Saturday, May 26, 2012

DEFCON: Everybody Dies (PC)




Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Inexpensive, simple but challenging, multiplayer is a lot of fun
Cons: Rather plain graphics, single player mode is not as fun as multiplayer

Defcon is a strategy game developed by Introversion Software. It's really a simple game both in play and aesthetically, especially when playing single player. Since each player starts with the same resources and population, it really shines most in multiplayer where timing and strategy are the keys to victory. I use the term "victory" lightly, because when it comes to thermonuclear war there are no winners. Instead, the goal is to lose less than the other guys.
 
A lot of the simplicity comes from the fact that there is no resource gathering, no unit production, and no researching technologies. Instead, the game starts out at defense condition (DEFCON) 5, and a timer slowly ticks toward DEFCON 4, 3, 2 and then finally DEFCON 1. You chose one of six starting areas (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Russia or Africa) and try to lose as little of your population as possible.
 
When the game starts at DEFCON 5 all you can really do is place your units. These consist of radar stations, airfields and missile silos to place on your land mass, as well as naval fleets to deploy in the sea. You have a set number of units and you just deploy them where you think they will do the most good, and hope that your deployment and timing is better than that of your opponents. When it changes to DEFCON 4 your radar starts working, and by the time DEFCON 3 arrives your ships and planes will begin attacking enemies when in proximity. When it's time for DEFCON 5, that's where the slaughter begins as you can finally start launching nuclear weapons to decimate your enemies.
 
Your various units mostly have two different modes of operation. Missile silos can either fire ICBMs, or they can shoot down enemy ICBMs that fly near them. It takes a while to switch between the modes, so you're usually vulnerable for a bit while changing modes. I usually change only a couple of my silos at a time, because then the rest can continue to shoot down enemy missiles near them and not leave me completely defenseless. Once your silo in attack mode fires off its 10 missiles it's pretty useless so you switch it back into defense mode and then move on to another silo to attack with.
 
The radar is very important, as it removes the "fog of war" from a large area around it, allowing you to keep track of enemies in the area. If all of your radar installations get nuked, you're going to have a heck of a time defending against anything as they can sail a fleet right up next to you and decimate your population before you realize what's going on.
 
Airfields can switch between launching bombers or launching fighters. The bombers are nice, as they can fly a long distance and drop nukes on enemy targets across the map. Fighters are the natural counter though, and are good at shooting down enemy bombers and attacking enemy ships as well. Naval fleets can be provisioned with three different types of ships: battleships, submarines and aircraft carriers. The battleships are really only good at destroying aircraft carriers, but they can also demolish cities if you can get them close enough.
 
The other two ships are more versatile. Submarines can obviously submerge and become invisible to radar, and in this mode you can feel free to ram them right up to an enemy's shore. Once you surface them, submarines are able to launch nuclear missiles! They're pretty fragile when surfaced, but it's worth it to execute a short-distance nuclear strike -- especially when coordinated with more nukes from other locations at the same time. The aircraft carrier is equipped with sonar and can hunt down enemy subs and drop depth charges on them to destroy them. This alone is pretty helpful, but they are aircraft carriers after all so they can also launch both fighters and bombers.
 
The game moves in real time, but can be sped up to a couple of additional speeds if all players agree on a faster speed. A normal game usually lasts around a half-hour, though there are a couple of additional game modes (genocide, survival, office, etc) that work pretty much the same way but the points are scored a little differently. Normally you gain points for killing enemy population and for how much of your own population that survives, but in the other game modes you may score points for only one or the other. This really effects the way you play as well as when you decide to strike.
 
The artificial intelligence is decent and does a good job of playing, but there's no substitute for playing against up to 5 other real people. You can even form alliances (temporarily, of course) and back-stab your allies at the most opportune moment with a fleet of subs when they least suspect it. Or maybe everyone can gang up on someone who looks to be doing well and destroy them early? There's a lot of strategy here, and despite the simplicity Defcon can hang with the best of strategy games.
 
Aesthetically the game is unremarkable. The entire game takes place on one single map, which is a map of Earth. The map looks like a two-dimensional tactical board and everything has a cool looking neon glow to it, but the graphics are simple line drawings with very little in the way of animation. Everything is really polished though and still looks pretty decent. There isn't much in the way of sound effects, but there is some ambient background music that's not half bad.
 
Overall it's a pretty awesome strategy game, and the price is pretty good as well. You can download Defcon for only $5 from the company website (www.everybody-dies.com), or you can pay $10 and they'll even ship you a boxed copy in addition to the digital download. It's running at $9.99 on Steam for some reason, though there's a sale at the time of this writing that makes it only $4. An easy recommendation, Defcon is an inexpensive game that's both fun and challenging.

System requirements include a 600 MHz Pentium 3 processor, 128 MB of RAM, a GeForce 2 video card, 60 MB of hard drive space and an internet connection for multiplayer games. Defcon is rated "T" for Teen by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).

Friday, May 25, 2012

Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)



Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Iconic system with many terrific games from a variety of genres
Cons: Many of the best games are getting pretty expensive these days

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) is one of the most pivotal systems in the history of home video gaming. Following the overwhelming success of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the SNES took things a step further with increased performance across the board while continuing to churn out lots of quality titles. While the technical specifications of the console leave much to be desired by today's standards, they were good enough to compete with Sega's Genesis and NEC's TurboGraphx-16 consoles at the time.
 
The SNES featured a 16-bit processor based on the 65c816. This chip operated at a maximum speed of 3.58 MHz and could perform block memory transfers thanks to it's direct memory access. The video was tile and sprite based, and was handled by the Picture Processing Unit (RP2C02) -- an efficient little chip that only had 64 kB of SRAM. It could display over 32k colors on the screen at once and had a normal resolution of 256x224 pixels. The audio was processed by an 8-bit SPC700 and an 8-channel Digital Signal Processor, which shared 64 kB of RAM and generated 16-bit wave table sound. The console also contained 128 kB of DRAM, as well as a regional lock-out mechanism so that you couldn't play games from one region on a SNES from another.
 
The console itself is about 8" wide by 9.5" deep and 3" tall. Nintendo dropped the front-loading cartridge slot that the NES used in favor of a top-loading slot for the SNES, and it seems to have really helped make the console more reliable. While I've owned 6 or 7 NES systems over the years, I've only ever owned 2 SNES consoles and they both still work perfectly.
 
On the back of the console is "multi out" port that you can use with standard composite/RCA jacks, an RF out port to hook up the console via a coaxial cable (and a channel selection switch to be used in conjunction), as well as a port to plug in the power adapter. The very first SNES we owned had to be hooked up with the RF adapter because our television didn't have RCA jacks at the time. I don't recall if the adapter originally came with the SNES or if we had to purchase it separately, but eventually we got a new television and started using the RCA jacks instead because they provided better picture quality. Setup is pretty self-explanatory, and any monkey could hook it up.
 
The power and reset buttons that were on the front of the NES were also changed, and were relocated to the top of the console. Instead of buttons, they were also turned into switches that slide back and forth. Between the switches and the cartridge slot being located on the top instead of in the front, this made the SNES less convenient to sit down in the entertainment center like a VCR, so it often found itself setup on the floor instead. Sure, it may have helped keep the vents more open so the console collected less dust, but I always felt it was partially done on purpose so that your SNES would more often be placed in a more visible location instead of being shoved down in the entertainment center like everything else.
 
Now the games available for the system is what really compels you to pick it up, and the SNES was no slouch in that department. There are literally hundreds of games available for the system, and they cover a broad range of genres. Fans of role-playing games will easily find this to be best system of its era, maybe even of all time (though the original PlayStation is probably tied here). Square alone brought games like Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore, Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series exclusively to the SNES.
 
Platformers were also well represented by Super Mario World, Mega Man X, Donkey Kong Country and Super Metroid. While the Genesis did have the Sonic games, as well as a few good exclusive titles of its own (Shining Force, Gunstar Heroes, the Phantasy Star games), it was still hard pressed to compete with so many quality titles on the SNES. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart, F-Zero, Starfox... the SNES had no shortage of exclusive, quality titles. The Genesis did have an edge in sports games though, and the good exclusive titles it did have still made you want to own one.
 
The SNES did lose a little traction because of Nintendo's aggressive censorship policies at the time. This wasn't good for games like Mortal Kombat that relied heavily on the blood and gore as a main selling point, but Nintendo eventually stopped the practice.
 
The games all shipped on cartridges that were just over 5" wide, 3" tall and just under 1" deep. The cartridges can hold up to 64 Mbits of data, though I believe the biggest games like Star Ocean are only 48 Mbits. The most common size for SNES games is 8 Mbit, so there was plenty of room for larger and more complex games. These cartridges didn't seem to gunk up and need cleaned nearly as often as the old NES cartridges did, and in fact all of my original cartridges still work (though a couple have dead batteries, resulting in the SRAM being erased and my game saves no longer saving).
 
The SNES also supported enhancement chips inside of cartridges to act as co-processors. This was a huge boon for some games, as the relatively slow clocked SNES would not have been capable of playing some of them correctly and/or at full speed otherwise. The list of games that took advantage of this feature is not especially long, but a lot of them are really good games such as Starfox, Star Ocean, Super Mario RPG, Super Mario Kart and Mega Man X2/X3.
 
The controller is pretty iconic, and helped to influence controller design for just about every console that came after it. The directional pad on the left, start and select buttons in the middle, the four round buttons in a cross on the right (A, B, X and Y in this case), and finally topped off with a shoulder button on each side. The PlayStation, Xbox, and just about every other console can thank the SNES for the inspiration. There were also a couple of additional controllers, such as the Super Scope gun (which doesn't work with modern LCD or plasma televisions) or the SNES Mouse (which I received with my copy of Mario Paint). These were supported by a few games, but were mostly pointless.
 
These days it's getting harder and harder to find working SNES games, and some seem to be all-but-impossible or extremely expensive if they were not produced in sufficient quantities. A lot of my games I picked up used from video stores when they quit renting out SNES games, but I've also had decent luck at flea markets and the occasional yard sale. I've picked up a few online that I really wanted, but usually people online have some idea as to what the games are worth so you don't find the occasional killer deals that you can find in person.
 
Overall the SNES is a great system, and being a huge RPG fan I absolutely have to keep one on hand at all times. A lot of SNES games have since been released for the Gameboy Advance, Nintendo DS or on the Wii's Virtual Console, but many have not. I've seen used/refurbished SNES consoles for sale for as low as $20, and many of the games are only a few dollars each as well. Unfortunately some of the best games, the ones you really want to own, are going to be upward of $50 these days. To replace my copy of EarthBound for example (dead battery, a little scared to risk breaking it to desolder and solder a new one in), I could expect to pay upward of $150.
 
The SNES is definitely still worth picking up, and a number of wonderful games can be had for $10 or so each. Just be careful what you're getting yourself into if you start picking up some of the more expensive classics or trying to collect every game for the system, because it's going to add up mighty fast.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (SNES)


Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Easy to get into and play, contains most of the standard RPG elements, great soundtrack
Cons: Simple, cliche story; simple graphics; not much in the way of customization

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is an RPG from Square that receives a lot of flack for its simplicity and the fact that it caters to younger gamers and those new to the genre. While it shares many aspects with the mainstream Final Fantasy games, it differs in many ways as well. Think of it as a game similar to The Legend of Zelda, but with the world map of Super Mario Bros 3. While it's not the best game in the world, it would have fared better had it not possessed the Final Fantasy moniker. As a game, it's not bad -- but as a Final Fantasy game it leaves you wanting more.
 
The storyline in Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is pretty standard and cliche. An old man tells you that you're the knight from some prophecy, and that some monsters took over the Focus Tower and stole the four crystals (earth, fire, wind and water). It's up to you to defeat the monsters and restore the crystals' power to the world. You can tell that Square went all out when thinking of names as well, as the four areas of the game world are aptly named Foresta, Aquaria, Fireburg and Windia. Sadly, I'm not kidding.
 
One of the main differences between Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and other Final Fantasy titles, is the complete lack of random battles. Not only that, but monsters don't move around at all here. Whenever you enter an area you can see all of the monsters on the screen, standing in place obstructing your paths to various places. When you walk into one you get to fight a group of 1-3 enemies in a turn-based manner using a menu-based setup. This is similar to early Final Fantasy titles, except the layout is vertical instead of horizontal; think Dragon Warrior II.
 
The world map is similar to that of Super Mario Bros 3. There are a series of locations (towns, dungeons, battlefields, etc) that you can travel between on a set path. After finishing one area, it allows you to travel to other areas that are connected to it. There are no enemies on the world map at all, so all of your battling will take place at one of these locations. Towns are self explanatory; there are NPCs in them, some of which will point you in the direction of your next objective, as well as inns where you can heal.
 
Smaller dungeons have items in them that you pick up as you clear them on your way through each area, and the final dungeon in each of the four major areas contains the final boss that holds the respective crystal. Battlefields are a little different in that they each contain 10 random enemy encounters, and clearing all 10 battles will reward you with gold, experience, a spell or an item. Once they've been cleared they stay cleared and you can not do them again. Clearing 3 out of the 10 and then going to town to heal doesn't matter, there are still only be 7 battles remaining when you return.
 
While you travel around by yourself at times, more often than not you will have a second character travelling with you. These other characters don't stay with you, and one will always leave before another one joins, but there are four different ones in total. They can be controlled manually or be allowed to act on their own with the built in artificial intelligence, but the A.I. isn't really the smartest thing in the world. They'll just attack whatever enemy is furthest to the left of the screen, if you're missing some health they'll waste healing items to heal themselves or you even if it's not necessary, and they'll waste magic spells on an enemy that you could have killed in one hit anyway. If you want to do the fighting yourself and let them take care of healing, it's quicker and easier to just set them on automatic -- but if you want them to be more useful you'll want them on manual for sure. The other characters usually start out a few levels higher than you do, but they don't level up so you overtake them pretty quickly.
 
The main character does level up as he gets experience from fighting battles. You don't get to distribute any stat points manually, but you do get stronger; you get more health, your attacks do more damage, etc. It's definitely a noticeable improvement. Unfortunately, you also can not manually work with your equipment. You are automatically equipped with the best stuff you have, and if you get something better it takes the place of your previous piece of gear.
 
Only the weapons can be switched between, and then only to different types. The hero can equip swords, axes, claws and bombs -- and there are only three of each. If you obtain a knight sword it will replace your steel sword, and then the Excalibur will replace the knight sword; or if you obtain a battle axe it will replace your axe, and then the giant's axe will replace the battle axe. You can switch between your axe, sword, claw or bomb with the L and R buttons, but that's the extent of your equipment customization. You wouldn't even end up with this much, except that the weapons have different uses in the area maps. The axe can clear a tree from your path, the bomb can blow open a door blocked by rocks, and the claw allows you to climb up and down walls in certain areas.
 
There are also only four consumable items in the whole game, and one of those is rarely worth using. Strangely the Cure potion heals you and the Heal potion cures poison; beyond that you have Seeds to restore your spell charges and something called a Refresher that's used to cure debuffs on your character (attack down, speed down, etc). I've found the Refresher is mostly just a waste of a turn though, as I don't recall ever needing it on a boss fight and the random enemies can be killed quickly and then your debuffs are cleared anyway.
 
Speaking of spell charges, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest forgoes the use of magic points or mana, and instead gives each type of spell a number of casts. White, Black and Wizard spells are the three types, and there are four spells of each type. You get so many casts from each type and when you've used them up you can no longer cast that type of spell until you rest at an inn or use a seed item to restore your charges.
 
The graphics in Final Fantasy Mystic Quest are equally simplistic, but they're at least colorful and fairly detailed. While they're not great, they do at least rival most of the later NES games. If Mystic Quest were to be released for the NES or very early in the life cycle of the SNES, the graphics would have been received much better. The enemies especially look nice, and they even show damage as you attack them. When a slime gets weak it changes sprites to a half mushed slime, or when a minotaur takes enough damage he changes to a sprite that looks beat up and has missing horns for example. The sound effects are typical for a SNES game, with exploding bombs and swinging swords sounding just as you would expect them to. The music is really good though, and the battle music in particular is faster-paced, upbeat and is really a boon for the title.
 
On a scale of 1-10 I would give Final Fantasy Mystic Quest a 5 on it's own. However, if you just can't get the Final Fantasy moniker out of your mind and treat Mystic Quest as its own game, it's probably going to be more like a 3 out of 10. It's a little shorter, more simple, and it lacks a lot in the way of character customization. For younger gamers or those new to the genre, I'd say Mystic Quest scores an 8 for its simplicity, easiness to pick up and play, and the fact that it does contain most of the basics even if some of them are cannibalized and/or toned down quite a bit. Even being a huge RPG fan though, it doesn't hurt my feelings to pick it up for 5 hours or so and pick my way through the game. Overall, it's an average game that's worth a shot.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Rampart (SNES)



Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Somewhat unique, playing against a friend is great
Cons: Annoying sound, plain graphics; single-player is boring if you play very long at once

Rampart is a simple but fun little strategy/puzzle/tower defense game from Atari Games that was licensed by Electronic Arts and ported to the SNES in 1992. It contains both a regular and a super mode for the single-player game with multiple difficulty settings, as well as a two-player mode where you can play against a friend.
 
The gameplay consists of three phases; a build/repair phase, cannon placing phase, and a battle phase. In the build phase, you take randomized Tetris-like wall pieces and surround one of the castles on the land mass. During the cannon placing phase, you can place cannons inside the walls you have created, the number of cannons you get depends on how much damage you've done, how much land mass you've boxed in, etc. When the battle phase starts, you use those cannons to shoot at enemy ships in the water to destroy them; once you've done so, you win the level and move on to the next one.
 
While it's simple enough in premise, it's often challenging in execution. For one thing, there are a few different types of ships, and they shoot cannon balls at your walls to destroy them. If you can't box in a castle during a build phase then you lose, and if you don't box in enough area for your cannons then you can't fight back. One type of ship just shoots and dies in a few hits, another shoots flaming cannon balls that prevent you from rebuilding your walls in the flaming spots for a few turns, and the other type drops off little ground troops that march on your castles to destroy them.

Some ships sit still and fire while you fire back, but many of them sail around. This makes timing your shots and leading the enemy ships by just the right amount the keys to victory. Also choosing which type of ship is most dangerous to you and destroying them first. Even where to build, as ground troops can't land on a wall; so if you place walls directly on the shore where the troop ship is heading it will make things easier on you.
 
The super game mode seems to have bigger land masses to start with, along with some interesting levels thrown in to keep things fresh. One level was some type of bonus level where I received only giant W shaped pieces and was tasked with building walls around as large of an area as possible within the time limit. Another level had me shooting at a giant barge loaded with cannons instead of at individual ships. It's a nice inclusion, though the extra land mass made it hard to move the cursor across the map to where I wanted it when I wanted it there. The super mode also includes a couple of extra weapons (a flaming super cannon and an enemy-converting balloon) as well as some larger, different shaped wall pieces.
 
In the two-player mode, you each wall off part of a land mass that is separated by water and fire on each other's castles instead of NPC ships. While the single-player mode is amusing for a little while, it's this multiplayer mode where the game shines. There's just nothing like taking over castles and blasting your friends to smithereens with a pile of cannons.
 
The graphics are really plain and simple; in fact, there are many regular NES games that look much better. Everything is just made of basic blocky tiles with limited animation. It's enough to tell what's going on and see where everything is on the map, but that's about the extent of the quality. The whole game uses a top-down perspective with simple 2D graphics, though in the super game mode you do get a sort of quasi-3D map through the use of the Super Nintendo's Mode 7. This was common in SNES games to try and simulate a 3D-ish look, and was used in titles like Final Fantasy VI (III), F-Zero and 7th Saga.
 
The sound isn't much better, with some basic synthesized sound effects and only a couple different pieces of background music that are both a little high pitched and obnoxious. Rampart tries to sound good, it really does, but it just falls short and leaves me muting the television. There's some drum sounds and fanfare to build anticipation or celebrate a win, but it's always just too obnoxious and repeated just a little too often. Not "bad" per se, but I could have done without the music entirely or at least toned it down a little bit so it was mellow instead of grating.
 
It contains somewhere around 50 different levels, though I've never managed to get anywhere near the end. After winning a level, you're given a password that you can punch in at the start of the game to bring you back to where you left off. The problem is that since I play this game for 20 minutes here and 30 minutes there, by time I pick it back up again a couple of months later I need to go back through a couple of earlier to levels to get the hang of it again, so I never end up gaining much ground.
 
Overall Rampart is an average game, but it's somewhat unique and was among the predecessors of the tower defense genre. It's somewhat fun to casually play through a few levels, and a little more fun to pound away at with a friend. It is a game that I do recommend, as I still play it periodically and think others may enjoy it as well. On the other hand it's a little expensive ($15+ or so online currently), and since Rampart was ported to a lot of different systems over the years you may be better off picking it up for another system (on the PlayStation Network, or as part of Midway Arcade Treasures for the Xbox or PSP).