The Darkside of Xeen gets a bit brighter

Who's laughing NOW!?
Paranoid from dealing with Star Control 2's ninja-like assassination of my desire to play, I assumed that I had somehow lost levels in World of Xeen, and spent a bit of time trying to figure out why.  The save game system is such that in addition to the little blurb you use to describe the saved game, you also get a tally of your current highest level.  I saved in one really evil dungeon, and saved thereafter repeatedly.  When I checked my file again, it had dropped a bunch, and I started wondering what the hell it was that killed all those levels.  In Might and Magic, when you go  up in level you don't automatically ding, but instead go to a training center that can handle the level you want to train to and then you pay a fee to go up.  I like this system for a bunch of different reasons, and I felt as though if I really did lose those levels I could just train up again to get them back.

Eh, but I was wrong: they weren't lost because they weren't mine to begin with.  Might and Magic has a system where characters augment themselves with momentary stat bonuses from fixed locations you find as you explore.  I had drunk from a +10 level well somewhere, and the bonus went away when my party slept. 

With that out of the way, I plowed through a bunch of quests and beat the game.  Well, the Darkside of Xeen half of it.  There was a final battle cinematic, and then a final score.  The latter was a bit sad, since the score announcement told me to mail my score to the now dissolved New World Computing.  Thereafter it saved over my last save, plopping me in a town, pointing me in the direction of Clouds of Xeen's main quest.  Since I blew millions on training for everyone, I'm relatively poor, which is fine by me. 

If anyone reads this blog (y'know, if anyone does) and decides it or she or he wants to start up a game of Xeen, note that it'll ask you if you want a more battle intensive game or not.  From what I've heard, the battles just give the monsters more hit points and armor class.  That's it, as far as I know.  So in effect, battles take longer and force you to heal up more often, but aren't necessarily much more challenging in terms of strategy or enemy behavior.  Not my idea of a fun gaming experience, especially since training becomes virtually unaffordable unless you were smart and started banking early on (1% interest every week or so, compounded!).  Pick the "adventurer" setting and you won't be missing a thing, I don't think.  I did, and I usually tend to prefer higher difficulty levels.

I still have Clouds of Xeen to beat, and the final World of Xeen ending that'll play after that.  Will give it a rest for a bit though, while I try to tackle evil Star Control 2 again--


SC2: Old-School rears its ugly opposite-of-head

So, I'm playing Star Control II, mining my own planets, when the game decides to slowly end on me, in a way that means my numerous saves are now useless.  It wasn't an immediate "this is what happens because you didn't do this" cue card like you'd usually see in modern stuff, but a slow, plodding event that I couldn't figure out, and thought that I had partially remedied.  When I finally find out what's going on, I'm well into hours of game time that I could have been...  I dunno...  playing a different game, playing the same game a few saves back, piling up wet grass clippings into the shape of a soggy pyramid....  whatever.

Maybe if I stuck with it I would figure out a way to undo everything in some sort of science-fictiony  way, or at least gather intelligence about stuff now that I don't have to worry so much about former obstacles but...  I doubt they'd be simultaneously so kind as to allow that sort of out, and so cruel as to do what they did and expect me to keep playing.  Thank you SC2, for invalidating my time with you. 

Not that I'm giving up necessarily; I started again.  It's just...  not all old-school is good-school.

Added the very next day:

And now, my second time through, more allies get wiped out.  This feels like a puzzle that will take a very long time to complete, with many do-overs.  I'm happy so many people manage to love this game, but despite my feeling that I'm playing a classic every time I start it up, I think this game's a bit too cruel for my tastes.  The only
way I learn I've made a bad decision is when a given ally's cities are smoldering debris, long after I've moved on and think everything is fine.  Is it my fault that they're up front about being allies with me to the evil guys who will kill them if they hear such news?  Apparently so.

Maybe it's me, maybe it's the game, but I'm beyond caring any more.  I salute anyone with enough time on their hands to either build up the intelligence needed to figure everything out the first time through, or time to ram into catastrophic losing conditions and start over and over until things run smoothly.  I remember my actions having consequences in Fallout, but I remember the world not falling apart because I didn't pick the right words in a dialog tree.  Maybe bits of it did, but...


And the goofy thing is, I still want to play it.  But I think I'm going to leave this abusive relationship for now and go back to Xeen.


Star Control 2: All these worlds are yours, except for Pluto...

Independent of the Giant Bomb video that mentioned Star Control 2, a friend of mine brought my attention to the freeware clone of the game made from the source released by the creators.  I remembered having downloaded the game before for my off-line gaming PC, but the thing requires certain files to be downloaded actively for reasons I don't quite understand.  Off-line meant I couldn't play, apparently.

But now I installed it using my on-line system and got the file thing sorted out.  It doesn't need online capacity to be played, though; and play it I have been-- much too much, really.  I have a bunch of problems with the game system, but I love the concept, combining Star Control starship melee with adventure and sorta-RPG elements.  One of the species you encounter even refers to what the player is doing as a quest, and I think that's apt.

The intro art reminded me of old science fiction book covers.

I'm a bit late to discovering the game, but I like a lot of it, and I especially like the conversations with the different races.  I played SC 1 on the Genesis and loved it, but their expansion of each of the species into complete characters in their own right is engaging.

Getting resources from planets is on the other side of the spectrum for me on this.  Parts of it are fun, I like deciding to take the risk on a given planet and regretting my rash actions when I lose crew members, but I guess the Starflight version of this, which is fairly similar, is more my speed.  It felt more like I was discovering a world in Starflight, not just scouring it for resources (although there was plenty of that.  Not that you ever emptied a planet of its minerals; that was impossible.  Things were on a more personal scale in Starflight, not dealing with hundreds of crew members as in Star Control (and thousands of dead ones, in my case)).

I imagine someone trying out the Star Control version of combat might be very put off by the unforgiving strategy and tactics involved, but given my training on the original Star Control, I knew what to expect.  I sorta wish one's new allies would quickly give you an idea about their strengths and weaknesses, though.  It took me forever to figure out what the fish guys' special attack was (eeee! and now it's one of my FAVORITES!!), for instance.

One of the things I can't get enough of is that none of the races are completely evil or good, or easily hated or entirely sympathetic.  In the first Star Control I felt as though each side was pretty obviously there for a reason.  Even though the lines are drawn -and you won't get unfairly emotionally manipulated by an enemy's stories of their tortured past- you understand those you interact with as more fully fleshed-out species and cultures now, which is gratifying.

What this game needs more than anything else (for everyone who isn't a savant or loves to write stuff down on notes they'll likely lose) is to have some sort of note system for the game, either automatic or in the form of log entries.  Didn't Starflight have that?  I loved that, being able to write down my observations and call them up later in-game.  With all the coordinates and clues I would like to have some sort of in-game compilation of this (with a bigger star chart sitting next to it, maybe) to ease my pain a bit.

Anyway, I feel like I've just scratched the surface of the game, despite having tapped out the creepy merchant guys for fun junk to use. This game was a pleasant surprise, and I hope there are more such surprises in store around the game's galactic corners.

This entry is dedicated to the Pkunk.

May you have many more reincarnations

Oh, and Fuffle-wup [sic] can kiss my ass.

Exploring the World of Xeen

I love the title screen, even!
I've been playing World of Xeen when I should be doing other things.  I broke it out, what was it, like a week ago I think.  I've already gained about 20 some levels for my elf-less party of adventurers, and I've already found a very interesting site in the northwestern corner that basically tells the story of the preceding Might and Magic games.  Really, really neat find.

World of Xeen is actually a combination of Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen and Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen.  Both games take place on the same world, but one is on what seems to be the sunward side, while the other is the eponymous dark side.  I'm not sure if there are connecting quests that link the two up, but supposedly there's some sort of bonus for combining them.  Since the games were originally continuous, Darkside has a lot of the harder stuff, making world exploration much more treacherous (damned desert vultures), while Clouds is a bit more newbie friendly, at least to a point (damned Sky Golems).

What I really like about this game (and this is something coming from someone who's played through Baldur's Gate, Kotor II, Fallout, and a few other new generation titles) is that it encourages experimentation and exploration.  I like that if I just randomly strike out over the mountains, I'm likely to run into something.  Maybe it's just a fountain that'll give everyone a few hundred bonus hit points until they sleep, or maybe a fort of ogres that needs burning.  I'm actually slogging through the wilderness, not clicking from one set piece to another.  Which brings me to the point, I guess.  Exploration has rewards, even if you don't find anything.  I enjoy filling out an automap with terrain tiles, showing I've visited all the places.  I can check that place off and stop spending my time there, and that has some feeling of accomplishment by itself.  There are goals you make for yourself, in a sense, and enough wiggle room for you to fill in the details a bit where they might be sparse, but enough stuff to find that it feels more full than most of the stuff now.

Another nice touch is the monsters, and how things that you think will fit a certain mold wind up subverting the stereotype, something I think Blizzard does really well with its continuing stories in its Warcraft franchises.  I think the best example of this was when I had an audience with the king of the giants.  Menace and civility simultaneously :)

I have to say my favorite part of Baldur's Gate was just wandering around in the wilderness areas, finding all the little quest areas and hidden caches.  I think I liked it more than worrying about rotting iron ore.  Games like Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion (the latter I've never played) seem to be aiming for this crowd, but as often as I'm thrilled in Morrowind to run into a strange temple, I'm more often disappointed by the sameness of the temple's innards.  Xeen doesn't bother with stuff that the designers didn't make themselves.  To me this is the right balance between designer content and user discovery that I don't think many other CRPGs in my experience reached.  Also, the humor and the fun puzzles help me feel like this is a conversation with the designer and the user, and not a content dump.

CRPGs are labor intensive to make, and I take each of them in the way the designers meant them to be taken, so while I don't think  some of my examples above fit ME so well, I realize there are others who like them.  I must say I had a bit of a perverse pleasure stomping through Daggerfall's pandemonium of procedurally generated dungeons: just when you think you have one more corridor to map out, it opens up into a huge cavern.  Exhausting and intimidating, but really insanely fun in small doses.  The mood of Morrowind worked nicely for me; I liked the sandstorms, and the way people regarded you as you walked past.  It was rather immersive, which helped me to overlook the very small dungeons, at least for a time.  Fallout's story was really fun to unravel, I liked how much an affect your character had, the actual RPG system, and the exploration was at my speed (at least when I forgot about the water problem).  I can't say much about Kotor II; it was disappointing when I started to realize they had run out of stuff for the player to do before they had run out of game to play.

What Might and Magic does for me is that it encapsulates the sense of adventure and discovery in just the right doses, enough for a short run to find an emerald staff handle or a long haul through one of those creepy towers with the menacing music.  I have a big barrel of criticisms (don't drink it, it's poison!) which point directly at its old-schoolness, but right now this is a little love song to Xeen, and a thank you to Jon Van Caneghem and the folks of New World Computing for their daring to do something different with fantasy RPGs.  Now all I have to do is break out Wizardry 8 and see if I can get it to work...  That is, after I dethrone the tyrants of Xeen.

As Neutral as Retro-Indie Can Be

So, one of the first questions I'm asked when I'm signing up (other than my gender...  is this a dating site or can we not worry about gender here?) is my, I guess, console/PC alignment.  I looked at the choices and had to pick neutral.

Really, if I had a choice, it would be something like "retro" or whatever word that would fit better than that.  Indie? 

I look at all of these reviews and am excited by new technology, new game ideas, new concepts as gaming continues to evolve as an artform (yes Ebert, there is a Santa Claus, and he's in your Saint's Row 2, adding boobs to your dudes).  The thing is, we have a couple of low-rent PC's, a dusty X-Box, GBA games in a closet awaiting the purchase of an actual GBA or a DS, and a bunch of old DOS games that I need software to get to work now.  And it's in those old games that I find the most joy.

Is that really a PC?  The PC runs the software that runs the games, but those games don't really work on our PCs, they're just digital ghosts interpreted through our machines.  When most people talk PC gaming, they talk about getting the latest high-end system to be able to run the latest first-person shooter without turning off all the detail and facing walls so you don't crash.  If I voted for the PC that would put me in a camp I'm most definitely not in at all.

To be completely accurate, my alignment has taken some strange turns over the years, and I encourage anyone who happens to read this to do the same sort of itemizing.  If nothing else, it's fun to see where one's been.

Our first machine was the Atari 2600.  I still remember agonizing over the choice between Slot Racers and Night Driver, and I still wonder if my choice of Night Driver has affected my personality.  Slot Racers had you shooting the other guy!  Boy, did I miss out!  ...except Night Driver had a lonely atmosphere: some poor schmuck condemned to wandering the endless purgatory of sunless roads with only a car battery and the honking of cars in the opposing lane separating him from soul-crushing darkness...  See?  Inspiring.  I also learned early on to trick out the start switch and make the games glitch, which fascinated me, just like finding in-game errors (Combat has a fun one where you warp through walls.  Very fun if you can zap your tank behind your enemy to blast him before he can fire).

Star Raiders: lock-on means double photons!
We graduated to the Atari 400, where I learned about BASIC programming, the wonder and horror of magnetic tape, and how hard it is to get Star Commander class 1 in Star Raiders.

Atari 7800 taught me about backwards compatibility.  It also showed me the creepiest easter egg that I have yet to confirm with someone else, where, while playing Food Fight, the words "Almost Made It" flashed in messed-up letters on the screen when the time ran out a split second before I ate the ice cream cone.

I wanted a Nintendo, but one day my dad brought home the Sega Master System instead.  He was sold on it because the seller had told him how, yes, all the kids will have Nintendo, but whose house will they want to go over to?  The kid with the unique system.  Well, that didn't quite pan out, but being on the outside of the Nintendo phenomenon allowed me some perspective on it, that there were things that could be done better.  That, and I played the epic Phantasy Star, which I'm still a fan of.

Our first true PC was the 286, and we bought it so my brother and I could play King's Quest V.  It was the solitary reason why we pushed for a PC, although I think Wing Commander may have contributed, and it helped us secure an actual SVGA monitor.  That was when our internet connection was through the narrow intertubes of the Prodigy Online Service, and our hard drive was measured in so few megabytes as to not to be able to hold a single, decent sized PDF.  I still used this thing later, when I was in college, using a text browser to hook me up to the emerging web long after the family had upgraded.  The fact that the 286 was still capable of a lot despite faster machines made me realize that there was a niche for those of us who couldn't or wouldn't keep up in the PC race.

On the console side, the Genesis was our go-to.  It was the first time I played a console game that evoked strong emotion (Phantasy Star 2), and graphics had reached a basic level of art that I think allowed me to stop obsessing about graphical improvements and start worrying about gameplay.  I guess many people are still obsessed with graphics, though. Otherwise I think the gaming renaissance which feels like is happening now could have come sooner...

Doom drove us to upgrade to the 486, and opened up a lots of doors we took for granted as closed when we could now use a CD drive to extract information from demo discs.  Here I played my first connected games of Master of Orion II, full of bugs but still an interesting experience.  I played a lot of demos on the 486, way more than games.  I noticed that as the computer got bigger, so did the software, cutting into the hard drive margin, and adding a lot of wasteful extras to take advantage of the new technology.  It reinforced my earlier notion that bigger wasn't necessarily worth it.

As time went on, things blended together a bit.  I started playing on other people's consoles and systems more than my own.  My brother and I shared a Playstation, and I played the hell out of Final Fantasy Tactics.  We got a better computer that I didn't use so often--  Then there was the Gamecube and Gameboy Advance games through a peripheral.  Then better PCs, an Xbox (a year before the 360 came out), and so it goes.

Aquaria: Elegant Design
While it seems sometimes like everyone else interested in video games has taken the plunge and upgraded every time the industry asked them to, I've sorta been lurking in the shadows, buying up other people's junk, supporting shareware developers, and buying games from bargain bins and sales-- and I've been having a great time.  I am constantly amazed at the capability of independent programmers to create beautiful new worlds (Aquaria springs to mind, as does Eyezmaze), or just good, crunchy fun (Stair Dismount!!!).  We see some of this through the XBLA, though I'd say the PC is the cornerstone of this movement.  But given all the stuff that I've just talked about, I can hardly say that the PC was my system, or is, given that most people's PCs can run rings around the old jobby I'm using to write this blog entry right now.

Since I can't include that whole mess above in that alignment question, I guess I have to vote neutral because all the stuff above really doesn't fit in.  But neutral doesn't mean indifferent.