Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ultima: Exodus

Last night, after seeing a movie and not having anything to do, I played an old game I received in middle school. I remember the story behind how I got the game to be interesting, but I don't remember the exact details. I'll do my best: the year was probably 1997, I was in the 8th grade. Several other nerds played Ultima: Online, but I was still rocking the 56k, and didn't have a job to support a monthly-fee service nor a computer to run it on. I bought Ultima: Exodus because I wanted to play Ultima: Online, or at least become familiar with Ultima. Exodus isn't anything like Ultima: Online anyway. I paid a dollar for the cart, and a dollar for the kid's game genie. I still have both, and retrospectively continue to consider the trade an excellent decision.

The next day (after buying the game) I was sick. I was excited to skip school and play this new cart. I remember re-hooking my NES to the wood-paneled television in the living room and playing Ultima: Exodus for the first time. It reminded me of Dragon Warrior, for obvious reasons, yet with increased flexibility, race/class/gender/etc. which made creating a party fun and exciting. And I played the game all day, and promptly forgot about it (temporarily) soon after.

Ultima: Exodus is a 1987 NES port of Ultima 3, released on the Apple II in 1983. Exodus is one of the most influential games of all time, obviously inspiring both Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. In turn, those games inspired others, and the console RPG genre evolved and produced some of the best games ever made. Ultima: Exodus is clearly of great historical importance, though oddly absent from RPG history articles (usually Dragon Warrior, released in 1986, is credited with starting the console RPG revolution).

Back to last night: the first thing I noticed was that the music wasn't just good... it was fucking awesome. Suprisingly, almost suspiciously, awesome.

When the player starts a game, they will immediately be assaulted with a barrage of character choices inevitably resulting in a major fuck up five hours into the game (although during the process of fucking up your characters, you will be treated to the best song in the game). Pick your race: human, dwarf, bobit (lol, hobbit is trademarked), elf, or fuzzy (wtf? my guess is that this is something like a pixie). Does the game tell you the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each race? Hell no. (You might be able to guess, but who would guess that bobit is the best race for both Paladins and Clerics?) Then, the player chooses a class: Alchemist (a crappy wizard), Barbarian (a crappy fighter), Druid (can cast wizard and cleric spells), Fighter (gets weapons, but is somewhat crippled without magic), Illusionist (crappy cleric), Lark (aka, Bard, analogous to a wizard-fighter, great class), Paladin (cleric-fighter, another great class), Cleric (hulz people and opens chests), Ranger (a Druid-fighter, pretty decent but suffers from "red mage syndrome"; he isn't the best at anything), Thief (can open chests), and Wizard (death to everything). All of these brief descriptions are also not available in the game, so the player originally has no understanding of the game mechanics. To complicate the process even more, you have to allot stat points. The formula I rely on is maxing Int or Wis, depending upon if the character is a Wizard-type (Intelligence) or a Cleric-type (Wisdom). Then I put 20 points into Dex, and dump the rest into Str.

Don't pick characters without magic, they just plain suck. Magic regenerates by walking, and it regenerates pretty quickly. There is no reason to take a thief, fighter, or barbarian (or an alchemist or illusionist). Thieves can open chests, but so can anyone with Cleric spells. You can level up to level 5 using two spells: Repel and Undead (wizard and cleric spells, respectively), which can clear an entire screen of level 1-5 monsters for ZERO Magic Points.

And that's before the game even begins...

The main part of the game involves grinding on monsters, gaining gold, experience, exploring 3-D dungeons, maxing stats, talking to townspeople...

Speaking of townspeople... some of them say some pretty strange things. I'll leave them for you to find, but they reference the developers and the game itself several times. Luckily, these 4th-wall-breaking townsfolk are rare, making the discovery even more enjoyable.

The combat is like a game of chess. You can see monster formations before battle, and touching a monster will initiate combat. In combat, characters and monster move on a grid, and take turns flinging fireballs and daggers at one another. Melee characters are forced to walk forward for a few rounds before attacking, which is one of the inherent flaws about a Barbarian or Fighter. Even if you pick one of these classes, you'll no doubt equip them with a bow, because ranged damage is far more deadly than melee attacks.

The game also incorporates a weird "vision" system. You can only see what your main character would be able to see, and other tiles are completely black. You can see into a building, but only if you are standing in front of the door. You can't see over some walls. It's somewhat unsettling, because half of the map continues to disappear from existence, phasing in and out as your characters travel across the land. It grated my nerves originally, but I've grown to appreciate the concept. It makes surprises all the more interesting... but it does limit your vision. 2-D games work because you have absolute knowledge of your surroundings, but you can't see more than a few feet from your character because his vision is bound by the edges of the screen or monitor. Ultima: Exodus limits this view to an extreme, and philosophically I feel betrayed because the social gaming contract implies that the player should have a limited(by the monitor), but absolute knowledge of the game.

One can easily dwell on Ultima's problems. The balance is non-existent, characters have to keep eating food (or they die), the player can't see anything, the game gives you little-to-no direction, it is difficult to locate shops and churches, and the menu system is cumbersome. Obviously, the developers where going for realism and attempted to create a Dungeons & Dragons world where the player had lots of freedom.

Which is what Ultima: Exodus really does well. It's an early example of a sandbox game, with the player free to explore whatever they can, whenever they can, and only the final castle (Castle Exodus) is locked with story coupons that you have to cash in to gain entrance, but are otherwise useless in the game.

The graphics are hit-or-miss for 1987 (the gameplay is identical to the Apple II version, but the audiovisuals were upgraded), and the sprites are generally awesome. All of the player characters look great, including 64x64 pixel full-body portraits, which add a nice touch. Monsters look monstrous, and eventually grow in size. The backgrounds would be nice, but the line-of-sight system really breaks down what would otherwise be artistically framed screenshots. As humans, we enjoy looking at simple shapes in paintings, movies, and video games. Ultima: Exodus is like having a nice painting made of squares, and removing some of the pieces. It hurts the artistic presentation, unfortunately.

Ultima: Exodus has been surpassed by its predecessors (specifically Final Fantasy 3 and Dragon Warrior 3), but it's highly addictive. The game has so many problems that, ultimately, most players will walk away after a few hours. That doesn't negate the possibility of a few hours of good, old fashioned fun.

Thinking positively, you can attack any townsfolk. Even guards. Even the King! It's this wicked freedom that makes Ultima: Exodus great. Our actions have consequences, however, and guards will do their best to kill you after slaying an innocent (they are very effective at their job).

A few more quirks are bothersome: when NPCs move, they instantly teleport from tile to tile. This was a carry-over from the 1983 version, but it would have been nice to update the movements for the NES release. Also, the NES can only support 5 sprites on a column at a time... and your caterpillar party consists of 4 would-be adventurers. Sprites will flicker, but one should be able to forgive this problem considering most NES games feature occasional sprite flickering.

Ultima: Exodus left a great legacy, and paved the way for other games. Its soundtrack is hauntingly spectacular, and everyone should listen to at least one theme from the game. I suggest King Britain's Theme, I've been listening to a midi of it while writing this article. Exodus has an interesting little world to explore, I've lost myself inside its 8-Bit code for hours at a time. I don't even attempt any quests. Kill monsters, explore the countryside, occasionally killing a townsperson and then getting killed by guards. Never progressing that far, never accomplishing any specific goals, just being a slacker and having fun.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Legacy of the Wizard: Part 2

Here is how everything went down: the night was becoming quiet, and I had nowhere to go. Sami, my girlfriend, was coming in to town for the weekend, and I wanted to beat Legacy of the Wizard before she arrived. So, last Thursday I started the journey for the Final Crown. Xemn's. As some of my readers might know, Xemn's area is the block puzzle area. The puzzles revolve around pushing blocks, riding blocks, fucking up block puzzles and having to restart the area, and sometimes using blocks as a weapon.

His area is extremely twisted, and can take several hours to complete. I was stuck on several puzzles, but none of them proved too challenging. Finally, I saw the crown.

But there was a problem.

I couldn't reach it. I tried all possible block combinations, but nothing worked. Frustrated, I backtracked and saw a ladder that I had missed, and climbed it. I wondered on this path for a while until I fell through the floor (a hidden hole) and appeared on the opposite side of the crown. Tricky. Using my now-perfected block-pushing skills, I got the crown and watched as I flew through time and space to battle the Golem. Luckily, I had the Dragon Shield equipped and his bullets were like drops of water on a hot summer day. With Xemn's massive strength, he didn't last long.

I looked out of the window, and watched mosquitos and cicadas swarm the streetlights. A lone dog trotted down the road, and I thought of Pochi. The glow from my alarm clock told me that it was 3:30 a.m., and as my vision swayed and slightly blurred I decided it was time to crash. But all night I dreamed of Legacy of the Wizard, within the context of the game itself. I was a block-shaped, 2-D spite, but this made sense. I was hopelessly lost in a maze, throwing axes and swords like greased lightning, unlocking doors, and generally freaking out because of how fucking bizarre this place was.

When I woke up, I had to beat the damn game. For ten years this game haunted me, and I wanted to destroy it. So I started playing as Raos, and warped around using the pictures. I managed to get the DragonSlayer with no trouble. The sword was mine. Victory was eminent. I had heard rumors that Keela was unbeatable on emulators, but I was already playing on one (for screenshotting purposes), and decided to continue (after writing down my password!). Keela descended from the painting, and I instantly died. The emulator clearly wasn't working.

So I connected my NES. It was now 8:00 and I had to leave for work in 10 minutes. I had one shot at beating Keela. Back down to the grand antechamber... once again I engaged in battle. I discovered the Dragon's pattern quickly. If I kept my distance, he wouldn't even attack. his health was down to one single bar, and I had half life. Frantically, I threw my sword, hoping to win. This was the medieval version of spray-and-pray. But I was hasty and stood too close to the Monster. He burned me to a crisp with his fire breath, and it was GAME OVER. The cold stench of defeat hung about the air. Also, it was time to go to work.

And so I worked, and it was a pleasant morning.

Lunch arrived, and I sped home to play Legacy of the Wizard. I entered my password, and embarked on my final journey. Raos looked like an alien, but he had the DragonSlayer and a determined disposition! (one must be, above all else, determined to conquer this epic game). The battle begun, swords were thrown, fire was breathed, and both sides suffered heavy damage. My final sword stuck in the Dragon's neck, and he was defeated, finally. I didn't imprison him in a crystal palace, or a painting (lolwot?), I fucking killed him. And as I walked back home, I said goodbye to Menya, Lyll, Xemn, Pochi, and Raos. The said goodbye to me as well, and waved goodbye during the final scene. The credits rolled, I had beaten the game.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Legacy of the Wizard

Legacy of the Wizard was released in 1987 for the MSX and Famicom in Japan. Two years later it was ported to the NES in America. Unknown to many American gamers, this game was actually the 4th in the Dragon Slayer series (most of which are Metroidvanias). Hence its Japanese name: Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family.

Who are the Drasle family? Well, let's meet them! Xemn is the head of the family, a brave woodcutter who lobs axes at his enemies. His wife, Mayna, is a wicked wizard and can fly (provided you have the right item). They have two children: a daughter, Lyll, and a son, Roas. Lyll looks like a Native American, and Roas is clearly an alien. Lyll is capable of incredible jumps, and Roas knows how to use a sword. Jiela and Douel are the children's grandparents, and can assist the player in saving at any time. Last but not least, Pochi, the family pet is actually a sentient monster (and as a result he is immune to monster attacks).

Legacy is a side-scrolling adventure action-rpg... in other words: a Metroidvania. The goal of the game is to guide the family deep into an underground maze, where you must recover 4 crowns. Each character (except Roas) has a crown to find, and Roas must find the legendary sword, DragonSlayer.

The key aspect to understanding Legacy of the Wizard is an appreciation for its massive scope. The maze is comprised of 16x16 screens... effectively doubling the overworld in Legend of Zelda. It sounds less impressive than it actually is, to get a good understand of the scale, just look at the full map. To continue the comparison: Zelda's map is very open, though there are some twisted passages and secrets, the player can move around the screens easily. In Legacy of the Wizard, however, the rooms are devilishly designed, and players will spend hours trying to navigate a single room (obviously, this only applies to the most difficult of the rooms). Puzzles are everywhere. Hidden blocks and blocks that disintegrate are plentiful, and monsters run loose and regenerate.

When you kill a monster it will drop either food (which increases your life), a potion (which refills your magic), a key, some gold, or poison. Every regular attack drains your magic, so you'll have to rely on more than brute strength to get you through the game.

I found the game at a Flea Market sometime around 2000, and had never heard of the game. It had a decent title, and cool cover, so I figured, "What the hell?" and bought it. Immediately I understood how incredible this game was. The graphics were simple, as all NES games are, but crisp and inspired. The monsters were block-sized, the characters where block-sized, and all the blocks were block-sized... it was such a unique little world begging to be explored. Exploring was definitely the only thing I could do with the game, because I couldn't figure out what the fuck I was supposed to do.

But it didn't matter. I could play as several characters, each with distinct powers, and explore underground castles, mazes, puzzles, huge expansive chambers, towers, ladders... and every area has a rich, bright, and wonderful color palate. The game has some pretty catchy tunes, which is always a plus. I hope the pure intensity of the game is apparent in the screenshots I've taken.

This went on for years, every now and again I'd pop the game in (with a little blowing and cart-wiggling) and see if I had magically gotten better at the game, or if I would solve its mysteries. No dice. A few months ago I decided to beat this game, once and for all, and, as of the writing of this article, about 80% finished with Legacy of the Wizard. Yes, I caved and started using a walkthrough, but it increased the fun ten-fold. In thirty minutes I was able to accomplish more than I had in 8 years of stumbling around the dungeon. Believe me when I say items are hidden... and that items are hidden very well.

Also of note is that Faxanadu, which has been previously covered, is something of a side story. Both games are excellent. Hopefully this game won't elude me for much longer, I've got nowhere to go and it's getting dark outside. Time to turn the music up, print out some maps, and finish off that motherfucking dragon, once and for all.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

REZ: Truly Sublime

Humanity has completely linked itself with the computer system known as K-Project, controlled by a massive AI known as Eden. In a philosophical identity crisis, the computer decides to commit suicide and shut itself down. It's up to you, the computer hacker, to travel inside the computer system, destroy all viruses and firewalls, and Rez the system back online. You are armed with anti-virus software, to be delivered upon (in laser form) the virtual avatars of sentient computer programs. They've got plenty of computer-crashing missiles of their own. And lasers. And an almost endless supply of computer code with which to attack. Luckily, you also have the ability to analyze packets of code, unlocking the virtual K-Project. You can absorb powerups and transform your avatar to higher levels, with faster (blazing) lazers.

Rez was an obscure Dreamcast title for a few years. Thankfully, Sega decided to release this badboy for the PS2 when the DC tanked. It was designed by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who is one of the best game designers working today. He's the brainchild of Meteos and Lumines, both of which share lots of qualities with Rez. Recently, the game was re-re-released for XBoxLive Arcade in the form of Rez HD, sporting high def graphics. I've played the Xbox Version, and found it faithful to the original, but I was playing on an SDTV and can't comment on the HD graphics.

What makes Res so special? For starters, all of your actions are part of the music. Attacking is timed with the beat, and the entire experience is, as the box advertises, synaesthetic. When I say Rez is sublime, you will believe me. You can choose how the music unfolds, but you have to balance your desire for a beat with your desire to score points. Tapping the attack button furiously will produce fast-paced percussions, while using the combo system will create organic samples.

I found the game at a local EBGames for 40 dollars, used. Normally I hate EBGames bullshit prices, especially on used games (which used to be about half of the new price until they flooded the market with used games), but I had seen a friend play Rez. I remember seeing his character race through electronic cities blasting angels and insects, and knew that I had to buy this game. Price gouging aside, Rez is worth every penny, and I promise you'll get your money's worth if you happen to come across this rare-ish game.

It sports all the usual features of a Mizuguchi game: swarms of unlockable features, a kickass soundtrack, and trippy visuals. It's a shooter-on-rails, somewhat similar to Star Fox (or that Star Wars sit-down arcade machine, or Panzer Dragoon) in gameplay. In the summer of 2006 I sat in my room for a week (instead of getting a job) and played Rez with the lights out. I still haven't unlocked everything, Rez can be extremely challenging. I have managed to clear 4/5 levels with 100% and have unlocked all of the skins.

The "skins" are new color schemes for the entire game. Punk, psychedelic, ambient, etc. I had a hard time with these unlockables at first, but in the spring of 2007 one day I played through the game 5 or 6 times, each time unlocking a new skin.

Speaking of skin... Rez also boasts one of the strangest gaming peripherals. A vibrator. It is exactly what you think it is. Plug the vibrator into controller slot 2, and you'll have a pulsing rumble 6-times stronger than your typical DualShock 2. Admittedly, Mizuguchi has shown that the "rumble pack" could be placed under your feet to enhance the overall synaesthetic experience. But if that's the case, why did they include a latex "sleeve" for the Trance Vibrator? If you couldn't guess, this was a Japan-only peripheral. If you want the original article on the Trance Vibrator, check out Game Girl Advance's article on the subject(warning, pictures NSFW).

It's almost hard to accurately describe Rez, because it's very different (but eerily similar) comparatively. It is an ancient story, about a single person who destroys armies. We see it a lot in video games, and its been in books dating back thousands of years.

Rez's appeal comes mainly from its scenery and setting. The locations evoke a grand sense of perspective and size. We understand the infinite potential of computer graphics and user interface options. Rez is cool because the technology exists to make this computer system, and playing the game is proof. The game is Rez, so, in a way, everything in the game is real as well. This hyperreality paradox strikes serious tones with technologically inclined individuals (known as "gamers" in this case).

But, hey, its just a video game. And all talk aside its a pretty fun game. Chances are, if you like video games, then Rez is right up your alley. If only the internet were like Rez...

Monday, June 9, 2008

WARNING: A Huge Battleship Golden Ogre Is Approaching Fast!

I traveled this weekend, and before driving across the state listening to Weezer's Red Album I had several interesting video game-related adventures. First, after seeing The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian with my girlfriend, we hit the arcade in the lobby. And, holy shit, they had a Centipede machine, which I'd never seen. Unfortunately, my bullets were invisible in the first level, but everything started working once the screen changed. Second, there was a Ms. Pac-Man machine. Not the Galaga + Ms. Pac-Man anniversary machine which has sprouted up recently, but a grimy, first-edition, old-fashion arcade beauty. I was one level away from the high score, but, sadly, I didn't have what it takes to go down in movie theater arcade legend.

Later, we went to Circuit City and spent thirty minutes digging around in PS2 bargain bins, and I found a $10 copy of Taito Legends 2, which includes 39 classic Taito arcade games. What really sold me, however, was Darius Gaiden.

I originally stumbled upon Darius Gaiden about 10 years ago, when I noticed it for 3 bucks in an Electronics Boutique. The art was amazing, so I decided to buy it. I was completely floored by the music, graphics, and addicting gameplay. On the surface it might not appear that interesting, just another Gradius clone, but the Darius series is unique because all of the enemies look like giant mechanical fish. The music was composed and performed by Taito's in-house band, Zunata, who do a fantastic job with this game. You'll be mesmerized by the trance voice singing "Close your eyes / close your head" during one of the songs.

Darius Gaiden is still your basic shmup. You collect powerups to increase your weapons, missiles (confusingly named "bombs"), shield, and bombs ("black holes").It's just that everything works so well together. The graphics and artwork are out of this world, and the game makes use of several nice effects (such as pseudo-3D backgrounds and multi-layered parallax scrolling). Hands down, this game has the best graphics of any game pre-1994 that I can remember (hey, if you've got a better suggestion the comment button is a few paragraphs below).

Underneath the sweet eye-and-ear candy is a really good game. There are 28 levels, and you pick one of two forking paths after each boss. You'll travel across the oceans of planet Darius, explore space ruins, and battle through post-apocalyptic cities. In order to see every level, you have to play through the game at least 7 times, if you are consciously making an effort to take certain paths.

And, fuck, I'm glad I'm playing the game on a console (for the record, Taito Legends 2 offers arcade-perfect ports, including a credit button!) because I would have spent at least 40 bucks so far at an aracde. Darius Gaiden isn't a hard game; it's brutal. I have the original PC version (the one I purchased in the past), and it only gave you 2 credits. I managed to make it 4-5 stages after a few weeks of practice, but the game is soul-crushingly difficult. That's really the game's only flaw, which can easily be overlooked. The majority of this difficulty is a direct result of the size of your ship, which is fatty glutton compared to modern shooters like Graidus V and Ikaruga.

Check out this psychedelic bullet-hell shooter if you've got the guts. Screw fishing, this game rocks.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Golden Age of Video Games

I've been touring the arcades in town lately, and it gets to be depressing. I remember growing up in the early 90s; arcade machines everywhere. The grocery store might have a Pac-Man or Donkey Kong machine. Then, the machines started to disappear. Slowly at first, but a few years ago I realized that almost no good arcade machines are still around. It's incredibly curious. There used to be stragglers, machines that seemed to remain timeless in laundry mats, hotels, and restaurants. There used to be people lined up at the mall to play Marvel vs. Capcom 2 after school.

I started thinking more about the arcade when I heard about this documentary: King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. It chronicles two men trying to claim the Donkey Kong world record. It's been rather popular lately, both on the internet, and, oddly, in mainstream media. It's a great film, and I highly recommend it.

The film doesn't just talk about Donkey Kong, it shows classic gamers living in 2007. These guys are out of place, and want to live in 1983, in a perpetual arcade. And who can blame them? The lights, sounds and atmosphere made the arcade seem futuristic, psychedelic, and magical. They were places of pure electricity.

I was born in 1985, and, consequently, missed the entire golden age of video games. But bits and pieces of the 80s trickled down into the early 90s, just late enough for me to remember the arcade. This wasn't my world, but it fascinates me. I identify more with the NES, and started playing video games at 4, in 1989, when I received one. And in a way, the gap is bigger than it seems. The arcade is a social place, where high scores matter. Somewhere along the line, we decided to stay inside rather than go out, and spent our money on carts instead of quarters. We started to play games that could be conquered by mortals.

So I am giving the arcade a personal revival. I played Defender and Robotron: 2084 all day. I am memorizing the Pac-Man patterns. I would have spent 30 bucks on a real Frogger machine.

The second (Golden) age of games was the most crucial in history. Games stopped being science projects and started becoming art, created through hard work by a few people, for entertainment. The pixelated aesthetics and bright colors on a black background can be an amazing site. And to have that built into a giant statues which covered the nation... what a truly impressive spectacle Earth must have seemed to aliens.

There is a certain satisfaction to playing an arcade machine. It's bigger than you are, and if it were alive it would kill you. But it's nice to see that much dedication, the materials to build a huge cabinet, a TV monitor set aside strictly for one game, artwork painted on the side, all surrounding a few thousand lines of code and placed in front of you by some magnificent phenomenon of human ingenuity.

Go see King of Kong, it does a better job of discussing arcades than me. Hopefully Chasing Ghosts, another movie about the arcade scene, will get a DVD release.

And one final note to my readers, Brawl madness has passed, and I am once again a functioning member of the internet community. Expect updates every Monday from now on! I might be a little late to the game, but high scores are forever, and I've got plenty of time.