Laser Squad (ZX Spectrum, 1988)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

From the mind and programming skills of Julian Gollop, author of Chaos, came this masterpiece in 1988: Laser Squad, quite probably the best and most popular turn-based tactical game in the 80s.

Laser Squad - the Assassins make their first move
The Assassins make their first move

If you weren’t around at the time, you may not realize the sensation that Laser Squad was back then. Even though it was a turn-based tactical game, it was, quite uniquely, accepted by many people who’d never touched a strategy game before. I was in school back then, and I remember the game being popular in my class, especially in its two-player mode — and I’m talking about kids (not that I wasn’t one, but I was always… kind of different :) ) whose favorite genres were sports and driving games. Even later on, in the early nineties, the game was still popular among my friends — and, again, most of them didn’t have any interest in strategy games (except, in a few cases, Chaos… you may be noticing a pattern here).

Continue reading Laser Squad (ZX Spectrum, 1988)

The Hobbit (ZX Spectrum, 1982), and how a kid became a geek

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

Back in time, to a 1982 game I played in 1983, on my first computer (well, technically my father’s), a 48K ZX Spectrum: Melbourne House’s The Hobbit.

The Hobbit -- starting location
The Hobbit -- starting location

This game… well, it has a story, and I’m not talking about the “Bilbo, Gandalf and a bunch of dwarves go on a quest to retrieve a dragon’s treasure” one. I mean a personal story. I guess I could say that this game changed my life — as much as anything can change one’s life, I guess.

So you’ll have to bear with me — or, of course, skip this post. Because this one is as much about “why I’m the way I am” as it is about the game — perhaps more. And it’s a long one. :) More after the break…

Continue reading The Hobbit (ZX Spectrum, 1982), and how a kid became a geek

Medieval: Total War (PC, 2002)

Note: this post is unchanged from one from 2005 in my old blog, The Games of My Life. But please see the new section at the end.

This game has a big problem. The load times. For some reason, in my Athlon XP 2000 with 1 GB of RAM and a fast hard drive, they’re huge – not “read a book”-like, but, still, 30-60 seconds to load a battle and 30-60 seconds to come back to the main map are, IMO, too much. Especially since Rome: Total War, their more recent and even more detailed game, actually has shorter load times.

That’s the problem. In almost every other respect, Medieval: Total War is virtually perfect.

Medieval: Total War - campaign map
M:TW - campaign map

M:TW, like its predecessor Shogun: Total War and its successor Rome: Total War, is a historical turn-based strategy game with fantastic real-time battles. These are really wonderful – no other game, except perhaps Close Combat, simulates a battle so well – and that one was squad-based. This one, though, can have armies of 10.000 men. On each side. And they all move, shout, fight and, possibly, die.

Continue reading Medieval: Total War (PC, 2002)

TGomL: Last Ninja 2 (Commodore 64, 1988)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

Most retro games here so far have been on the ZX Spectrum, due to that being the computer of my childhood and early teenage years, but later on I also had a Commodore 64 that I bought second-hand, one of the original models, which looked a lot like a bread box (which was actually one of its nicknames). Although I only had one quite late in its life (I think it was 1989 or so, and the C64 was released in 1982, the same year as the Speccy), there were some unforgettable masterpieces for that little 1 MHz (!) beast that I played even then. This, System 3’s Last Ninja 2 ((note that the first game is The Last Ninja, but the second one lost the “The“.)), is certainly one of them.

Last Ninja 2 - starting screenOddly enough, I played the Spectrum version first, for more than a year, and one tends to get attached to the version he plays first. The Speccy version was good enough, with its decent monochrome graphics and smooth gameplay, although it only had any music on the start menu: the game itself was as silent as if you were playing on a ZX81. But the C64 version blew me away. One screen of this game has more atmosphere than many entire games of the time. The music is hauntingly beautiful ((yes, I know this last one is based on a Tangerine Dream song.)) (all 13 tunes), and from time to time I even fire up Sidplay just to listen to it. Playing it, there’s an almost tangible sense of desperation and utter loneliness, of being in a world where everyone tries to kill you… and yet, everything is familiar — a park, city streets, sewers ((OK, these are probably not that familiar to most people, hopefully…)), an office building, and so on. And the environment is at least as dangerous an enemy as your human enemies. The whole game is difficult and unforgiving – no “tutorials where you can do no wrong”, or any other kind of hand-holding here. You will die a lot. But the feeling of finally passing a level (after hours or even days), and getting a beautifully drawn loading screen for the next one, complete with a new tune, a new area, new enemies, and the suspense of not knowing what’s next…

Last Ninja 2 - the parkOh, and there are alligators in the sewers. I knew it all along. :)

If you’re not a graphics junkie (or even if you are, but are able to see games in the context of when they were released), get an emulator and the game (or buy it for the Wii Virtual Console for 500 points), and try it for yourself. You’ll truly appreciate how sad it is that games like this are no longer made; these days it seems that almost all games are first person shooters, sports games and MMORPGs.

Tip: even if you, at the time, finished the Spectrum version (or even another one, such as the quite inferior(!) Amiga, NES and PC ports), try the original C64 version. It’s the only one that really “got” it.

TGomL: Doomdark’s Revenge (ZX Spectrum, 1984)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

In 1984, there was a little game for a little 48 KB machine which amazed everyone – nobody had done something like that with a computer (even a “bigger” one) before. You may have heard about it. I’ve even mentioned it here, some time ago: Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight. ((I also used it as an obviously — and intentionally — unfair comparison with The Lord of the Rings Online with DirectX11.))

In the same year (!!!), Mike surpassed himself, with a game that was even larger, more complex, more detailed, more varied… and still used only 49152 bytes of RAM. It wasn’t very well named, though. The game was Doomdark’s Revenge.

Doomdark's Revenge - starting screen Doomdark's Revenge - meeting Torinarg the Barbarian

Why wasn’t that a good name? Because Doomdark, the villain from the first game, was, indeed, dead, after his defeat in LoM. Really dead, not “undead” or “sleeping until the stars are right”. The so-called “revenge” was to be by his daughter, Shareth the Heartstealer, from the land of Icemark (to the north of the land of Midnight), who was even more powerful and evil than his father (aren’t they always?), and who wanted Luxor the Moonprince to pay… because she had wanted the pleasure of killing her father for herself. Yes, you read that right. Surely a biting commentary on the nature of father-daughter relationships. To that end, she kidnapped Morkin, son of Luxor the Moonprince, the main character, took him to Icemark, and Luxor, an army of a thousand riders, and a couple of friends travelled between lands in order to rescue Morkin and bring an end to the threat of Doomdark’s family once and for all. (This story was told in detail in the excellent novella that accompanied the game.)

But the game was amazing. Instead of the “us versus them” of LoM, this game had several different races, with hierarchies of command (lieges and vassals, and their vassals, and so on), who moved around by themselves, waged war, and all that was mostly unpredictable. Every lord had characteristics, like being good, or evil, or reckless, or brave, or cowardly, or slow, or treacherous, and so on. The villainess, Shareth, also had her own goals, recruiting lords and their armies to her cause.

How unpredictable was the game? So much that, sometimes, Shareth herself was killed in battle, far away from you. (no, that didn’t end the game – you also had to rescue Morkin, and return to Midnight, remember?)

A far cry from today’s largely scripted games, isn’t it? And, unfortunaly, an idea that was never seen again, as far as I know. The villain is either stopped by the hero, or isn’t stopped at all. I know it makes things more epic, but… Doomdark’s Revenge, with its unpredictability, made me feel that, while I could affect the world, it didn’t revolve around me. (The other extreme of that equation, by the way, is a typical MMORPG – where, sure, the world doesn’t revolve around you, but you also can’t affect it in any lasting way, because the world is more like a “playground”, and it must remain mostly the same for other players. “Look, but don’t touch.” ((since I wrote that part in 2005, there have been some advances in MMORPGs in that respect, one of them being the idea of “phasing” parts of the world, so that, say, if a town is destroyed during a quest’s storyline, it stays destroyed for players who have already gone through that quest; those who didn’t, see it as intact. What happens is that the game actually sends them to different, but similar, areas.)) But I digress.)

Comparing it to its predecessor, the game has, in my opinion, both advantages and disadvantages. The complexity of characters and relationships are, of course, great, and so is the unpredictability, and the fact that there are no defined “good” and “evil” sides: everyone but Shareth is theoretically recruitable, though they are only amenable to being so by characters with similar traits; in other words, a good, brave and loyal lord will have no chance to recruit an evil, cowardly and treacherous one (though in this particular example, you may wonder why you’d ever want to…). However, it is precisely the fact that every character but one is recruitable that, in a way, works (in my opinion) to its disadvantage: it makes waging war a waste of time. Anyone you’re fighting is anyone you could be recruiting (even if you don’t currently have a character capable of doing so). This makes Doomdark’s Revenge less involving in terms of strategy than Lords of Midnight, where waging war and plotting a good strategy was necessary, and a big part of the game — even if you happened to be trying for Morkin’s “destroy the Ring Ice Crown” quest.

Also, some features appear to be unfinished or at least useless, such as the weapons and items you can pick up (I don’t think I ever used them to any actual effect), or the underground tunnels, which (with the exception of one of them, needed to get to the otherwise unreachable place where Morkin was captive) had little or no use.

Another feature I miss from LoM is that lords used to fight enemy armies; here they just fight other lords (though they can be killed by armies). It was fun to hear, in the after-battle report, that “Luxor slew one hundred and twenty of the enemy. His riders slew…” :)

Anyway, as with virtually every Spectrum game, you can get it (legally) at World of Spectrum. I also recommend Chris Wild’s excellent Doomdark’s Revenge resource.

TGomL: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (PC, 1999)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

This game should have actually been named “Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri”, but Sid Meier was (and is) the best known name, and it draws heavily on Meier’s original Civilization, so… Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri it was (or “SMAC” to its friends). By Firaxis Games, distributed by Electronic Arts, shortly before the end of the last century.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri - title

SMAC, believe it or not, is still a very popular game these days among strategy fans, and for good reason. In my opinion, it’s still the best Civ-style game, and has yet to be surpassed: Civ 4 was indeed a great game, and so is Civ 5 (though I can’t agree with a couple of design decisions), but, to me, SMAC remains the best Civ-style game. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell as well as it should have, possibly because most people — even most strategy buffs — aren’t science fiction fans, and it’s much easier to understand what you’ll get by inventing The Wheel” or “The Alphabet” than what “Bioadaptive Resonance” or “Controlled Singularity” even are. In short, it scared away many Civ fans, which was a shame.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri - gameplay

But it has some things no other game of its kind has:

  • style – the spartan ((no, I’m not referring here to the Spartans, a survivalist faction in the game :))) interface, the voices, the graphics, the sounds, the descriptions, the movies. It really made you feel like you were in a different, but viable world.
  • personality – the Civ games’ leaders, even though they’re supposed to be real life ones, have little or no personality. SMAC’s had. A lot. Who can forget Chairman Yang, Lady Deirdre, Sister Miriam, or CEO Morgan? They actually have different goals in mind, and act towards them. They all speak in their own way. And they all have great quotes — all of them spoken in the game by the characters.
  • a story – yes, a strategy game with one. Really. And it doesn’t always end the same way (and I don’t mean just because you lose the game in the middle).

As I said, it’s still my favorite game of its kind, after 12 years. You can probably find the Planetary Pack (the game plus the expansion pack on a single CD) for sale somewhere, though it’s harder than it used to be. And you really should, if you’ve ever been interested in the Civilization series, or strategy games in general. Note, however, that getting it to run perfectly on modern Windows operating systems may constitute a challenge.

Links: Wikipedia entry, Official site.

P.S. – did you know that this game has inspired 3 novels (which I have), a comic book (which I also have) and a GURPS book (dammit…)? Not bad for a turn-based strategy game… :)

TGomL: Chaos (ZX Spectrum, 1985)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

Chaos (title screen)Back to the ol’ Speccy for a 1985 game I and my friends and brother played well into the late 90s: Chaos (also known as Chaos: The Battle of Wizards on the menu screen). Designed and programmed by Julian Gollop, who would go on to design such classics (not that Chaos isn’t one itself) as Laser Squad and UFO: Enemy Unknown (known outside Europe as X-Com: UFO Defense), this was indeed my first contact with a Gollop-designed game, though I didn’t know any of that at the time… after all, I was only an 11-year-old kid.

Incidentally, I purchased Chaos without having any idea of what it was like, which was common at the time — all games sold in Portugal were cheap pirated copies (such a situation wouldn’t change until the mid-nineties), and often they didn’t even have a photocopy of the original cover; they simply used generic ones, usually made by that particular store, and with just the game’s name on it. And at the time I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as computer magazines; it would still be a year until I bought my first copy of Your Sinclair (issue 3!). So, again, I had no idea what I was buying, and I have no idea or recollection of what made me curious about a cassette with the word “Chaos” on the cover (though I still remember where I bought it — “Triudus”, in the Fonte Nova shopping center. Yup, the things I fill my brain with…)

Chaos (gameplay)

Anyway, Chaos. By looking at screenshots such as the one next to this paragraph, it appears stupidly basic; by watching someone play without explaining to you what he or she is doing, it seems insanely complex. The reality?

The premise is simple: 2-8 wizards (each one played by a human or by the computer) trying to kill each other, using a variety of spells, including controllable summoned creatures, in a relatively small map (a single screen). (sounds almost like Magic: the Gathering, only without the cards…)

The options, however, are many. Should I cast this Giant when the spell has only a 20% chance of working? Should I cast it as an illusion, which works 100% of the time, but can easily be dispelled? Should I try to create easier, weaker Law creatures so that the Giant (a Law spell) is easier to cast later? Or should I go towards Chaos instead so I can eventually cast a Red Dragon? Is that guy going to attack me, or can I stay concentrated on killing that other guy? Can a Magic Bolt kill him next turn, or should I save it for when I’m threatened? He’s attacking with undead creatures, which can only be attacked by magic weapons or other undead, and I have none… should I cast a Magic Sword and fight them physically with my wizard? Trap them with Fire or a Gooey Blob? Create a Horse or a Pegasus, mount it, and get out of here? Create Magic Trees so I can get new spells? Is that Ogre he just cast an illusion?

And all of that in 48 K. Yes, 49152 bytes. I must have played many hundreds of Chaos games in my life, almost all of them on a real ZX Spectrum, in the 80s and 90s. And even today the game is a lot of fun, especially with a group of friends.

Oh, and the snake on the loading screen looked great. :) I love how they circumvent the Speccy’s attribute clash and give the illusion of shading just by making some 8×8-pixel squares “bright” (the Spectrum could only have two colors each 8×8 square, thus the color clash, and the square could also have the “bright” bit optionally enabled, which is what they do here).

As with most Spectrum games, you can get it (legally!) from World of Spectrum, in this case here.

TGomL: Penetrator (ZX Spectrum, 1982)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

While the Sinclair ZX Spectrum wasn’t the first machine I played games on (that was a Phillips Videopac G7000, also known as the Odyssey2 — I’ll tell you about that one some day), it was surely the first computer. While it was released in 1982, I got mine (well, my father’s) in 1983 – I was 9 then. Man, I feel old…

And the subject of this post — Penetrator, from Melbourne House — was the first game I played on the Speccy. At the time, I was so young that the name didn’t suggest anything “weird” to me. :)

Penetrator (ZX Spectrum)

It’s basically a Scramble (an even older arcade game) clone – you fly a ship, which can shoot forwards, and drop bombs beneath you, with relatively good physics — they keep the inertia from your ship when it releases them. The first level takes place in open air, with just mountains to dodge, and missiles that try to hit you, but from the second level onwards, the game is inside increasingly complex caverns, so the ceiling is also a danger. And new enemies, of course (though not a lot of variety).

Of course, the graphics seem laughable now, but reviews at the time said great things about them – they were impressive, for the time.

But what impressed me most was the stark, minimalistic look of the game, the merciless difficulty (touch anything and you die, and must return to a previous checkpoint), and the relative complexity of the controls (remember that, until then, I had been playing games on a Videopac, with a single-button joystick). You may find this ridiculous now, but I actually found this game scary at the time — especially when you pass the first level and enter the increasingly claustrophobic caverns…

It would take years before I was able to beat the game without cheating, but I did so. :) My first game on the Spectrum, the computer that would remain a huge part of my life for the next six years or so…

Anyway, if you want to try the game yourself, it’s perfectly emulated.

Of course, I would soon have a much harder challenge ahead of me: The Hobbit. My first text adventure game, at a time when I didn’t know any English. But that’s a subject for another post…