Good and bad news (and some other stuff)

Chaos (ZX Spectrum, 1985)
Chaos (ZX Spectrum, 1985)

First, the good (great, in fact) news: Julian Gollop, author of Chaos, Laser Squad, and the original X-COM: UFO Defense (known in Europe as UFO: Enemy Unknown; note that the recent Firaxis remake combines the two names) has announced that he’s remaking Chaos, and his ideas so far (the previous link goes to his development blog) seem great.


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

And now the bad news: Mike Singleton, creator of The Lords of Midnight, Doomdark’s Revenge, and Midwinter, has sadly died. He was in the middle of remaking The Lords of Midnight for iOS and Android, among other platforms. Chris Wild, who was doing the remake with Singleton, has announced that he will complete the remake, although it will understandably have fewer changes / improvements than intended.

It is interesting to note that the two guys mentioned above wrote, between them, my favorite 8-bit games of all time.

Beyond that… Gaming-wise, I haven’t had a lot of time for playing in the past few months. I returned to The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) “for real”, and I’ve been enjoying the game a lot, although I don’t play it more than a couple of nights a week. The good part is that I’ve been doing it with a couple of friends, and we only play it when we’re together, making it more like a “normal” RPG, instead of an MMO.

Isaac Asimov - Tales of the Black Widowers
Isaac Asimov – Tales of the Black Widowers

As for books, I’ve just started reading Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers series. It’s interesting to see how Asimov was able to successfully create something that 1) was outside his “normal” thing (science fiction), and 2) has all its (short) stories following the same format, yet without making them repetitive or monotonous.

In terms of personal projects… no big news here. I’ve been working on and off on something for about a year, but it’s not something to be shared with the world. 🙂 Otherwise, I’ve recently improved my online Fantasy Name Generator, which now supports new “types”, including hobbit names, science fiction names, and even modern, English-language names. More to come soon… I hope.

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)

Conversion Wars #1: Out Run (part 1 of 3: 8-bit home computer ports)

Note: this entry has proven itself much longer than I had intended; I had concieved of a post per game, but this one, as it is now, will require three! Obviously, I need to play with this format in the future — perhaps a table of ports, screenshots, scores, and a 1- or 2-sentence comment. Still, here’s my first attempt — which may end up being the only one in this format.

Welcome to the first entry in Winterdrake’s new Conversion Wars series, where I’ll be comparing the various home computer and console ports of several popular games (it’s only fun if they had a lot of conversions, after all). For details, please see the intro. The first entry, following on my previous post from another series, is Sega’s Out Run. This entry will actually be split into 3 separate parts: one (this one) focusing on 8-bit home computer ports, another one where I’ll look at 16-bit home computer ports, and a third one about console ports.

So, Out Run. In the arcades, it was a very popular game in the late 80s, and a big part of it was its atmosphere. As I mentioned in my last post, linked above, Out Run wasn’t about some “highly competitive race”; instead, it was about driving an expensive cabriolet sports car, a girl at your side, in several almost paradisiac scenarios based on the United States — beginning, very famously, with a road parallel to a beach. Providing at least a fraction of that sensation, then, would be essential to any port; by turning Out Run into a generic driving game where you couldn’t even tell where you were supposed to be (“is this a beach or a snowy mountain?”), you’d be completely missing the point.

A feeling of speed would be essential, as it is for any driving simulation. If you can read “250 km/h” on the screen, and yet it looks and feels like you’re driving a tank, then you should go back to the drawing board.

Out Run was also famous for its graphics and music, and, therefore, reproducing at least some part of both should be a priority.

So, how do the several ports compare?

Continue reading Conversion Wars #1: Out Run (part 1 of 3: 8-bit home computer ports)

Bad Games I Played a Lot #2: Out Run (ZX Spectrum)

Ah, Out Run. Anyone who was a gamer in the eighties and early nineties can’t ever forget it.

Out Run (arcade)
Out Run (original arcade version, 1986)

It wasn’t just that it was technically impressive — and it was, for the time. The main appeal of Out Run was that it wasn’t a typical “racing” game in which professional drivers run against each other in specially prepared tracks or sections, such as a Formula 1 or rally race. Out Run was different: it was about a guy trying to impress a girl in his Ferrari Testarossa, through several North American scenarios. It wasn’t a “race”, there were no “opponents”; the other cars on the road were just normal traffic. Even advertisements at the time, instead of talking about some “ultimate driving challenge”, just said that you’d almost be able to feel the wind in your hair. In short, it was a very different driving game, and there’s a reason people still remember it well.

So, naturally, there were ports for home computers and consoles. Nowadays, it’s easy to try them all out, using emulators and such, but at the time the teenager I was didn’t have any options other than to play it on his trusty ZX Spectrum (a 128K +3, at the time). In other words, I didn’t really have other versions of the game to compare the Speccy port to (OK, there was the original arcade version, but nobody expected a home computer port at the time to compare to that!). If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have played it so much. 🙂

It looked like this:

Out Run (ZX Spectrum)
Out Run (ZX Spectrum, 1987)

Continue reading Bad Games I Played a Lot #2: Out Run (ZX Spectrum)

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

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.

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, Théoden 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. 🙂 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…