Tetris Retrospective

Today I’ve decided to do something different. And if you read the title, I’m sure you’ve, at least, heard about Tetris. If not, welcome to planet Earth and I apologize about all the craziness, but I’m sure you’ll love to hear about this game. So join us at taking a look at a very popular game (that defined the puzzle genre), its history and its most famous versions and ports.

Tetris was created in June 1984 in Soviet Russia, when Alexey Pajitnov, a 28-year-old computer engineer working for the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow, decided to program a puzzle game to test the capabilities of the Electronika 60 computer. Based on the puzzles he played as a child, Pajitnov programmed shapes formed from combinations of 4 blocks, which he named tetrominoes. And combining that word with tennis, he created Tetris:

1st version of Tetris. (Video courtesy of the Sergei Frolov)

As you can see, the gameplay is extremely easy to understand. You only need to combine all the different shapes as they fall until a horizontal row is filled. Then said row disappears, clearing that particular line, up to a total of 4 consecutive rows. After a certain number of cleared rows, the blocks start to fall faster and faster, increasing the difficulty until the entire playing area is full, prompting a game-over.

Pajitnov showed the game to his colleagues at the Academy, who became easily addicted to it and two of them, Dmitry Pavlovsky and Vadim Gerasimov (who was 16 at the time) helped Pajitnov to port the game to DOS and later distribute it through BBS in 1995.

This is the DOS prototype found on the Tetris Gold compilation by Spectrum Holobyte.

After being smuggled to Hungary, it spread across Europe like a virus until it fell to the hands of British software publisher Andromeda, who after failing to secure the rights from Pajitnov due the Cold War politics at the time, decided to illegally sell its rights to Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, who then released the first commercial versions of the game for several computers, featuring Russian imagery and music.

This is the 1st commercial DOS Tetris game by Spectrum Holobyte.

But back in Russia, following the initial success of the game, Pajitnov was forced to give the rights of Tetris to Elektronorgtechnica (Elorg), a state-run organization, for 10 years. But Elorg’s director at the time, Alexander Alexinko, found out that Andromeda was selling Tetris rights (which they had no legal claim to) to almost everybody, including Atari, Sega and a certain Dutch publisher called Henk Rogers.

Tetris arcade version by Atari. (Video courtesy of 90’s Arcade Games)

Henk Rogers’ participation was key in finally securing the rights. After watching a version of the game in the Las Vegas’ Computer Electronic Show in 1988, Rogers saw its potential and broke a deal with Nintendo, but unfortunately, Tengen (a subsidiary of Atari) already made a version of Tetris for the NES:

Tetris for the NES by Tengen (Video courtesy of EMN Company)

Rogers then travelled to Russia to properly secure the rights from Elorg and Pajitnov. But he wasn’t alone. Robert Stein from Andromeda and Kevin Maxwell from Mirrorsoft also travelled to Russia for the rights to Tetris.

What happened later was the stuff of legends (so much so, that Hollywood wants to make a movie trilogy based on it), from the fact that Rogers travelled with a tourist visa instead of a business visa (which could have put him in a very tight spot) to even an appeal from Mirrorsoft to Mikhail Gorbachev to mediate all the legal chaos. But Rogers, using his charm and with Pajitnov’s help, finally secured the rights for Nintendo. Although the battle for the rights would continue to rage on through the following years.

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Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers in Moscow, 1989

Nintendo then, with the rights properly secured, mass-produced Tetris for their new portable console, the Game Boy! And they had the masterstroke to bundle Tetris with each copy of the Game Boy, insuring Tetris’ place in videogame history.

Tetris for Game Boy (Video courtesy of 316whatupz)

And after releasing their own version for the NES, Nintendo then forced Atari and Sega to recall their own copies from the market, claiming sole ownership of Tetris for consoles. Which made the Tengen NES and the Sega Mega Drive versions of Tetris so rare, they’re considered extremely valuable among collectors nowadays.

Tetris for the Mega Drive (Video courtesy of Oberon Gaming)

But it was the Game Boy version released in 1989 that became the most famous version of Tetris, due to its portability combined its addictive nature and simplicity, that even people that never thought about playing videogames, could easily play and enjoy it anywhere! Also, an arrangement of a Russian traditional song, Korobeiniki, became so associated with Tetris, that people still call it the “Tetris theme”. In fact, it became so popular that Andrew Lloyd Webber (you know, the guy behind the Cats and The Phantom of the Opera Broadway musicals) even recorded a dance remix with Nigel Wright under the name of Doctor Spin:

Yes, this is your brain on Tetris

But our story doesn’t end here. In 1996, the rights of Tetris reverted back to Pajitnov, who then with Rogers, funded the Tetris Company and trademark not only the name, but every aspect of the game, regulating every license and prosecuting every unlicensed version and clone. Pajitnov and Rogers also created other puzzle games, but never recreated the success they had with Tetris. But they still produce new versions with new features up to this day.

Tetris basically reshaped all the puzzle genre and even the videogame industry itself. Its gameplay is extremely simplistic and yet, extremely addictive. Its accessibility however is what makes Tetris so enjoyable. Seeing someone with disabilities that can’t play typical videogames, enjoying a simple game like Tetris, is a sight to behold. And it opened the Western world a bit more towards Russian culture, so I think I’m not exaggerating when I say Tetris is a true icon of Humanity.

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So, what did you think of my retrospective of Tetris? I hope I made it proper justice. If there’s anything you’d like to add, please leave it in the comments below. Next time, is back to basics. Till then, keep on stacking those blocks.

J.B. Harold Murder Club review

Sometimes there are games out there that seem simple enough and hardly make more than a blip in the radar. But sometimes they get noticed by other reasons outside the game itself or even develop a cult following, or even sometimes they’re successful in one country but hardly register in another country. Not to mention how much the game was influenced by and how much it influenced other games afterwards. Today we’re going to take a look at one such game: J.B. Harold Murder Club.

J.B. Harold Murder Club is an adventure/mystery game originally developed and published by Japanese company Riverhill Soft for the PC-88, PC-98, Sharp X1 and the FM-7 computers in 1986. It was released again in 1988 for the MSX and Sharp X68000 and in 1989 for the NES. It saw its first remake for the Turbografx-CD in 1990 and translated and brought to the US the following year for the same console, while the original version was released in the US for DOS that same year. The remake was again released (in Japan only) for the FM-Towns in 1992 and for Windows in 1996. A second remake was made for the Nintendo DS in 2008 under the title Keiji J.B. Harold no Jikenbo: Satsujin Club.

Only the DOS and Turbografx-CD versions were ever translated and released here in the West and although the Turbografx-CD is the most famous version, the game was originally released for the PC-88, which is a personal computer, which makes the DOS version eligible for review here.

But first, let’s take a look at the cover, shall we?

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No, this isn’t a Casablanca adaptation, although that would be cool

The cover definitely has a very noir feel to it, with the gun and the detective smoking in the background. A bit generic nowadays, but not a bad one for a mystery title. And because of all the other covers being variations of this one, there’s no real need to show them.

But it’s time to boot this gumshoe:

The intro is simple and gets to the point: a wealthy businessman named Bill Robbins was found stabbed to the death and it’s your job as a police detective to find the culprit and bring him or her to justice. Although they aren’t bad, I wish the intro screen showed more than some woman’s legs. The intro theme is surprisingly good and pumps you up for the game.

The game starts in your office where your secretary, Catherine, encourages you to give your best in solving the case. And from there you can go out to investigate by interviewing the witnesses and the victim’s friends and relatives. And I hope you’re still pumped from the intro theme because that’s the only piece of music you’ll hear until the end. That’s right, there’s no music throughout the entire game, only at the intro and ending.

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The gameplay consists of choosing a command from a list situated at the right of the screen, with the text appearing at the bottom. From the command list, you can chose your destination (when travelling) and other options when interviewing people or searching for clues, with the main screen showing the places and people through still images.

You’ll have to constantly return to your office, either to request warrants from the prosecutor, interrogate suspects and present clues to the crime lab, but also it’s the only place in-game where you can save and load games and check your progress.

With still images, several lists of commands to choose from and no music whatsoever, the gameplay quickly becomes very monotonous, especially since you need to trigger specific dialogues and events, which then prompts a lot of backtracking and return to the same locations or people for new dialogues and clues. You can’t even get search or arrest warrants until you get a specific clue or dialogue that might be or not related to a specific suspect.

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Time to get cracking. Those pillows look suspicious

Also, there’s so many information to discover that unless you have a superb memory, I recommend taking notes about everything and everyone, so as to not get lost in the middle of the investigation.

And that’s not the worst of it. First a little spoiler warning:

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Near the end, you might get a good idea of who the killer is, but he/she won’t confess until all other suspects confess their own crimes and/or motivations. Only after gathering and fully investigating all the evidence and clues and getting confessions from all the other suspects, does the killer finally confesses the crime.

OK, spoilers over! Back to the review.

Although this version of the game was released in 1991, it has the EGA graphics and sounds of an late 80s DOS game (because that’s when the game was made), although the art style is very westernized, just like the rest of the game. If I didn’t know, I would swear this was a western game, based only on the graphics and story. And because of the still images, it has virtually no animations whatsoever.

And the mystery itself is actually well written, albeit quite cliché. In fact, it uses most of the basic mystery tropes, including the fact that the victim was an asshole, thus increasing the number of suspects with motivations to kill him. But the final twist is actually quite good.

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“Just the facts, ma’am”

So, apart from the mystery itself, this game is quite monotonous to play, with a lot of repetition and backtracking. But I won’t deny it has good dialogue and the most of the characters are interesting. So if you have lots of patience and love mystery titles, you might give it a shot.

The Turbografx-CD version has better graphics (including still photos), a great intro with good animation, voice-over, some extra screens and music throughout the game, although it still has the same boring gameplay. But now with the music, it’s a bit less monotonous. I have no idea about the Nintendo DS remake, though.

The Turbografx-CD version had more success than the DOS version, not only because of the above, but also due to a little controversy: at the beginning of the game, there’s mention of an unsolved rape case. Now, that doesn’t seem a big deal, but since console games were originally targeted to children and teens and because there wasn’t any mature warning in the game’s box, you can see why it raised some eyebrows. IMO, the rape case was an attempt to make the game look more noir and gritty, but it’s possible that the developers might have second thoughts about it, because it’s hardly mentioned again throughout the game.

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“And I mean all of your steps”

Still, even with this controversy, the game was quickly eclipsed by other mystery titles, like the Sherlock Holmes series. However, it had a great success in its native Japan, because not only it had 2 remakes, but also four sequels. It also developed some cult following here in the West, enough to release an iOS version of the second game in the series, Manhattan Requiem.

The J.B. series were also responsible for influencing the visual novel genre, which has been quite popular in the East for many years and has recently becoming popular here too in the West. So, despite being mostly forgotten by now and aged very poorly, one can not deny the influence that Murder Club had in some modern titles, especially in dialogues and character interaction.

If you’re interested in trying it out, you can play it here in your own browser.

What are your favorite mystery games? Tell me by commenting below. Next time, I’m going to do something a bit different with a game everyone knows, and I mean everyone! Till then, keep on playing.

Commander Keen Episode I review

One of the early ways to distribute computer software before the advent of the Internet was through shareware. Shareware, like the name implies, is basically the sharing, copying and free distribution of software between its users, with little restrictions placed upon it. It was a great way for small software companies to present and distribute their products. Not to be confused with demos!

Demos were little programs with most of its features non-existent while shareware software either had ads encouraging its users to register it or locked features that could be unlocked by entering a license key, which was given to the user upon registration.

While shareware initially appeared in the early 80s, shareware games appeared in the early 90s by the hand of companies like Apogee, Id Software, Ambrosia and Epic MegaGames. Unlike demos, shareware games had a lot more content and gameplay that was either limited or divided in episodes, in which the first episode was always free to the public, to encourage gamers to buy the other episodes.

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Example of registration screen in a shareware title

To get a free shareware game (or episode) back then, you could either download them through BBS (public servers that were a precursor to the World Wide Web), obtain them through cover-disks that came bundled with software magazines or ask a friend for a copy.

This distribution model became so popular that introduced some of the most important games in videogame history, like Doom or the Duke Nukem series. But today we’re going to take a look at the game responsible for the creation of legendary studio Id Software. I’m talking about Commander Keen.

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons is a platform game developed by Ideas from the Deep (before becoming Id Software) and published by Apogee Software. Its first episode, Marooned in Mars, was released for DOS in 1990 and it’s the one I’ll be reviewing today.

But before taking a look at it, let’s talk about its history first: Commander Keen came to be when famous game designer, John Carmack, came up with a way to program graphics with smooth scrolling in any direction, which could be used to create computer games capable of rivalling 8-bit console games.

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From left to right: John Carmack, Kevin Cloud, Adrian Carmack (in the back), John Romero, Tom Hall and Jay Wilbur.

Carmack showed this to Tom Hall, who then had the idea of recreating the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 with Carmack. Then the pair showed their work to another famous designer, John “Beautiful Hair” Romero, who (along with Jay Wilbur and Lane Loathe) suggested creating a full demo of Super Mario Bros. 3 in order to pitch Nintendo for a possible PC port. But Nintendo, while praising their efforts, refused the pitch because they wanted their games to remain exclusive to their consoles (except for Mario edutainment titles, but that’s a story for another day).

Meanwhile, Romero was in contact with Scott Miller from Apogee in an unrelated matter and after Nintendo’s rebuttal, decided to send Miller the Mario demo, saying that Ideas from the Deep (the mini-studio founded by Romero, Hall and Carmack) could perfectly create an original game using that engine and Miller was so impressed by the demo that he gave them a stipend to develop the game before Christmas of 1990 and to divide it in 3 parts in order to accommodate Apogee’s shareware model. And the rest is history.

Because shareware games weren’t distributed in game boxes, there wasn’t any cover art of the game back then. However since 1998, Apogee has been distributing Commander Keen online and came up with this artwork to serve as cover:

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Commander Keen, defender of Earth

It’s not bad. Very reminiscent of old sci-fi posters, which the game takes a lot of inspiration from.

But I’ve been wasting everyone’s time so far. So here’s the intro and the first level of the game:

As one can see, because the game wasn’t shipped with a manual, all the information, such as instructions and backstory, is found in the game itself.

You play as Billy Blaze, an 8 year-old child prodigy, who designed his own starship and dons his older brother’s football helmet to become COMMANDER KEEN – DEFENDER OF EARTH!

One night, while his parents are away and his babysitter is asleep, Billy takes his spaceship to explore Mars, but soon after, the evil Vorticons steal four important pieces of his ship, stranding Billy. Now Billy has to explore Mars and recover his ship’s parts and return home before his parents arrive.

Immediately from the start, you get access to a overworld map, where you can control Billy and access levels in a somewhat non-linear fashion. Although the overworld map isn’t very big, you can enter 15 levels (plus an extra secret level), which get increasingly bigger and harder. The levels are divided in 2 types: the cities and the shrines. The cities are the main levels and are represented on the map as big buildings. You only have to finish those that have the ship parts in order to finish the game. The shrines are represented as small, blue buildings and although they’re smaller levels, they’re not necessarily easier. The shrines are optional, but they do have items that give points and others that make the gameplay easier.

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Stranded on Mars with a broken ship…

In these levels, you control Billy from left to right and jump in several platforms to avoid enemies and other hazards. You can also use Billy’s raygun to fight the enemies, but it’s void of charges at the beginning and you have to collect ammo for it. You can also collect other items, like lollipops, soda cans (that look like Pepsi), books, pizza slices and teddy bears for points, of which you get an extra life for every 20,000 points.

But what you really need to collect, apart from the ship parts, are the keycards to open doors and the pogo stick. The pogo stick, which can be found in one of the early shrines, is probably the most useful tool in your possession, which makes possible for Billy to reach higher platforms and secret areas where more items are available for extra points (and lives).

The levels are all pretty well designed, especially some cities, which contain big mazes full of traps and enemies. The game is also very colorful and the sprites, albeit somewhat small, are well detailed. The enemies’ animation is also quite simple but smooth, and Billy himself is well animated.

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The sound effects, while simple, are adequate and serve their purpose well. Too bad that the game lacks music, because graphically is just begging for it! Still, there’s so many sound effects, that you won’t miss it terribly. But I won’t deny it would be nice to have music.

But the best part of the game for me, besides level design, are the controls. Whether you’re playing with the keyboard or with a gamepad, the controls are tight and responsive. If you fall to your death, it’s your own fault, not the controls’.

With 16 total levels, the game has a proper length to it (unless you play only the obligatory levels), but with the lack of difficulty levels, the game feels very easy, especially if you’re used to platformers. Except for the secret level, which is actually hard.

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The most important item in the game

Marooned in Mars pales in comparison with the Mario and Sonic series, but it’s still a solid platformer with great controls and overall good level design. It had so much success, it gave the means for Carmack and Romero to properly fund Id Software and later create Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, which created the first-person shooter genre. So, if it wasn’t for Commander Keen, the FPS genre as we know it, wouldn’t probably exist. For that reason alone, Commander Keen more than deserves a spot in videogame history.

Now you must be asking, why did I only review the first episode instead of the entire trilogy? Well, for 2 reasons: first, I think Marooned in Mars has a game length more or less equal to other shareware games at the time and second, the other episodes introduced new features, despite being made at the same time. Don’t worry, I’ll review the other episodes in due time.

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Damn slippy ice!

And because the first episode was released freely, you can find it almost everywhere. But in case you don’t know where to look, you can download it here at the 3D Realms page or play it here in your own browser. Or if you’re looking for the entire trilogy, you can buy it here on Steam, along with its sequel Goodbye, Galaxy. Also you download fan-made mods and levels here.

So, do you like PC platformers? Which one is your favorite? Leave your comments below. Next time, we’ll take a look at a very odd game IMO. Till then, put on your favorite football helmet and keep on playing!

Master of Magic review

Like I said in my previous review, this time we’ll take a look at one of my personal favorite games of all times and perhaps the most in-depth game I’ve ever played, Master of Magic.

Master of Magic is a 4X strategy game developed by Simtex and published by MicroProse. It was originally released in 1994 for DOS and ported for the PC-98 in 1996.

4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) is a strategy/managerial genre that’s characterized by selecting a faction, building cities or bases, manage them, exploration, raising armies and fighting enemies by employing strategies in battle. Unlike in RTS games, this genre is usually turn-based. It came to prominence by two other titles also published by MicroProse: Sid Meier’s Civilization in 1991 and Master of Orion (also developed by Simtex) in 1993.

But before continuing with our review, let’s take a look at the cover, shall we?

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And they say that the eyes are the mirror of the soul!

The cover art is simply stunning, with the reflection of a demon in a stylized eye’s pupil. It gives a sense of mysticism and mystery and it can be considered sort of iconic.

But let’s not waste anymore time in conjuring this spell:

The intro depicts a magic duel between two wizards and that’s the main objective of the game: you play as a wizard and you have to battle and defeat other wizards, but the way you do it is where the real gameplay is at. One can say that Master of Magic took the mechanics behind Master of Orion and applied them in a fantasy setting, all the while building upon them.

Every time you begin a new game, you’ll get the game option screen where you’ll have 4 choices to personalize your game: difficulty level, number of opponents, land size and magic strength (to cast spells and summon creatures).

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Ooooh, sparkles!

Then if you choose the intro difficulty, you’ll get to choose between 14 pre-made wizards (although you can still choose a new name) specialized in different schools of magic and each one with a different characteristic. If you chose any other difficulty level, then you can customize your own wizard (although you still have to choose a portrait from the pre-made wizards), choosing spell books belonging to five schools of magic, each represented by a specific color:

  • Light, represented by white, specializes in healing and protection spells.

  • Death, represented by black, specializes in necromancy and decay spells.

  • Chaos, represented by red, specializes in fire and destruction spells.

  • Nature, represented by green, specializes in earth and counter spells.

  • Sorcery, represented by blue, specializes air and subversion spells.

There’s also a sixth school, Arcane Magic (represented by the color gray), which is a general magic school, available to all wizards. If you’re familiarized with the card game Magic The Gathering, it’s very similar to it and magic-wise, follows the same mechanics.

Also, depending on the points available, you can also choose a characteristic, which will define your play style and isn’t shared with any other wizards during that specific playthrough.

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A somewhat empty battlefield, no?

Depending on your choices, you can start in the world of Arcanus (your typical fantasy world), which grants you access to 9 races to select as your starting army, or the world of Myrror, a more dark and harder world (but with more mana and better treasure available) with 5 races to choose from. And then, the game world you selected is created and you can start your game.

The objective, as I said before, is to defeat the other wizard (or wizards) and conquer both worlds. For that, you need to expand your army, explore the worlds, build and expand more cities (or conquer them), hire or summon heroes and/or creatures, tap into magical nodes, research more spells and finally engage your rivals in battle or use diplomacy to negotiate truces and alliances.

You can only defeat your rivals in two ways: either attack and conquer their main capitals (where their wizard towers are located), which will prompt an automatic banishment, or research and cast the Spell of Mastery, which if properly cast, will banish all rivals and automatically win the game.

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“Do not take me for some conjurer of cheap tricks!”

While the gameplay in general is very reminiscent of Master of Orion, the city management and armies’ training is a bit more like in Civilization, in which you have to build specialized buildings in order to train more powerful and specialized units. But what makes Master of Magic special, is its unique fantasy setting and the wide range of spells available, which are divided in summoning, unit and city spells and global enchantments. All of this brings an incredible deep gameplay, in which there aren’t two playthroughs alike.

The game even comes with an item maker program, where you can edit all the magic items one can find in the game. And yes, although you can make a game-breaking item, it’s fun to create items based on famous fantasy weapons and like.

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Do you guys think my wizard tower blends in well?

The sprites might be a bit small, but they’re all well detailed and it’s easy to distinguish one unit from another. The game is very colorful throughout and the animation might be simple, but it serves the game well, especially the visual effects when casting spells.

The music (composed by Brian “The Fatman” Sanger) is superb and it serves to build a great ambiance without being too distracting. And there’s a good variety of it available, from simple tunes to epic battle themes. The sound effects are also quite simple and serve the gameplay well with the best ones occurring when casting spells.

The only possible criticism I might have (although it’s more of nitpick actually), it’s the fact that the micromanagement can become somewhat chaotic when managing several different cities and units, even with option of appointed viziers that auto-manage the cities for you and the cities and armies screens, which show all the cities and units you have and their current actions and location.

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Apparently Mother Nature loves to push people off buildings

With all of these features, one would think that Master of Magic was a great success, right? Unfortunately the game was released with a bundle of bugs, crashes and terrible AI, which made it almost unplayable. The latest official patch (1.31) was released in March 1995, a half-year after its original release, which fixed most issues and made it much more playable. It was only after this patch that Master of Magic became a cult classic that’s still being played and discussed nowadays.

How do I know this? First there’s still a quite active fan community that produces mods and fan patches (1.4 and 1.5), that fix bugs left in the 1.31 patch and rebalances the AI. And there’s also a bunch of ports, fanmade remakes and spiritual successors. Here’s a few of them:

    • Civizard: Majutsu no Keifu, a Playstation port, made by Asmik and released only in Japan;

    • Leylines, a fanmade remake;

    • Caster of Magic, another fanmade remake;

    • The Age of Wonders series, a spiritual sequel by Triumph Studios;

    • Worlds of Magic, a spiritual successor by Wastelands Interactive.

So, with all of this, do I recommend it? ABSOLUTELY! Like I said at the beginning of this review, Master of Magic is one of my favorite games, not only due its high fantasy setting but also due to its depth and wide range of gameplay options. And where can you get it? Right here at GOG.com.

Phew! I know that this was one lengthy review, but after my absence, I figured you deserve it. Luckily, the reviews’ frequency should come back to normal and next time, we’ll take a look at another great classic. Till then, keep on playing and casting spells!

A small apology

I’m currently going through a bad patch and my computer is broken, so I have to take a small hiatus until I can get it fixed. Thanks for your support and again I apologise for the situation. See you around and keep on playing.

Ninja Rabbits review

Happy Easter! With all the painted eggs and rabbits and whatnot. So, instead of writing an article about Retro Easter Eggs (too much work and I’m lazy as hell), I’ve decided to just review a game with rabbits in it. And unfortunately, the first game with anthropomorphic rabbits that came to my mind is Ninja Rabbits.

Ninja Rabbits is an action game made by Microvalue and originally released in 1991 for Amiga, Atari ST and Commodore 64. It was re-released the following year for DOS.

And yes, this game was made to capitalize off TMNT’s fame back then. And no, it also has nothing to do with Usagi Yojimbo, an anthropomorphic rabbit SAMURAI.

But let’s look at the cover, shall we?

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It looks like they never saw an anthropomorphic rabbit with a karate gi before.

As one can see, the cover shows our titular “ninja” rabbit doing a weird Karate Kid pose and scaring a couple of punks, in the middle of a highway or bridge. Kind of uninspired, but it conveys well what the game is about.

Time to hop to this genin, shall we? I recommend turning off the sound, though:

For those brave enough to hear the entirety of the title theme, I apologize for the damage suffered to your ears. Don’t ask me what that aural atrocity was, but this is perhaps the first time I’m happy for a game NOT having any more music. The title screen might be the only good screen in the entire game, graphically speaking.

According to the game manual (a booklet actually), there was a toxic leak from a chemical plant that turns humans and other anthropomorphic beings into aggressive beasts, which prompts our protagonist to face them and travel to the plant to shut down the leakage. For that, he needs to travel from his home forest to the city and finally to the plant itself, facing all kinds of humans, other anthropomorphic animals, birds, etc.

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The game is only 3 levels long: the countryside (with good animations in the background), the city (full of punks, sewers and god-awful birds that will kill you in an instance if you’re not careful) and the chemical plant (with robots and some platforming).

You start with 3 lives and a carrot that serves as a life bar, which if fully depleted, you’ll lose a life. But don’t worry, there are some carrots distributed throughout the levels, which will grant extra lives.

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Underground versus other ninja… animals.

You control the protagonist with the arrow keys (if not using a joystick) and the space-bar for hitting your enemies with your stick. To perform other attacks, you need to combine the space-bar with any other arrow key. The stick attack is the most powerful attack but also the slowest one.

And talking about speed, our protagonist might be a rabbit but he sure moves like a turtle. He’s incomprehensibly slow compared with the rest of the enemies. You need to properly time your attacks or you’ll die fast! I don’t know if the controls are unresponsive, if the attacks use too many sprites or if the rabbit was programmed to be slower than the rest. Anyway, it makes the game almost unplayable.

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Those birds overhead are the worst enemies in the entire game!

The game has very few sounds, but they serve their purpose, I suppose.

But the worst part for me is that the game not only lacks boss fights at the end of each level, but after finishing the last level, the game puts you right back at the start of the first level without any rhyme or reason. Not even a congratulations text or whatever!

With just 3 levels, you’ll finish the game in no time, even with the hard difficulty. In fact, this feels more like a demo than a proper game. It’s painfully obvious that this game was made with as little effort as possible.

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I assure you. You won’t find any turtles down here.

The Amiga version is slightly better, with a proper title theme and a difficulty select screen, which is absent in the DOS version.

In other words, not only I don’t recommend this game (not even to furries) but I strongly tell you to avoid it. It’s without a doubt, one of the worst games I ever played! AND SOMEHOW IT HAS A SEQUEL! HOW?! WHY?!

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here, experience this atrocity in your own browser.

So I apologize for this being my Easter present to you. To make up for it, next time, we’ll take a look at a much better game! Another true cult classic, I promise.

Until then, leave your comments below and have a happy Easter and keep on playing (just not this game).

Beneath a Steel Sky review

With the movie adaptation of Ghost in the Shell currently at the cinemas, I’ve decided to take a look at the cyberpunk genre and there’s quite a number of games belonging to that genre. But perhaps my favorite one is Beneath a Steel Sky.

Beneath a Steel Sky is a graphic adventure developed by British company Revolution Software and published by Virgin Interactive. It was originally released in 1994 for Amiga, Amiga CD32 and DOS. It was re-released for modern Windows in 2008 and for the Macintosh in 2012. A remastered version was released for iOS in 2009.

After the success of their first game, Lure of the Temptress; Revolution’s co-founder, Charles Cecil, decided to revive an old project he had with famed comic book artist Dave Gibbons (Watchmen, DC Comics, etc.) while still in Activision. Gibbons provided the comic that serves as the intro to the game and all the visual ambiance and backgrounds within it, while the rest of team worked using the game engine they made: the Virtual Theatre engine.

But let’s look at the covers first, shall we?

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Inspired by Metallica’s black album?

The first cover is the most well known and iconic one, with a simple white outline of Union City’s towers over a black background. Simple and effective at invoking the urban atmosphere of the game.

Then we have this cover:

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The logo etching in a rusty iron surface isn’t that bad, but I hate all the gray space. Either use all gray or all rusty, but not both! You know, like this:

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Now we’re talking!

Also, take a look at the CD case’s cover:

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An image of Union City taken from the comic book with a miniature of the original cover at the side. Also good at invoking the urban oppression in the game.

But let’s boot this sucker, shall we?

This is the intro to the CD-ROM version. The floppy disk version came with a comic book by Dave Gibbons detailing the events that lead up to the beginning of game: you play as Robert Foster (named after a brand of Australian “beer”), a man who has grown in a post-apocalyptic Australian Outback region called the Gap and one day, he’s kidnapped by Security forces from a dystopian city called Union City and brought back to said city, but in the way back, the copter he was travelling in crashes and he escapes. Now, Foster not only has to avoid the Security forces but he also has to find the reasons behind his kidnapping and his link to the city.

Like I’ve mention before, the game uses the Virtual Theatre engine, which gave more independence to NPCs by programming specific routines and tasks independent of the players’ input. This creates a more realistic game world in terms of characters’ relations and portrayals. And yet, it isn’t hard to find specific NPCs when needed, mainly because the game world isn’t very big, despite being inside a city.

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“I’m no Macgyver, but I probably can do something with this”

You see, the copter crash at the beginning, not only serves as a story element, but also as means to isolate the characters from the rest of the city. In fact, the playable areas are limited to just 3 levels of a single city tower (besides a fourth and final area), so it won’t be possible to explore the rest of the city and to interact with a lot of characters.

And talking about the NPCs, they’re all well written and fleshed out enough to help create a proper atmosphere. I find it funny that the protagonist and his companion, Joey, sport an American accent and the rest of the characters have British accents, despite the fact that the game’s story occurs in Australia. Still the voice-over is quite serviceable, despite some bad voice acting here and there.

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“Next to a mountain of scrap, that’s where we are, Rob”

The humor is quite sarcastic, especially at the beginning. But as the story progresses, the tone gets more and more serious, but it doesn’t get as depressing as in The Dig.

And about our protagonist Foster: despite speaking with an American accent, he doesn’t look like an outsider. In fact, with his long coat and slicked hairstyle, he perfectly blends in with the rest of the NPCs. In the intro, he immediately stands out compared with his tribesmen at the Gap.

The point-and-click scheme is simple and intuitive, with the left mouse button for examining objects and the right mouse button to pick and/or use them. Usually the mouse buttons are mapped the other way around in most graphic adventures, but you won’t have any problems adapting to this particular control scheme.

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Game over, man. Game over!

The soundtrack is quite good and is usually well tied to the game’s atmosphere, although I found the LINC Space theme a bit too upbeat for the sections it’s used. But the rest of the themes all fit in well.

The game graphics are also quite good, with most of the backgrounds drawn by Dave Gibbons featuring good animation throughout. It really conveys the urban oppression and decadence commonly found in the cyberpunk genre.

And talking about the cyberpunk elements, this game explores most of them, if not all (virtual reality, trans-humanism, nature vs. technology, etc.) The story is heavily inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 and it shows!

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Welcome to the Matrix, Neo.

The puzzles aren’t too hard, albeit with a bit of backtracking and pixel hunting, but any player experienced with graphic adventures shouldn’t have any problems with it. Also despite the playable areas not being too big, it still has a proper length to it.

Apart from all of these nitpicks, I highly recommend it, even if you’re not a cyberpunk fan. At the end, you can see why it became a cult classic.

In 2003, Revolution released the game as freeware, which made it possible for ScummVM to support it. You can easily find it almost everywhere in the Internet, but I recommend downloading it from the ScummVM homepage here or from GOG.com here. You can also get the remastered version for iOS here.

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“So Babs, do you come here often?”

And you can also get an enhanced soundtrack by James Woodcock to use with ScummVM here.

Recently, there have been some talks about a possible sequel by Revolution, but unfortunately they seem more focused on continuing the Broken Sword series instead.

So, what do you think about Beneath a Steel Sky or cyberpunk games in general? Leave your comments below.

Next time, it’s Easter! And you know what that means. Until then, keep on playing and surfing the cyberspace.