Sep 28

The RPG Lounge- The Bard’s Tale

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

In the 80s, especially in the early part of the decade, there were two computer RPG series vying for supremacy with one another. At first, Sir-Tech’s Wizardry, one of the earliest dungeon-crawlers, was king. As the decade went on, though, and the Wizardry series started showing its age, Origin Systems’s Ultima series took the crown.

The “why”s of the Wizardry series’s rise and fall are fascinating, and beyond the scope of the RPG Lounge today–I recommend this Digital Antiquarian post for a bit more about that. But suffice to say that, as the time between Wizardry III and IV grew longer and longer, other people took it upon themselves to design a “next-generation Wizardry” in all but name. Enter The Bard’s Tale.

First released in 1985 by Interplay (Developer) and Electronic Arts (Publisher), The Bard’s Tale is the story of a town called Skara Brae. In this town, an evil wizard named Mangar has cast a spell of eternal winter, trapping the citizens inside the city. Mangar is holed up in his tower on the corner of the city, and it’s the job of your party to “persuade” him to undo his spell.

To do so, you create a party of six characters, similar to Wizardry. The Armor Class system, the 8-item-per-character limit, the seven levels of spells, it’s all very Wizardry-esque. In fact, the systems are similar enough that you can import Wizardry 1-3 characters from the same PC architecture into The Bard’s Tale. As a tribute to its immense popularity at the time, The Bard’s Tale also allows imports of characters from Ultima III, despite its character advancement being almost nothing like Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale.

Once you’ve assembled your roster, or selected the pre-existing party, you’ll exit the Adventurer’s Guild and find yourself on the streets of Skara Brae. Yes, that’s right, instead of a single dungeon, there’s a whole city to wander about, filled with temples, taverns, and towers. Of course, figuring out how to get into those towers is a lot of the challenge.

Another good portion of the challenge is simply getting started. The city is not a safe place, as monsters wander the streets and take up residence inside of buildings. Plus, while battles themselves are turn-based, the game proceeds in real-time. You’ll be minding your own business in the streets, possibly looking at your map, and suddenly find yourself in battle with a pack of mad dogs. Double battles are more common than they should be. The game does offer a pause function to prevent this, which you’ll need.

More than that, though, recovering damage is expensive in the early game, recovering from death even more so, and you have no way around paying for those services until you gain a couple levels. Indeed, going in blind, this may be the hardest start I ever had in an RPG. The manual for the game, besides offering a tip or two on where to begin your search of the city, also instructs you, basically, “Just delete a dead Level 1 character and create another rather than paying for resurrection. Also, go ahead and quit the game without saving if things go really badly; just be aware that you’ll lose any progress since your last save.” Suffice to say I did both of those, particularly the first…and made sure to poach the character’s equipment and gold before deleting them too.

Get past that beginning, though, and The Bard’s Tale becomes a good deal more forgiving than Wizardry (Disregarding the fact that, according to comments on this Digital Antiquarian post, almost no one even back in the day played Wizardry “honestly”). For one, instead of level-based spell charges, your spellcasters are given a Final Fantasy-like pool of MP to do as they will with (Yes, several years before Final Fantasy was a thing). For another, if you’re unfortunate enough to fall victim to a total party wipe, your bodies are transported back to the Adventurer’s Guild, making resurrecting them a good deal easier than in Wizardry–you’ll still need to make additional characters (Or use a pre-made one) to get your characters to a Temple to revive them, but the trek is much less harrowing than in Wizardry, and revival will always succeed provided you have the cash for it. For a third, enemies themselves have fairly low HP for most of the game, meaning you can use spells to easily take them out. Once you get a few levels in your characters–which will probably involve deleting and recreating them several times–the game feels much more “fair” than Wizardry. My perception of this, of course, may be aided by the instruction manual all but encouraging you to manipulate things to be more favorable for you at the start, as I mentioned earlier.

I played the Apple ][ GS version included as a bonus in the 2004 Bard’s Tale. From what I can find, though, even the original Apple ][ version is a step forward graphically from Wizardry, at least in terms of the Wizardries that were out at the time. It’s also a step forward musically from the early Wizardries, in so much as the game has any music at all. The Bard’s Tale, in this way, integrates its biggest innovation (The Bard class wasn’t something seen in computer RPGs to this point) into its presentation, as the Bard can sing or play various songs that have beneficial effects on the party.

Overall, The Bard’s Tale does an admirable job advancing the “Wizardry formula”, moreso than Wizardry itself did for the longest time. This paid off handsomely for Interplay and Electronic Arts, as the game would go on to become one of the biggest selling titles of the 80s. With its multiple dungeons, and overall more forgiving difficulty curve once you get past the sadistic beginning, it’s definitely worth a try if you like dungeons crawlers at all.

-EE

Jun 06

A Way-Too-Detailed Analysis of Final Fight’s Continue Screen

Final Fight is a beat-em-up classic. It was one of the first games, possibly the first, to utilize your classic three-character strong-fast-balanced selectable character archetypes, and the huge sprites, fluid gameplay, and variety of moves helped take beat-em-ups to the next level.
Probably Not Safe For Work-ish

May 05

What Is My Stream?

Just some idle musings about my stream, and “what it is”.

  • In an objective sense, I stream RPGs. I alternate JRPGs and dungeon-crawlers, selected by polls of my viewers/fans from lists of 3 to 4 of each. For the most part, these are games I’ve never beaten before, although that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. These can be broken up by games people donate for.
  • In terms of games that can be donated for, I’m pretty lenient in terms of what’s allowed. Really, I only have a few rules:

    1. I must be able to reasonably easily obtain your game (And I define “reasonably easily obtain” rather liberally).
    2. The game cannot break Twitch’s Terms of Service. That should be an obvious one; I’m not trying to get my stream shut down.
    3. Your game must be an actual game, and not something like Kris Kross: Make My Video.
    4. I ask, though don’t demand, that you pick something that gets to the core gameplay quickly. As an example, Final Fantasy VIII with its half-hour-plus before you get into any battles would make a poor choice for me to play, though I wouldn’t say no.
    5. Finally, I have veto power over any suggestion. I only plan on invoking this if someone suggests something that breaks the above rule, or sneaks in some weird edge case that isn’t covered by the above. Even then, I won’t leave a donator out in the lurch; I’ll just ask them to pick another game.
  • As far as my stream environment goes, I try to keep the stream pretty family-friendly overall. I didn’t start off with that as a conscious goal, although it was helpful as an alternative to the various “rageaholic” streams that seemed to be the norm when I started 6-ish years ago. It’s just kind of who I am, especially now that I’ve retired from speedrunning. There are exceptions to this. I have the “mature stream” warning enabled, mainly because I want the flexibility to branch off into more “adult” discussions if I decide to. Plus, with the warning on, it’s on you if your 5-year-old sees some of my FrankerFaceZ emotes and asks you “Mommy what’s a bondage burrito?”
  • Am I a successful streamer? I suppose I am, in a few senses. I’m currently a Twitch affiliate, which apparently only 6 percent of people on Twitch qualify for despite the seemingly meager requirements. That isn’t bad. I also actually get around 10 viewers per stream, despite my currently streaming a dungeon-crawler for what feels like the last twenty streams. That’s pretty good too. On a more personal level, streaming is a nice way for me to get through my backlog of games and play things I’ve never played before, such as The Bard’s Tale or Akalabeth.
  • What isn’t my stream? Even though it started off as one, it’s no longer a speedrun stream, unless you stretch the definition of “speedrun stream” to include “One of the very few people who announced a retirement from speedrunning and actually has stayed retired sometimes gives scorching hot takes on the current state of it.” I still occasionally commentate on races and things, and of course I still watch speedrun streams (Here are a few you should watch), but I remain as happily retired from active speedrunning as Neil Peart is from drumming.
  • And despite my position as one of the most hardcore “Heck yeah! Capitalism!” people among my circle of Twitch friends when it comes to the question of streaming for money, I would hope that I’m not a “sellout stream”, whatever that entails. Frankly, selling out is hard–even when I decided to run a game in a popular series, as opposed to my usual modus operandi of “Take a free world record in a game no one has ever heard of, let alone played before” (A technique that doesn’t really work now that speedrunning is as big as it is), I couldn’t fully commit to the “selling out” aspect of it and wound up picking Metroid II, the one game in the Metroid series that may be even more of a black sheep than Metroid: Other M (People at least have strong feelings about Other M, whereas they just kind of forget Metroid II even existed). In other words, I’m not sure I could sell out even if I wanted to. Either way, though, I hope I can strike a balance between being appreciative of donations/bits/etc. without crossing the line into pandering/begging for them.

-EE

Apr 30

Thoughts on Twitch Affiliatehood

Recently, Twitch announced and rolled out a a new program for non-partnered streamers called the Affiliate program. You can read the post for the full scoop, but the basic summary is that some non-partnered streamers can accept “bits”, a currency used on Twitch, and the end goal is for Affiliates to basically be “Partners-lite”, with a single subscription emote.

A disclaimer that I was one of the first people accepted into this program (It launched on the 24th, and I got my notification about it on the 25th), which probably colors my view of it.

Having said that, I love this program in concept. One of Twitch’s issues from the start has been that its structure promotes “The rich get richer, the 99% can go jump in an outhouse”. This is in terms of both obvious things, such as sorting stream in descending order by number of viewers, and less conscious decisions that nonetheless make you go “WTF?”. As one example, and this may have been fixed more recently, Twitch liked to recommend games like League of Legends, Halo, and Call of Duty to viewers of my stream if you actually bothered to use the leftmost twitch column (I have nothing personally against any of these games, other than Twitch’s tendency to promote anything and everything related to LoL at the expense of literally everything else(1) in its early days. They just aren’t for me.).

And so, there have been other features added to Twitch over the years (Communities, etc), but this might be the first time Twitch has actually acknowledged a problem and really worked to consciously assist smaller streamers in pursuing “the dream” as it were. It’s awesome to see them taking that step.

I do question how effective the program will be in its implied aim of actually helping more streamers make the jump to partner. Even with this, there’s so much competition that the odds of it happening are super long. I’ve ranted about it in the past, but “get lucky in one form or another” is still the way to actually make it to partnership. In that light, there are a couple ways of looking at the program with varying degrees of cynicism.

One is that Twitch are trying to get more money into “The Twitch ecosystem” as it were. A couple years ago, Twitch were bought by Amazon for nearly a billion (Yes, with a B) dollars. I suppose this could have happened just because Jeff Bezos is a big fan of MANvsGAME, Witwix, TheMexicanRunner, or some other big streamer, similar to Ted Turner using his practically infinite financial resources to keep WCW alive in the late 1980s/early 1990s just because he loved pro wrestling. More likely, though, Amazon wants some kind of return on their investment, and this program is one step toward that. If you don’t know how bits work, each bit is worth 1 cent to the recipient. As a “bit giver”, you can either get them through watching ads, or purchase them at an upcharge to hand out (So 100 bits may cost $1.40 to purchase, for instance, with that extra 40 cents going to Twitch). The more streamers that a person watches that can accept bits, the more likely a person is to purchase them (Which gives Twitch a cut), as opposed to just donating to that person directly through PayPal/Patreon/etc (Which does not give Twitch a cut). It makes sense from Twitch’s perspective, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense from the donator’s. There’s a kind of symbiotic relationship there–Twitch wouldn’t be what it is without the streamers, but those streamers wouldn’t have a place to stream without Twitch(2).

The second cynical take here is that it’s a way for Twitch to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, without saying specifically that that’s what they’re doing. What I mean by this is that some people believe that, if they could only get partnership and a sub button, they can then just sit back and watch the money roll in. Most actual partners will tell you that’s not the case (Particularly if you want to go full-time with streaming, they’ll say partnership is just the starting point, not the end goal), but the affiliate program may be a way to “show, don’t tell” on Twitch’s end. “Okay smaller streamers, here are some of the financial aspects of partnership to get you started. Now you can see how easy this REALLY is,” they seem to be saying.

Still, overall, I view this as a major positive. The requirements are quite lenient in my view, and it harkens back in a way to the “old days” when partnership and having a subscription button were two separate “tiers” on Twitch.

Now I just need to figure out how I want to adjust the stream, if at all.

-EE

(1) Fellow “twitch oldbois” will no doubt remember the Bad Old Days when, every weekend without fail, chat would break horribly. “Oh, it’s the weekend and chat’s broken. Must be a League tournament going on.” Just about always, there was.

(2) Yes, other streaming services exist, but let’s be realistic here, there’s a reason why every time Twitch angered the speedrunning community to the point of a threatened “mass exodus”, pretty much everyone who left came crawling back to Twitch within days. That reason is “Oh, right, despite all the platitudes of ‘stream like nobody’s watching’ we like to spew forth, streaming to zero viewers actually sucks, and almost no one watches non-Twitch streams.”

Mar 22

The RPG Lounge- Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

The “classic” Phantasy Star series has four games, each unique in their own way. The original is a hybrid JRPG/dungeon crawler whose main character is one of the earliest female protagonists in video game history. The second game was the closest thing to a “killer app” the Sega Genesis had until Sonic the Hedgehog. Now, it’s known as the quintessential “old-school” JRPG, with all that entails. The fourth game is the series’ masterpiece, regarded as one of the best JRPGs of its era, and one that holds up even today.

And then…there’s Phantasy Star III.

Subtitled Generations of Doom, Phantasy Star III is the series’s black sheep. Its reputation ranges from “An abomination” to “Pretty good for what it is, but not really a Phantasy Star game”. The game was developed and released a little over a year after Phantasy Star II, by a different team. And it shows.

One thousand years before the game’s events, there was a near-cataclysmic war. Before disappearing, Orakio and Laya, the two leaders in the war, gave their respective followers the same commandment: “Never harm another”. But the two factions utilize a loophole–the Orakians send cyborgs after the Layans, while the Layans command monsters to do their bidding. As the game begins, Rhys, an Orakian prince, is about to get married. Maia, his bride, is an amnesiac who washed up on the shores of Landen two months prior. But at the altar, Maia is kidnapped by a Layan, and your quest to get her back kicks the game off.

Phantasy Star III’s main “gimmick”, if you can call it that, is hinted at by its subtitle. At a certain point, you’ll be given a choice of two characters to marry. This will determine your character and quest for the next portion of the game; that character will also be given a choice of wife, for a total of four possible paths through the game.

The concept is neat, but the execution leaves something to be desired. As an example, in the path I chose, I was given the choice of two women to marry, neither of whom had exchanged so much as a romantic pleasantry with my character up to that point.

Indeed, Phantasy Star III is rife with “so close, yet so far” moments. Whether due to rushed development, or the limitations of the Genesis, you’ll be a lot of points where the developers’ ambition shows through despite the execution not living up to it. The first generation of the game goes for a political intrigue sort of storyline, as you learn that the Layans may not be the heartless monsters Orakians see them as–and that the Layans themselves have some interesting beliefs about Orakians. But the game’s translation limits the effectiveness. Similarly, poor word choice ruins what should be a poignant moment on at least one occasion.

Still, there are enough positive aspects to call the game “not as bad as its reputation”. So why is it regarded as the worst of the first four “main” Phantasy Stars, to the point that Sega effectively declared a do-over with Phantasy Star IV? Part of it is the game’s beginning, which feels more like a standard JRPG in the vein of Dragon Quest than a Phantasy Star game. The sci-fi elements that set Phantasy Star games apart from their brethren show up early enough, but I won’t lie, it took me four or five tries throughout the years to get to the “Now this is Phantasy Star!” point of the game. Even then, I only did so after forcing myself to stop thinking of the game as a Phantasy Star game, and just judge it as an independent creation. For that reason, the game might, paradoxically, work best as an entry to the Phantasy Star series, free of the expectation of what a Phantasy Star “should be”.

The game’s biggest flaw, though, is its random encounter rate. Even by old-school RPG standards, the number of random battles you’ll get into is ridiculous; I was ready for the experience to be over by the end of the second generation. The problem is aggravated by two other factors. First, like many old-school JRPGs, triggers to advance sometimes boil down to “find and talk to one random NPC hidden away in the corner of a village”, leading to more wandering about the world than is necessary. Secondly, for about 80% of the game, there’s no way to alleviate the encounter rate. Even Phantasy Star II had spells, teleportation stations, and items to remove some of the backtracking from place to place. Phantasy Star III has Escapipes, which return you to the entrance of the dungeon you’re currently in…and that’s it. This means a lot of walking, a lot of backtracking, and a lot of fighting enemies every five steps or so.

There are two silver linings to this. An individual battle is almost never a problem. Rather, the game employs a “death by thousand cuts” methodology to achieve its difficulty, bleeding out your resources via sheer number of encounters. And the dungeons are much simpler than Phantasy Star II’s infamous labyrinths, though you may wish to have maps handy regardless.

I have a soft spot in my heart for “ambitious failures”. Phantasy Star III is certainly ambitious. It’s also frustrating for how close it comes to being something great without quite getting there. Did I enjoy it? On balance, yes. Do I recommend it? That’s trickier. If you can handle random battles for days, give it a shot. Otherwise, since Sega themselves have all but disowned it, you aren’t missing much if you pass on it.
-EE

Mar 08

The RPG Lounge- Wizardry II: The Knight of Diamonds (NES)

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

I was born in 1983. While I try to avoid curmudgeonly “Back in MY day…” statements about gaming when I was growing up versus now, it’s safe to say that things were different in computer gaming in particular in the 1980s. For one, people weren’t as spoiled for choice then–according to Wikipedia Ultima III: Exodus, a game released in 1983, won Computer Gaming World’s reader’s poll for Adventure Game of the Year…in 1985. For another, the style of challenge catered to was a bit different. Mapping out dungeons yourself, with no automap, was a huge portion of gameplay, and one that people flocked to, relatively speaking. And without common access to what we know now as the World Wide Web, mapping out one of these games could take months, or even years.

Finally, the concept of an “Expansion Pack”, or what would probably be “DLC” nowadays, didn’t exist in the ’80s. For the original computer version of Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds (Or Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn, for that matter), you needed to import a party from Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. And not just any party–a party that had beaten, or at least was of a level such that it was capable of beating, Wizardry I (Wizardry III at least had the courtesy to not require an endgame Wizardry I party via a plot contrivance that reset your characters levels to 1, the idea being they were actually the descendants of the exported-from-Wiz-I party).

Fortunately, the version of Wizardry II I played, the NES version, was rebalanced. Due to there not being a way to transfer characters from NES game to NES game, Wizardry II NES functions as a standalone title. This is good, because it’s brutally hard if you try to play “fair”, for reasons I’ll get into later.

For now, though, the plot, such that it is. The City of Llylgamyn was protected by an artifact called the Staff of Gnilda. The Staff kept people with evil intentions out of the city, while those with pure hearts could freely enter and leave. It had only one design flaw: People born in Llylgamyn were unaffected by it, making it easy for the evil Davalpus, a Llylgamyn native, to overthrow the royalty of the city. But Princess Margda and her brother, Prince Alavik, survived the coup. Gathering the armor of the legendary Knight of Diamonds, along with the Staff of Gnilda (Idiotically, since, as mentioned above, the Staff wouldn’t work on him anyway), Alavik engaged Davalpus in combat in Llylgamyn. Alavik won the battle, but not before Davalpus uttered a curse so unspeakable that it brought the battleground down around both of them, leaving only a smoking, six-level-deep dungeon in its wake. Alavik, Davalpus, the Knight of Diamonds equipment, and the Staff of Gnilda were all gone. If someone doesn’t recover the Staff of Gnilda, Llylgamyn will fall to outside invasion.

“Someone”, of course, is you and your band of adventurers. The game allows for a roster of 20 characters total, of which six can be in your party at any one time. In the NES version’s default state (Which you can return to by deleting your entire roster, then selecting “Delete” one more time), it provides you with six characters to use, though you can, and probably will want to, create your own. Each character gets assigned a random amount of bonus points to allocate to their stats, and each class has minimum statistical and alignment requirements. You’ll want a diverse group to survive the various perils of the maze.

And survival is key, because Wizardry II does not have “save points” in the traditional sense. Should your entire party be struck down in the maze….their corpses simply stay down there. Yes, playing Wizardry II “fairly” means that, each time you die, you’ll need to send a second party down to retrieve their belongings/corpses. You can see the glaring design flaw here–if you’ve built up a second party to the point where it’s strong enough to rescue the first, it’s probably also strong enough to just continue on from where the first party left off, rendering the original group redundant. This is particularly true when you consider that to actually acquire the corpses, you need to get to them with spare party slots. In other words, the rescue mission needs to be “shorthanded”, plus you’ll need to make two trips to rescue everybody.

Less-than-total defeat offers only a small consolation. A high-level Cleric, or the Temple of Cant in town, can attempt to resurrect a dead party member. But those can fail, reducing the character to a pile of Ash. The Temple, or a Cleric leveled to effectively endgame levels, can make another attempt at bringing the character back. Yet this, too, can fail, in which case the character is lost forever. Yep. Just gone. Deleted from the game for good, with no way to get them back.

I have a philosophy about spoilers in video games. It applies primarily to storyline spoilers, though it can also be applied to gameplay spoilers. It boils down to “If your great game relies on the player not being spoiled to get the full effect, your great game may not be as great as everyone thinks it is” (See my writings on Portal, especially its endgame, for that in action). So it’s a bit odd that I love the Wizardry series as much as I do. Much of the challenge of Wizardry comes from exploring and mapping out the dungeons on your own, constantly wondering whether to push your luck to explore just a few more squares of the lowest floor you’ve reached, or whether to return to the castle. Playing it with a map in front of you is certainly an option, but it removes most of the challenge (And, frankly, throws off the balance of the game–you’re expected to wander around and kill monsters to increase your level. Remove the wandering and encounters that come with it, and you’re likely to get destroyed). Without getting too spoiler-tastic, I’ll say that unlike Wizardry I, you’ll need to do at least cursory exploration of every floor of the dungeon to succeed in your quest. Also, in part to accommodate the rebalancing of the game, the dungeon has been redesigned from the PC version.

I played through the game “straight”, meaning I didn’t reset to a prior spot when things went bad for me. I’ll admit I didn’t play through the game “blind”, choosing to rely on knowledge from a prior playthrough many years ago. This served me well, although I did party wipe once and had to create a second one regardless. This was actually my first time playing through a Wizardry almost totally straight, and it was incredibly fun. All the grinding I put myself through did little to alleviate the tension of wondering whether a battle would kill me, especially later on. Enemies have all sorts of nasty attacks–even if they don’t kill you outright, there’s the possibility of being turned to stone, or level drained–which means you lose experience, and the effect persists on leaving the dungeon. Being level drained can leave you weaker than you were even when you gain back the level.

The brutal difficulty and self-mapping of dungeons being integral to the experience means that Wizardry II is not for everyone. And indeed, I’m glad most RPGs aren’t this punishing and tense. Sometimes, though, I’m in the mood for that style of game, from dungeon-crawling and mapping out manually, to wondering if I’ve pushed too far and won’t have the resources to bail myself of a battle or dungeon. And when I am in that mood, Wizardry, and indeed this game, scratches that particular itch wonderfully.
-EE

Jan 09

The RPG Lounge- Robotrek

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

The lamented developer Quintet–according to Wikipedia, they’re believed to be long defunct, although no one is quite sure when it actually happened–are responsible for, among other games, a list of beloved SNES games. Quintet may be best known for the “Soul Blazer trilogy”, a loosely-connected set of three games. The company’s connection to the Ys series–Quintet’s president was the scenario designer for the first three games in the series–allowed them to get Yuzo Koshiro to compose the music for the Actraiser games, and he’s credited as the “Sound Producer” for several other games.

One of those games is 1994’s Robotrek, published by Enix. Called “Slapstick” in Japan (To give you an idea of how DARK AND GRITTY this game is), Robotrek involves a planet called Quintenix (Yes, really), and a small village called Rococo, which the game calls “A livable town”. The issue is that a rogue group called “Hackers” have invaded Rococo, and are “Robbing…destroying….disrupting” the village. In the meantime, your character is the son of a great inventor, Dr. Akihabara, who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, and runs into the Hackers as a side effect of his quest.

The setting–a more-or-less modern-day style world–is one thing that sets it apart from most RPGs. Another thing that sets it apart from most RPGs is its combat system. There aren’t random battles, which was a rarity in 1994. You also don’t fight enemies directly. Instead, you command robots to do your bidding in a battle with up to three foes at a time. The battle system itself is styled after SNES-era Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system, but with some twists. For one, your robot can have up to three distinct weapon types (Melee, Weapon, Bomb), and each type takes up a different portion of your meter before you can take another action. Not only that, but you can combine these commands using what the game calls Programs. These Programs offer additional unique attacks that might have other effects, such as knocking enemies back. Each weapon type, especially Melee, has several different weapons that do different things as well.

You begin with a single robot, and can build up to two more throughout the course of the game. Each one specializes in a specific kind of combat, and they can be further customized via stat allocation. Each level up gives you ten additional points to distribute among five different stats (HP, Power, Defense, Speed–which actually governs accuracy and evasion–and Charge, a measure of how fast your battle meter refills). These points, including points already distributed, can be re-assigned upon level-up, or when you find a Research & Development center, essentially the game’s version of an inn.

In keeping with the game’s theme of invention, besides purchasing them, you can acquire items by either creating them, or by combining items to make new ones. It’s a neat way to get both items and new weapons, as you can combine items to create common curative items, or combine weapons and scraps to make new weaponry that’s more powerful than your old weaponry. It’s a neat tweak of the typical item acquisition formula.

One thing bares special mention in Robotrek: The translation is all kinds of awful, though it inadvertantly leads to some great lines like a Hacker telling your father, “[…] But evil is good. Evil is the job.” Just as often, though, it leads to the game literally losing the plot–there’s a point about two thirds of the way through the game that I’m not entirely sure in what time period it actually takes place.

There’s a lot to like in Robotrek. Unfortunately, there are also a number of frustrating elements about it. The game allows you to save almost anywhere, making it surprisingly easy to put yourself into a situation that is very difficult to get yourself out of, since enemies respawn when you exit and re-enter a room. To give Quintet credit, they seem to have anticipated this, as you get a brief spot of invincibility where you can’t get into battles upon reloading a save. In theory, you can load, then a second later while still in invincibility, save again, slowly creeping your way out of your predicament. The bigger issue is that healing resources are pretty limited, and at times it seems like two different teams balanced the regular enemies versus the bosses. You’ll be cruising along, beating enemies without a problem, and just run into a boss and get destroyed with no warning. Further, while it isn’t a huge issue due to the re-assignable stats, the most important stats change all of a sudden about midway through the game. Finally, for all of the customization possible, there’s one melee weapon type that’s so obviously superior that you’ll never go back to the others.

Other minor frustrations: The game itself never tells you that Programs can have unique effects besides being “chains of commands” (There was apparently an insert originally included with the game that mentioned this), nor does it explain that “Program” is an “element” along the lines of “fire” or “lightning” in a traditional JRPG that enemies can be resistant to.

Still, despite these frustrations, Robotrek is worth playing. First of all, while I love Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest/etc, it’s nice to play a game in a setting that isn’t “Generic Mostly Medieval Fantasy World BUT WITH AN AIRSHIP!!! #743”, and the customization with the numerous weapons and stat allocations make the actual battles and creation fun as well. It’s also refreshing that a mid-1990s game wasn’t trying to out-DARK-AND-ADULT everything else around it.
-EE

Dec 31

The RPG Lounge- Ys II Chronicles +

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

Falcom’s Ys series has been hugely popular and influential in Japan for a long time. Yet, despite a few releases of the early games in the series in the late 80s and early 90s (In particular, the ahead-of-its-time Turbo-Grafx CD had an even-more-ahead-of-its-time compilation of Ys I & II, featuring professional voice actors ten-plus years before most game companies realized that was a thing you could do in video games), plus a Playstation 2 release of The Ark of Napishtim in the mid-2000s, it’s only in the last 5 or so years that the series really gained momentum in the US, as XSEED Games has worked to bring English translations over to the States.

Besides the newest Ys games, one of the packages released is a compilation of the first two games. This compilation, titled Ys I & II Chronicles + (The unwieldy title is partly due to the fact that this is about the fourth or fifth re-release of these games, counting Japanese titles), adds some new wrinkles to the games if you’ve ever played the versions that made it to the States in the 1980s/1990s.

Before that, though, a basic overview of Ys II. It takes place immediately after the ending of Ys I, as Adol Christin, the hero of most of the series, has just recovered the six books of Ys, which causes him to shoot up into the sky, into the land of Ys. There, he’s found by Lilia, a girl from Lance Village. Meanwhile, Dalles the Wizard and his boss, Darm, prepare to put their evil plan to take over Ys into action.

Ys II is, as one would expect from the name, the second game in the series. And it’s a good deal longer and more balanced than the first. For one, the leveling curve is much more gradual–you won’t need (And won’t be able to, at least not in any reasonable amount of time) to max your level by the halfway point of the game, as in the first game. There are also a higher number of dungeons, versus the original game’s three, although some of those come at the cost of not having a proper “overworld”, if you will. Another element introduced in Ys II is the use of magic spells. In particular, Fire magic adds a new dimension to the crash-into-enemies-to-kill-them combat. The magic makes it possible to kill enemies from a distance, which can be quite helpful.

As Chronicles is a re-release/update of the original game, it adds some audiovisual goodies and creature comforts. First, you can choose portrait styles between the Chronicles and Complete releases of the game. You can also choose from one of three soundtracks, which you can switch between at any time–the PC-88 original, or the Chronicles and Complete releases. Finally, you have a much greater freedom of movement than the original’s four-directional system. This games the combat a more frantic feel, and makes actually engaging enemies directly a more attractive proposition than it was in earlier versions.

While Yuzo Koshiro didn’t compose all the music in Ys II–he shared credit with Mieko Ishikawa and Hideya Nagata for the PC-88 version, and other people arranged subsequent versions–his style is all over the soundtrack (And you can continue to hear his influence even in more modern Ys games). The music is, in general, upbeat, driving you forward on your quest to defeat Darm.

The greater emphasis on hand-to-hand combat in this version of the game as compared to previous versions does have an unintended side-effect–because magic isn’t as useful in this version in a general sense, it might be hard for the first-time player to figure out how to hurt bosses if they don’t pay close attention to what they hear in the early game. Also, Ys II Chronicles changes just enough things that you do have to pay attention and can’t just coast through based on previous knowledge. There was one item that evaded me for longer than it probably should have, until I realized I had to drop my preconceptions of where I was expecting that item to be from previous versions and just went with what the game was telling me. Some bosses have new attacks and phases as well, to keep players of previous versions on their toes.

Ys II Chronicles + is available as part of the Ys I & II Chronicles + compilation. While you can honestly give Ys I Chronicles a pass, the compilation itself is worth it just for Ys II Chronicles. It’s a much longer experience than Ys I, with a wider variety of combat and environments. The new elements make it worth playing even if you’re a fan of previous versions.

-EE

Dec 06

The RPG Lounge- Akalabeth: World of Doom

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series of the various RPGs I beat, most of which will be on stream.

Richard “Lord British” Garriott is a video game development legend who I’ve referred to as “The geek’s Ric Flair”. Among some of his numerous other accomplishments, he’s one of the very few private citizens who has been into space, and is the only private owner of property on a foreign celestial body (his words, not mine). Within video gaming, Garriott is best known as the creator of the Ultima series, which spanned 9 “main” games plus several spinoffs, and also coined the term “MMORPG” with Ultima Online. He’s recently been a part of a new MMO, Shroud of the Avatar, which is effectively Ultima Online 2 in all but name.

Before Ultima, though, a teenage Richard Garriott created a game titled Akalabeth: World of Doom. Based on his Dungeons and Dragons games, Akalabeth is one of the very first computer RPGs, and is commonly called “Ultima 0” by fans (And even some later official releases, like “Akalabeth 1998”, use the Ultima 0 title), as some of its concepts and story elements made it into some of the early Ultima games.

I won’t lie, one thing that attracted me to Akalabeth is the fact that it is free on GOG. And it’s at this point that the history of the game’s releases gets a bit complicated. While it’s a PC game in simple terms, the original version of Akalabeth actually came out way back when on the Apple ][. While there was at least one fan port over to the PC architecture, Akalabeth didn’t actually get an official “PC” release until Akalabeth 1998, which was included in the Ultima Collection. I bring this up because, while Akalabeth 1998 is included in GOG’s “Bonus Features”, it’s actually one of the fan ports that’s the “standard” GOG release, that gets included with GOG Galaxy, etc. This is important to know, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit (An aside: From my very limited research, it appears the fan port is actually closer to the Apple ][ original than Akalabeth 1998, for whatever it’s worth).

The plot of Akalabeth doesn’t really figure into the main gameplay, similar to early Wizardry games. But it involves you, a peasant, fulfilling quests for Lord British in the land of Akalabeth. The land has been damaged by the evil wizard Mondain, and though Mondain was defeated by Lord British, Akalabeth is still trying to recover. You help this recovery by killing various creatures in dungeons.

As for the gameplay, it’s similarly rudimentary. After picking your lucky number (Actually an RNG seed), difficulty, stats, and whether you’re a Fighter or a Mage, you begin in a town, where you’ll need to buy food (Seriously. Running out of food means you die. Leaving the town without purchasing food means you’re in the overworld with 0 food, which means you die.), as well as any other weaponry you may want, before venturing out into the world. In the world, you’ll find other towns, dungeons, and most importantly, Lord British’s Castle. Enter the castle to get a quest, which is to kill a monster in a dungeon. When you’re done, return to Lord British to get another, harder quest.

And that’s basically it. You’ll kill tougher and tougher monsters in a quest to become a Knight of Akalabeth. Or at least, that’s the idea. For you see, for whatever reason, the “standard” GOG version of the game is broken in a couple ways. For one, the Lucky Number doesn’t seem to fill its intended purpose–you’ll get a different game each time, even if you input the same lucky number. More importantly, though, the game is impossible to complete. Killing your first monster and returning to Lord British simply results in him saying “Now go and complete thy quest!” infinitely. To fix this, you can either play Akalabeth 1998, or do what I did. That was to download a later version of the .exe here (And yes, it says the site’s security certification has expired. Why someone would want to impersonate a fansite that looks like it’s out of 1996 and is devoted to a game three years older than I am, I couldn’t tell you, but I guess it’s a risk). Read a bit more about the bug here.

Fixing the game so it actually works yields a rudimentary, yet pretty fun, experience. Once you take out what the game considers to be the most difficult monster–which is not the same thing as the most dangerous foe–you’re made a Lord, and asked to either try a higher difficulty, or (If playing on the highest difficulty) call a (defunct) number to report your feat. Trying to defeat all the monsters Lord British asks you to can actually be quite challenging. Besides having to keep your wits about you in dungeons so as not to get lost, getting surrounded in the early game is a real worry, and one monster in particular can put a major damper on your questing, if not outright end it, at any time, even long after you’ve killed it for the Lord British quest.

The game is sometimes called “Ultima 0”. And many of the concepts that carried over to at least the early Ultimas are first found here. Some are fairly obvious, such as killing monsters for Kings being one of the main objectives of Ultima I. Some are obvious in the Ultima-specific sense, such as the concept of gaining HP when you leave dungeons. And some are more far-reaching. Let’s be honest, the model of “Get told to kill something, do it, repeat” is what forms the basis of many an MMORPG–see this page. It’s also impressive that the enemies have something approaching a survival instinct–once you weaken them beyond a certain point (Depending on the floor of the dungeon and the difficulty you chose), they’ll retreat to regroup and regenerate HP, only advancing back toward you when their HP is back above that threshold.

One interesting side effect of Akalabeth’s simplicity is that it’s a more coherent game than the early Ultimas, especially Ultimas 1 and 2. Akalabeth is a pretty standard Dungeons & Dragons/Sword-and-Sorcery adventure all the way through. This contrasts with the early Ultimas, which had science-fiction and fantasy elements in varying proportions (The best weapon in Ultima 1 is a Laser Blaster, and you need to become a Space Ace by shooting down Totally-Not-TIE-Fighters basically because a Princess wants you to. Both Ultima 1 and 2 also have time travel, with the latter having it as a central game mechanic). There’s certainly a fun element to Ultima’s “Everything Lord British liked in one package, regardless of how well it all fit together” approach, but I can also appreciate that Akalabeth is more focused in its design.

None of this is to say that Akalabeth is a perfect game, by any means (Even when you fix it). For one, “game balance” was, at best, an afterthought. Fighters can use a wider selection of weapons, including a Bow and Arrow, while Mages get access to Magic Amulets. Magic Amulets have the ability to instantly create a ladder leading up or down in a dungeon. Suffice to say that this is HUGELY useful, much moreso than any of the Fighters’ weapons. And as mentioned before, the final foe you’ll be tasked to kill is hardly the most dangerous thing in the game. That honor would go to the Gremlin, a foe who can steal half your food, repeatedly. Worse, as a Mage, you basically have to engage it hand-to-hand, as while Magic Amulets offer a projectile attack, it’s not enough at higher difficulties to overcome the Gremlin’s “retreat regeneration”. Killing one basically comes down to “get a ton of gold to in turn get more food than you would otherwise ever realistically need, and even then hope you get lucky rolls and that it doesn’t steal all your food”.

Akalabeth also isn’t particularly long once you learn what to do. Indeed, the original versions don’t even have a save function included, although Akalabeth 1998 does. And the graphics are, to say the least, rudimentary, although they were pretty darn good for 1980 (By virtue of the fact that the game had graphics at all, admittedly). There’s also no music in the original or the fanport, though Akalabeth 1998 includes, I’m guessing, music from some of the early Ultima games (The overworld music is the music from Exodus’s Castle in Ultima 3, for instance).

Still, though, Akalabeth is fun both as a historical document, being one of the first commercially available computer RPGs with ideas that would carry over into the Ultima series, and as a game on its own. As I mentioned on stream, “I’ve spent more time with worse games and enjoyed myself less than I did playing Akalabeth”. This sounds like faint praise, but I mean it as more than that. And of course, it’s hard to beat the price of $0.00 on GOG. Just remember to either play Akalabeth 1998 or overwrite the GOG install with the later version of the fan port if you ever want to officially advance in the game.

-EE

Nov 27

The RPG Lounge- Dragon Quest II

Welcome to the first in an occasional series of posts. Similar to the Games I Beat In 2014 series, this will be a retrospective/review of various RPGs I play, most of which will be on stream.

Dragon Quest II is generally thought of as one of the weaker entries in the Dragon Quest series. While it’s an important game in its own way, that way is mainly as the transition between the JRPG-inventing Dragon Quest and the landmark Dragon Quest III, which essentially every JRPG since has tried to live up to, and which is the Japanese analog to Super Mario 64 in terms of speedrunning prestige. Because of what came before and after it, Dragon Quest II tends to get lost in the shuffle.

Recently, I played through the Game Boy Color version of the game, as part of the collection titled “Dragon Warrior I & II” in the US (The short version for the Dragon Warrior name is “There were once trademark issues in the US with ‘Dragon Quest’; those issues no longer exist”). I had played through the NES version as a kid, then tried the GBC version about 12 years ago, getting stuck just after acquiring the Princess of Moonbrooke. More recently, the game has been released for Android and iOS, and those versions are closer to the GBC version than the NES original.

The design of old-school games, and how they try to give you a tutorial without labeling anything a tutorial, intrigues me. In the case of Dragon Quest II, this comes in the form of how your party is composed. You begin with the Prince of Lorasia, a brute who can use no magic whatsoever (In contrast to the do-it-all nature of later Dragon Quest main characters, the Prince of Lorasia is closer to the Soldier-type class of the later games). After traversing a dungeon, you’ll acquire your first ally, the Prince of Cannock, who is a balance between combat and magic (And infamously does neither of them well in the second half of the game. In the GBC version, some adjustments were made to make Cannock not complete trash–his weapon selection is a good deal better than in the NES version, and the spells he can cast both in and out of battle cost a bit less when used in combat). And a bit further on, you get your second and final ally, the Princess of Moonbrooke, who is an amazing sorceress who is almost useless in terms of attacking in battle. Almost. In that way, the game introduces magic to you little by little, and the tactics you’ll use in battle require varying levels of adjustment depending on the character and the enemy formation you’ll be fighting–Lorasia will do almost nothing but “FIGHT”, but the other two characters will need to adjust their actions depending on the situation at hand.

Yuji Horii, the main architect of Dragon Quest, has mentioned he was influenced by the Wizardry series of games. That comes through a bit more clearly in Dragon Quest II, primarily in terms of battles. Much like in the first 5 Wizardries, any battle can potentially be your last. Especially in the late game, monsters appear in large groups, and can call allies, use powerful spells, or have attacks which can hit your entire party. Encounter a formation with 3 or 4 of such an enemy, and it’s very possible you’ll die regardless of your level.

Another thing that Dragon Quest II picks up from Wizardry is how surprisingly useful “indirect” spells are. Particularly on bosses and in the endgame, Increase (Raises your party’s defense power) and Defense (Lowers the defense power of enemies) are your friends. Again, this is even more true in the GBC version, where their effectiveness is increased (Beware, though, this also applies to when enemies use them). Sleep and Stopspell are also valuable spells to allow you to get in precious attacks without being assaulted by enemies.

The Dragon Quest team took a lot of the feedback they got in response to Dragon Quest II to make Dragon Quest III. Once of the most common criticisms of DQII is that there are several points where the game tells you, more or less, “have fun!” without so much as a clue about where to go next. Indeed, my playthrough 12 years ago ended when, after getting the Princess, I unsuccessfully failed to act on a hint that just said “There’s a tower somewhere where you can get a Wind Cloak.”. The game doesn’t tell you where that tower is, and the route to it isn’t the most intuitive. Still, this time, thanks to remembering where the tower was after looking it up all those years ago, I pushed through. And while it’s true that Dragon Quest II isn’t the most linear game, especially after getting the boat, there are enough scraps available (And crucially, you can get an in-game World Map in the GBC version) from townspeople to be able to piece together what you have to do to advance in its second half.

The World Map is a bit cruel in one aspect: There’s a point where you find something by sailing north from your location. The issue is that the location is already pretty far north on the map, meaning you end up finding the item on the far SOUTH of the world.

Beyond that, while the game isn’t as bad as the first Dragon Quest in this regard, there is a difficulty spike where you’ll be forced to do some level grinding. Precisely where that difficulty spike occurs varies depending on the version of the game you play, but suffice to say that it occurs either at or near the endgame. Even in the GBC version, and even with valuable knowledge that a first-time player is unlikely to have (Notably in how some items can be used in battle), I needed to stop and get some levels in the endgame.

Still, overall, I enjoyed my recent playthrough, probably more than I thought I would, if I’m being honest. I was surprised at how short the game actually is when you get down to it, but I found the non-linear nature of the second half to be a positive, not a negative. Further, I may have gotten lucky, but I found I “stumbled into” the more-or-less intended sequence, in part thanks to the World Map. I’d say it’s worth playing, especially with the availability of the somewhat easier version for mobile devices nowadays. This is especially true if you like your RPGs not to hold your hand, or not to be quite 100% linear.

-EE

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