Friday, February 22, 2013

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Hours of gameplay, lots of variety in enemies, bosses and items. Good story and presentation
Cons: None really, maybe a little bit linear

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was made by Nintendo for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and released in North America in 1992. It's an action/adventure game (though I always lump it into the RPG category) that uses a top-down perspective at an angle to simulate depth. I typically prefer the older titles in the series, and would go so far as to say that A Link to the Past is my favorite Zelda title -- narrowly eclipsing the Ocarina of Time/Majora's Mask duo for the Nintendo 64.
You play as the protagonist Link as he journeys through puzzle-filled dungeons to rescue the descendants of the Seven Sages and retrieve the stolen Triforce to restore balance to the world. While you do technically rescue Princess Zelda during your adventure, it's right at the start of the game and isn't really a big part of the plot. One big part of the game is the fact that you have both a light world and a dark world and eventually you are able to travel back and forth between them. Changing something (like flooding a corridor) in one world also affects the other world (allowing you to swim along that corridor to an otherwise unreachable ladder), which adds another element to the already bountiful puzzle aspect.
The world map is medium-sized, but there's an awful lot of content packed into it. Combine this with the dark world almost doubling the size of the adventure, and this game has quite a lot of gameplay and will require some time investment to complete. There are a lot of different enemies, from armored knights to big skeletons, snakes and slimes to cyclops and jellyfish, there's quite a diverse group of enemies to battle. These aren't just cosmetic differences either; one enemy may burrow up from underground while another may block your attacks with his shield. One may zip around the screen really fast while another might just sit and shoot fireballs.
You can look at much of the world map area from the start, but many areas are inaccessible for a while. There may be a gap you can't cross until you obtain the grappling hook item, or a boulder you can't pass until you obtain the gloves to lift it with. While this does help to keep you pointed in the right direction as far as game progression, it does make the game a little more linear as well.
The boss encounters in the various dungeons are equally as impressive and varied. Bosses usually take up like a quarter of the screen and are pretty mean looking, and they all fight very differently from each other. Usually they can sap quite a bit of your health very quickly, but they all have a pattern and/or weakness to exploit (often involving an item found in the dungeon) that makes the battle fun -- it's still challenging, but just the right amount.
The puzzles are pretty much a staple of Zelda games, and while there are a few that are frustrating and may leave you Googling for a walkthrough, most are balanced rather well. Blow a hole in the cracked wall here, go through and grab a key, go back up and pull a lever to flood the corridor, swim to the end and push a block down a hole, push that block onto a switch on the floor below to open a door above, etc. Overall very fun though, and it just wouldn't be a Zelda game without them.
There are lots of items to find as well and they all have their uses. Bombs, a bow and arrows, grappling hook, shovels, nets, mirrors... suffice it to say that you'll continue receiving new gameplay mechanics and puzzle-solving items throughout the game to keep things interesting. Some of the items you may remember from previous Zelda titles, but there are a lot of new ones as well -- the grappling hook in particular was a lot of fun.
The game looks beautiful -- the colorful graphics are very polished and animations are smooth all around. You can tell that Nintendo had a nice budget to work with while developing the game and took their time to do it right. In my opinion A Link to the Past is one of the better looking games on the SNES, especially the enormous dungeon bosses with their high level of care and detail. The music is mostly outstanding as well. A few tracks like Zelda's Lullaby are so great that they became classics and Nintendo pulled them into the later Nintendo 64 title, Ocarina of Time, where they continued to be fan favorites to a new generation of Zelda players.
Tight controls, countless hours of gameplay, unique boss encounters, beautiful presentation and a good story make A Link to the Past one of the must-have titles for the SNES. Being one of the best selling games on the system means that there were many copies produced, so you can still find it around today for $5-$8, which is an absolute steal. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say it's worth the price of picking up a $30 SNES console on eBay for this title alone.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Tecmo Super Bowl III: Final Edition (Genesis)

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Fun core gameplay, NFL licensed players and teams, intuitive controls
Cons: Poor presentation (audio and visual), sometimes annoying trying to pass to off-screen receivers

I'm normally not a huge fan or sports games, though there are a few that I enjoy. I did enjoy the original Tecmo Bowl for the NES, so when I bought my used Sega Genesis and Tecmo Super Bowl III was among the games included with it I remember looking forward to playing it. As it turns out, it was a game I quite enjoyed quite a bit. Tecmo Super Bowl III: "Final Edition" was developed and published by Tecmo in 1995 for the Sega Genesis as well as the Super Nintendo. While both versions are mostly the same, there are minor differences between them and this review will be focused on the Sega Genesis version.
First off, the game featured real NFL teams and real NFL player names, and this is a huge thing in sports games. Taking control of some made up team with unknown players just doesn't give you the same satisfaction as controlling your favorite team and making big plays with a character you recognize. Most players even have small character portraits that pop up when you make a big play with them, sort of like a little newspaper headline.
Tecmo Super Bowl III has a lot of features including a season mode where you can play through the 1995 NFL schedule, and if you continue further the game will generate new schedules to let you play as a franchise. You can trade players, draft free agents, suffer injuries, attempt 2-point conversions. The game tracks statistics for both players and teams, tracks league leaders, lets you change the lineup and roster around... it's an awesome amount of customizability compared to most earlier games, and in fact contains most of what you'd expect in a current generation game except for the graphics.
One thing that I like and dislike both at the same time is the Super Star Editor. This allows you to create your own custom players with a limited amount of points to distribute amongst his various statistics (such as speed, power, passing speed, etc). These statistics continue to improve as the player does well in games, regardless of whether they are played by you or simulated. It's really nice, but the one thing I don't like about it is the fact that you can sometimes create perfect players who are maxxed out in every stat... and even then, sometimes you still have points left over! Perfect running backs, wide receivers, offensive linemen... I've never stumbled upon a perfect quarterback yet, but you can usually end up with one way better than any real player in the game. This really should have been limited to an extent, or at least made it extremely rare to get a perfect player.
The gameplay is really good though. You have the option of selecting between two different play books during each play, and inside each one is a set of four rushing and four passing plays giving you a total of eight of each. Runs are smooth, passes are quick and easy by cycling through receivers with the A button and then throwing the ball with the B button. Controls in general are easy, in fact you mostly just use two of the three buttons on the Genesis controller. One negative point to mention is that often as your receivers run down field, you're left with looking at their icons at the edge of the screen while the player is out of sight, which makes it really difficult to see who may or may not be covered. This makes it difficult to complete passes sometimes, and is really my only qualm with the actual gameplay mechanics.
Visually the game isn't bad, but it's not really good either. Tecmo Super Bowl 3 is 2D and presented with one team on each side of the screen, but tilted slightly so there's a sense of depth at least. It works well enough, the problem is just that everything is noisy and grainy, characters are blocky, animations are simple, colors are drab. Don't pick this up for its visual appeal! Sound fares a little better, with the low buzz of the crowd noise in the background that actually raises and lowers in volume at key points. Things such as touchdowns and fumbles are announced by an announcer, though the voice is kind of gravelly and raspy. Overall not bad though.
Being a sports game, replayability is high as you can play through season after season improving your team, trading and drafting players, and improving your custom players. In addition, a quick preseason game against a friend is always fun and I find myself breaking out the game more often for that than I do to play through seasons. It's a decent game with fun gameplay at the core and simple, intuitive controls that make playing easy. However, it loses a star because the presentation leaves a lot to be desired and another star because of the issue with receiver visibility.
Three out of five, but still slightly above average worth of picking up, especially since it can be found for just a few dollars online. Despite the flaws it really is a fun game, and it's probably the best football game available on the Genesis anyway. When I have my Genesis hooked up to play Shining Force or Shadowrun or something, I often plug in Tecmo Super Bowl III a few times to play in between.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Gnomoria (PC)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun, complex, Dwarf Fortress-like gameplay, with decent (if simple) graphics
Cons: A few bugs, user interface, incomplete features (it's an ALPHA version afterall)

Note that this review is on an ALPHA version of Gnomoria (specifically version 0.8.24); this version is not the final retail version that will eventually be available. It may be some time before the final version is released, and this review should help you decide whether or not the game is something you might be interested in and whether or not to pre-order it for the pre-release discount price.
So far the gameplay in Gnomoria pretty much screams "I'm a graphical Dwarf Fortress clone", and that's not a bad thing. I've always loved Dwarf Fortress, but the ASCII graphics leave much to be desired and likely turn a lot of people away before they even try it. I can best describe Gnomoria as a strategic simulation game, where you control a group of gnomes as they try to make a life for themselves in the wilderness.
The world is randomly generated based on a seed, and there are a number of options you can play with that effect things like the depth of ores you can mine, the size and flatness of the world, enemy strength, etc. It takes a minute to generate, so I usually start the game and go grab a drink or have a cigarette while waiting. It only takes a minute the first time for the initial generation though, and any subsequent times you play on the same map load quickly.
While the graphics are a vast improvement over the ASCII text in Dwarf Fortress, they are still pretty simple. They are fairly small, isometric sprites and there's not much in the way of animation, but they are kind of cute and the style is neat. There's a good amount of variety to the world, with different types of trees and plants, rocks and minerals, as well as randomly generated caves and water sources throughout the map. You can build up and/or dig down, but one of the most important things to do is section yourself off from the main world to afford yourself some sort of protection against enemies. A game year is divided into four seasons of 12 days each, and during the first season you don't get any real enemies so that you have some time to prepare. You'll still have the occasional wild animal like a bear or a honey badger, and these can do some damage to your fresh little gnomes, but the main enemies aren't around just yet.
You can mine, dig, forage or deconstruct just about everything in the game, and this leaves you with materials you can use to build new things. A lot of people start the game by digging into the side of a hill and forming their main "base" or whatever in the tunnels, and that's a good strategy. I, however, prefer to choose a flat area of the map to start with (or flatten a hill if necessary) and build dirt walls around a big starting area and go from there; I just really like having the extra light during the day time.
You start out with 9 gnomes, and while you can't directly control these little guys, you can assign tasks that you wish to be done and they will work through them. You can, for example, designate an area of trees to be felled and any woodcutting gnomes will start chopping them down. You can designate a tunnel to be dug, and any miners will work at digging it out. You can farm, plant groves of trees, raise Yaks/Emus/Alpacas, and any number of various things that keep the game interesting. You may have 2 woodcutters and have them designated to cut down a pile of trees, craft the logs into planks, carve some wooden trinkets, make some beds and some doors, and have them so overwhelemed that certain things you really need to get finished aren't getting worked on fast enough. Thankfully though there is a priority system for most things that you can raise and lower at will, and this helps a great deal when it comes to making your gnomes do what you want them to do in relatively the right order.
Gnomes have needs like The Sims; they get hungry, thirsty and tired. You can get food from butchering animals, farming wheat for bread, picking wild apples and strawberries, and even making sandwiches from bread and sausage. Drinks are similar -- Yaks produce milk, a well can get water, wheat can be turned into beer, berries can be turned into wine, etc. Usually the easier to acquire food and drinks don't satisfy the gnomes for as long as the ones that take longer, so there's good reason to work your way towards making better things. A gnome will drop what he's doing and go grab food if he's hungry or drink if he's thirsty, so having items that keep them happy longer means they'll spend more time working.
Gnomes have a variety of skills, from mining to carpentry, horticulture to hauling, woodcutting to caretaking. The gnomes you start out with all have pretty good skills in certain areas and are assigned to those tasks by default, which ensures you have a couple of good woodcutters, miners and farmers, a builder and a rancher. You also start out with three Yaks and a few containers containing some initial food and drink, a few tools, a sword and a couple pieces of armor.
Most of the buildings you can build are 9 square blocks and are called "workshops". These take various quantities of wood, stone and/or metal to construct and allow you to build new items when completed. A carpenter allows you to make things like chairs, tables, doors, beds and crates. A blacksmith allows you to make tools, a furnace allows you to turn wooden logs into coal, etc. Kitchens allow you to butcher corpses (animals as well as enemies like goblins -- anyone for an ogre sausage?) while the distillery allows you to make wine and beer. You can even make complex mechanics using windmills, steam engines, pressure plates, axles, gears and switches. Enemy traps made of hatches or mechanical doors are always fun!
The combat system is probably my favorite part of the game, as it's surprisingly in-depth! If a gnome gets his leg chopped off, he moves slower. His arm gets chopped off? He drops his weapon because he can no longer hold onto it. Armor can be broken off of the body, eyes can be gouged out so that you can't see anymore, bleeding to death is not uncommon. A few times I've seen a gnome stab an enemy in the chest, penetrating it's lungs, and causing it to actually suffocate and die right there. Crazy.
Like I mentioned before, the graphics are pretty simple but neat. You have many, many layers of depth so you can mine way down into the ground, and you can similarly build up quite a ways. Occasionally you'll get annoyed because you're working 3 layers above ground, but you'll be trying to build something at ground level and not realize you're still on layer 3 though. It takes some getting used to for sure, but it's not too bad. Things are fairly well detailed though. For example, your gnomes all look completely different from one another. They have various haircuts, beards, etc... sometimes they'll even have a top hat or a monocle. You can see what they have equipped and in their hands as well; a gnome with copper armor and a mining pick can be easily distinguished on the map and not confused for a gnome wearing bronze armor and wielding an iron claymore. Sound effects are mostly non-existent, but the background music is pretty good despite lacking much variety. It's fairly mellow and non-intrusive, but it's a definite improvement to the game rather than a detriment. I especially like the foreboding music that plays when an enemy appears on the map.
The interface could use a little improvement as well, but at least you're give two options to do things. First, there's a popup menu full of submenus full of submenus when you right click on the screen. This is a typical cascading menu like the Windows Start Menu and is fairly easy to use. Secondly there's a hotbar at the bottom of the screen, and clicking a button pops up a sub-hotbar, etc. This is also fairly easy to use, but seems a little less intuitive somehow. Both menus feature the same problem though -- they just don't seem to be sorted well. Things seem to be in weird places and really take some getting used to, but even then I still occasionally get confused looking for something. For example, building a dirt wall is in a different section of the menu than removing a dirt wall. Removing dirt stairs is different than removing a dirt wall. Kind of quirky, but remember this is an alpha version so it will probably get cleaned up and polished long before the final version is released.
Another thing to note is that while the world is built of layers, there are actually "wall" pieces with thin "floor" pieces on top of them in each layer. I'll often get confused as to why my gnome is stuck somewhere, only to realize that he removed the floor tiles and trapped himself. There are still wall tiles all around on the layer under him, but the floor tiles are gone from the top so he can't walk across them. Easily remedied by building new floor tiles, but it happens quite often. The artificial intelligence of the gnomes also has a lot to do with this, as designating a big chunk of floor for them to remove will often result in them trapping themselves instead of removing it in a logical manner that would allow them to leave afterward.
Everything in the game has a base value, and totaling it up gives you your "Kingdom Worth". At the beginning of every season you get "Gnomads" who migrate to your kingdom and increase your gnome population, and how many of these Gnomads you get directly relates to your kingdom worth. More and stronger enemies also appear as your kingdom worth goes up, so it keeps the challenge going for a while. The end game isn't fleshed out too well yet though, as you get to a point after a number of years where your soldiers can pretty much annihilate anything that comes your way and the challenge goes away. It's still fun at this point, but I usually just start a new game instead.
There is so much more I could say about this game, but your best bet is just to try it for yourself. You can download a free demo of the game from and play for 6 game days. It's about 100MB in size, so it's a quick download for anyone short of dial-up users. If you decide to purchase the game after, you can continue playing right where you left off, which I think is always a good feature. All the programming and design for Gnomoria is surprisingly done by one single guy, and he's pretty active on the official forums (username: RoboB0b) answering questions and talking about his plans for the future of the game. He also manages to get substantial patches out to the game regularly, the frequency of which amazes me a little.
If you like Dwarf Fortress, Towns, Minecraft, or simulation games in general then you should definitely give Gnomoria a try. System requirements are pretty modest, needing Windows Xp/Vista/7, a 2GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 50MB of hard drive space, 128MB of video memory and DirectX 9.0c or higher.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dr. Mario (NES)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun to play (even casually), high replay value, decent graphics.
Cons: Sound isn't so great.

Dr. Mario is a classic puzzle game developed by Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console in 1990. It has since been ported to a multitude of other Nintendo consoles and hand-held devices, where it continues to do quite well. Mario apparently moonlights as a doctor when he's not snaking drains or fighting Bowser, and that's pretty much all there is to the game's premise.
The main screen of the game takes the form of a clear pill bottle, and the gameplay takes place inside this bottle. Inside you will find the play area which contains little viruses that can be either red, blue or yellow. Though there are no grid lines, you become immediately aware that the area is on a grid, and each virus takes up one block. Mario stands on the side of the screen holding different pills that are made of two different halves, each of which is either red, blue, or yellow as well. He tosses them into the pill bottle one at a time, and it's up to you to position the pill so that it lands on a virus.
Now the puzzle portion of the game stems from the fact that you can only destroy a virus and eliminate it from the play area by forming a horizontal or vertical line with the virus and three pill capsule halves. After you clear the play area, you continue on to the next level, and since each level contains more viruses and the pill capsules drop faster it can get pretty intense and challenging. This game is very similar to Tetris in that regard, as even though the two games are vastly different the overriding gameplay is still the same: manipulate the pieces to form lines and progress.
There is an "ending" after you finish level 20, where you get to view a short cut scene, but after it's over the game continues on indefinitely, until eventually there are so many viruses stacked up that it's impossible to proceed.
The graphics look pretty nice for a NES game, really polished and colorful. Still, it's a simple game that mostly consists of simple sprites on a single screen, so the bar is set pretty low to begin with. Audio wasn't as good, having only a couple of non-intrusive sound effects here and there and sadly only two background music tracks to chose from.
The sprite of Dr. Mario himself (tossing the pills into the bottle) is actually fairly convincing and pretty detailed, and in addition to that you also get sprites for each of the three colored viruses. They appear on the left side of the screen under a magnifying glass sprite to laugh at you and make faces at you as long as there are any viruses left of the matching color in the play area. When you clear the last blue virus for example, the blue sprite guy will fall over and then disappear. It's nothing special, but it's still a nice touch to add to a game that could have otherwise been very bland.
There is also a 2 player mode for Dr. Mario, which has one player on each side of the screen playing head-to-head. Completing lines to clear viruses will cause random pill capsule halves to drop randomly onto the other player's play area, complicating their game greatly, but is otherwise the same as the single player mode. I actually enjoy playing the 2 player mode, and have logged countless hours playing against my cousin when I was younger.
Controls are obviously simple but are quite responsive, making this an easy game to get into. These days Dr. Mario can be found online for about $3, which is nothing. It's a really fun game, even more so playing against a friend, and it costs very little; there's really no reason this shouldn't be in your collection. Dr. Mario is an easy recommendation for NES game collectors, fans of casual puzzle games, and especially fans of Tetris.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Space Invaders (SNES)

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Simple gameplay that's true to the original arcade version
Cons: Poor graphics and sound for being released so late in the life of the SNES

Space Invaders is one of the most iconic games in history, and is a game nearly everyone should recognize from the title alone. This arcade classic from Taito was ported to many home consoles, with the Atari 2600 version being the mostly widely known and most played of these. This review will focus only on the version released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1997. Normally we could expect some great graphics and sound considering the game was released rather late in the life of the console, but that's not really the case with Space Invaders.

Space invaders is a simple game that takes place on a single screen. You control some type of little cannon at the bottom of the screen; you can move left and right with the directional pad, and fire a single projectile straight up with the B button. Once you fire, you can't fire again until the previous projectile hits something or goes off the top of the screen. That's all there is to it, so the game is simple enough for anyone to pick up and play.

Enemies consist of blocky pixel aliens, who in their infinite intelligence form up into 11 columns of 5 aliens each, and slowly zigzag their way from one side of the screen to the other while slowly moving down toward you. Some of them occasionally drop projectiles straight down in an attempt to destroy you, but you can either move out of the way or take cover behind one of the four randomly blocky barriers spaced across the screen between you and the enemies. These barriers take damage as they are hit (by either you or the enemy) and eventually get full of holes and destroyed, but they're nice for cover in a pinch. Sometimes it's useful to sit under one and fire straight up through it to give yourself a narrow little canal to fire at the aliens through, as they are much wider than their projectiles so you can often kill a bunch before one gets lined up just right to return fire through the little opening.

As you kill more and more aliens they start moving faster and faster, and when you're down to just one left that little bugger is zipping around so fast that he's hard to hit. The very simple background music gets faster as the enemies get faster and closer to the bottom as well, which adds a little frenzy and sense of urgency to the gameplay. Occasionally a little flying saucer will fly across the top of the screen as well, and if you can shoot it down you get some bonus points. That's really all there is to the game; if you kill all of the aliens you move on and do it again, though as you progress it gets harder and harder (aliens get faster, start lower on the screen, etc).

There are four different versions of the graphics, though they are largely identical. One is a standard black & white mode, and similarly there's a black & white mode with "cellophane" which is really just a couple of horizontal colored bars across the otherwise black & white screen. There's a color mode, but everything is just made up of single bright colors and it's honestly pretty ugly. I guess the best looking graphics mode would be the upright cabinet mode -- it uses a simple background image and semi-transparent white graphics. It's still nothing spectacular, but at least it looks better than any of the other three graphic modes. Sound effects are minimal and sparse, and they sound like they were taken right out of the 1970's arcade cabinet.

The best feature of this game is the versus mode where you can play split-screen against another player. Each player can choose how many lives to start out with and what difficulty to play on, and then they are presented with 20 aliens and 1 protection barrier. Most of the aliens are white, but there are a couple of different colored ones -- destroying the colored ones takes a line of aliens away from you and adds them to your opponent. Hitting the flying saucer that flies across the top occasionally actually switches all of the aliens, so if you're lucky you can go from the verge of defeat to certain victory instantly.

There's a small city at night time as background on each side, and whoever wins gets a little sunrise animation that brings daylight. The loser gets a red screen with a smoldering crater in the middle. While Space Invaders doesn't offer a ton of replay value these days, the SNES cartridge can be found for just a few dollars online making it an inexpensive addition to any SNES game collection. It's worth breaking out to play once in a while, and the versus mode can be fun with a friend for a few minutes. Overall I would give it 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it to anyone who enjoys classic games.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Expansion (PC)

Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Ship formations, farm queues, smarter villagers. New units and civilizations are always a plus
Cons: None. The Conquerors does nothing but add to the gameplay in Age of Kings

Age of Empires II: The Conquerors is the expansion pack created for Age of Empires II: Age of Kings. If you're unfamiliar with the game, skim over that review first as this one is just about the new features this expansion pack brings to the table. It brings new maps to play on, new civilizations to try out, new units to play with and new technologies to research, among other things. It's not that expensive these days, and in fact you can usually find Age of Empires with the Rise of Rome expansion along with Age of Empires II and The Conquerors expansion all bundled together for under $10. It's a little more expensive to purchase it separately, so I recommend picking up some type of bundle these days.
One of the first things you may notice when starting up The Conquerors is the fact that there are new civilizations to choose from. These consist of the Aztecs, Huns, Koreans, Mayans and Spanish. Like the civilizations in the regular game, each one has unique unit(s) available to it. One of my least favorites of these unique units is the Huns' Tarkhan unit; it's a cavalry unit who is good against buildings. I prefer to just stick with my siege weapons for that purpose and the unique unit isn't all that beneficial to me. The Spanish Missionary is a good unit though, as it's more or less a mounted monk. A monk who can travel fast to convert enemies is never a bad thing in my opinion... unless it belongs to an enemy.
On the other hand, I really like playing the Huns despite my dislike of their unique unit. Mostly this is because the Huns don't have to build houses to support their population. This makes it easier and faster to churn out tons of villagers at the start of the game, keep setting them to collect food and churning out even more villagers until you're at the population limit for the game. Then you take them all and collect massive amounts of resources for a little while and then send them off to find an enemy and die so that you can free up that population to create an army with your new supply of resources. It's not a huge advantage because houses are cheap enough and quick enough to build, but every little bit helps. It's especially effective if you're planning an early rush against one person, because you can get a much bigger and more advanced army sent over there in the same amount of time and completely decimate them instead of just weakening them severely.
Another thing you may notice right away is the fact that there are three new game modes: Defend the Wonder, King of the Hill and Wonder Race. Wonder Race isn't really my cup of tea, but the other two I liked (though I still usually play either Regicide or random conquest). There are also four additional campaigns: Attila the Hun, Montezuma, El Cid, and The Conquerors. The Conquerors is really a series of separate maps that don't really go together, but it's fun all the same. There are also eight new maps, like the Nomad map where players start spread out and with no town center, or Mongolia where there are a ton of cliffs that make it annoying to move around. There are also maps based on real-world locations such as France, Britain, Texas or the Sea of Japan.
Some other noteworthy new features are the fact that you can now sail your ships in formations. In the original game you could do this with ground troops, but ships were still unwieldy. If you create a resource depot such as a mining camp, any villagers building it will automatically start collecting nearby resources. Previously they would just stand beside it idle when they were done; now you can send em building somewhere across the map and ignore them because they'll automatically get right to work.
There are also new unique technologies to each civilization. These mostly improve one certain type of unit by giving them a bonus like extra range, damage or health. The Goths have a technology that allows you to make units at the barracks quicker, which is handy because they already have a unique bonus of quicker training there as well and the two stack together making for some really fast infantry in a pinch. There are also a few new units in general that are usable by most civilizations; most notably an upgraded pikeman and a new really fast infantry unit that's hard for enemy monks to convert.
You can also queue up new farms at the mill so that they're built automatically when a farm is exhausted, which I really like because it's so annoying to try and keep up with them all if you rely heavily on farming for your food income. You can also stick troops inside battering rams now to make them stronger. Graphics and sound for this expansion pack aren't any different than for the regular game that I noticed, except for the new units which are still of the same small but detailed quality and look nice. They also did add in some winter and tropical tile sets which look just as good as the originals.

System requirements are identical to the Age of Kings (Pentium 166MHz processor and 32MB of RAM), except that this expansion pack requires an additional 100MB of hard drive space.
Overall I like having more civilizations and more units to choose from, and I really like some of the improvements like villagers auto-tasking after building, ship formations and farm queues. If you have Age of Kings you really should get this expansion pack as well since it adds a lot to the game. If you don't have Age of Kings, get it... and then get this expansion pack. Like I mentioned earlier it's really cheap these days and it's a terrific RTS experience.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Age of Empires II: Age of Kings (PC)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: A good RTS that's offers a lot of options and high replay value
Cons: A bit dated

Age of Empires II: Age of Kings is a real-time strategy (RTS) game developed by Ensemble Studios and published by Microsoft in 1999. In addition to the standard Windows PC release, it was also made available for Mac computers as well as the PlayStation 2. Following on the heels of the original Age of Empires game, Age of Kings brings the same wonderful gameplay but adds some much-needed new features like group formations and a button to locate idle villagers.
Like its predecessor (and most RTS games), Age of Kings is a game focused on gathering resources, churning out a military and defeating your enemies. This takes place over the course of four ages of the world, starting with the Dark Age, graduating the Feudal Age, then the Castle Age and eventually the Imperial Age. You only have a few buildings and units available at the start of the game and more are unlocked as you progress; most of these will only be unlocked during certain ages. For example, building a Siege Workshop to crank out battering rams is impossible until you've reached the Castle Age.
As you may infer from the title, this is a game of kings. You'll find peasant villagers, knights, boats, archers and horses; but no laser rifles or air support. You'll find barracks and archery ranges, castles and marketplaces. Resources you collect are food, wood, stone and gold, and these are the base upon which everything is created. Stone and gold can be gathered from mines spread around the map, wood can be collected by chopping down any trees on the map, and food can be gathered from farms, berry bushes, fishing, hunting animals, etc.
You have 13 different civilizations to choose from; these include the Britons, Byzantines, Celts, Chinese, Franks, Goths, Japanese, Mongols, Persians, Saracens, Teutons, Turks and Vikings. Each civilization has between three and five bonuses specific to them. Some are pretty useless like one of the Goth's bonuses is that villagers have +5 attack versus wild boars. That's a terrible bonus that nobody would ever care about.
My favorite civilization would have to be the Britons, because one of their bonuses gives foot archers +1 range in the castle age and another +1 range when you hit the imperial age. Archers who can shoot 2 squares further than your enemy's archers is a giant win for me because I always use a lot of archers.
Each civilization has another bonus... they can each make a unit unique to them at their castle when they build it in the Castle Age. Some are powerful, like the Persians' War Elephant while others aren't as strong but can be situationally useful like the Celts' Woad Raider. Personally I like the Britons' Longbowman because when fully upgraded it has the best range in the game and can take down towers from just out of range. If I'm playing on maps with a lot of water though, the Viking Longboat is unparalleled.
Speaking of maps, there are 13 different map types that you can choose from for a game. Maps are randomly generated, but the topography changes based on the type you select. Want a lot of water? Choose Coastal, Rivers or Islands as your map type. Want a land map only? Highlands and Black Forest sound like a promising choices. Experiment, or if you're not fussy just choose Random and let the computer decide for you.
Multiplayer matches are especially fun in Age of Kings, and up to 8 players can play at the same time. There are many options you can set for multiplayer games such as the map size, what technologies are available, population limit, starting age, etc. You can play with a modem or serial connection which are hardly used these days, or you can play with a standard TCP/IP connection. You'll need to do some port forwarding on your router to use this mode with people over the internet, but it works great out-of-the-box for LAN play. I play with one or more of my brothers once in a while on the different computers in the house.
The graphics are nice, and a big improvement over the original Age of Empires. They're not spectacular and they're still just two-dimensional, but everything is more detailed and looks cleaner. Units are generally small on the screen but easy to distinguish from each other; you can almost always tell at a glance which unit is which. Colors are a little messed up in Windows 7 though, with pink speckles covering a lot of the land. It doesn't make it unplayable, but it's sure annoying to look at.

Sound effects are decent. When you click on a villager you get the standard garbled speech that sounds like words but really isn't like would expect in The Sims. A villager chopping trees makes a sound like an axe into wood, etc. Battle sounds are sword clangs, galloping hooves and cannons and generally sound good. Background music is also decent, but there's not all that much of it. Most of it is just ambient noise, but it works well for the game.

System requirements are low since this game is a number of years old now; a 166MHz processor with 32MB of RAM and 200MB of hard drive space will suffice. It still works fine in Windows XP, and also in Windows 7 except for the aforementioned graphic distortion that I experience. I wish it would support a higher resolution, but 1024x768 is as high as it goes so that will have to suffice.

Overall a great game, and I highly recommend it. Tremendous replay value (I still play it often despite its age), and you can usually find it in the bargain bin. The Age of Empires + Age of Kings set is usually in the bargain bin even for under $10, so there's no reason to pass it up if you like RTS games.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Torchlight (PC)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun, polished loot-fest with a free editor and mod tools
Cons: A little repetitive, lacking end-game itemization, no multiplayer of any kind

With the release of Torchlight II imminent I figured it was a good a time as any to get out my review of the original Torchlight. I've been playing Torchlight off and on since the day it was released, and while it's a terrific game the lack of any type of multiplayer support kills it a bit for me; it's just one of those games that feels like it needs it. Well, they remedied that problem with Torchlight II which will come with drop-in/drop-out multiplayer support over the LAN and internet both. Epic win.
Torchlight was developed by Runic Games, which is a small team of people with some pretty noteworthy games under their belts such as Diablo, Fate and Mythos. I love the fact that they're a pretty small company, as you can actually talk to many of them on the forums at their website. They're usually good about keeping users informed about how things are going, and you never see this type of interaction with large companies.
As for the game, Torchlight is a single-player ARPG (action role-playing game). It was released through Steam and a couple of other digital distributors, as well as in a retail boxed version released by Encore a few months later. At the time of this writing you can pick it up for $14.99 on Steam, which is pretty good and well worth it. Right now however, you can download Torchlight free through Steam if you pre-order a copy of Torchlight II. I imagine this will end when Torchlight II is released, but you never know.
So there's this special ore known as "Ember" that has the power to enchant or corrupt. The mining town of Torchlight is at the top of the Ember mine, and adventurers go down in search of its power. When you arrive in Torchlight, you are recruited by a mage named Syl to go down in search of her master -- an alchemist named Alric -- whom you discover has been corrupted by the mysterious Ember and is now evil. That's really all there is to the story and the game; you just steadily travel further down killing everything in your way and collecting loot.
The main problem I have is the fact that everything is underground. Sure there's some variety here; you'll get mine tile sets for a few levels, islands in the dark floating around connected by wooden bridges, ancient ruins, castles in the lava... but it's all underground. The only open world area is the town, which is rather small and you are unable to leave it except into the mine. The world is like a giant vertical mineshaft connected by glowing portals you travel between to go up or down. Some of the levels may sprawl pretty far horizontally, but when you reach the end you're still going nowhere but down further.
Also, each level is randomly generated to an extent. Each different tile set has a number of "chunks" of the map, and these are randomly assembled to form the level. This is nice because it will be different the next time you play through, but the tile set will still be the same so it's not quite as impressive as it could have been. Still, I really like it and it does help. You may get some slightly different enemies, different items, treasure and secret rooms as well. Every few levels there is a "waypoint" portal that allows you to travel to any other waypoints you have activated, and this is certainly helpful to get back to town at least.
There are three different character classes you can play with; the Destroyer, the Vanquisher and the Alchemist. The Destroyer can only be a male character and acts as the melee/tank class of the game, getting up in the enemy's face and destroying him. The Vanquisher can only be a female character and is the archer type of class, mostly using different guns and bows to attack the enemy from a distance. The alchemist is a male character who relies on staves, wands and magic spells to get through the game. These are just the main roles for each class; you can play differently, like using a melee Alchemist or a magic using Vanquisher if that's what you want.
Any of the characters can equip just about anything since items require stat points and levels to use. However, pumping a pile of magic points into your Destroyer to equip a wand isn't going to be all that effective most of the time because his skills revolve around melee damage. The freedom to do this can make for some interesting character builds though, and they're occasionally fun to experiment with. Character stats consist of strength, dexterity, magic and defense. In addition, you have poison, fire, electrical and ice resistances which can be of immense help later in the game.
There are other stats that you can't directly view, which is another small negative. Things like 2% magic find, 15 knockback or 10% pet and minion speed you can only figure out by adding up how much is on each piece of equipment. The character screen could have used a little more fleshing out and polish to make all of these stats and bonuses easily visible.
Your character can equip a helmet, shoulders, armor, boots, gloves, belt, two rings, an amulet and a weapon (or two, or a weapon shield). There are tons of different pieces of equipment in the game, and that's where half of the fun comes in since this is a loot-whoring ARPG. Items come in different qualities, with different stats, sockets to place gems in to make them even stronger, etc. There are enchantment shrines in the dungeons to make them stronger (with a small but increasing percent chance to erase all of their stats!), and even an enchanter in town who will enchant your items for a fee (with double the percentage to erase stats as the shrines).
There's an item combiner in town too, with secret recipes to combine some items into other items. He can also combine gems, of which there are a lot. Say you have a few "cracked cold-ember" gems which give 3 ice damage if you put them in a weapon socket. Well, you can give two of them to the transmuter and get a "dull cold-ember" gem with 6 ice damage. This rather ends up leading to a hoarding of gems and a character with empty gem sockets though, because you don't want to use up the gems in hopes that you can get perfect gems. Since there are like 10 tiers of gems, this takes a long time to accomplish... and even when you get one, then you don't want to waste it on a sub-par piece of equipment!
There are NPCS (non-playable characters controlled by the computer) in town who will destroy a piece of equipment and give you the gems out of it. There's also a guy who will destroy the gem and leave you the piece of equipment, but often even if your character has found better equipment you will want to save the old piece for a future character by putting it in your shared stash chest.
The world itself is three-dimensional with a fixed camera. You can zoom the camera in and out with the mouse wheel, but you can't rotate it. You move by clicking on the ground, which took some getting used to because I typically prefer a WASD movement option when I play this type of game. The left mouse button attacks and the right mouse button executes a skill that you can assign to the key. You can also assign an alternate skill, so that when you hit the tab button it switches between them. The number buttons 1 through 0 act as hot keys that you can assign to other skills, potions, spells, etc.
Most of the other buttons are pretty standard as well. C to bring up your character pane, I for inventory, P for your pet, S for skills, etc. Pets are pretty nice in Torchlight, as they follow you around and can attack enemies. They also have their own inventory which you can fill up with goodies, and you can even click a button to send them back to town to automatically sell their inventory and bring you back the money. Pets can equip two rings and an amulet, as well as any two spells that you pick up along the way. This makes them pretty versatile and really helpful additions to your part since you're otherwise playing by yourself.
The game also has a little mini-game of sorts where you can fish at designated fishing holes. You catch various fish and then feed them to your pet to transform him temporarily (or permanently with the most rare fish) into another creature. This also fills up your pet's life and mana at the same time, so it's especially wonderful for boss fights to have different fish on hand to make your pet more useful. Otherwise, when your pet gets low health he runs around randomly away from the enemies and does nothing until he gets some health back. You can also fish up other items such as gems and boots, but they're much less common.
Matt Uelmen, who composed the music for Diablo, also composed original music for Torchlight and the results were spectacular. Sound effects are also good, with some pretty nice grunts and explosions. Different class skills are mostly varied as well, though there are a lot of passive skills that increase damage, armor, crit, etc. that are shared between classes.
You can't complete a review of Torchlight without mentioning TorchED and the modding capabilities. You see, the game is designed to be completely modable by players and there are a number of decent ones created. New maps, new enemies, new items, new skills, new character classes, you name it. Most of them were created using TorchED, the free mod tool that Runic released for creating game mods. It's mostly point and click and pretty easy to use. Some things like items are super easy while adding things like new classes is a lot more involved, but there's so much that's possible.
Torchlight has really low system requirements, including Windows XP or later, an 800MHz processor, 512MB of RAM, 400MB of hard drive space, and a DirectX-compatible 3D graphics card with at least 64MB of memory. There's even a checkbox to enable Netbook mode in the options, so even though this is a fun game that has decent looking graphics it will still run on some pretty low end hardware.

Overall Torchlight is a terrific game, though itemization does taper off at the end and it is a bit repetitive. The lack of multiplayer is probably the biggest down side, as it's a huge boon to this type of game. Still, certainly an above-average game and it's pretty cheap to pick up as well. If you catch it in time, go ahead and pre-order Torchlight II on Steam for $20 and get the free Torchlight download instead of purchasing it separately. If you miss the deal though, it's still worth buying on its own.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tecmo Bowl (NES)

Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: Actual player names and a fun two-player mode
Cons: No real gameplay balance. No injuries, penalties, fumbles or team names

Tecmo Bowl is an arcade game developed by Tecmo and ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1989. It was one of the first games to feature real names of NFL players, although it didn't use actual team names (teams were labeled by city, omitting the actual name). It's a game I remember fondly, staying at a friend's house and camping out in a pop-up camper while staying up all night playing Tecmo Bowl for hours on end.
Being an early NES-era game, Tecmo Bowl was nothing special to look at. It used a flat 2D plane with the computer on the right and the player on the left regardless of whether you were on offense or defense. Players were tiny little blobs of stick men, and were just barely detailed enough to tell that they were people -- but that was about all you could expect from the NES at that point, and they were plenty sufficient to play the game with. Sound effects were sparse and average, but the background music was annoying and repetitive. Mute for the win.
Tecmo Bowl featured only 12 teams: Indianapolis, Miami, Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Dallas, New York, Chicago and Minnesota. Some teams like Indianapolis or Dallas are poor to average, while Chicago or San Francisco make the game a breeze due to having some ridiculously players. Los Angeles had Bo Jackson as running back, and he could (quite literally) run circles around almost anyone. While this made for some hilarious plays like running from one end zone to the other and back again before scoring, it kind of cheapened the gameplay and made it nearly impossible to lose against the computer if you used Los Angeles. Similar situation with Lawrence Taylor in New York, who can block every single field goal and extra point attempt making an otherwise even game always come out in your favor.
Each team does have unique plays available to them, but the playbook only consists of 4 plays. Most teams have 2 running plays and 2 passing plays, and if the defence chooses the same play as the offense then it pretty much collapses the line and results in a loss of yards. That's a 25% chance of a loss of yards for the most part, though occasionally some of the better players can still scrape by. Bo Jackson for example can just start running backwards every single play, and when the defense collapses upon him just have him run a circle around them back the other direction and zigzag your way to the end zone for a touchdown.
It's a pretty cheesy game single player; it's usually either frustratingly difficult or frustratingly easy depending on which teams you're using. Playing 2 player mode with a friend is much better, but you have to make sure to either both pick good teams or both pick bad teams to avoid blowouts. That, or play the game so much you know the ins and outs of each team so you can figure out how to stop them. Like a game bug that leaves a linebacker unblocked on Bo Jackson's running play, which makes it easy mode for a human player to block Bo Jackson where the computer couldn't touch him for anything.
In single player mode you pick a team and the computer picks one, and if you win the computer picks another until you've beaten all the teams. You're given a short password to enter after each win so you can continue where you left off, but this is as close as the game comes to a season or franchise mode. There is a coach mode, but that just has you picking plays but not executing them. Not very fun, but it's there.
You can't get injured in this game, there are no penalties, you can't fumble the ball, you can't lateral; you can't even drop a pass (though you do get intercepted quite often if there is a defender anywhere close to your receiver). Occasionally you can break free of a tackle by mashing buttons, but that's about the extent of it. The gameplay left much to be desired and was rather disappointing, but it was the best there was on the NES at the time.
Since Tecmo Super Bowl came out though, there's no reason to play this instead any more. It's great for nostalgic value, but as a game Tecmo Super Bowl wipes the floor with Tecmo Bowl. It has actual team names, better gameplay, more plays, better graphics, a real season mode and stat tracking. It's the same game that we all loved and played to death, but improved upon in every noticeable way. I would have only recommended Tecmo Bowl back then for lack of anything better, but I can't really recommend it over Tecmo Super Bowl. Pass on this one and pick up the sequel.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun, battery saves, good music, second playthrough when you finish it
Cons: Simple graphics, occasional lack of direction

The Legend of Zelda was developed and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The first time I ever saw the shining golden cartridge I knew I was in for a good time, and I was not disappointed. It was one of the earliest games we got for the Nintendo, and one I played a lot growing up. An action/adventure game at heart, it's often considered to be a precursor to the action RPG genre. The Legend of Zelda turned out to be a huge cash cow for Nintendo, spawning many sequels and selling millions of copies around the globe.
The land of Hyrule is invaded by an evil army, lead by Gannon, the prince of darkness. In the process he steals the Triforce of Power, one of three powerful triangle artifacts that contain mystical powers. Fearing that he would steal the Triforce of Wisdom as well, Princess Zelda split it into 8 fragments and hid them throughout the land. She then sent her trusted nursemaid Impa in search of a hero to challenge Gannon and retrieve the Triforce of Power. In The Legend of Zelda you play as Link, the young lad found by Impa and the protagonist of the game.
The Legend of Zelda is a simple game at heart. The map is made up of "rooms" that fill up one screen of the game. That's probably not the most accurate term to describe them since many of them are outside in the world, but it's the best I could come up with. Rooms may have openings leading up, down, left and/or right that will take you into the next room. Once you kill all of the enemies in a room they stay gone until you've moved a certain number of rooms away, in which case they respawn. You don't level up or anything, so the only benefit to killing enemies (aside from getting them out of your way so that they don't damage you) is to collect rupies (the game's currency) or bombs.
There are a few items you can spend rupies on such as an improved shield, a candle or some healing water, but mostly they're worthless. You can only accumulate up to 255 of them at a time, and any additional rupies you collect will disappear. The other major items to collect are heart containers. Since you start the game with only 3 hearts, it's really beneficial to collect more. You'll get one from each dungeon boss to increase the damage you can take, but there are also 5 heart containers hidden around the map in various places. Finding them may be tricky if you're not cheesing it up with an online walkthrough, but half the fun is in the search and you're bound to find some other secrets along the way.

The game is rather open and non-linear, to the point that sometimes you'll be wondering where to go next. There's no harm in exploring (in fact that's half the fun), but some type of indication as to where the next dungeon is located would be nice. Not that you have to do them in order for the most part (obviously a dungeon that requires a raft to get to would require obtaining the raft from a previous dungeon first), but it's a little easier to do so.
The whole game takes place in a 2D overhead view where you can only walk in the four cardinal directions (no diagonal movement). You stab your sword one square in front of you to destroy various enemies, or if you have full health you can shoot a projectile from your sword across the screen to make things easier. It's a pretty simple concept, but it's made more interesting by secret areas (by blowing up walls or burning bushes), small puzzles and a large world map to explore.
The graphics are extremely simple but effective, and you have to keep in mind that The Legend of Zelda was made in 1986. The landscape is varied; spattered with deserts, forests, mountains and waterfalls. There are a number of different enemies as well, and each behaves differently so that you actually feel like you're not fighting the same guy over and over but with a different graphic. One may shoot projectiles at you, another will dig underground and pop back up closer to you, one might split into two smaller enemies when defeated and yet another will grab you and drag you through the wall back to the beginning room of a dungeon.
Speaking of dungeons, there are nine in total. The first eight have pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom at the end of them, while the ninth houses the evil Gannon and the Triforce of Power. Each dungeon has a boss at the end guarding the Triforce fragment, and each of the bosses is totally different from one another. None of them are exceptionally hard, and are pretty easy in fact once you figure out the pattern that it uses. Nearly every dungeon also contains an item in it somewhere; such as a bow, boomerang, ladder, etc. There are about a dozen in total and they will help you kill enemies or travel around the world map easier, and most are outright required at one point or another to progress.
Sound effects like the flick, flick of your sword swinging or the poof sound from a bomb exploding are plain but adequate. The music, however, is wonderful! From the adventurous tunes on the world map to the ominous music when entering a dungeon, the music is a huge boon to the game and really helps set the pace. The opening title song in particular is so memorable that it pops into my head any time I think of any Zelda game.
The user interface is simple and easy to use. Your items are on their own screen which comes down from the top of the screen to replace the game window when you hit the start button. From there you can select any single item you want to assign to the B button, while the A button is always used for your sword. Press start again to get back to the game screen and continue playing. Also noteworthy is the fact that The Legend of Zelda was one of the earliest games I can remember to use a battery save feature, so you can create up to 3 separate games and save them to restart later. This is immensely better than entering in some long annoying series of letters and numbers for level selection like most of the early NES games, and multiple people can still play the game and have their progress saved.
The Legend of Zelda is a game iconic to the NES, and a game that was so good that it seemed ahead of it's time. Despite it's simplistic nature it has held up fairly well and still offers a fun experience today; this is one game that should be in every NES collection and I recommend you pick it up. As far as replay value, there are a number of secrets to discover during the game, but even after you beat it there is a second playthrough with harder enemies and relocated dungeons and items. This effectively doubles the length of the game and gives you a reason to keep playing after you finish it.