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. ๐Ÿ™‚ 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.

Time Commanders

Time Commanders - logo
"The stakes are high; battle is imminent."

Time Commanders - trying to reproduce the battlefield using blocksWhen I started this blog, one of the conscious decisions I made back then was to avoid the common “look at this cool thing I’ve just found!” posts. The reasons are several: because that tends to “date” posts (i.e. what’s novelty now will be old hat in a couple of months), because that makes a blog little more than a collection of links, and because tons of other blogs already do exactly that.

However, this time I will make an exception to the rule, as I’m “in love” with this thing I’ve very recently found about, and which is being a joy to watch (I have been watching the episodes in order, and I’m currently in the middle of the first season). Besides, it’s not exactly a “current event”, so it won’t really age.

Time Commanders - they've got elephants!Time Commanders is a BBC2 show that ran for two seasons, between ย 2003 and 2005. In it, four players controlled one army (two as “generals”, two as “lieutenants / captains”) in a classical era battle, with a preliminary version of theย Rome: Total War engine (which wasn’t yet released at the time, so Total War fans were actually seeing the upcoming game for the first time, at least during the beginning of the first season). Interestingly, instead of players competing against each other (either solo or in teams), all of them were on the same side; their opponent wasn’t run by an AI, but was instead controlled by (unseen) technicians, instructed to use tactics similar to the actual ones used in that battle. Incidentally, the show took care to select players without video gaming experience, which I think actually makes things more interesting: they don’t see it as a “video game” they have to beat, but as an important battle that actually happened, some 2000 years ago. Which is exactly how one should look at it.

Time Commanders - overhead view of the mapBefore the actual battle, there were mission briefings (shown, again, using the R:TW engine) in which both the team and the audience were told about the historical background for the battle, the generals and forces involved, what was at stake, and which key troops both sides had available. The lieutenants / captains were also responsible for the initial scouting of enemy forces and positions, and for relaying that information to the generals.

Time Commanders - looking at the big screenMeanwhile, two actual historians and/or military instructors (one permanent, the other one rotating between several people from episode to episode) gave more insight on the battle, and commented on the team’s tactics, outside the hearing range of the players. Only after the battle ended would they tell the players what they did rightly and wrongly, and how the battle actually went, historically. Note also that quite often the team would lose the battle, and lose spectacularly; in a way, watching how much some of the players could “blow it” was one of the series’ most entertaining aspects. ๐Ÿ™‚

Time Commanders - a lieutenant gives instructions to an operatorIn short, this show — sadly cancelled after only two seasons — combines four things I love: history,ย video games,ย strategy, andย British humor. What more could anyone want? ๐Ÿ™‚ The episodes don’t seem to be available on DVD or Blu-Ray, unfortunately, but most of them, if not all, are currently on YouTube (just search for “time commanders“), and, of course, if you’re inventive, there are always other places to look for them. I’d still buy the series on DVD, if it were ever released, just to have it in better quality.

By the way, it’s really a shame that there aren’t more shows like this — interesting, not dumbed-down, and actually instructive and educational, but still focused on fun. For instance, even just sticking with this format, there could be shows based on other eras of history — medieval times, the Napoleonic wars, etc.. But, of course, I doubt it’ll happen.

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…” ๐Ÿ™‚

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.