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… πŸ™‚

A new Lords of Midnight for iOS (and others)?

Good thing I’m not superstitious, or I would find this kind of coincidence very weird. After “resurrecting” a 2005 post of mine (more than 50% of it is new, though) about Lords of Midnight, I follow the link that was already in the 2005 version of the post (which I had initially merely checked to see if it was still live, when posting), look around a bit more, find out that Chris Wild (the site’s owner, and author of the Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge DOS ports) has a blog, and then I see these three posts

… dated March 8, 2011, that is, two days ago…

Lords of Midnight (lord)… announcing the development of a new Lords of Midnight, (initially) for the iPhone and iPad, but eventually for Android and other systems (including PCs), turn-based, with landscaping such as the originals, but with new graphics, better AI, other small adjustments…

… and to be a collaboration between Chris Wild and Mike freaking Singleton, author of the original games in 1984.

Again, these posts are from two days ago… or one day before my LoM post on this very blog. And I swear I hadn’t visited in years (I think last time I did, Chris didn’t even have a blog). If this isn’t a coincidence, I don’t know what is.

Needless to say, I’m very excited about this. Especially because they’re promising that they won’t change genres, make it real-time, or anything else to screw up the game. Too many remakes or sequels lose sight of what made the original great (“oh, no, we can’t have a turn-based game in 2011, the kids wouldn’t have the patience…”).

TGomL: The Lords of Midnight (ZX Spectrum, 1984)

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

Do you like “The Lord of the Rings”? Tolkien’s epic, the best known fantasy book in the world? Did you enjoy Peter Jackson’s fantastic movie adaptations? If so, isn’t the idea of living the epic, even if “just” in a video game, tempting?

If you want to re-live the movies, the best choice is Electronic Arts’ two games, “The Two Towers”, and, especially, “Return of the King”. They’re fantastic, whether on a console or on the PC ((this section was originally written in 2005; while those two games are still excellent, they probably won’t look as good 6 years later, with their “PS2-era” graphics, even on the PC. Another more recent choice is The Lord of the Rings Online, but that’s a different kind of game.)). But they’re movie adaptations – basically, you “play” the movies’ main battles, with the movies’ looks, the movies’ music, and the movies’ actors doing the voices. Those two are great action games, I’m not trying to diminish them in any way. Other excellent movie-licensed adaptations include the RTSs Battle for Middle Earth I and II — Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen are especially wonderful in the first one).

But if you want to re-live the books

The Lords of Midnight #1 The Lords of Midnight #2

… there’s probably not a better choice than Mike Singleton’s 1984 classic, The Lords of Midnight.

Nope, it’s not “Tolkien-licensed”. It’s not an official LotR adaptation in any way, though the inspiration is obvious. And Mike (formerly an English teacher) actually wrote a short novella, which was included with the game, and was a joy to read.

But the game, a mix of adventure and strategy, was, 27 years ago, and is, right now, the best way to re-live Lord of the Rings — not an exploration of Middle Earth, not a meeting with Tolkien’s characters, but, instead, what Gandalf — who orchestrated the entire strategy — must have felt, and the challenges he had to meet.

Lords of Midnight is the perfect, still unequaled blend of grand strategy – defeating, or stopping, or at least delaying the Dark Lord’s seemingly endless armies by force of arms – with high adventure – a heroic quest of a brave hero who attempts, without an army behind him, using only stealth and courage, to destroy the Dark Lord’s main source of power – which, obviously, can only be done deep inside the Dark Lord’s territory. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

And that’s the beauty of the game: you control both lords with armies — think Aragorn, ThΓ©oden and such –, though you start with none and must recruit them, and individuals such as Morkin (the equivalent of Frodo, though here he’s really incorruptible, unlike everyone else), and other recruitable characters such as Fawkrin the Skulkrin (who would be the Gollum-equivalent) and Farflame the Dragonlord (an actual dragon, who moves faster than everyone else in the game and can easily, when rested, crush a 300- or 400-man army in one night, but can’t recruit troops). There’s also a complex hierarchy of “can-be-recruited-by” (which would get even more detailed in the sequel), which means that some lords can be recruited only by a couple of characters in the entire game. A LoM game is never short, unless you purposely screw things up, but it’s also never a forgettable experience. In your first few games you will really feel despair, because Doomdark’s (the Sauron-equivalent) armies seem endless (they aren’t), and recruiting a large enough number of lords to make a difference is far from easy. And your other option, Morkin’s quest, is virtually doomed to failure unless you put up enough of a military challenge to Doomdark to distract him ((which, you’ll note, once again parallels The Lord of the Rings…)).

Really, play this game. There’s a reason why it still has an active community, with enhancements, remakes, multi-player versions and so on… after 27 years. By the way, the fact that the game isn’t played in real-time and doesn’t require precise controls makes it better than most other old games for playing (emulated) on a mobile phone.

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. πŸ™‚ 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. πŸ™‚

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. πŸ™‚ 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…

Bad Games I Played a Lot #1: Kung Fu Master (ZX Spectrum)

Welcome to the first part of this blog’s first series, Bad Games I Played a Lot. As the name suggests, I talk about games that, in hindsight, were pretty bad even for their time (this is important), but that, for some reason, I played for a long time.

And the first one is… Kung Fu Master, on the ZX Spectrum.

Now, if you were a gamer 25-30 years ago, and/or you care about retro gaming, you probably remember Kung Fu Master perfectly, or at least know what I’m talking about. Kung Fu Master. Yes, this one:

Kung Fu Master (arcade)I have to admit this game was pretty special to me in my teen years. Why is that? Because, in Portugal, at the time, arcades were strictly for “16 and older”, and I was 12, and later 13, at the time. I was very rarely allowed to even enter the premises, and never actually allowed to play… but, for some reason, I found this game strangely appealing, and would stand — sometimes outside the arcade — watching other people (older teens) play it. To be able to some day play it myself was a distant dream… (more after the break)

Continue reading Bad Games I Played a Lot #1: Kung Fu Master (ZX Spectrum)

Is this the best-looking water in a videogame?

I don’t know, but I certainly can’t recall a better-looking one right now.

The Lord of the Rings Online - WaterAgain, click on the picture to see it in full size (the thumbnail doesn’t do it justice), and then, because your browser will probably scale it to fit in the window, click on it again.

For info about the game, the hardware, and the settings the game is running under, please see this post.

EDIT: OK, I don’t have the game, but, from a screenshot, Crysis’s water looks even better than this.

The Lord of the Rings Online with DirectX11

The Lord of the Rings Online with DirectX11Looks good, doesn’t it? And yes, go ahead and click on the image above to see it in full size. After that, your browser will probably scale it to fit in its window, so click on it again to see it as nature intended. πŸ™‚ The thumbnail doesn’t do it justice, of course.

For the curious, this is on an Intel Core i7-860 with an Nvidia GeForce 470, with DirectX11 enabled, and with all details options set at maximum, except, IIRC, the shadows, which, as good as they are above, can even be made to look better. And, yes, the game runs at about 60 fps on average with these settings.

As a comparison, here is Doomdark’s Revenge, a 1985 strategy/RPG on the humble 48K ZX Spectrum:

Doomdark's RevengeYou could turn the screen in 8 directions (while in LOTRO, of course, you can turn around smoothly in every direction, move the camera, etc.), and it took about 1 second to redraw the screen. Which is perfectly fine for a non-real time strategy/RPG, of course.

Incidentally, my character’s name on the first game (which you can read in the screenshot) comes from the second game. πŸ™‚

P.S. – The Lord of the Rings Online is free to play these days (though some features may eventually require the spending of real money). Just register on or, depending on where you are. I’m on the latter, on the Withywindle server. For more info on the game, I suggest its TV Tropes page.