Friday, July 26, 2013

"Star Control 2", 1992.

A propos of nothing, did you hear that the rights to the Star Control name had been sold the other day? Apparently in a bankruptcy filing, the shambling zombie company that was the French Infogrames wearing the ragged and torn-off face of Atari as a kind of mask was selling off properties from their back catalogue and this one hit the block. Who knew? (If so, I'm sure a consortium of fans could have got together the wherewithal to get a sequel made right.) But I should give Stardock the benefit of the doubt; sci-fi is their bread and butter, and they did survive a disastrous origin as an OS/2-only developer. Maybe they can make this fly where Legend couldn't, stretching too far from their home turf.



SC2 is arguably the best computer game ever; definitely in the top 7 in any case. The singleplayer campaign is brilliantly and hilariously written and scripted, with groundbreaking music and addictive ship combat and minigames, but the supermelee mode it includes allows indefinite 2D pseudo-SpaceWar duelling with computer or human players between any of a wide, wide variety of alien spacecraft. (The ships are carefully balanced with their primary and secondary attack modes, hearkening back to an earlier chess-like game by one of the primary developers Paul Reiche III, Archon, phonetically echoed in this game's abbreviation: StarCon.) It is the sequel to a solid series launch and sadly had a critically panned third game made by a different dev team entirely, which canned the whole franchise for a decade and a half. I never realised to what extent it was built on the shoulders of giants until I read the CRPG Addict playing through the Starflight games, and barring a Star Control sequel, what the world really needs is those games re-implemented in the Ur-Quan Masters engine. (OK, maybe a few other things first.) But we'll see, let's give these guys a chance.

Not a lot of nits to pick in this ad; it's shooting for a suitable epic feel (explicitly), but what is lost here is any sense of the cartoony hilarity the game offers: it's jarring to see the goofy Spathi cruiser rendered as a serious space station. Also, the artist had evidently had a Kzer-Za Ur-Quan described to him without ever actually seeing one in-game.

I'll close with some personal anecdotes. When I heard SC2's .MOD music coming out of my PC speaker for the first time I just about plotzed. Back in high school I took some quite detailed notes regarding new ships I'd like to introduce into the Supermelee, and which I attempted to partially (no sprite editing) implement using a ship statistic editor some hacker had thrown together. Every morning before class for several months (and every afternoon when class was done!) I'd convene at a friend's house and we would sharpen our ship-to-ship combat skills. Another friend who asked for a good game was given this, then complained that we had given "the best" game, which demanded more of her time and focus than she had wanted, and who feared finding all subsequent games lacking.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Sword of Aragon", 1989.

It's been a while. Things have been hairy. But I had to rouse myself from my radio silence, as my blogstar favorite the CRPG Addict has been covering one of my all-time favorite underdog video games, SSI's 1989 fantasy strategy-RPG hybrid Sword of Aragon, which took up more than a few of my high school afternoons. This ad is scanned from an issue of Dragon magazine, which, boasted a comic strip section ("Dragonmirth") as well as great mini-comics like Wormy and Phil Foglio's awesome What's New? with Phil and Dixie.


  • Lead an army of warriors, knights, and mages to conquer the mystical land of Aragon.
  • Move across the strategic map and zoom into highly detailed tactical combat against deadly foes such as evil humans, orcs, trolls, giants, cyclops, dragons, and minotaurs.
  • You must also deal with the problems of medieval economics and resource allocation.
Strategic map showing a knight scouting the road to Paritan.

Tactical map showing an assault on the fortified city of Marinia.

Deadly combat between your forces and a dragon.

  • IBM PC
  • COMMODORE 64/128
Why do your fantasy games require place names from the real world? This game does not take place in Spain. Ultima and the Bard's Tale do not elapse in the Orkney Islands. OK, let's proceed.

The text plays it pretty straight. "[W]arriors, knights, and mages" -- I like the nominal mage in the picture. "Hello, fighting men -- I am participating in this photo shoot to help indicate that this game is not only medieval, but also fantasy." The land of Aragon does have the standard Tolkien roster of demihumans (orcs, elves, dwarves, etc.) but I don't know that I'd go so far as to call it mystical, mired down as it is in commerce development and variable taxation. That stuff is the kiss of death to mysticism. The tactical combat is indeed highly detailed, especially for 1989, and it's funny how they stress the morality of the game's manifest destiny of military conquest by emphasizing how the humans players will fight are evil. Well then! It is also possible to conduct combat against good humans, but we won't put that in the ad. The list of foes is actually pretty exhaustive, though strangely they omit the goblins and titans which constitute a certain bread and butter of seasonal random encounters, while overstating a couple species of opponents which are basically one-off bosses. Bonus points also for unintended hilarity with "You must also deal with the problems of medieval economics and resource allocation." Well now my fantasy simulation is complete! The Santa Paravia factor wouldn't exactly be selling games into the '90s, but they may not have realised it at the time.

The ad artwork is relatively beyond reproach, with just a few curiosities. Mace man at the bottom right, trying to use that unbalanced weapon in combat would tear off your own arm, though the studs are a nice touch. The warhorse has just received a formidable punch from off-screen. Mage, stop flirting with your sexy footwear. Those screen shots won't exactly sell the game, though I played it in monochrome and found the graphics perfectly serviceable.

Players wouldn't really see anything else like this until 1994's Master of Magic from Simtex and Microprose, which thrives on two factors that SoA could have benefited from: multiplayer gaming and map randomization. All the same, this game's scripted campaign yields some very satisfying canned narrative on top of occasionally-bemusing emergent storytelling. As I noted at the CRPG Addict's site, anyone interested in this title should know that one of SoA's original devs has revisited the territory with a browser game.

Two parting notes: SSI received a license TSR to make D&D games back in 1987, so why was this set in a roll-your-own fantasy world which was merely... very similar to any number of D&D settings? Also: I am highly confident that the Commodore 64 version mentioned in this ad never made it to market. That's it! I'll try not to stay away for so long before the next post!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"Masters of the Universe", 1983.

Before I got distracted by a cyberpunkian tangent, briefly here it was '80s nostalgia power-hour with my posting ads for video games based on Transformers and G.I. Joe, but the series was ... incomplete. Something was missing. Something... mighty and masterful.


THE POWER OF HE-MAN(tm) for Intellivision(r) and Atari(r) 2600. It's the first Masters of the Universe(tm) video game, but it could be the last for He-Man(tm). because even if he survives thirty treacherous miles in his Wind Raider(tm) he still has to battle Skeletor(tm) in the mysterious Castle Grayskull(tm)!

The text doesn't give us much to work with: the Big Boss threat of Skeletor at the end isn't of much concern, since he always crumbles immediately in the cartoon; far more difficult is a protracted test of He-Man's piloting skills. Maybe the forces of Good should have recruited the aerial specialists Stratos or Zoar for this portion, leaving He-Man well-rested to employ his unique talent of cleaning up at the end.

Fortunately, we can always snipe at ad artwork until the cows come home. Staff artist: "What colour is Beast-Man's face? No, you know what -- just forget it." Tri-Clops looks genuinely badass, while a certain breeze is passing over Skeletor's loins. (And his boot, existing purely for aesthetic purposes, showing off his demonic pedicure -- or is it an arch support prosthetic?) Skeletor's sword looks more dangerously effective than He-Man's, but it also looks like he might prefer to take a chomp out of our hero, echoing Greyskull's beckoning maw. I was going to ask "what's with the fins on his forearms?", but a review indicates that this was a quality of his action figure, albeit one not reflected in his animated depictions. (Did they just re-tint Mer-Man arms for all the evil characters?) In some regards this promo art is better than the game's box art, which presents a truer-to-the-playset Castle Grayskull and bafflingly presents the neutral Metron-derivative Zodac as being among Skeletor's cronies. (Box art also makes He-Man's rippling thews look freshly waxed and oiled up, or more likely actually being blown-up balloons. This ad shows a leaner, hungrier Skeletor which I approve of. Are you listening, Mattel?)

I can report that at least one of the screenshots on display here are retouched from the originals, to emphasize outlines only implied by the game itself. And... that's a wrap!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"System Shock 2", Windows, 1999.

Hokay, let's end this cyberpunk game series on a high note -- here's an ad for Looking Glass' zenith, the second System Shock game, perfecting a series which cannily devised a perfect middle ground between telling the story of a ship's population of crew and avoiding emergent gameplay issues (whoops, a plot-essential character was just killed by a zombie while you were stuck in the elevator): have the entire story told through log entries found in various ship locations. (Apparently the approach was inspired by the Spoon River Anthology!) Most of the dialogue (one way or another) in this sequel was conducted with the big baddie, the malevolent AI SHODAN -- and here she is in all her glory, courtesy of World 1-1!
She doesn't need to use her body to get what she wants...
She's got yours.
Ultimate high-tech weaponry includes fully configurable, detailed equipment for amazing gameplay, depth and action.
Frightening 3D realism gives you an all too real first-person perspective. In fact, the environment is so true to life, your enemies are even sensitive to light and sound.
Intriguing character generation lets you choose from three distinct personalities, each with their own special weapons and abilities.

You awake aboard the Von Braun with a mind-altering implant in your brain and no memory of recent events. As you wander the dark, eerie decks of the derelict spacecraft, you discover an alien material is slowly taking over the ship -- feeding upon the flesh of your former comrades, leaving zombies and corpses in its wake. Behind the engulfing terror, you sense the presence of the evil cyber-being, SHODAN. She is seductive and sinister. And she pulls all the strings in the most chilling role playing game ever. Enter Shodan's terrifying world to discover her ultimate plan -- or die trying. For all the gorey details, visit

My recollection is that the reveal of SHODAN as the big villain, back from the first game, is somewhat of a spoiler, but here it is, the first thing you know about the game. The ad is really under-selling the game, with its boasts of "ultimate high-tech weaponry" and "special weapons". Not mentioned: you will spend most of the game swinging a crowbar because your ultimate high-tech weapons will degrade into high-tech slag, and you have finite ammunition supplies with which to dispatch infinitely-respawning opponents.
The "three distinct personalities" are worked through in an intriguing "basic training" sequence that owes a lot to Edu-Ware's 1978 "Space" for the Apple 2 or, let's be honest, GDW's Traveller RPG that they were both ripping off. Despite the scarcity of munitions here, the other two character types -- hacker and psionicist -- are ultimately underpowered. The hacker here is like the thief in Quest for Glory 3 -- just not much to burgle in the savanna. System Shock 1 has a much more developed cyberspace element, while here it is mostly reduced to playing mini rounds of Tic Tac Toe in order to open locked chests.
System Shock 1: what cyberspace is supposed to look like -- vector Atari arcade games, with transparent wireframe polys.

SS 2: hacking a Newton is lesser in scope.

Anyhow, there's nothing I have to say about this great and influential (hello, Bioshock) game that hasn't already been said by a thousand wags since the days when I watched my roommate (now a Google employee) tape up his curtains so as to ensure the darkest, most atmospheric environment in which to play this then-new game. It's recently become available for purchase and play on modern machines for the first time since the turn of the century, so do what you can to find your way to Good Old Games and get a copy if you missed it the first time around. (It was the most-requested game for addition to their catalogue, and years after wrangling with different rights-holders, they've finally been able to make it happen.)

There are so many other great cyberpunk games -- Beneath a Steel Sky, BloodNet, the Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic... (well, some of them were great!) but regrettably I don't have (and wasn't able to dig up with moderately casual searching) print ads for them to present and analyse for your edutainment. Fortunately, I do have no shortage of ads on other subjects, so do stay tuned for further great samplings of somewhat random materials.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

"Blade Runner", Windows, 1997.

Here we are -- another Westwood game, as promised, more than a little derived from Philip K. Dick (at least, as filtered through the sensibilities of Ridley Scott!) It qualifies as cyberpunk due to its provenance, a follow-up to a movie that practically defined the gritty high-tech look of a possible future despite not having any sequences set in "cyberspace" (though the game boasts the "ESPER photo analysis machine, administering the Voigt-Kampff replicant detection test, ... and analyzing clues with your Knowledge Integration Assistant" for futuretech points. Similarly, Manhunter doesn't count as cyberpunk despite its characters communicating online on their Manhunter Assignment Devices, since they're just bulky '80s laptops. But I digress.)
Westwood's own True Color Emulation delivers game play and break through lighting and special effects in screen (640 x 480).
Over 70 Real-Time virtual actors pursuing their own agendas that affect your final outcome each time you play.
Real-Time camera movements DURING game play, and Real Time animation with Westwood's own optical motion capture technology.

Armed with your investigative skills and the tools of a 21st century BLADE RUNNER(tm), you'll be immersed in a futuristic world that revolutionizes computer gaming, and tests your ability to survive in one of the richest and most atmospheric games ever created for the PC.

It's hard to engage purely technical ad blurbs, since even if the claims are incorrect, the refutations are hard to make interesting. It does appear to have some innovation here (3D actor digitization with voxels!) but in retrospect it's not so impressive to a blase contemporary audience. Intriguing and noteworthy aspects of this game include the use of piles of actors from the film (guess Sean Young hasn't been getting a lot of work lately... oh crap, this was 16 years ago!) and a certain degree of autonomous NPCs living their own lives resulting in no two sessions being a like, making your walkthrough worthless!

It's also an interesting member of the "licensing the property, but omitting the biggest part of it" category, like the Godfather game which used the faces and voices of all actors except for your character, represented in the film by Al Pacino (who was tied up in contractual tape for his likeness appearing exclusively in the Scarface game. But... digression.) This isn't a Blade Runner adaptation, more of a ... "gaiden" (trans. "side-story"), and it's not about the main character from the movie... just one of his co-workers. It's like: let's see just how close we can make him to Harrison Ford's Deckard without actually making him the same. (Worked for Sega's Space Channel 5: when Lady Miss Keir of Dee-Lite wanted more money for the use of her likeness than Sega was prepared to pay, they just tweaked the character model, renamed it Ulala, and paid her nothing. She took them to court, lost, and had to pay their court fees. If there was any groove remaining in her heart, it has been foreclosed.)

There is another licensed Blade Runner game (actually, is it licensed?) Basically, it is an adaptation... of the BR film's Vangelis soundtrack.

Blade Runner trivia: the film's name comes from producer efforts to find a less toxic name for their product than Philip K. Dick's short story that inspired it (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and optioned a totally unrelated William S. Burroughs screenplay about smugglers of medical supplies (blade runners, get it?) just for use of its name. Oh, what a tangled web we weave.