Rise of the Triad: Dark War on MS-DOS (8/10)

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Rise of the Triad is a first-generation FPS that technologically sits somewhere between Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom. In fact, it started its development as a follow up to Wolf3D but eventually became its own thing. The map designs are somewhat limited because they are restricted to an orthogonal grid layout. But, on the positive side, the engine allows for the use of a lot of vertical space and overlap. There are raised catwalks, hovering platforms, and bouncy jump pads. The bulk of the gameplay is learning to navigate the various mazes of platforms, secret touch plates, deadly traps, and moving walls.

Of course the biggest innovation of this game was its excessive gore! It’s where the term gibs originated, which describes the flying body parts when an enemy is exploded.

I’ll admit that my love for this game is mostly nostalgia. The actual shootouts are a bit repetitive due to simple enemy A.I. and a lack of variety. Most of the time you are just mowing down everything with your infinite ammo machine gun (which sounds like an outboard motor). There are about half-a-dozen limited use missile weapons and they are all great and it’s always a thrill to pick one up and start blasting away. I wish more effort had been placed into creating these minion baddies. I know they could have been better because each of the four episodes ends with a fun and challenging boss fight that makes you realize how fast and fun the game can be.

Final ROTT boss fight

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the best and most creative part of ROTT: the insane power-ups. Namely God Mode which makes you taller, invulnerable, and able to shoot cosmic energy balls that kill everything on the screen. All the while you are moaning with god-like power!

10 feet tall and moaning with power!

The is also a Dog Mode which allows you to craw under some obstacles and a few negative power-ups too (shrooms mode and elastic mode).

All said, Rise of the Triad: Dark War remains playable and fun decades later. It can be purchased for 60¢ or so on a seasonal Gog.com sale. The best way to play it is to use the mod called WinRottGL which can easily be found on the ‘net for free.

I am winner!

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire on MS-DOS (4/10)

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I was actually enjoying this game but, after twelve or so hours of play, I discovered that the GOG version is buggy to the point of being unbeatable. I reached a moment when I needed to find a Neanderthal chieftain only to discover that his sprite wouldn’t render on the map. Something was there and I could attack the empty space, but I was not allowed to trigger the necessary dialogue to complete my quest.

Savage Empire Waterfall
Once again using the Ultima VI engine with tilt-o-vision

Savage Empire uses the fantastic Ultima VI game engine. This, along with Martian Dreams, was the last group of Ultimas that still felt like the Apple ][ games. Unfortunately, the jungle setting does not lend itself to much topographical variety. Everything was the same two or three greens and I could never tell if I could walk through a tree or not. This becomes a source of endless frustration very quickly.

Love comes in many shapes and sizes.

The best part of the game are the various character headshots. These are visible during the many dialogue sequences that the game offers using its highlighted-word method of talking.

By this point in their history, the Ultima games were much more like large, open-world adventure games. Combat and character development are barely part of the game. My problems with this game are mostly with the bugs and the clunky mechanics. There is a great, original game here but it’s just to hard to get passed the technical flaws. This engine needs a video game “remastered” version.

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.

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?