 of my own, but was graced with the much cooler library of the off-beat Odyssey2 (but we’ll talk about that another time). Everyone else had a 2600 though, so I got to spend some serious time with the library. Most of the games don’t stand up well compared to what we’ve got now. Heck, most of them weren’t even that good for the time, but you weren’t about to get arcade quality in the home back then. Let’s take a look at some of the best of them. Games I can even play to this day (except Demon Attack, which isn’t on my Flashback 2.0).

Without further ado, here’s my Top 5:

1 – Demon Attack

Demons, attacking.

Demons, attacking.

Ok, I know I just made fun of the box, but this game was really classic. Atari never got a decent iteration of Galaga or Galaxians, but this took things to the next level. First of all the game was a lot more active than any competitors out there. The demons were fast, unpredictable, and mean. They might swoop for you in a kamikaze attack, or maybe shoot a beam that moved with them. Sometimes when you shot them, they just split into two smaller, harder to hit targets and fired the same big old beams at you. Sometimes they just made you throw the controller with rage. Well, me anyways.

It wasn’t just the enhanced difficulty and unique enemies that sold the game, though. It looked good, with a ton of color and some sharply defined sprites that you don’t see in a lot of old Atari games. And the sound was practically terrifying, with a heartbeat thump that was as terrifying as the Telltale Heart.

2 – Adventure

Adventure.  You are the dot.

Adventure. You are the dot.

Ok, the hero of Adventure may not have as much personality as Dirk the Daring, but this was still the first epic fantasy adventure you could play at home. It had castles, dragons, horrible bats, and the deadly enchanted…arrow. Yeah. That’s supposed to be a sword, but it’s just not, man.

Still, the game manged to seem huge, with 29 screens of gameworld (plus one of the first easter egg screens) and multiple items that were needed to overcome the obstacles in your quest. Also the game could take forever because of that *&#$ bat, who would just take whatever you were holding and give you useless crap. Or an angry dragon. Yes. A bat carrying a dragon makes sense.

Still, as long as you had the wit and patience, you could always finish the game. Adventure was one of the first video games where you couldn’t die, but that didn’t necessarily make the harder levels feel any easier. Yet it was all worth it when you brought that grail back into your castle and witnessed the glorious victory palette-cycling.

3 – Pitfall

Amazing 3-color sprites!

Amazing 3-color sprites!

Oh yes. The first real home platformer. The first one that looked any good, anyways. Pitfall was a relentlessly hard game, but memorization could take you a long way. Sure all you did was run back and forth and jump over obstacles, but many would say that aside from a little vertical depth, that’s all you did in most platform games. And it certainly did a great job of skirting the line where it was hard enough to be rewarding, but not so impossible that you felt like it was deliberately crushing your hopes and dreams.

Like Demon Attack, Pitfall also showed us that a talented 3rd party developer could really make a pretty game. Solid colors and spites that didn’t look like splotches were pretty amazing. The 3-color Pitfall Harry probably had the most personality we’d see in a home videogame character until Super Mario Bros. hit the scene.

Pitfall II eventually did build a huge, open game world, but there’s something to be said for the simple challenge of just staying alive through screen after screen of jerkwad crocodiles and obnoxious scorpions. And amazingly passive snakes. Those were some damn lazy snakes.

4 – Combat

Not pictured: the same exact thing but with planes

Not pictured: the same exact thing but with planes

Before there was Street Fighter, true men resolved their differences over Combat. It’s still hard to believe that 2 dinky tank sprites could generate such visceral competition, but that game was a brutal test of skill. And concealed in the game modes were anything from hardcore skill-based ricochet tanks battles, to comical gage battles between a giant plane and and air force of smaller opponents (this was hideously unbalanced in favor of the smaller planes, but little kids always wanted to be the big, badass one).

Moreso than later games, Combat was a true test of skill vs. skill. No character balance, no random powerups. Only your feeble steering came between you and certain death.

5 – Yar’s Revenge

Fly vs. Enormous Space Cannon: Guess which one you are.

Fly vs. Enormous Space Cannon: Guess which one you are.

Coming late in the game from Atari, Yar’s Revenge showed something that wouldn’t be seen for a while in their console division: creativity. Not long after this, Atari would begin pushing out mediocre ports of their arcade games, and even more mediocre clones of industry standard formulas, some of which had horrible licenses attached.

Yar’s Revenge was a repeating boss fight, at least we would call it that these days. You had to coordinate the actions of your little robotic fly as you gradually ate away at the shields of a dealy super cannon with your puny laser. While doing this you were chased by space missiles and could potentially be shot by the super cannon. Only with the deadly cannon exposed could you retaliate with your own weapon of mass destruction. The overall experience was something a little different from the classic shooter of the time and really required you to divide your attention among multiple threats and stratgeies.

Also it came with a rockin’ comic book. Gotta love the comic books.

Secret Plan: Lay our eggs on some rotten meat.  Don\'t tell anyone.

Secret Plan: Lay our eggs on some rotten meat. Don't tell anyone.

Well, some people may be enraged by my lack of River Raid, or that sweet Return of the Jedi game, but as far as I am concerned, these are the real classics. I still play all of these except Demon Attack on my Flashback 2.0 (and the lack of Demon Attack is sorely disappointing). I can’t say that about a lot of home retrogames.