Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC)




Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Beautiful, huge, epic game world. Lots to do, play however you want.
Cons: User interface is terrible. Lacking variety in equipment and enemies. Single player only

Introduction

I loved Morrowind, and I loved Oblivion even more. When I heard there was going to be another title in The Elder Scrolls series, I was quite obviously excited and anxiously awaited it's release. I picked up The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the day it was released, and it has since eaten up a lot of my free time. It's a great game, but it's got a couple minor things that I really don't care for so I'm going to go against the grain here and not give it 5 stars. In fact, I'd like to give it about a 70% rating, it's only getting 4 stars because Epinions does not allow half star ratings.

I'm now about 70 hours into the game but only a quarter of the way through the main story. There's just so many optional things to do and such a vast world to explore that you can easily get side tracked and spend countless hours just wandering the countryside.

Two hundred years after the events that took place in Cyrodiil, the capital of Tamriel, in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the story moves over to Skyrim. Skyrim is not only the name of the game, but also the location in which it takes place. Skyrim is another province in Tamriel, located to the north of Cyrodiil, and it's home to the Nord people.

There's a civil war going on between the empire and the Stormcloak rebels over the worship of Talos, and dragons have returned to the world. Early on you find out that you are what is called "Dragonborn", and are able to speak and understand the language of dragons.

Gameplay

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an action/adventure role playing game. Most often you'll be running around in a first person view hacking enemies apart with weapons, shooting them with arrows or destroying them with magical spells and abilities. You can toggle on a third person view, which I prefer in most games, but it just doesn't feel right in Skyrim. Probably because the camera is over your right shoulder instead of directly behind you when you're not in combat, it really feels disconcerting.

There are 10 playable races in Skyrim, including various human races as well as Elves, Orcs, Argonian (reptiles) and Khajiit (felines). Each race gets a couple of minor racial bonuses, like Nords having 50% resistance to frost spells or High Elves getting 50 extra points of magicka, or Khajiit's Night-Eye ability that lets them see in the dark for 60 seconds. None of these bonuses are game breaking, but certain ones can be pretty awesome depending on how you want to play your character.

Skyrim is a pretty non-linear game, you can go about as you please and do whatever you want. Some main quest givers are important NPCs that can't be killed, but pretty much anything else is fair game. You can complete the main story quest, countless side-quests, wander the countryside or countless other things. As for crafting or trade skills, you can learn blacksmithing, alchemy and enchanting. Blacksmithing allows you to create weapons and armor at a forge, as well as improving them on the workbench or grindstone. Alchemy allows for making various potions, and enchanting can add magical effects to your weapons and armor.

Other skills include sneaking, pickpocketing, speech and lock picking. Combat skills include blocking, heavy armor, light armor, archery, one handed and two handed weapons; there are also multiple types of magic including conjuration, alteration, restoration, illusion and destruction. There are no defined character classes in Skyrim, instead your character progresses and levels up as you increase various skills. Every level you get a perk, which you can use to improve skills as you see fit. There are perks that let you block more damage with your shield, do more damage with your weapon, cast spells for less magicka, etc. One of my favorites is the perk that slows down time by 50% when you zoom in while aiming a bow.

There are around 250 perks in total, but you can't get them all because you only get 1 perk per level. Once your character hits level 50 they level up a lot slower, but supposedly you can get all the way up to level 81 by increasing every skill to it's maximum of 100. Still, this means at the very most you can get just under one third of the total available perks. There's also no way to reset your perks once you've chosen them, so plan accordingly. My first character I grabbed a couple of heavy armor perks, then a couple of one handed weapon and blocking perks... and then decided I wanted to be a mage. I eventually just made a new character instead so I wouldn't have those wasted armor perks from the start.

You can also choose one of your stats to increase at every level. Health, magicka and stamina are the only real stats you have to worry about. Health and magicka are pretty obvious in that they represent the amount of damage your character can take and the amount of magical spells he can cast. Stamina determines how much weight you can carry, as well as how long you can sprint and how many special attacks you can use. My zoomed in bow aiming for example, it uses stamina at a steady rate for as long as I'm zoomed in. When my stamina runs out, I can no longer zoom in until I regain some stamina. Health, magicka and stamina all slowly regenerate on their own, though there are also potions and enchantments to increase their regeneration rate.

Some areas of Skyrim are more difficult than others, especially areas higher in elevation. Despite that base difficulty, many enemies progress in difficulty as your character levels up. This makes them harder to fight, but also means they drop more gold and better items.

Speaking of items, there's a good variety, but I wish there were more. With such a massive world and so much to do, it makes the amount of different pieces of equipment look small in comparison. There are 8 different types of light armor, plus another 8 special kinds that are obtained via quest lines, along with maybe a dozen kinds of heavy armor. Of these, you can acquire a helmet, chest piece, gauntlets/bracers and boots. Granted, these can all be varied further by improving them on a workbench or enchanting them, but there's still a slight lack of variety.

The same can be said for enemies in Skyrim. There are maybe 30 different types of enemies, which is really disappointing. Especially when you consider that the 30 is counting rabbits, horses, dogs, elk, etc. Most of the dungeons I've been through so far are populated by either Draugr, which are a type of undead/zombie like creature, or various melee/archer/magical humanoids. I really wish there was some more variety here. It's sufficient, but could have been so much better. Aside from the dragons, which are always fun and epic battles, giants are pretty great to fight as well. They have a lot of health, and they hit hard enough to walk up kill you with one swing of their mighty clubs. It's epic fun to kite them around and whittle their health away a little at a time. Mammoths are pretty fun as well, they're not quite as strong as giants but they do hit hard and have a lot of health. Since giants are mammoth herders, I'll often end up fighting both at once anyway.

You can also get various NPC companions to join you during your journey, but only one at a time. You can give them equipment and other items to hold, and they can even equip it - if they feel like it. You can't directly equip items on them, which is annoying. I gave my companion a +4 health ring, and she equipped it. Later I gave her a +20 health ring, and she left the +4 ring on instead. I had to take the +4 ring away from her so she would equip the +20. Annoying. Still, they're handy to have along to help out in some of the dungeons. I bring Lydia along outfitted in heavy armor with a 2 handed weapon, which is great because she can draw the enemies attention for a bit while I pick them off with my bow. If your companion dies though, they're dead forever, so it's kind of important to save before major battles if you care about your companion at all.

Mods

If the previous Elder Scrolls games are any indication, you can expect there to be a lot of mods (both from Bethesda and third party), as well as multiple pieces of downloadable content. Though the game has only been released for a couple of weeks at the time of this writing, there are already loads of mods - especially armor, clothing and texture mods.

I'm sure future mods will introduce whole new areas, dungeons, enemies, tons of equipment and all sorts of other things. Personally I only use the "No More Blocky Faces" mod that smooths out the faces in the game right now. I'll probably install some others after I finish the game all the way through once. "QD Inventory" looks great, as do the "Realistic Water Textures" "Enhanced Blood Textures" and "Enhanced Night Skyrim" mods.

Some mods such as "Nude Females", "Glowing Ore Veins 300" and "Main Font Replacement" don't look all that terrific to me, but I'm sure will find widespread use.

Graphics & Sound

The visuals in Skyrim are outstanding. The map is gigantic and expansive, and the attention given to detail is amazing. The landscape varies from tall rugged mountains to rolling flat plains. Lush green carpets of plant life to blizzards you can hardly see through. Clouds roll by in the sky overhead, snow blows around in the air, it's really a beautiful game.

Character models are well done, though a touch blocky looking - especially in the faces. Most of the animations are great, though I had to chuckle when I switched to the third person camera view and watched my character jump, that was a little goofy. Path finding for your NPC companions is also a little annoying, and if you're running around the map they may disappear for a while as they try to work their way to you. This is especially true if you jump off a small cliff and they have to run around the long way. Usually issuing the "wait" command and waiting for an hour or two will bring them back to your side, but it's still annoying. Also, if you get a horse and ride around, your companion is unable to ride so they always lag behind.

The user interface is one of the things I dislike the most about Skyrim. In making it consistent across the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 ports, it seems rather unintuitive and cobbled together on the PC. There's no drag and drop for items, no bars of spells you can hit with the push of a button... You can assign the numbers 1-8 as hot keys to equip certain pieces of gear, but it doesn't work correctly with dual wielding items, requiring you to press multiple buttons to switch from a two handed weapon to a sword + shield (or from a bow to a healing spell + fire spell in my case).

Everything is done by accessing a menu, then using a couple of hot keys in that menu to interact with the items. "Press E to equip" or "Press R to store item" and it's all text based. It's annoying trying to figure out whether I should press E, R, or just click on the item to get it to do what I want. No graphical representations of items in the menus or in your inventory is also a bit disappointing. Now I can understand that some usability must be sacrificed on consoles where they don't use a keyboard and mouse, but on the PC this just seems broken and prohibitive. It's annoying and inefficient, and I'm surprised even Bethesda stuck with it through the game's release. Hopefully some mods will come out in the near future to overhaul it and make it more user friendly.

Interfacing with the game using an Xbox 360 controller wasn't any better for me, I really disliked the speed at which the camera zoomed around. I found it pretty difficult to control and switched back to the keyboard and mouse in short order. Maybe if you're used to playing the 360 it would be beneficial to you, but then you probably would have the 360 version of this game instead of the PC version anyway.

Jeremy Soule composed the music, as he did for Oblivion, Morrowind and Icewind Dale as well. He also composed the award-winning soundtrack for Total Annihilation, and even did Secret of Evermore way back in the day when he worked for Square. The music is gorgeous, especially the main theme "Sons of Skyrim", which is an epic score sung in the game's dragon language. The sound effects were a crisp and clear array of the same clangs and thumps you'd expect to hear. The help to immerse you in the game world, but are largely forgettable and overshadowed by the visuals.

Voice acting was pretty top-notch throughout. Featuring some well-known voice actors like Michael Hogan (Saul Tigh in Battlestar Galactica), Christopher Plummer (Doctor Parnassus in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman in The New Adventures of Wonder Woman), Max von Sydow (Sir Walter Loxley in Robin Hood) and Claudia Chrstian (Susan Ivanova in Babylon 5).

Minimum System Requirements

Windows 7/Vista/XP (32 or 64 bit)
Dual Core 2.0 GHz processor
2 GB RAM
6 GB HDD Space
Direct X 9 compliant video card with 512 MB of RAM
DirectX compatible sound card
Internet access and free Steam account for activation

My System

Windows 7 Professional (64 bit)
Triple Core 3.2 GHz processor
8 GB RAM
DirectX 11 Video card with 1024 MB of RAM
DirectX compatible onboard sound card

It runs great for me, even on Ultra settings.

Conclusion

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a great game in so many ways, and it's on a level of it's own when it comes to grandness and epic scale. I really enjoy the game, and every time I start it up I lose myself for a few hours in Skyrim and get nothing else accomplished. Still, I would love to see some more enemies and different types of equipment to flesh out the game world and I'm knocking my rating down a notch because of it.

On top of that, the terrible interface is definitely taking my rating down another notch. It's still a brilliant game and I love playing it, but it's not perfect by any means. Hopefully some future mods will smooth out the rough patches, overhaul the interface and add some much needed variety to the equipment and enemies. Still, I'd recommend the game to anyone who loves a good single player RPG. It's as good as most others, better than some, and the grand scale of the game is almost awe inspiring.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mickey Mousecapade (NES)




Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Standard platformer that paved the way for great Capcom published Disney games in the future
Cons: Not much variety in levels or enemies, Minnie is annoying!

Mickey Mousecapade is a standard side-scrolling platform game from early in the Nintendo Entertainment System's life cycle. It was developed by Hudson Soft and published by Capcom here in North America. While it's not a terrific game itself, it paved the way for future Disney games such as Duck Tales and Darkwing Duck to be published by Capcom on the Nintendo. Mickey Mousecapade is meant to be played through in one sitting - it has no battery, no game save and no continues. The best you get are a couple of hidden codes. The first is a level select code that you can input at the title screen. You push up, down, left or right on the directional pad at the same time as you press select and start, and you start at a different level for each direction. The next is a continue code when you die, press up and start to continue from the level you were on. There are only five levels though, and none are very long so it's not usually necessary.

The platforming is pretty standard fare. You move from room to room or area to area shooting enemies that are walking around trying to kill you. Enemies include the likes of little cats, slimes, spiders and birds. Most of them just have one type of movement they repeat hoping to accidentally kill you in the process. Walking back and forth, jumping up and down, hanging from the ceiling, etc. A few will have better attacks, like the little pirate that throws little skulls at you or the bird that flies overhead and poops on you, but there's nothing really special here. Even the bosses on each level are like that, though most of them do shoot one random projectile or another at you, and mostly with no discernible pattern. A little more work could have been put in to make the enemies and bosses a little more fleshed out. You dispatch these enemies by shooting them with little stars, and you obtain the little star weapon very early in the game from a chest.

The story, too, could have used a little work. There's really not much to it, but to be fair there wasn't really much story to very many games back in 1988 when this was released. The entire story (from the instruction book) is as follows:

"Mickey, followed by Minnie, adventure through the Fun House, by the Ocean, the Woods, the Pirate Ship, and the Castle. All in search of their mystery friend. Help them solve the mystery!"

The "followed by Minnie" part is a little annoying. You control Mickey, and Minnie follows you around a step behind everywhere you go. She's immune to damage from enemies, and she does shoot a few stars as well if you grab her weapon from a chest in the first level. This sounds like it'd be helpful, but in reality Minnie is more often detrimental to the game play. As you jump over pits, she jumps over a step behind. If she dies, Mickey mysteriously dies as well, so if she falls in a pit it's really annoying. Another problem is the platforms themselves. Some are small, but even more important is the fact that some don't have a lot of jumping room and Minnie often ends up stuck in the corner of the room somewhere. She has to be right with you when you leave rooms or it don't work, so you have to go back down and get her and make her move about the platforms with indirect jumping while you're trying to move about yourself. It's rather annoying at times.

There are always some type of items in platform games, and Mickey Mousecapade is no exception. There are only a few, and they are only uncovered by shooting lamps on the wall or uncovering a hidden area. First off there is a piece of cake that restores one bar on your health meter, as well as a red diamond that restores all of your health. There's a blue diamond that destroys all enemies on the screen, and a guardian angle that looks like the fairy from The Legend of Zelda. This guardian angel gives you temporary invincibility for about 10 seconds and operates like the star in Super Mario Brothers destroying any enemies you come into contact with. Finally, you can occasionally find a 1-Up that gives you an extra life.

As for the hidden areas in the game, you find them by shooting your stars and if they explode in mid-air somewhere then keep shooting that spot. Sometimes there's a guardian angel there to help you, and other times there's an annoying crow enemy that kidnaps Minnie. Since you can't finish the level without her, you have to start hunting for more of these hidden areas to find her again. Once you find another hidden area, there are 4 statues inside. At random, touching one of the statues will give you Minnie back and the other 3 will poof out of existence and do nothing. Once it took me about 20 tries before I rescued Minnie, and it was mighty irritating.

The graphics and sound aren't terrible, especially considering it was made pretty early in the Nintendo's life cycle. It's colorful and has some detail in the characters and enemies, but there's not a lot of variety. The sound fares a little worse because the music is really annoying. As far as sound effects, the blip blip sound when you shoot stars could have been toned down a bit. Since most of the game your constantly spamming stars, that sound pretty much drowns out any other sound effects there are and it, too, gets pretty annoying.

Overall, I would give Mickey Mousecapade an average rating and only recommend you try it out if your Nintendo still works and you can pick it up for a buck or two at a flea market, garage sale or on eBay. Otherwise, avoid it and pick up one of Capcom's later offerings for the Nintendo like Darkwing Duck.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Intec G7220 Playstation 2 AC Adapter (PS2)


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Works as expected
Cons: None

When we last moved, I somehow lost the power cord to my Playstation. While I could always use the cord from my Playstation 2 and switch it back and forth, the machines are in different rooms and it really isn't much fun messing around with it - and that's providing nobody wants to play in the other room while I'm playing in this room. While the the PSX (and even the PS2 to an extent) may seem outdated, they still get a lot of use around here. I have a pretty big collection of games for those systems, and it'd be a shame to toss them out or let them collect dust in the garage.

At first, I figured I would probably just have to go find another $20 Playstation on eBay or Craigslist. However, that turned out to be unnecessary when I found this third-party replacement online for right about $5 including shipping. This Intec G7220 power cord is a polarized, 6 foot long 110 volt cable that is UL listed. Mine came shipped coiled up and twist-tied together, and placed in a manila envelope. It appears to be about the same thickness and similar quality to the original Sony Playstation 2 cord. I plugged it in, fired up the Playstation and it's been working as expected.

Note that when I was looking for a cord online, many retailers had this cord listed as being compatible with the PS one and the PS2 Slimline console. This is completely incorrect, and if those retailers had even glanced at the back of a slim console for half a second they would realize they have entirely different connectors.

This cord only works with the original Playstation and Playstation 2, not the slim versions.

The original models of the two systems have the power transformers built into the system, and take this same standard cord. Note that this cord can also be used in a Sega Dreamcast as well as many household stereo systems. It's a pretty universal design where the end that plugs into the console looks like a small square next to a small circle. Slim models of both systems have the power brick transformers in the cord (similar to a laptop computer), and the end that plugs into the console is a single small round plug that looks similar to a headphone jack.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Contra (NES)




Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Short, fun, cooperative multiplayer
Cons: No randomness - nothing's different after the first play-through

Contra was developed and published by Konami as an arcade game, and ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988. Contra is iconic to the NES, sharing that spotlight with the likes of Mega Man, Metroid, Punch-Out, Super Mario Brothers and The Legend Zelda. It's also one of the first games I can remember playing that actually had cooperative multiplayer. Being able to sit down with a friend and blast through the game made it all the more entertaining, and waiting to take turns on a system that comes with 2 controllers was never the most fun part of my day.

There isn't a whole lot to the game of Contra. It consists of 8 moderately short stages of platforming, side scrolling, run-and-gun action. Picture Mario and Luigi working together instead of taking turns - while packing heat. There are energy beams, gun turrets, exploding bridges, and lots of generic soldiers that all look alike. The levels are varied in design enough that you never feel like your just playing a remix of a previous level. One may be grass and trees, one may be covered in snow, the next may be inside a building and maybe the next one will be inside an alien's lair.

There are a couple of stages that take place inside an enemy base (stages 2 and 4) that are different from the rest of the side-scrolling game. They give you a behind-the-character view that attempts to simulate 3D. In these levels you run forward into the screen, destroying turrets and targets on the back wall to blast open walls that lead further into the base. There are also random enemies that run back and forth against the wall shooting or throwing dynamite at you. As you destroy walls and get further in, the pattern of turrets and targets changes until you reach the end. Stage 3 was also unique in that you climbed the level from the bottom to reach the boss at the top rather than moving from left to right through the level.

All stages, side-scrolling or base levels, have a boss at the end. These bosses are all unique, and they're all big. Some execute different patterns of shooting various bullets or other objects at you, some spawn other enemies to swarm you, and some just try to run you over. None are particularly difficult, but they're all fun.

Being a run-and-gun type of game, your character moves at a decent speed in Contra. Even when jumping in the air you do a somersault and jump twice as high as your character can stand. You can fire in 8 different directions with the D-pad, even while jumping, which makes for some pretty tricky looking shots at times. You can also lie prone and fire straight ahead of you.

There are only a few types of weapons in Contra, but at least they're all fairly different. You start out with some type of rifle, and there are a few different power-ups that you can get to change to a different gun. These power-ups take the form of a red letter designating which type of power-up it is. M for machine gun, S for spread gun, L for laser or F for flame thrower. The machine gun is a rapid fire weapon that allows you to hold down the button to shoot, and it's my second favorite gun. The spread gun is really overpowered, and easily the top pick if you have a choice. It spreads your bullets out vertically in a cone shape on the side scrolling levels, allowing you to destroy things you wouldn't normally be able to fire at without getting in harm's way. In the base levels, it spreads your bullets out in a horizontal cone instead, allowing you to hit turrets and targets without standing directly in front of them.

The flame thrower and laser are nice enough, but less impressive than the other two under most circumstances. The laser fires a short burst at once that is about like shooting 4 or 5 single bullets. While it's pretty strong, it seems to be a bit slow so if you're not accurate with your shots it's pretty useless. The flame thrower is my least favorite weapon. It doesn't really shoot fire, it just makes your bullets move much slower and in a small spiral in the direction you are firing. It's fine for laying prone and shooting turrets from out of harm's way, but mostly it's just a narrow, slow version of the spread shot.

In addition to the different types of guns, there's also a B power-up which stands for barrier. It makes you invulnerable for 15-20 seconds, and any regular fodder soldiers you run into will also be destroyed. Then, there's a R power-up that sure sounds pretty useful. It's supposed to make the other weapons shoot a little bit faster, which is always welcome. Unfortunately, if it works at all, it's not enough to notice a difference. Last but not least there is a power-up that looks like a falcon. It's pretty rare, but destroys all enemies on the screen when you touch it.

Each power-up is in the same location every time you play through the game. Some will be in floating Mega-Man-like capsules, others will be in white boxes that look like turrets but have power-ups in the center instead of gun barrels. In the base stages, all the random enemies on the back wall will be green - except for the one that leaves a power-up behind when it's killed. That enemy will be red.

The graphics were well designed and executed. Characters are detailed and colorful, animations are smooth, and each level looks unique except for the "base" levels. Unfortunately there are only a few different types of regular generic enemies, so it loses a few points for lack of variety there. The background music was great. Upbeat electronic synth tracks add to the excitement, but the sound effects were barely noticeable. The guns sounded a little different from each other, but were mostly just little blips. Explosions sounded like every other explosion you've ever heard in an arcade or console game from 20 years ago.

Player 1 is always wearing blue pants and Player 2 is always wearing red pants - both characters are mysteriously shirtless. There is no life bar, no heart containers, no bullet proof vest... if you get hit once, you die and lose a life.

I remember when we first got the game all those years ago, dying so many times trying to beat it. Then we learned of the Konami Code cheat code after playing another Konami game called Life Force, which works the same in both games. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, B, A, start. Entering this at the title screen allowed you to start off with 30 extra lives instead of 3. It even works with both players if playing a 2 player game, you just have to hit select before the final start.

These days I don't need the cheat code as I usually don't die much. After you've played through the game a number of times and know where all the enemies are and what they do, you can breeze through the entire game again in less than half an hour. It's still fun though, and doesn't take an insane amount of time to do so it's worth plugging in to play once in a while. In fact, Contra is intended to be played through in one sitting. There are no continues, no save points, no codes to write down so you can resume your game later. When you die, that's it, start over from the beginning and try again. You do get an extra life here and there from your score total though.

Congratulations!
You've destroyed the vile Red Falcon and saved the universe. Consider yourself a hero.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Shadowgate (NES)




Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: Some puzzles are thought-provoking, fun to see how many different ways you can die
Cons: Constant deaths to indecipherable puzzles with cryptic trial-and-error solutions

Shadowgate is a point and click adventure game developed by ICOM Simulations in 1987 and published by Mindscape for the Apple Macintosh. It was later published by Kemco Corporation in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The game takes it's name from the setting, Castle Shadowgate. As the last descendant of a line of hero kings, it's apparently your mission to enter this foul place and vanquish the evil Warlock Lord before he summons a demon from hell to destroy the world. Shadowgate revolves around collecting items and using those items in various ways to proceed through puzzles and work your way to the evil Warlock Lord. Many times progress will involve a lot of trial and error, as a lot of things are not obvious. Then there's the fact that a great many incorrect actions will actually kill you instantly. Thankfully you can just continue from the same area you died in and not have to start over from the beginning or some random save point at an arbitrary point in the game.

At one point, there's a bunch of caskets in a room. Open one, it's empty. Open another, a banshee comes out and screams and then goes back in but nothing happens. Another, slime spills on the floor. If you try to walk past the slime, it gets on you and kills you without warning. In another place there are 3 mirrors, you have to break the middle one to uncover a hidden door. If you break the left one, broken glass kills you. "As soon as you break the mirror, shards of glass fly through the air and slice into your body!!" If you break the right one, it opens a magic portal into outer space that sucks you out and kills you. It can get pretty rough trying to figure out which random action out of 10 doesn't result in your death. While occasionally frustrating trying to figure out what to do next, and how not to kill yourself, it does add a sense of danger to the game. Since you can continue from the same area all the time, without that sense of danger that comes with every action you perform, the game would be a little bland and meaningless.

Then there's the convoluted puzzles that take forever to figure out. At one point, you're confronted by a wraith blocking your progression. It just stands there looking stupid as you scroll through your dozens of items, trying each one out in turn to try and kill the wraith or make it move out of your way. You try the sword, the sling, the spear, the hammer, some random spell you read from a scroll earlier... nothing's working. You have 6 or 8 torches in your inventory, and one is in a stack by itself instead of lumped with the rest, so you decide to try it out and it engulfs the wraith in flames and destroys it. Or in another area, where you have to kill a werewolf. Neither the sword or spear work, and you don't even have a bow... but you have to kill it with just a plain arrow randomly that you grabbed off a wall earlier.

The interface is pretty simple and straight-forward. There's a pane down the right side of the screen that lists your inventory, spells, etc. There's Card Up/Down buttons that let you scroll through the different inventory cards (pages), and each card holds 7 items. There are also 2 torch icons, one on each side at the top of the inventory. If both of these torches go out at the same time, it gets dark and you trip and fall on your face and die. You must remember to pick up all the torches from the walls on your way through the game so that you can keep re-lighting new ones. This acts as the game's timer, as there are a limited number of torches in the game.

Across the bottom of the screen is another pane with all the actions you can take listed on it. These include MoveLook, Open, Use, Leave, Take, Close, Hit and Speak. The Move button is on the left and is accompanied by a small box with squares inside representing all the possible exits from the room. This lets you know at a glance which ways you can go, and you can click on these squares as well as the actual doors to move from the room. If you uncover a hidden passageway it will appear in the move square as well, but does not show up prior to uncovering it.

You can try all the various actions by pointing to one and hitting the A button, and then pointing to the object you wish to try it on and hitting the A button again. There's also a Save button, and one labeled Self on the right underneath the Card Up/Down buttons. The Save button is pretty self-explanatory, and the Self button allows you to use items on yourself. This bottom pane also doubles as a place for text - when you enter a new room, interact with a new object, die, or any time the game feels the need to impart some information upon you for any reason. "As you go down the trap door, you realize you took a big step. The fall is quite fatal. It's a sad thing that your adventures have ended here!!"

The main portion of the screen in the top left is for the view of the game world. It's a first-person type of view, with mostly still pictures of your surroundings that you can click on to interact with. When trying different things, you'll usually get feedback in the bottom pane so you know if what you are attempting is having any effect. You'll end up with a lot of responces such as "You seem to be wasting your time." or "What you expected hasn't happened."

The graphics are all still images of different rooms in Castle Shadowgate and their contents. They're pretty varied, and they're drawn well enough that it's really obvious what most of them are, but they're pretty pixelated even for a NES game. As you take objects from the room or kill creatures in the room, they disappear from the picture. If you open doors they open up in the picture as well, but otherwise the pictures remain static and don't really change. At least it's a pretty big maze-like castle with a lot of rooms so there's some variety.

Other than the occasional whoosh when you open a door or the blippy jingle when you move between rooms, there's not much in the way of sound effects in Shadowgate. Mostly just blips to indicate you've interacted with something in one way or another. The background music is dark and foreboding, breathing a little atmosphere into the game, but it consists of pretty short loops and the novelty wears off pretty quick. On top of the short time between looping, there's really only a few different pieces in the game in the first place. A couple main pieces, one that's often played in rooms with enemies, and an unnerving faster-paced piece that kicks in when your last torch gets low to give you some warning and time to light another.

It has it's moments, despite being occasionally aggravating. There's also not much replay value, as once you finally trial-and-error your way through all the puzzles, you'll know exactly where everything is and how to breeze through it in a half-hour the second time through. There's very little that's different from one play-through to the next. It might be worth a single play-through if you can find it at a flea market for buck or two.