Welcome to Pages of Fun!

This is the personal Web site of Robert Wm. Gomez. I am an artist, musician and nerd living in Chicago, Illinois who has been maintaining this site (in one form or another) since 1996. Enjoy your visit!

Crusader: No Regret on MS-DOS (7/10)

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The fake red Boba Fett is at it again in this sequel to Crusader: No Remorse and he just can’t stop murdering office workers! This is pretty much a straight up continuation of the first game with only a few improvements in controls and game play. Again, don’t bother with mouse controls and just force yourself to learn to use the keyboard with a heavy reliance on the shift and control keys to run and roll respectively. The best path to success is to shoot everything and take your time looking out for traps. Stealth, unfortunately, is not really an option.

There are still a bunch of bad FMV cutscenes but the story is irrelevant. One of the big improvements over the first game is the minimizing of the between mission base scenes. There still is a base to refresh your supplies, but you aren’t force to shop for items and talk to everybody.

The game looks great and plays pretty well once you get the controls, but this series is still begging for a modern remake.

Freezer Burn by Joe R. Lansdale (7/10)

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Well, this is why I write these reviews. I got about a quarter the way into this book and realized I had already read it years ago—back when I was reading e-books on my Palm Pilot. I didn’t really remember much about it besides that it took place in a freak show carnival and the main character was bitten up by mosquitos. It’s mostly an exercise in sleaze and over-the-top situations as the main character is seduced into a series of murder attempts against his new circus comrades. The writing is quick and funny at times and does not hold back.

Ultima IX: Ascension on PC (5/10)

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With the completion of this playthrough, I have now completed all the Ultima games (technically I never finished Ultima I, but that one’s a bit too retro for me). Now, everyone says Ascension is the worst of the series, and I think I agree, but it is not as horrible a game as its reputation would suggest. Taken on its own, it is a playable and fun adventure RPG game that hints at what would eventually become possible in games like Skyrim, Fallout 3 and The Witcher. But let’s be clear here, this game is still a hot mess.

Lord British stands on his throne
Lord British stands on his throne, because, yeah, that’s normal.

So, let’s quickly go over the major problems with the game. First, the graphics are buggy and you often find characters standing in odd places, items floating in mid air, and camera clipping all over the place. The controls are wonky with the right mouse button used to walk forward and a weird switching between mouse pointer inventory management and movement. Your character runs so slow that I would recommend anyone that wants to play the game to enable the fast walk cheat. The game crashes a lot. I couldn’t get it to play in-game cinematics on my Windows 10 PC. The story bears little relation to what has happened in the first eight games and is an unsatisfying ending to the Guardian cycle. Mainly, it just feels incomplete.

Dupre is the real hero here

What the game has going for it is its ambitious, persistent open-world. You kill a bandit, he drops a sword. If you return to that spot days later, the sword is still there! This is both awesome and potentially game breaking. If you drop an important item in an obscure place, good luck ever being able to retrieve it again. The world is just begging to be explored, but unfortunately, like I mentioned above, the game is incomplete. There are only a few surprises to be found.

I never figured out what this ghost ship was all about
I never figured out what this ghost ship was all about.

And, if you don’t know exactly what spell to cast at the exact time, you may never find that hidden weapon. I appreciated the lack of hand holding but felt no shame in relying heavily on walkthroughs to complete the game. Unlike most modern RPGs, the Ultima series leans heavily on puzzle solving. This can be quite enjoyable as you are forced to think your way through the various dungeons. Admittedly, by around dungeon #6 it starts to get a little old and I just wanted to bash monsters and get to the prize at the end.

The main complaint about the game is the lackluster story that just abandons the cliffhanger that was set up in Pagan. I did enjoy meeting all the old characters from the past, but there wasn’t even a slight attempt to flesh them out (perhaps except for Dupre). This should have been the cumulation of 20 years of world building and it just lands with a thud. There’s a cringey attempt at romance and plenty of interactions that lead nowhere.

However, if you are a fan of the series or even just a fan of mid-90s 3-D games, this might be worth trying out despite its many flaws. Just be patient and don’t expect too much from it.

Tropic of Cancer (3/10)

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Similarly to Jess Franco’s film Venus in Furs, this has nothing to do with the classic book of the same name. It’s probably just using the name of a controversial book to suggest that this movie teetering on the edge of taboo. The only thing taboo here are gross shots from within an actual slaughterhouse. The rest of the movie is a confusing murder mystery revolving around a secret scientific process that is being sought by various unconnected characters. The Haitian setting is ugly. The story is boring, confusing and, in the end, not really worth watching.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny on Apple ][ (9/10)

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Ultima V is perhaps the pinnacle of gaming on the Apple ][ computer system. While I thought that Nox Archaist built on the basic mechanisms and presentation in a way that made this type of old school RPG more accessible to modern tastes (and is still a great game on top of that), Warriors of Destiny is unmatched in terms of scope, storytelling and core game play mechanics. Although the sprites are simple, the world of Britannia is filled with detail. This ranges from interactive world objects such as clocks, stockades, and harpsichords, to rich and evocative dialogue interactions. And even a set piece or two:

Blackthorne's torture chamber
Oops, you’re caught in Blackthorn’s torture chamber!

It has taken me quite some time to finish this game. I bought it on release some thirty-plus years ago and played it on my IIgs for hours upon hours. I never was able to beat the game though. I think I got about two-thirds the way through, having defeated the Shadowlords and only having that final quest to rescue Lord British remaining. Simple, just descend through an eight-level dungeon, make your way through a uncharted section of the underworld, avoid lava, make sure you have the correct item to pass the magical barrier, have that final word of power ready, descend through another eight levels of the game’s final dungeon, and did you remember to pick up that secret object which allows you to save Lord British because if not, too bad.

Ultima V battle screen in Doom
The final battle screen in the final dungeon.

Did I mention that this game is really hard? My teenaged self really had no idea how to play role-playing games with any skill. Level grinding and balancing a party were not concepts I understood very well. On top of these basic skills. The early Ultima games were brutal in the early phases of the game. Players needed to try not being killed by low-level monsters all while having to maintain a stock of food, spells, reagents, gold, torches, and gems. One wrong step or random trap and you are poisoned with only a couple dozen turns to find a cure before your HP dwindled to zero. You really had to have patience and take the time to build up your characters before attempting to finish the main quests.

This is rather difficult to do on actual hardware. I could have loaded the disk images on to my CFFA3000 and played on my IIgs but there is a ton of disk swapping in this game. Also, we had a Mockingboard sound card on our Apple ][+ but the card version we had was not compatible with the IIgs. We got rid of that card with the original Apple ][+. This always sucked because the music is one of the best parts of the Apple version. The Dos version (which I own via GOG.com) looks tons better but is missing these musical cues too.

Playing the game in AppleWin made everything much better. I had all the music, could speed up the game during my many grinding sessions, and I had the ability to save the state of the emulator at any time. I guess that last item is almost cheating as I often would save a state before resting and reload it if I got ambushed at night. But that is not as bad as the extent of my cheating back when I originally played the game and would sector edit my stats. Believe me, I was tempted to edit my food levels during this play-through but resisted (Track $03 Sector $04, bytes #80 & #81). Also, there’s a point after delving into your first major dungeon when gold and food are thankfully no longer an issue. I tried importing my original character disks into my PC, but the disks were corrupted after years sitting in my basement. I just started the game from scratch. I was in this for the long haul.

Buying rations in Yew
Buying overpriced rations in the early parts of the game.

The core of the Ultima games has always been its innovative dialogue system. By using a simple text parser and giving the player control of the exact topic being discussed you are able to return to characters you met previously and glean new information on new topics. These clues emerge as chains of conversations between many NPCs, forcing you to pay attention and immerse yourself in the story. This system would be perfected in Ultima VI a few years later. As with that game, detailed note taking is essential.

Characters and story are icing on the cake but Ultima V was the last of the games in the series to remain true to the combat-oriented design of the original. The tactical turn-based battles work very well considering how simple they are. Magic is useful but not the be all and end all as it is in the Infinity Engine games. A dummy like me can just chop and slice my way through fights. The skirmishes really take shape when you start venturing into the dungeons. We still have a wonderful first-person shift in the dungeons that is punctuated by various custom chambers which switch back to tile-based view. The rooms are filled with treasure and secret switches that made dungeon delving much more fun than I remembered.

Roaming the halls of an Ultima V dungeon
Roaming the halls of an Ultima V dungeon. Egads, a gazer!

My final assessment of the game is that it ranks up there as one of the best installments in the series. It surely is the best one on the Apple ][ series and would recommend to anyone wanting to play a game on that system to start here. The brutal difficulty and old-school quirks keep me from giving it a 10, but it’s well-worth the effort. And now here are some cool screenshots:

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on PC (8/10)

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This game goes out of its way to let you know that it’s about mental illness; and that they hired doctors and experts to make sure that got it right; and if you are a bit touched this may trigger you because it’s scary, intense and realistic! Well, as realistic as any game about fighting mystical Norse demons and beasts with a glowing sword. Not to nitpick, but I was really distracted by Senua’s period-inaccurate pristine dental hygine. When she’s not hearing disembodied voices she must be regularly brushing and flossing.

It takes a while for the story to settle in, but when the pieces start to come together it’s pretty satisfying. The basics are that her man has been killed and Senua is on a spiritual journey to release his soul or something. All the while she is taunted by the voices in her head that feed her with doubt and guilt over having possibly caused his death. Thus follows a series of levels that slowly build on puzzle mechanics and are punctuated with the occasional sword fight. The combat is pretty simple: dodge then swing sword. The puzzles are mostly built around spatial perception and, if you’ve played The Witness, it will seem like old hat to you. The Steam package also includes the VR version of the game which seems very apropos to the mechanics.

I, however, wasn’t completely smitten by the experience. At times its linearity makes it feel borderline like a walking simulator. There’s a bunch of boring, filler backstory about Norse gods and myths which is triggered by interacting with runes. And, I hate to say it, but the schizoid voices start to become a bit much after a while. I get it. That’s part of the point, but I hear enough from kooky-brained people in real life on my Facebook feed.

Nox Archaist on Apple ][ (8/10)

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Nox Archaist (no relation to Nox) has come up several times before on this site as it was a Kickstarter that I supported. As part of the project, they asked contributors to submit artworks for the game’s manual and several of my images were used in the finished book. You can see some of that art here and here and I will probably post more drawings in the future.

The game doesn’t just look like an old Apple ][ RPG, it is an actual Apple ][ game playable on real hardware. A custom version of the MicroM8 emulator is also included for playing the game on a PC or Mac. For the most part I used AppleWin as it is much easier to switch between system speeds.

Nox Archaist’s design is mostly inspired by Ultima (featuring an important cameo from Lord British), but makes several advancements in terms of interface and gameplay. This is especially evident in the inventory/stats management screens and the large, animation-filled tiled maps. The dialogs retain the excellent parser-based system with highlighted keywords alá Ultima VI. Note taking is still essential, but there is a simple quest log to keep you on track. Many NPC interactions feature lovely character portraits and there is a bit of Mockingboard music that plays as you enter new locales. It still feels like an Ultima game enough to make me almost forget just how tedious those old games were. I’m am thankful I didn’t have to avoid being poisoned every three seconds, manage stores of food, or endlessly mix spell reagents.

Even beyond the nostalgia, I enjoyed the game quite a bit. The combination of the dialogue system and the need for careful note taking helped me to immerse myself into the story and the world. I even kept a journal of my progress from session to session. Conversations and in-game books always lead to more exploration and more areas of the world opening up.

The other half of the game is combat and leveling up your party. This can get to be a little grind-y at time. You will find yourself being slaughtered without much warning and it’s at those points that I would switch to grind mode in order to make progress. That’s when it helps to throttle the emulator to full speed and just blast through minor enemies collecting XP and gold. Then parts of the map that seemed impossible all the sudden are a piece of cake. It didn’t really pay off to try and build well-balanced characters. Just dump all your points into the relevant stat for your class and don’t think much about it. Other character traits are skill-based meaning, for example, the more you pick locks the better at picking locks you become. Over time, the characters begin to excel at the play style you push on them.

With the grinding and limited resources the game can feel a bit repetitive at times. Usually, just when I thought it was a bit much, a new means of travel would be discovered and/or a new area would open up piquing my interest once again. Overall, I enjoyed Nox Archaist and was glad to have played a miniscule part in its creation. I’m hopeful that something may grow out of this project to see more tile-based RPG games of this style released. I would love to have a game like this with an integrated noted taking and map making system built in (like a Steam overlay).

Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter (8/10)

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While it’s almost structured as a defense of the “misuse” of words such as literally and like, McWhorter’s book is a very thorough investigation on how and why language evolves. I listened to the audiobook as I felt it would be better to actually hear a book on language rather than read it. My only quibble was his pronunciation of the word Neanderthal as Neander-THALL rather than Neander-TALL. You see, I have had a single semester of anthropology and that pretty much makes me an expert on the subject. I have made it my life’s goal to correct people who say it with the TH sound. My expertise is my gift to the world.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (4/10)

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A dystopian novel that predates Orwell’s 1984 by a decade or two and was banned in Russia until the 80s. Unfortunately, I found this to be a bit of a slog. A lot of the setting is barely described or approached in a poetical manner that makes everything confusing. It’s a “perfect” society based on rationality and numbers where there is no privacy and your entire day is regimented. A small group of revolutionaries lure in the main character into a plot to escape to somewhere else where there is more grit and individualism. And birds or something.

The Etruscan Kills Again (5/10)

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An alcoholic archeologist (aren’t they all?) is at the center of this murder mystery that jumps from scene to scene without much cohesive logic. A couple is murdered at the dig site in a manner that matches a heretofore unexcavated tomb. Next thing you know we are following a conductor in a patterned jumpsuit as he abuses everyone working around him. The film’s only saving grace are the few scenes of the mustachioed lead actor raging in his alcoholic flashbacks.