Hexen: Shadow of the Serpent Riders on MS-DOS (8/10)

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Hexen was another mid-nineties FPS that, I swear, I played the demo of several times but never played the full game. I only seemed to remember that first level with its stained glass windows and melee combat. It takes quite some time before you get a ranged weapon and that’s probably why I never felt the incentive to continue much farther than the initial levels. You need to give this one some time before it starts to click.

The level design is pretty great. Each section of the game is organized around a hub world. You can then move between the various sub levels in search of keys, switches, etc. that open up other sections of the hub. In some cases this involves revisiting levels over and over. This can be a pain in the early stages of the game when I was expecting run-and-gun Doom-style gameplay. Eventually, I got in the groove (still needed a walkthrough here and there).

The major ding against the game is the lack of variety. You only have a total of four weapons and it seems like you are fighting the same monsters over and over. The monsters will respawn so there is no incentive to kill ’em all. If you can, run past and pull that switch! Overall, I liked it and it seemed to hold up rather well (using gzDoom to run the game).

Ultima Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams on MS-DOS (8/10)

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Martian Dreams is built on the same game engine as Ultima VI. Much like that game, it is much less of an RPG and more of an adventure game in which you are wandering through the world, talking to NPCs, and combining objects to solve puzzles. You’re not really building up and customizing your character here. Sure there’s combat and leveling up, but it doesn’t really feel like it matters much.

The most important part of this game is the story and the world it’s built around. Martian Dreams takes place a fictionalized the late nineteenth century setting in which space flight is a reality. Dozens of historical luminaries from the era have all been accidentally sent to Mars and it’s the player’s job to find them all and get them back home. Along the way the real-life talents of the characters will come in to play: George Washington Carver knows botany, Louis Comfort Tiffany know glass making, and Sarah Bernhardt knows, um, stage make-up. The only human villains are the evil monk Rasputin and the anarchist Emma Goldman.

You will soon find out that Mars is not completely devoid of life. The landscape is dotted with the ruins of an ancient race of plant beings. It is all very imaginative and unlike any game that is being produced these days. The game has the feel of a classic Jules Verne novel. I think a modern developer would have pushed to make it as steampunk as possible. Anything to get the cretins cos-playing at some dumb-ass convention.

That isn’t to say that this game couldn’t use some modern updates. There is no way to track your quests other than “good” old-fashioned note taking. As with Ultima VI it pays to play the game in a window and have a text editor open to the side where you write everything down. Every little detail is important. A couple of events won’t trigger unless you type the exact word into a dialogue. If GOG.com was smart, they’d implement an in-game overlay note taking/map making interface for these classic games.

You also have to act like a crazy cat-lady hoarder with every object you pick up. If you lose that weed-sprayer, there’s no way to beat the game. I had a central dumping point for every object I decided to drop. Who knows if you’re going to need martian dirt money or chewing tobacco later on.

I only have a couple of major quibbles. First, the world map is not very interesting. Lots and lots of red dirt and hills. You’ll be doing lots of walking all over that featureless map. Second, combat is not very fun or important to the story. Fights just get in the way when you are trying to run hundreds of miles across the dirt plains. The weapons are all just as good as the kitchen knife you find early on. Guns just weigh you down and the final battle doesn’t even let you take the weapons you’ve collected in to battle. That said, if you are patient, Martian Dreams is a unique and refreshing RPG adventure.

Tomb Raider II on MS-DOS (6/10)

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This game is part of a Tomb Raider three pack at GOG.com. I tried to play Tomb Raider 1, but I had already played the vastly superior remake, and I felt no need to revisit the same game but with bad controls and visuals. I would like to think that the second game has some technical improvements on the first, but it’s still clunky as hell.

Lara’s movements are slow and take a lot of getting used to. The graphics are as primitive as one might expect, but the animations pretty smooth. Almost too smooth as I was constantly waiting for one movement to end before initiating a jump or drawing out my guns. The thing that really dates this game is the sprawling level design. Completing a section starts to become tedious pretty fast as you are backtracking constantly and always getting lost amidst the repetitive textures and shapes.

Still, the core of Tomb Raider game play is still there. There are plenty of genuinely interesting platforming challenges, especially if your are on the lookout for secret areas. The final few areas were the best part of the game. The underwater areas were the worst.

Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon on MS-DOS (8/10)

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Time to break out that pad of graph paper again and start charting the depths of nerd-dom. Eye of the Beholder II is not a drastic departure from the click-frenzy gameplay of the first game. It does do a much better job at injecting story elements into the experience via wonderfully rendered cut scenes:

There was a point fairly early in the game where I was being attacked by endless hordes of skeleton warriors. I almost gave up, until I realized that resting the party was causing them to keep respawning. Once past that bottleneck, the game progressed at a nice pace.

The whole idea of resting to heal in Dungeons and Dragons games seems to break the experience a little. My party will take some damage, step back a few squares, then sleep for 50 hours with the monsters just waiting around the corner.

In any event, I managed to finish the game with a little bit of help from the Internet. I have the hand-drawn maps and this screenshot to prove it:

Wolfenstein 3D on MS-DOS (6/10)

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As with most of the great shareware titles of the 90s, I played the free episode of Wolfenstein 3D a gazillion times but never bothered to buy the complete package. Once again with thanks to GOG.com I have been able to finally complete in its entirety. This is the progenitor of first-person shooters and the basic game mechanics are still pretty solid. Its main problem is that of repetitiveness. There are only four kinds of enemies to fight. That isn’t including the bosses at the end of every episode which all have a unique sprite and some even have an elaborate death sequence:

But even those bosses all kinda fight in the same manner.

Levels are built on a grid of right angles so that most can be navigated by simply always going to the right. There are no realistic shadows or lighting. The overall effect is that of being in a sterile, strip-mall dentist’s office. Playing this again really made me appreciate the giant step forward that Doom was. Despite these complaints, blasting away Nazi’s is still fun.

As you can probably see in my screen grabs, I was using a mod that gave me a minimap and also, more importantly, mapped the controls to the modern WASD layout. The map does break the game a little in that it eliminates the need to hunting for secrets. Having to push every wall randomly was never really a great design choice anyways.

Beneath a Steel Sky on MS-DOS (5/10)

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I think this is considered by many to be one of the best point and click adventure games of the early nineties. I can see why people remember it fondly. The cyberpunk setting is unique (if you don’t count Neuromancer or just about every CD-ROM title from the same era), the production is impressive, and the game is massive for a point and click. At the time of this writing it is still offered as a free game on GOG.com. Unfortunately, I felt it to be a bit too oblique and meandering. I found the puzzles frustrating and I eventually gave up, finishing the game with a walk-through. Even with explicit instructions, I had no idea why I had to complete tasks. All I know is that I had to get to the ground floor of the tower. Somewhere in there was a story about discovering my past but that kinda gets lost when you are scrounging for dog treats so you can lure an heiresses’s dog onto a plank in order to catapult it into a pond thereby distracting a guard so you can enter a church so you can… you get the picture.

Crusader: No Remorse on MS-DOS (8/10)

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In the 90s, I tried playing the demo of this game many times and could never really get into it. Crusader was one of the best looking PC games of its time and I really wanted to like it. But the controls. Oh my God, the controls. Eventually, this scheme would go on to be described as tank controls in other games like Resident Evil. Basically, you aim and move your character in relation to the direction their sprite is facing rather than the direction you want them to move on the screen. Crusader takes that counter-intuitive mechanic to a whole new level of complexity by adding jumping, diving and ducking to the mix.

There are some default mouse controls which almost work, but your character is stuck with gun drawn, shuffling around like a man with his pants around his ankles. I got about a third the way through the game doing that until just gave up and set the game aside for a while. Months later I returned and forced myself to learn the standard keyboard controls. These are still clunky, but with practice and a lot of help from the auto-aim feature the game becomes much more fast-paced and responsive. Even then, the mouse is still helpful when the occasional fast-spinning aiming is required. For the most part, it pays to just bite the bullet and learn the keyboard controls. Think of Crusader like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing but with more explosions and incinerated humans.

Once the control hurdles are overcome, the game itself is a huge, detailed and fun action game. The dialogue makes it seem like you are some sort of stealth agent who quietly infiltrates bases. In actuality, you are beaming in and killing everything in site while causing as much destruction in your wake as you can. There is a bit of setting up and planning of your attacks, but that’s as far as Crusader goes in being a stealth game. Just kill the enemies and watch them explode, melt and burn in screams of agony.

What little plot is here comes in the form of live-action cut scenes that are just as cheesy as one would expect from a 90s action game. They don’t really rise to the level of camp I would have liked to see, so skipping past them is a wise option. For all the detail that is in the game’s stellar isometric art, you would have thought they could have devoted a little of that effort to the set design in the live-action scenes, eighty percent of which a filmed with characters sitting in a restaurant booth. Who’d of thought world-wide revolution would be schemed from within a Steak ‘n’ Shake?

Ultima VI: The False Prophet on MS-DOS (9/10)

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With the completion of VI, I’m getting close to having played all the games in the Ultima series. I own boxed copies of the Apple ][ versions of III–V, but when it came to VI, Origin switched to MS-DOS. In 1990 I was starting college, I didn’t own a computer, let alone a PC, and, as the years passed, history became legend, legend became myth, and for two-and-a-half thousand years, the Ultima series passed out of all knowledge… or something like that.

In the late 90s I upgraded from an Apple IIgs to a Windows 95 PC and was reintroduced to the series via a soundcard bundled version of Ultima VIII: Pagan. That game was mediocre at best and it didn’t finish it until years later’after I having played through a CD-ROM Classics version of Ultima VII. VII was a pain to get running on a Windows machine, but it was worth it. It truly is the precursor to modern, open-world RPGs like Skyrim in both its scope and richness of detail.

The False Prophet almost achieves the level of refinement that Ultima VII boasts. It’s not quite there yet, retaining a bit of the Apple ][ era feel. Maybe that’s why I think I liked this a bit more than VII. It doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s a game. The interface takes up half the screen, there are a dozen or so unique commands (like a LucasArts point and click adventure), and there still are actual RPG elements like leveling-up and turn-based combat.

Graphically, it has that weird, tilted perspective that was in VII, but the scale is small and more tile-ish. Some of the creatures, like rats and bunnies, are depicted with an amazing economy of pixels. Despite the scale, there is a tremendous amount of stuff in the world with which to interact. Many of the puzzles involve pushing, pulling and revealing secrets.

Like previous games in the series, it’s possible to get to secrets if you know where they are in advance. A speed-runner could probably race through the game in no time. But you’ll want to take your time interacting with the NPCs.

Conversations are at the core of Ultima’s game-play. The text-parser driven dialogue is something sadly missing from most games today. It forces you to pay attention to dialogue. Lazy gamers are even given highlighted topics which to type in so you are never stuck hunting for words in normal conversations. However, since you are not given a full multiple choice list, options can be hidden from the player only to be discovered by focusing and taking good notes.

I found the best way to play this game was to reconfigure the DOSBox settings to display the game in a large window that almost fills the entire screen output=openglwindowresolution=1360x1020, also autolock=false so you can move your mouse out of the window). Then I used the remaining space on screen to have text file open in an editor. I noted every character I met, their job, and where they were located. If they mentioned anything that seemed remotely important, I would type it in to my notes. Having a searchable file really beats hand-written scribblings and makes puzzle solving a bit more manageable.

Still, this game is old school. Don’t be ashamed to use the included clue book for help and maps. It is probably possible to put the game into an unwinnable state if you lose and important object. You only are allowed one save, so be careful. The game bugged out on me literally at the final puzzle. To win the game you need a few special objects. I was missing one of those objects so went off to get it, leaving the others in the final room. When I returned to the final room, one of the necessary items had vanished. At that moment, I was ready to go into a serious, pon farr-level nerd-rage. Fortunately, there is a debug mode still in the game and I was able to regenerate the glitched object. All was well and I had saved Britannia once again.

Winner Winner Britannia Dinner

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary on MS-DOS (7/10)

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I remember watching my housemate play this game quite a bit back when we were in college. I don’t think he had the CD-ROM version’which included voice acting from the original cast. Luckily this GOG.com version has all the recorded elements (and none of the weird DOS set up problems). Yup, there’s nothing like hearing an aged, breathy-voiced DeForest Kelley read mediocre video game dialogue!

The past few months I have been in a Star Trek state of mind as I have been streaming episodes of The Next Generation. This game really seems to capture the essence of the shows. This is despite the opening space battle which, to me, really doesn’t feel very Trekish. Space combat pops up a few more times, but, for the most part, the game is about beaming down to worlds, exploring and solving problems. It’s broken up into nice short episodes, each with their own flavor and challenges.

As for the adventure gaming, it is pretty good but there are a couple annoying moments about halfway through the game. The Harry Mudd episode is funny but lacks purpose. The “Feathered Serpent” episode has a couple of puzzles that rely on you having taken notes early on and having a knowledge of base-3 numbers. And the final episode has a game stopping bug that will leave you wandering around with nothing to do until you are finally killed when time runs out. I can’t imagine how infuriating this game was before the age of internet walk-throughs and hints.

Just like the original show, the plots leave nothing for Sulu, Chekov, Mr. Scott or Uhura to do but sit on the bridge and mope around. It was also severely lacking in Kirk mountain-punching. Seriously, what’s TOS without some Ponfarr ritual battles?

Eye of the Beholder on MS-DOS (7/10)

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Eye of the Beholder is a real-time RPG dungeon crawl that borrows heavily from the mechanics of Dungeon Master. It’s a completely mouse-driven experience in which the objects in the environment can all be used, picked up or thrown with a click. Combat is also real-time and is generally just a mad scramble backwards as you click your various party members’ weapon hands and hope for “good rolls”.

While the fights are frantic and fun, the real meat of the game-play is exploration, mapping, and puzzle solving. I went through a dozen sheets of graph paper drawing out each floor knowing full-well I could just grab the maps from the Web (the GOG.com version even includes a complete hint book). As tedious as it might sound to modern gamers, the act of plotting out the layout is oddly satisfying. I wish it could be done in-game ála  Etrian Odyssey, but, if it’s any consolation, I now have 11 floors worth of half-erased, taped together graph paper maps that are suitable for framing. Perfect for any lair!

In the end, I suppose there was a plot to follow too. Probably something about an evil wizard. dwarves and elves. None of that matters. You just need to keep going deeper and deeper. Eventually you’ll find the big boss monster and hope you have enough experience to hack it to death.