Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry Christmas and a happy new year

The Roger Frames blog wishes you a merry Christmas and a happy new year, with lots of retro-gaming of course.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Commodore Format 4 (January 1991)

Here's another CF issue, number 4 from January 1991. A good month as 100 pages of printed material prove. There's reviews of Robocop 2, Navy Seals, Puzznic, Helter Skelter, Summer Camp, Shadow of the Beast, Pang and others. Also, there's a few good features, most notably Gordon Houghton's excellent coverage of the classics. Last but not least, there was an fantastic covertape, with demos of Robocop 2 and Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, and 2 great full games (Beyond the Forbidden Forest and Bounder).

Again, all credit for the scans goes to Mort from the Zzuperstore, while I did some cropping and contrasting myself.

Get the issue here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mario Kart 64 (N64, 1997)

Sometimes it's just better to stick to a successful recipe. OK, so Nintendo transferred Mario to the 3D world with Super Mario 64, but that was a different story. Arguably, the 2D platformer was a dying breed. It offered all that it had to offer. Nintendo had to update the concept and it did so in a neat way. But racing games are a different matter. The gameplay is timeless and such updates are unnecessary.

Super Mario Kart was a stonking game on the SNES and understandably so. The racing engine offered tight, fast and groovy gameplay which added on a successful franchise. Instead, the racing engine of Mario Kart 64 offers loose, slow and uneven gameplay which depends on a successful franchise. Had this been released with different game characters, it wouldn't
even sell half as many copies as it did.

Oh the graphics are great, no doubt about it. Despite the sprites looking like they're made out of cardboard, the scenery is beautiful and engaging. But what does it matter when the racing is dull? The tight circuits and fast pace in Super Mario Kart worked wonders. Here the circuits are wide, the controls feel loose and the pace is, er, not so fast. Didn't I just say this in the previous paragraph? -)

In fact it's only in the last 2 Grands Prix that the action gets wild, in circuits like Bowser's Castle and Banshee Boardwalk. But even there it's rather uneven. And it's in the last Grand Prix that the greatest casualty of the game is located: Rainbow Road. The Rainbow course was probably the most intense in Super Mario Kart: an adrenaline driven light-speed circuit, with no barriers and just void around. Here Rainbow Road is a very long course, with barriers everywhere, that just feels slow and boring.

Really, this is just an average racing game and a waste of a popular franchise. So sometimes it's just better to stick to a successful recipe. Or even better, not release a sequel at all if you have nothing new to say.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Super Mario 64 (N64, 1996)

Super Mario 64 is one of the holy grails of video-gaming. Or is it? Mario finds himself in trouble again, as a friendly visit to Princess Peach's castle turns to a rather hefty 3D adventure. Bowser is at it again, and he has kidnapped Peach and stolen the stars which give the castle it's magical power. It's up to you to get them back and save the day by entering various separate worlds via gateways in the castle.

So far so good. As the videogaming world was entering it's 64-bit phase, this game was hailed as a masterpiece. Never before had there been a 3D platformer with such a fluid camera system, such elaborate and varied worlds, and such a dazzling array of moves. This game was the Nintendo 64's flagship title, and it was enough to kick Sega Saturn's sorry butt, and trouble the Sony Playstation somewhat (though not too much).

But is it really that great? No doubt this is a pivotal title, and the game that, more or less, defined the 3D platforming genre, but the truth is that it was quickly surpassed by other games. Games like Banjo Kazooie took everything that was good about Super Mario 64 and enhanced it, and also erased everything that was bad about it.

So what was bad about it? Well, first of all the camera system might have been good for it's time, but now feels jerky and troublesome. No doubt you'll find yourself going for that perfect angle in vain, as the camera gets stuck time and time again. The controls aren't that smooth either. Also the levels are pretty small, and a lot of them don't feel natural at all. Some feel like laboratory experiments, very artificial, they don't make much sense. The more organic levels, like Whomp's Fortress, Cool-Cool Mountain or Tall-Tall Mountain are by far the best. They're the ones that really draw you into their worlds.

This doesn't mean of course that it's a bad game. It's a very nice 3D arcade-adventure which will keep you occupied for quite a while. And later on in the game we encounter some novel ideas, like the level which you can enter either as a giant or a dwarf, or the one with the variable water levels, and also the nightmarish clock one. But if you really want to see what a 3D platformer can offer, better play something like Banjo Tooie.


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Commodore Format 9 (June 1991)

And yet another CF issue, number 9 from June 1991. People say there was no good C64 software in the 90's, but I think that both 1990 and 1991 were quality years.

All credit for this issue goes to Mort, who very kindly provided the scans. Mort has scanned an impressive array of retro computer mags over the years, and provides DVDs of them at very reasonable prices at the Zzuperstore. Check it out.

In this issue there's reviews of Heroquest, Gauntlet 3 (which was never officially released), North And South, I Play 3D Soccer (a very misunderstood game), Death Knights Of Krynn, Ultima 6 and others.

Gordon Houghton was also doing an ongoing and very interesting feature, dealing with C64 classics. If you want to convert someone to C64 gaming, you won't get far wrong by using this feature as a guide. A good issue overall. Get it here.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Super Mario Land (Gameboy, 1989)

The Gameboy really shook the videogaming world back in the early 90's, didn't it? It's interesting to note that, for one reason or another, it managed to beat two superior competitors (at least in the hardware department), the Sega Game-Gear and the Atari Lynx. Quite why it beat them is a story best examined another time, but I'll just say that the Game-Gear and Lynx were both more expensive and power hungry. I'm just mentioning this to underline that the philosophy behind the Gameboy was "simpler and better".

And so it is with Super Mario Land, one of the classic titles released for the machine. You might be surprised by the very high rating, but there is a reason for that. This is the quintessential videogame. It's the game that's going to convert the most unlikely person to the gaming habit. It's the game that your girlfriend is going to play and love it. The simple "jump and run" formula is executed brilliantly, and the game has a special atmosphere, despite the limitations of the hardware. The simplistic black and white graphics convey the sense of a quest in a splendid way, and the tunes are super catchy retro-videogame style.

There is no need to deal with the plot or read any manuals or anything like that. Mario's damsel in distress, Princess Daisy, is in trouble again and you must go and save her. That's it. What matters is that the moment you get on with this, you're hooked. There have been so many platformers, yet the charm of this back-to-basics game is something else. Oh sure, they perfected the formula with the elaborate Super Mario World for the SNES, but like i said in the beginning, sometimes simpler is better, and also immortal.

And to end with an anecdote, I was in highschool when this was released back in the day, and one classmate was among the first to get a Gameboy and also this game. It wasn't long before he brought it in school to brag about it. Alas, he made the terrible mistake of sharing it. Pretty soon, every guy was waiting for his turn to play. In class during lessons that is! Well, eventually the teacher found out and seized the machine. Now that's an unnecessary complication. -)


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Treasure Island Dizzy (C64, 1989)

Remember the Dizzy franchise? For some reason these games were extremely popular back in the day. If you were checking the budget charts for C64 titles in the early 90's, chances are there'd be 4-5 Dizzy games in there. I've no idea why. These kind of old-fashioned arcade-adventures harked back to the mid-80's. And that's where they should've stayed.

Anyway, this time it seems that our ovoid friend is stranded in some island, where some pirate also happened to bury his treasure. Dizzy wants out of there, so it's up to you to help him. And like i said, the way the game works is very old-fashioned. You basically run around collecting objects, which you then must use puzzle-style, simply by dropping them on the ground wherever necessary. The puzzles range from the obvious, i.e. collecting dynamite and a detonator and dropping them behind some rocks which obstruct the way, to the not so obvious, like dropping a crystal sword to the pirate's grave - thus revealing a hidden passageway.

Treasure Island Dizzy encapsulates everything that was bad about the Dizzy series. Firstly we have the navigation of Dizzy himself - which is a pain in the ass because when he jumps, he flips in the air 2-3 times. It's really difficult moving like this in tricky areas like the Treehouse Complex, but also making precise jumps (as is often required). Then we have the pathetic inventory system. You can only carry 3 objects with you, but the real problem is that you can only drop them in the order you picked them up. Consider this: you're at the bottom of the sea and your inventory is "snorkel, empty, empty". If you want to pick up something, you drop the snorkel and you die. Woosh, back to the beginning, thank you very much Mr.Game Designer.

Another interesting fact is that most Dizzy releases for the Commodore 64 are straight Spectrum ports, meaning that the graphics are of the monotone variety. It's up to the music to liven-up atmosphere, and thankfully we do get a nice Sid tune, courtesy of musician Matt Gray. Finally, you won't manage to complete the game properly, even if you solve all the puzzles, unless you find 30 golden coins which are scattered here and there. Considering that most of them are camouflaged, most people will not bother to play the game fully. Not that they'll miss much.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Commodore Format 20 (May 1992)

Here's another issue of Commodore Format for your collection. Yes, the C64 was still going strong in 1992, as reviews of Space Crusade, Budokan and Bonanza Bros prove. Also reviewed are Stryker In The Crypts Of Trogan, G-Loc and Murray Mouse, while Bod Squad and Steg The Slug get the preview treatment. A reasonable covertape too.

Get the issue here. More to come in the future. Also, don't forget that there's a number of issues available at the Commodore Format library.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Addams Family (C64, 1992)

Yet another case where the two major C64 mags disagreed was Addams Family. Commodore Format gave it corker status with 92% and declared it "challenging and addictive and with loads of screens to explore", while Zzap64 gave it croaker status with 57% and said that it's a "a frustrating all-too-easy-to-die disaster". Game on. Who got it right? Personally I find the truth to be somewhere in-between. But let's check the game's history first.

For reasons best known to the Hollywood fraternity, in 1991 they decided to ressurect the 60's TV show as a full-blown blockbuster. And they got it right, seeing as it was a huge success. A computer game was inevitable, and who better to do it than Ocean, masters of movie tie-ins? Ocean then proceeded to create one of the best platformers of all time, in the 16-bits at least. 8-bit owners had to make do with a trimmed-down different version. Whereas the 16-bit version was a humongous 8-way-scrolling platform fest, the 8-bit version was a less humongous flick-screen affair.

The plot is simple, you control Gomez and you must rescue your family members who are scattered around the game's levels. There are enemies around too, ranging from kill-able ones (who you kill by jumping on them) to unkillable ones. These enemies tend to move in cunning ways, so each screen becomes a tortuous test where you have to think your route around it. Doors are locked so you need to find keys to open them. Green doors need green keys, red doors red keys and so on. And it is a huge world. You won't get very far without a map, or without a solution.

Zzap said there aren't enough restart points. They got it all wrong. You set restart points yourself by entering doors, and each time you die you restart from the door you last entered. Zzap said the game is too difficult and you haven't got enough lives. They got it half-right. The game *is* too difficult but you get 6 continues and there are more scattered around. That makes it in total over 36 lives, which I found pretty adequate.

Commodore Format said the game is challenging and addictive but maybe too tough. Pretty much so, I agree. Commodore Format said the game has spiffy sound effects. They couldn't have gotten it more wrong. The sound is the game's Achilles heel. The sound effects are atrocious and headache-inducing. It's more like noise. If the game had an atmospheric soundtrack, this would be a real winner. To prove my point I turned the sound down and played something on my Sidplay on the background. It made the whole experience a lot better.

So like I said, I think that neither Zzap or CF got it right. Addams Family's real value lies somewhere in-between. Zzap gave it 57%, Commodore Format gave it 92%, I'll give it a 7. Fair enough.


Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ristar (Mega-Drive, 1995)

So the story goes in this platformer for the Sega Mega Drive that in the Valdi Planet System an evil pirate, Kaiser Greedy, has taken over and is ruling with an iron hand. You, as the hero Ristar sent by the Star Goddess, must free the planets from Greedy.

Interestingly, this was developed quite late in the Mega Drive's lifespan by the Sonic Team, and I'm saying interestingly because as a game this is a lot different to the exhilarating speed of Sonic The Hedgehog. The pace is slow and laborious, and isn't helped at all by the control method. Ristar doesn't shoot or jump in order to kill enemies. Instead he uses his hands. And also uses his hands for everything else, from climbing and snatching, to jumping over walls.

This control method is fairly tricky to get to grips with. And no sooner than planet number four, this cute little platformer is transformed to a monstrous dexterity test that will frustrate even the most hardened of players. Indeed as I was playing this, memories of Commodore 64's Thing On A Spring came to mind. Such is the difficulty of this game. Also you will need to use the grey cells a bit, as later levels offer obscure routes and mild puzzles.

The thing is Ristar would be an average game if it wasn't for the fantastic graphics. And when i say fantastic i don't mean that there are ten million layers of parallax or ultra high resolution modes or anything like that. Instead I mean that the programmers have created some of the most beautiful worlds you will ever see in a 16-bit game, from magic forests and frozen planets, to music factories and underwater palaces. This is true artistry, it's fairy-tales gone alive.

So to conclude,
purely as a game Ristar is not anything to get terribly excited about. But as a virtual tour and a testament to the programmer's imagination it is really something. Try it out on an emulator with save states and see what I mean.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Amazing Spiderman (C64, 1990)

Back in the day there were two major C64 magazines, Commodore Format and Zzap64. It would just so happen that every once in a while they would give conflicting reviews about a game. Take The Amazing Spiderman for example. Commodore Format gave it a positive 79%, while Zzap gave it the thumbs-down with a 42%. Who got it right? I'd say Commodore Format this time since Spiderman is neat little game.

Unsurprisingly and without delving
too much in the plot, you take the role of Spiderman as he's trying to rescue Mary Jane, who has been kidnapped by Mysterio, in some sort of film studios. And one has to note that upon starting the game initial impressions aren't so favourable. Spidey moves at a fairly slow pace, while the control method can be a bit laborious - if not downright frustrating. Persevere though and a playable arcade-adventure reveals itself.

The Amazing Spiderman is a flick-screen affair and the emphasis is set on switches. Each screen features quite a lot of them, and these in turn activate secret passages, reveal hidden objects, alter the movement of the enemies etc. Screens range from the simplistic to the elaborate and requiring a lot of thought. Enemies can be temporarily stunned using your webshots, while Spidey can cling to the walls or even sling around with his web. And boy is his movement smooth, just look at that animation. Surely one of the best on the C64 along with Myth and Impossible Mission - but of course slow.

You really have to admire at the game's size, it's humongous. It's divided in various sections, which in turn are divided by the so called "take screens" (where you can restore your energy). The atmosphere is also rather special, occasionally giving the impression of a desolate and deranged funpark. Sound-wise the game isn't so hot, but you can always play some nice music in your Sidplay to make up for it.

As with many retro games, the real problem is the lack of a save option. Play this on an emulator and you won't face any such problems, but purists that would like to try this on a real 64 will be disappointed. Starting from scratch generally sucks, especially when you've played through half of the game. But hey, that's how it was back then. So try and you never know, it might just take your fancy.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Commodore Format 18 (March 1992)

Well, once upon a time a nice chap named Peter James Holl set up a website dedicated to Commodore Format, one of the two great C64 magazines (the other being Zzap64). Sadly, and even though he was doing a great job, the last time he updated it was in 2004. The site is still online and it has scans of over 25 issues, so why not give it a visit. In the meantime, I decided to fill some of the gaps, so here's issue number 18 from March 1992.

The issue has reviews of Indy Heat, Winter Camp, Demon Blues, Final Fight, Robocop 3 and others. Also previews of Beavers (which was never released eventually), Chuck Rock and Winter Super Sports '92. Finally there's a nice feature on RPGs. The scans are contained in a zip file, so you'll need either WinZip or WinRar to extract them. But hey, I guess everybody has those, right?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Forbidden Forest (C64, 1983)

It's quite interesting taking this trip down memory lane. Forbidden Forest originates from 1983 and it's definitely one to investigate. The reason is simple. I am of the opinion that apart from gameplay, what makes a videogame great is the atmosphere. If the game has such an atmosphere that can enchant you into believing you're briefly entering another (magical) world, an atmosphere that can draw you in, then this makes for all the difference. This is what separates good games from the truly great ones.

For example you can have a shoot-em-up which can be technically great and with pretty good gameplay, like SWIV on the Commodore 64. It will never be as good as Blood Money because Blood Money has that afore-mentioned feeling of immersion, with the levels being impeccably designed to give you this magical impression and a moody soundtrack to enhance it.

So it is with Forbidden Forest, which is actually one of the first games that can be labeled "cinematic". The programmer, Paul Norman, enveloped the simple arcade gameplay in a fantastic moody environment. The plot doesn't really matter. You control a guy who's trapped in a forest seized by ghouls and demons, and to defend yourself you have an arrow. What matters is the surroundings. As time passes, daylight slowly turns to dusk and dusk turns to night. Stars come out in the sky in the animated backgrounds (that feature some parallax scrolling) and colours change from brown to grey, to purple, to pitch black.

Also we get some really gory moments when the giant spiders, skeletons, dragons etc get you. Admittedly, in these days of advanced 3D gaming watching this blocky gore is quite funny, but back in the day it was the real deal.

The last stage is the best, where you try to defeat the ultimate demon, Morgor, who only becomes visible when lightning strikes, making for a chilly and almost subliminal effect. Couple that with the spooky sounds and great soundtrack, and you 've got one of the early masterpieces. Today's players will maybe laugh at it but the older (and wiser?) will recall with fondness and a fuzzy nostalgic feeling.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Blackwyche (C64, 1985)

Ultimate (now Rare) was one of the legendary software companies in the 80's, especially on the ZX Spectrum where they published a good deal of classic arcade-adventures (the 3D isometric kind). Interestingly enough they never achieved the same kind of success on the Commodore 64, where nevertheless they released a series of semi-classic aardvarks in the form of "the Arthur Pendragon saga" (including the Staff of Karnath, Entombed, Blackwyche and Dragonskulle).

The C64 was notoriously difficult in handling 3D isometric graphics, so Ultimate used a slightly different approach. It's still 3D but not quite. It's also more colourful than the Spectrum (thankfully).

Like I mentioned Blackwyche is the third in a series of arcade adventures, and the plot epigrammatically is that you're set on a haunted pirate ship trying to free the captain's damned soul. The ship consists of five decks and there's approximately 5 rooms and 2 great halls in each of them. Basically in order to free the captain's soul you must find 4 pieces of a map. Some can be easily found, while others require some puzzling.

Which brings me to the first fault of the game. No sooner you start the game on the first deck than you're attacked by demons. Luckily there's a sword in one of the nearby rooms, but the attack is relentless. It's also quite terribly made. Think of the skeleton attacks in Forbidden Forest but done in such a way so that you don't have much chance of defending yourself. And for some bizarre reason, when you're going from left to right it works better than when you're going from right to left.

Boo, there goes half of your energy every time you wander around then (which is all the time). There's a bell in a room in the first deck which replenishes your energy, so be prepared for some heavy back and forth and back again wandering. Considering the rooms are stupidly far from each other this ain't good.

Also, for an arcade-adventure the surroundings are uniformly similar which makes exploring a bit tedious. But let's check the puzzles. They aren't too good. Here's an example: there's a black flag in a room on the first deck. Then in one of the other decks you find a skull and crossbones. Woosh, you go back to the black flag, and you get a pirate flag which then subsides to reveal a hidden item. And that's a good puzzle actually.

Every so often hidden items can be found in awkward places which you discover by plain luck. You must crack some wall with your sword for example. Yeah, what are you supposed to do, experiment by cracking the walls in all the rooms? Yes actually. Not to mention the hidden traps that are here and there. Drawing a map is well advised so that you know the wheres and hows.

The controls are plain awful. Changing direction while facing a demon is a laborious task, as is switching from jumping to using the sword by pressing the spacebar. So is moving around in the semi-3D rooms because there's no real diagonal movement. Instead you must go left/right and up/down. But considering enemies usually move in one axis, you're severely handicapped. So to conclude, a lot of people seem to love this game, but I think it's a classic case of seeing it through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. It's a lousy arcade adventure and not very playable at all.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Sonic The Hedgehog 3 (Mega-Drive, 1993)

The way I see it this third installment of Sonic's 2D platform adventures is the best up to this day; as well as one of the best games ever made. While still not any radical departure, Sega refined the concept to such a degree that it makes for an amazing gaming experience.

And while the graphics are some of the best in the series yet, it is the level layouts that make the difference. They have really turned into roller coaster rides. If previously Sonic was a platform game with serious speed excursions, now it is a full blown rocket ride. Not that this detracts from the skills needed to complete a course (as it did in Sonic Advance 2). It just offers more intuitive (and enjoyable) gameplay mechanics. The courses are also more complex, with often more than one way of finishing them, and with even more tricks than ever before. For example in the Marble-Zone Dr.Robotnik pops-up with a drill machine that changes the level layout. Or in the Carnival-Zone Miles the Echidna causes a blackout and it's up to you to save the day.

Furthermore the sense of atmosphere has increased a hundredfold. The levels now start and end in a cinematic way, seamlessly blending with each other. Also we get some really classic worlds. The Icecap-Zone in particular is pure gaming heaven thanks not only to the super-fast gameplay but also to the surroundings, with brilliant parallax animated backgrounds of crystal stalactites shining etc. Couple that with some really groovy music and you got a slice of gaming genius.

If in the future there ever is a class
in universities about videogames (and there should be), this game will most certainly be featured under the tag "best cases of 2D platforming".