Sunday, 28 October 2012

Day 155 - twisted, but in a good way

I fancied a bit of old-school gaming this weekend, but then I remembered an e-mail I'd had earlier in the week from my Kickstarter account.  Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams had been released!

I quite enjoyed the original Great Giana Sisters back in the day.  It was as close to Super Mario Bros. as I was ever going to get, and it helped usher in a new breed of platform game.  It was epic, it was fun, and it kept you playing in an attempt to find all the hidden secrets.  It still annoys me that my parents threw my copy away after I moved out of their house!

Poor cute Giana, having to get through this horrible land!
Anyway, I wrote about all this on Day 76, so I doubt you want to hear it again.  You probably want to know whether the new game lives up to its origins.  I'll give you my first impressions...

The first thing you notice is that Giana is beautiful.  Platform games aren't generally renowned for making your jaw drop with their looks, but this game is gorgeous.  In fact, it's doubly gorgeous, because each level has a completely different background, depending on which sister you're playing as.

Musically, it's also a bit of a treat, with both Chris Huelsbeck and Machinae Supremacy providing twists on the original's tunes, and again, these segue seamlessly between one or the other, depending on which sister you happen to be.

Aargh! What a nightmare for punky Giana!
This is exactly the same place as in the screenshot above. What a difference!
The gameplay is a little harder for me to comment on at this point.  It's still early days for me, for one thing... I still have a lot of ground to explore, and many features to discover.  Also, with the game looking as good as it does, it's not running all that quickly on the laptop I played it on.  I'll be putting it on my new laptop soon, though, and I expect that one to cope substantially better.  I expect I'll comment further then.

That said, it's good fun, and retains the tradition of the original Great Giana Sisters while taking it in a different direction.  As you'd expect, collecting diamonds is a large part of each level, although there are now three colours of the gems: blue, which either sister can collect; yellow, which only cute Giana can collect; and red, which only punky Giana can collect (wasn't she called Maria in the original?).

He's a big fella! Bet I'll have to beat him, somewhere down the line.
There are hidden areas to find, as you'd expect, and these are also found through twists on the original's gameplay.  For instance, in the first game, if you stood on bridges for too long, they dissolved away.  In this game, the bridges morph between broken and complete, depending on which persona's world you inhabit, and this helps you find your way to otherwise unreachable areas.

All the hard work and the stress of the Kickstarter appears to have paid off, with Black Forest Games having produced something which is more than worthy of the original's name, and which wears its old-school heart on its sleeve whilst having a really refreshing look and feel to it.  There's a lot of game here, which might eventually pale through lack of variety, but I'm very happy with the outcome and look forward to getting stuck into it properly.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Day 150 - 10,000!

I'm now five months into this project, and today I hit 10,000 page views.  I'll be honest, I'm pretty happy with that.  It's not like I've got any major backing from big websites or anything... there's just me spamming Facebook and Twitter, and website message boards that I was already a member of.  Who knows?  Maybe I'll ramp things up when there's more to talk about.

That said, I'll always appreciate any efforts my readers might want to make in plugging this.  The whole point of doing it is to attract readers, so the more I have the better.  I might even dish out rewards for anyone that gets me some good publicity... I've got about a dozen games on Steam, just waiting to be gifted (I will state that they're not current releases!).

Is there a more recognisable 80s' software house logo?
I will give a shout out to ex-Ocean graphics wiz Mark Jones, who's support of this project is much appreciated.  It's great to have people I intend to write about being so enthusiastic about this book, and quite important to me, too... it helps to validate what I'm doing, and lends it an air of authenticity.

Actually, if you're any kind of 8-bit computer fan, you ought to check out what Mark is doing to showcase Ocean's contribution to computer gaming.  The Ocean Software Facebook page constantly has new material posted, as does the Ocean Software website.  You'll find tons of fascinating pictures, storyboards and background there... it's really interesting.

Questions, questions... but who will I be questioning next?
What comes next, then?  What would you like to see?  I'm conscious of the fact that behind the scenes work isn't terribly interesting.  I'm trying hard to get a pool of stock questions for people, because I intend to send out a big batch of requests soon, but it's pointless doing that if I get a load of positive replies, only to sit there for ages trying to think of good questions!

Anyway, here's to the next 10,000 page views, the next 100 posts, and the next people who jump on board with me.  We're still looking at a great book here, the like of which is just not out there.  Let's get as many people on board as we can!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Day 148 - Funkytown

It seems odd to be writing this just after saying how re-energised I am, but I've been in a bit of a funk lately.  I think part of that may be down to the fact that two of my biggest, most recent posts have been tributes to programmers that we have lost.  It's a blow to us all, to have these talents taken away, and it does put you in a bit of a down mood.

I've been perking myself up a bit through the medium of MAME.  When your mojo takes a hit, you can always rely on a good blast of arcade gaming to give it a shot in the arm.  I'm not saying they're necessarily better than the games I'm writing about for this book... just more immediate.

Something else I'm doing with old arcade games is making myself a big batch of ringtones.  I love messing around with stuff like that.  I first started out using bits of music tracks from my favourite artists, and then with bits of Commodore 64 tunes.  But it's much harder to make really good ringtones like that... they may be your favourite tunes, but they're not necessarily best-suited to the purpose.

Now, would any of these be good for texts?  No?
Well, there's another hundred or so to try.
Arcade sounds, on the other hand, are perfect.  Whether it's an "Insert Coin" sound effect or a game over jingle, there are a lot more sounds that are short, snappy and, well, ringtone-y.  So I've now got well over a hundred of the things that I can tailor to all manner of things.  I just find it great fun to play with things like that.

In other words, and connected to the start of my post, I've started reaching out to people who were connected to Gods that we have lost.  There's a number of people I would love to include in the book that sadly cannot speak for themselves, and while I'm able to write plenty about their games, I can't write much about the people themselves.  If I can include some personal tributes from those that knew or worked with them, it will be a nice touch, I feel.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Night has fallen... goodbye Mike Singleton, the Lord of Midnight

Man, this is getting quite upsetting... we're losing too many of our Gods.  News has reached me that legendary programmer Mike Singleton, author of bona fide classics The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge, has passed away.

ZX Spectrum fans will be most familiar with Mike Singleton's work, and although it might not be a surprise to learn he started his games programming career in the days of the ZX81 and VIC-20, it might be more of a surprise to find he worked on games right up to Codemasters' recent racing thrill-fest, Race Driver: GRID.  He also appeared to be collaborating on a version of The Lords of Midnight for mobile platforms... let's hope the author still manages to get that released, it would be a fine tribute.

The Lords of... GRID-night?
Although he moved on to be responsible for a number of Amiga and ST classics, I'm going to concentrate on the games Mike released in the time period I'm writing about... the games he wrote for the Spectrum.

I'll be honest, because I only got to play on Spectrums in short bursts, I found myself baffled by The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge.  They were far, far deeper than anything I'd ever encountered up to that point... I was all about arcade games.  It was after I'd been hooked by The Bard's Tale on the Commodore 64 that I went back to them, playing the C64 conversions.  I can't lay claim to having beaten the games, but I did learn to appreciate and enjoy them quite a bit.  But they weren't Mike Singleton's only games... I'm going to start with the 16K games.


When someone writes a game named after Gandalf's horse, you know immediately where they're coming from.  Having said that, with only 16K to work with you couldn't be expecting a Lord of the Rings-style epic.  What you get is a game that reminds me of Stampede on the Atari 2600.  Riding your beautifully-animated white horse from right to left, you must fire lightning bolts at the hordes of Sauron's dread riders.  And... that's it.  A high score is your reward for surviving for as long as possible.  It's simplistic arcade fun, and an innocuous start to a storied career.

Ride, my beauty... ride like the wind!

Taking on a more traditional military theme, Siege sees you atop a particularly high wall, which is being scaled by a seemingly-infinite army.  Luckily, you have a seemingly-infinite supply or projectiles to drop on them, knocking them from the wall.  It reminds me, oddly, of Kaboom! on the Atari, except you get to be at the top of the wall rather than at the bottom doing the catching.  Again, it's simple, but it's pretty good fun.

This isn't going to end well...
Snake Pit

A cross between Snake and PacMan, Snake Pit sees you as a yellow circular thing with a big mouth, who likes nothing more than eating eggs.  The trouble is, once you start eating eggs, you free some big, horrible snakes, and they like eating yellow circular things with big mouths.  A bit of a problem, that.  On the other hand, if you eat all the eggs, you then get to try and eat the snakes, so it's not all bad.  It's OK for what it is, and probably went down really well on the 16K machine at the time.

Snakes.  Why did it have to be snakes?
3-Deep Space

I thought that this was a straightforward space shoot 'em up with fiddly controls, until I did a bit of research, which revealed that this actually was, literally, a 3D shooter!  That explained a lot!  That being the case, I couldn't really give it a proper go, as you need 3D glasses to see exactly what you're doing... the ships move on a 3D plane, so you can only destroy them if you're on the same plane.  It's a pretty ambitious and innovative effort in that case, but one I can't really comment on properly.

I bet this looks better through funny glasses.
The Lords of Midnight

Nothing that Mike Singleton had previously done had given any indication as to what would be next.  You just couldn't imagine that someone who had programmed some fairly simple-but-enjoyable arcade-style games would suddenly come out with one of the most epic strategy-cum-adventure-cum-fantasy war games that had ever been seen.  Indeed, the combination of genres made The Lords of Midnight one of the most original games available in its time.

Luxor the Moonprince... the original pensive hero.
Intended as the first of a trilogy, this is not a game to play when you have a few minutes spare, although it's possible you can lose in minutes when you first start out.  But even after a few hours, you've only just begun to scratch the surface.

The object of the game is to take Prince Luxor and defeat the Wichking, Doomdark, who is threatening to seize complete control of the Lands of Midnight.  As you would expect of someone who is a Witchking, Doomdark is quite evil and has a huge force at his disposal.  But evil will always be opposed, and there are characters all across the land who may be willing to help Luxor in his quest... if you can find them.

This doesn't look good.  Do you think if I get a round in they'll be OK?

Fortunately, Luxor has three allies from the beginning, and you can also control them in your attempt to destroy Doomdark and his armies.

Once you begin, you start to realise just how impressive the scope of this game is.  For a start, the story, although heavily inspired by Lord of the Rings, is very well fleshed-out.  The number of unique characters you encounter is also surprisingly large, and given that you can send any or all of your four initial characters in any direction and in any combination right from the beginning, it could take you a long, long time before you encounter them all.

Rorthron the Wise is also Rorthron the Deadly, it seems...
For all that, though, you never feel as though you're stuck in a boring trudge across the landscape.  You always feel as though you're part of something epic, and that danger and evil is lurking around every corner.  And with two distinct ways of completing the game, the longevity is guaranteed.  The Lords of Midnight has inspired countless games, and is rightly regarded as a classic.

Doomdark's Revenge

How do you follow a game like The Lords of Midnight?  How about with a sequel that is bigger, more involved and which addresses any small issues that the original may have had?  That always sounds like a good idea, and so it was that Mike Singleton released Doomdark's Revenge.

He's back, and still awesome. As a side-note, the only time I ever played D&D, my
character was called Luxor.  Bastard DM killed him off within an hour of starting.
With Doomdark beaten, the Lands of Midnight are peaceful again... or so everyone thinks.  What they didn't take into account was that Doomdark the Witchking had a daughter... Shareth the Heartstealer.  And she is now consumed by anger and fury... not that her father is dead, but that someone else killed him before she could.  That's how you know she's especially evil, and that trouble is just around the corner...

Doomdark's Revenge sees you travelling to the Lands of Icemark, where Shareth dwells.  The quest is larger, more epic and more involved, for you are not just attempting to destroy Shareth, but also to find Luxor's son, Morkin, who has been spirited away by the evil Heartstealer.

Tarithel is attempting to win back her love, who was taken by Shareth.
A showdown at the end could be the 8-bit equivalent of female jelly wrestling.
This time around there are more commands at your disposal, and it seems slightly more user-friendly.  The map is quite a.bit bigger than in Lords of Midnight, but consequently seems less inhabited.  I suppose you might expect that, especially in a land called Icemark, but in games like this you actually like bumping into things.

Special mention must go to the superb packaging of these games.  The artwork is striking and excellent, and the inclusion of the novellas with the instructions really helps to set the scene and get the story across.

"Luxor is not at all despondent".
He obviously wasn't planning to watch Poland v England on Tuesday night.
Doomdark's Revenge is certainly a worthy sequel to The Lords of Midnight, and a great game in its own right.  It will forever remain our loss that we will not see The Eye of the Moon, and the conclusion of the trilogy

Throne of Fire

This game was designed by Mike Singleton, but apparently not programmed by him.  I'm sure there's a story behind that, maybe I'll be able to find out.  There's a story behind the game too, and it's typically involved.

King Atherik is dead, and the Throne of Fire is empty.  Atherik had three sons: Alorn, the Lion Prince; Cordrin, the Sun Prince; and Karag, the Wolf Prince.  Only one of these sons can take over the Throne... but the condition is that whoever takes the Throne must be the last one alive.  So begins a cat-and-mouse hunt throughout the castle, with ultimate rule being the prize, and death awaiting the losers!

Avast, ye varlet!  Oh wait, that's pirates, isn't it?
This is a very novel premise, and I'm not sure if I've ever seen it repeated, although I suppose it is a little like the forefather of the deathmatch, as it is possible to play a two-player game using the split-screen.  The castle interior is displayed on a map at the bottom of the screen, but you can only see a small part of it at a time.  Handily, it shows you which rooms are occupied, and by which Prince's men, so you always know whether you're going to be in a fight or not.

Sadly, the fighting is the least satisfying part of the game.  All that happens is you walk into a room with an enemy, the two characters waggle their weapons at each other, and one of them vanishes.  There's no feel involved, no feedback or even any real idea if you're winning or losing.  I don't know if it would have been difficult to implement some kind of energy system (besides the beating heart at the top of the screen), but it would have helped.

And with that, my dreams of being King are over.
That said, it's still a fun game and the allure of becoming King is strong.  With a little bit of tweaking, Throne of Fire could have been a classic.  As it is, it's "merely" a fairly entertaining romp.

Dark Sceptre

I will always remember the first time I saw Dark Sceptre in Crash magazine.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  The characters were huge!  And it looked like a fighting game... it had to be awesome!

Harry was late for his Ku Klux Klan initiation.
Of course, being a Mike Singleton game, it isn't really a fighting game at all.  It is, in fact, a very strategic game where although the characters fight, you don't personally swing a single sword in anger.  Instead, you're like the supreme commander, and you issue orders to your legion who will do their best to carry out your will.

The story goes that the Northlanders, their ships battered by wild seas, ended up at the Islands of the Western Sea.  Generously, the Lord of the Isles offered them shelter through the winter, and strong ships for their journey home when spring arrived.

The list of commands, as you can see, is quite extensive.
The Northlanders, though, chose not to leave, demanding land to make their homes.  The Lord of the Isles was not pleased, and fashioned a magical Dark Sceptre with which he planned to drive out the Northlanders.  The plan went awry when the Sceptre gave the Northlanders a terrible power, and turned them into Lords of Shadow.  The Sceptre would have to be destroyed to rid the Isles of this evil.

Dark Sceptre is not a fast, action-packed game.  Far from it.  But it's really quite compelling.  Choosing one of your characters, giving him a series of commands and then watching him stalk the landscape, attempting to carry them out, is compulsive stuff.  I found myself really intrigued as each of my warriors went to do battle with the Lords of Shadow.

Go on, son.  Get stuck in!
As you would expect, you're not going to beat this game quickly.  In fact, it takes a lot of planning and experimentation to get anywhere at all.  It will take weeks of in-game time to drive out the Northlanders, and it's not something that will be to everyone's taste.  Personally, I was easily interested enough to persevere, and I want to play it again even now.

War in Middle Earth

After all the games that were inspired by The Lord of the Rings, it was inevitable that there would eventually be a game based directly on The Lord of the Rings.  The only surprise is that Mike Singleton didn't actually design the game he programmed.

What isn't a surprise is that War in Middle Earth is an epic war game.  How could it be anything else?  The object of the game is to... oh, come on.  Really?  You must know this by now.  Oh, alright... the evil Sauron has lost his ring of power, and he wants it back.  The ring has found its way to the unlikeliest of owners, the unassuming Hobbit, Frodo.  An allegiance is made between all the races of Middle Earth, and a quest to Mount Doom to destroy the ring is undertaken.  It must be successful... Middle Earth depends upon it.

If only Peter Jackson had done the graphics...
The game displays a map of the whole of Middle Earth.  Highlighted on it are various factions, and you have a gloved hand at your disposal with which you can select any of these, or just magnify any part of the land if you want.

This is where your strategy comes into play.  You must move your "pieces" into place so that you can counter Sauron's forces.  You choose each unit, give them an order, then select the "Time" button, and everyone will begin to move accordingly.  Sauron's armies will also move at this point, so you must hope that your moves are strong enough to counter his, and that eventually you can drop the ring into Mount Doom, thus destroying it and returning peace to the land.

I'm not sure about that Frodo.  He doesn't seem determined enough for this task.
As quests go, there aren't many more epic than this one.  There's an enormous amount of game here for those that are strategically-inclined, and it will no doubt take months to achieve a successful outcome.  For me, personally, it's a strategy game too far.  It's just a bit much for my meagre brain to grasp, and though I struggled manfully with it I didn't get anywhere.  Anyone with a penchant for controlling armies and a love of little men with big hairy feet, though, would have no doubt loved War in Middle Earth.

There were other games, of course, on other systems, with various degrees of involvement.  The Midwinter games, especially, are highly renowned.  For Spectrum owners in particular, though, the legacy of great games is as strong as that of anyone you could care to mention.

I had hoped to talk to Mike Singleton about the games I've written about and his Eighties' programming days.  Indeed, I'd recently sent an email to someone asking if it might be possible.  Sadly, I didn't even realise he was ill, and it was not to be, but I will certainly be featuring his works in my book, and would love to include quotes in tribute from those that knew and worked with him, or were inspired by him.

We, as creatures, are not on this planet for long.  It's important to try and leave our own mark on it, in some way, while we are here.  Mike Singleton has left an enormous, indelible mark, one that has inspired generations and will no doubt continue to do so.  He will be sadly missed.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Day 138 - keeping house

Sorry folks, this is a very dull update.  But I suppose it's necessary.  It's all very well writing blog posts about games I've been playing, but I do have to work on the book as well... that is my primary focus, after all.  And in doing that, I have to do some less glamourous stuff, too.

Today, I've been doing some housekeeping.  I've had workmen at home and an almost-terrified two-year-old practically welded to my lap, so it's been difficult to do anything of note.  So I thought I'd take the opportunity to tidy things up... and that's led to a lot of additions, with more to come!

Oooh, what a tease!  I bet you can hardly make out any of those names...
I've been looking at my folders on my computer, and adding separate sub-folders to each person's folder for all their different games... or at least, for those where I hadn't finished doing that.  But, as you might expect, it helped me realise that a good few names were still missing.  So I've bolstered my line-up of potential subjects quite considerably this afternoon, and expect to do so further.

At this point, though, I've got in excess of a hundred people that I'd like to talk to and include in the book, and I'll be adding more.  Each of those people has their own set of sub-folders, and if each sub-folder took one page of book, I'd have over a thousand pages at the end of this.  The scale of this thing could be unprecedented, but it'll definitely be scaled back a bit before completion.  Still, I hope you like my ambition!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Day 137 - re-energised.

For weeks now I've been labouring under a cloud... the cloud of real work.  It wasn't that I've had too much on at work, although it has been very busy.  It was the fact that a couple of promotion opportunities came up.  It meant, first of all, that I had to put a lot of time and effort into the applications.  Then I had to prepare for an interview.  Finally, I had to sit and wait... and nobody likes waiting.  It eats away at your enthusiasm for everything else.

Finally, though, the waiting has come to an end.  I've actually been successful, too!  I feel uplifted to a degree, and relieved in turn.  And it means I can get on with everything else with a clear mind and new focus.  That's good news for this book (and the blog).

I can't promise that this will return to being a daily production... there's only so much I can do without repeating myself, and I do want this book to have a decent amount of original, fresh, exclusive words.  But the pace will pick up once again.

Next time will be harder...
In that regard, I'm going to be making substantially greater efforts when it comes to contacting people that I want in this book.  I expect that I'll be abusing Facebook privileges in this regard... many of our Gods have a Facebook presence, so I'll get past my British reserve and just message them outright.  They'll either say "Yes", or they'll say "No".  Or they'll ignore me because they get tons of requests like this.  One of those.

Hopefully, they'll go with "Yes".  Whichever way it goes, I'll be pressing on and putting a good amount of content together for the book itself.  I've been writing pieces on a number of games and people, so that they're ready to insert comments into.  You'll all be thrilled to know that I still have no idea how this will end up, and that I might need either a dedicated editor or half a rainforest for the number of pages it could run to.  I'll make that kind of decision when the time comes.  For now, I'll be running down my A-Z list and cracking on...

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Day 134 - oh, the Payne

Hey there!

Yeah, I know... it's been all quiet on the They Were Our Gods front of late.  To be honest, that's a problem most bloggers have... you can only write every day for so long.  And when I'm using up words for this book project too, then eventually something has to give.

Also pulled from the excuses hat is the 'work' card... I've had loads on, and as I've been attempting to get promotion there on two fronts, it's meant I've had to put in a lot of extra work to try and get my applications looking good.  But that's all done with now, and I'm just sitting waiting for the outcome.

It might look dramatic, but that's going to hurt when he lands.
I've now got a well-deserved week off, in which I intend to give this blog, and the book, some right hammer.  But I thought I'd do a bit of gaming first... and a game I rented a little while ago was Max Payne 3.

Now, I'm not a big fan of first-person shooters.  I'm rubbish at them.  Third-person shooters, I enjoy a lot more.  I'm still not that great at them, but for some reason I just find them more enjoyable to play, as a rule. Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, for instance, has been one of my favourite gaming experiences of the current generation.  And as Max Payne 3 is also published by Rockstar, I expected more of the same  Well, maybe with less animal skinning...

Pure evil, in digital form.
So far, it hasn't quite worked out to plan.  I'm absolutely terrible at this game.  I blundered through the first bit reasonably well, which gave me hope that I'd improve as things went on.  No such luck.  I'm only on the second chapter or whatever it is, and I'm repeating the same section over and over and over again, and dying every time, making absolutely no progress with it whatsoever.  It makes me want to give up already.

In some ways, though, that's a remarkably old-school bit of game design.  After all, how many times in the Eighties did we play a game and, in particular, one section of a game over and over again, before finally triumphing heroically?  Personally, I have particularly painful memories of the C5 section of Monty on the Run.  I must have failed on that section of the game at least a hundred times, and it's scarred on my brain.

Ahhh, there's lovely. Until I get to the bosses, anyway. Then I'm rubbish again.
Eventually, however, with perseverance and no little amount of skill, I made it through that section and managed to complete the game... yes, without cheating.  It still stands today as one of my proudest gaming accomplishments.  And if I could do it back then, I can damn well do it today.  Max Payne won't be the beating of me.  I'm going to crack on with it, and I'm going to complete it.  I will be triumphant!

Well, unless I get distracted by NiGHTS into dreams...