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A marvellous bundle of Windows 95 wonders, part 2

May 21st, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hello!

We’re doing lists of games again, and this time we’re looking at those released between the mid-late 90s and 2001. My friend and colleague has already taken us through the first part of this particular selection, the content of which was the subject of some fevered debate (okay, a series of friendly e-mails) before we finally came to an agreement.

This was perhaps the time when I was paying the most attention to what was going on in the PC gaming world, so I felt reasonably confident about our choices this time. An argument could be made for some genres to be more well-represented than others, but again, we’ve gone for a fairly even spread. I must stress, though, that I did make a concerted effort to persuade Stoo to sacrifice any of my choices for System Shock 2, but he wasn’t having any of it. (I couldn’t make it one of mine, as I haven’t actually played it).

Apart from those minor discussion points, consider this our agreed choice of games from the period, for an imagined Win 9x based mini-console in the shape of a beige box that would run any and all of the listed games with pristine visuals and no OS or driver issues. I don’t know if such a mini-console would even be possible, but let’s not get bogged down in the details. It’s about the games, after all. Let’s begin!

Over my shoulder

The third person action-adventure grew in popularity during this period, aided somewhat by the decline of the traditional point and click adventure. An obvious reference point would be Tomb Raider, although I never actually played any of the games in that series, save for a few hours on the first one at a friend’s house, and the ambitions of the series were constrained somewhat by the need for the games to fit onto the first PlayStation. So instead we’ll include a similar game, that I have played, and was PC only: Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine.

If we’re looking at games with a bit more of an adventure focus, we could consider The Nomad Soul, although I personally found it a bit of a chore to get through. So instead we’ll got for Outcast, a favourite of Stoo’s. For a bit more action, we’ll stretch the limits of the period under consideration by including the slo-mo stylings of Mr Max Payne.

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Have you ever retired a human by mistake?

The old school adventure wasn’t exactly flourishing, but there were still a few bright spots. LucasArts eventually abandoned point and click and went 3D with Grim Fandango, an approach they repeated when returning to the Monkey Island franchise for the final time. The adventures of Manny and Glottis have to be included, but if we’re going to go for another Monkey Island game then I’d rather go for the more traditional approach of The Curse of Monkey Island from 1997.

win9xgrimfandango

I’ll also make a case for including Blade Runner. Ok, it’s a personal favourite of mine, but (voxels aside) it’s still a very nice-looking game, and although it doesn’t totally succeed in everything it’s trying to achieve, it’s a decent example of the late 90s adventure, and I think more people should play it. Finally, we’ll put forward The Longest Journey, which isn’t perfect, but kind of a standard bearer for the genre at a time when it was more or less being abandoned by the major players.

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I know that was then, but it could be again

Sport! Speeeort! Speeeeeoooooorrrrt! It’s ace, innit? Mate? Yeah? Sport? As I mentioned last time, these games don’t necessarily age that well, and are possibly better enjoyed on other formats. I’d love to avoid simply putting forward games from long-running franchises, and there’s a part of me that would be in favour of suggesting cult favourite Puma World Football ’98, but I don’t think I can justify it. FIFA arguably had a rare high point during this period, with FIFA: Road to World Cup 98 eradicating memories of the dreadful 97 edition, and the World Cup tie-in that followed delivered the peak 90s FIFA experience. Even the console types who had access to International Superstar Soccer were willing to concede that EA had made significant progress. Sadly, it was downhill after that, and subsequent FIFAs were too fast and overly reliant on silly trick and pirouette moves. So, we’ll take World Cup 98.

I know we included Championship Manager 2 last time around, but I don’t think you can have a collection of games from this period without including a version of Championship Manager 3. The latest eligible edition of the long-running series would be the 00-01 release that we reviewed on here some time ago. And I’m going to stick to management for our final sporting choice: International Cricket Captain 2. Yes, everyone who buys our imaginary small beige console will be given a cricket game to try.

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Vorsprung Durch Technik

If we’re talking about racing games, then we have to include one of the 10,000 rally games that were released between 1998 and 2001. My choice would be Rally Championship Xtreme, except it was released in late 2001, so isn’t eligible for selection. So we’ll instead plump for Colin MacRae Rally 2.0, which at least gives an excuse to include a Codemasters racer, if we’re going to ignore sentimentality and omit TOCA Touring Car Championship. Formula 1 was relatively well-represented too, although it’s hard to pick a winner from the console port Formula 1 ’97, Grand Prix 3 (which, for many, was a disappointment) and the various EA F1 games released during this period.

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The Need for Speed brand was pretty dominant around this time, although by this point it was just a name attached to EA’s racing franchise. I have a soft spot for Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit, but it’s edged out by Porsche 2000, which might look superficially similar, but actually has a lot more depth than NFS III or Road Challenge. Finally, we’ll go for the Microsoft racer that everyone thought would be a silly rip-off of Driver but turned out to be better: Midtown Madness.

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Kom-en schnaller?

That’s most genres covered, but I think there’s one more game we need to include: The Sims. Ignoring the franchise and the add-on packs, and everything else, it had to be acknowledged that The Sims deserves a place among the most significant games of the period. Whether it’s torturing your Sim by walling him/her in a room, unable to access a toilet, or causing real-life friction by recreating all your friends and loved ones in the game, there’s plenty of fun here for everyone.

Those are our games, but of course you may not agree. Such lists are designed to invoke friendly disagreement and discussion! So feel free to tell us what idiots we are in the comments below.

A marvellous bundle of Windows 95 Wonders

May 19th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Last week we were inspired by the Nintendo Classic Mini to think an equivalent for MS-DOS gaming. Our idea would take the form of a bundle of the most important PC games of the early 90s, which could be played using Dosbox on a Rasperry Pi.

Today we’re looking at the days of Windows 95 and 98. The 90s were an exciting time in PC gaming – the first half of the decade, which we covered last time, saw the PC emerge as serious contender with titles like X-Wing and Doom. The later years saw great advances in 3D graphics, as hardware increased in power and dedicated 3D graphics cards emerged. We also benefited from continued variety of genres that I feel has been lost in triple-A gaming today, where there is so much focus on war shooters and 3rd-person open world stuff.

The coming of Win95 forms a convenient place to chop the decade in half. It also meant changes in how we interacted with our beige boxes. Now we were using a graphical user interface with multitasking for all things, rather than it just being something sat on top of DOS for solitaire and word processing. In this regard we were many years behind the Amiga users but their smugness was fast fading by ’95.

Our cut-off is August 2001, which marks the release of Windows XP. So technically we’re using a brief period where the current operating systems were Windows 2k (which was intended more for workplace use) and Windows ME (which sucked).

I’ve no idea if Windows 95 can be made to run on a Pi, or if it would be easier to just stick to playing on your regular PC. I guess at this point we’re detaching a bit from the “emulation box” angle and just considering what might be the greatest games of the time.

Anyway this time we’ve planned this out a bit better – we collaborated on a list together and have divided up the writeup 50/50 between us. Once again we’ve tried to be open minded and reasonable about which games to include. We’ve also tried to make sure multiple genres are represented. That said, inevitably our own preferences and areas of interest will have an influence. If you want a totally objective view, I guess you could go look up the thirty best-selling games of the 90s.

One directive we agreed on, was to stay away from multi-format games that are generally associated more with consoles. For example Final Fantasy 7 was one of the greatest roleplaying games of this period, but I imagine most people think of it as a Playstation game.

We are however starting with that genre once again so let me just grab my Chainmail Pantaloons of Wisdom…

 

What can change the Nature of a Man?
There were a number of isometric-viewed RPGs in this period. I considered Baldur’s Gate, since it was one of the first releases from Black Isle, the guys now known for the enormously successful Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.

Instead though I chose Black Isle’s Planescape Torment, using the same Infinity Engine. This one was known for its moving, contemplative story. In a city that joins several planes of existence, a man who cannot die unlocks the mysteries of his past lives. You as the player must decide what kind of a person he is today. For those of you who tire of goblin slaying, it’s also notable for how often you can talk your way out of problems, including even the final boss fight.

Another isometric game, but a totally entirely different kind of experience, would be Diablo 2. It’s based on endless hack and slash and a life-consuming compulsion to find shinier swords. It was also a major influence on action-rpgs that followed.

Moving onto gamess of a more 3D nature, for the next entry I really wanted System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, but they are in nature very similar. Both mix first-person-shooter gameplay with RPG mechanics like character skills. So while Rik nobly offered to sacrifice one of his suggestions I forced myself to decide and went for Deus Ex.

It grants you a high degree of freedom to solve problems – given a building full of soldiers you can shoot your way in, sneak in the sewers or try and switch off the security systems. The story is an intense near-future conspiracy thriller, where initial certainties are thrown into confusion, and you’re pitted against shadowy organisations bent on world domination. If you like you games a little more intellectual it tackles several philosophical and sociological questions along the way. It’s probably one of the single greatest PC games of all time.

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Finally for this section we have the idiosyncratic and imaginative Anachronox. Its combat mechanics are inspired by japanese console RPGs, something fairly rare on PC. The story is science fiction with a bit of film noir thrown in, buy it also possesses an offbeat sense of humour. In fact it sometimes takes a turn for the outright absurd. Perhaps its greatest strength lies in the characters, each flawed but likeable, dealing with their own personal struggles whilst on a mission to save the universe from the forces of chaos.

 

Forget about Freeman
Action gaming had largely divided into the first and third person 3D kinds. Rik will talk you through the latter next time, so I’m talking about those late-90s descendants of Doom. By now the old pseudo-3D days were over, and everything existed in a polygon-based world of three proper dimensions.

For a start we’ll take Unreal. Epic were the first to challenge iD as builders of widely-licensed first-person engines, and their own first use of the technology still looks wonderful today. Certainly more appealing than the sludge of Quake 1 and 2 anyway. I guess that’s my bias talking, but its opening section is one of the most memorable of any shooter of the time.

My personal ambivalence towards the Quakes aside, we felt one of the two big multiplayer-oriented shooters of the time (the other being Unreal Tournament) had to be included. Even if we never played them much. So we’re going for Quake 3.

Then there’s Half-Life, without which this list could not be complete. Through the 90s, shooters had still largely been based around running around looking for a key or a switch to flip. Half Life however made us feel like a participant in a crisis, through level design and scripting. It drew us in with memorable set-piece scenes, starting with Gordon’s mundane train ride to work. Then we have the crisis of the intial alien attack, to that awful moment after the soldiers arrive, that you realise their real mission. It was a key landmark in the progression of the genre.

Rules of gaming #1: Remember to load your gun before you start waving it in the face of an enemy soldier.

I also want to include Thief: The Dark Project which is first person but not a shooter at all. Rather it’s a game of stealth and sublety, where you lurk in the shadows and avoid confrontation. It rewards patience, careful scrutiny of your surroundings, and a willingness to explore every nook and cranny of a map. It’s also uniquely atmospheric in a way no other game has matched. It came to us from Looking Glass studios, masters of immersive gaming, and since I passed up on their System Shock I’m taking this instead!

 

Fox Two
Our flight sim section is lacking this time, since my own experiences ended with being shit at TFX. Still, Janes USAF seems a well-regarded modern military sim. So let’s, er, take that. Suggestions in the comments would be appreciated!

Fortunately I can speak with a bit more expertise on the topic of space-sims. I reckon that Freespace 2 represents the pinnacle of that “world war 2 in outer space” style of combat and dogfighting that we saw in Wing Commander and X-Wing. Bonus points for the huge, terrifying capital ships you sometimes find yourself facing. Funnily enough it didn’t sell well, and space-sims in general went into decline afterwards.

I feel also that we should acknowledge the “big stompy robot” sims – I kind of wanted Mechwarrior 2 last time but we ran out of space. So this time I’m taking Mechwarrior 3. It kept the series trademark tactical play of balancing weapon use against watching heat levels, and the wealth of detail in equipping your Mechs. Plus it looked a bit more realistic than Mech2’s rather abstract polygon lands.

 

We require more Vespene Gas
One of the great realtime strategy games of this period, that epitmised the base-building and army-raising mechanics we associated with the subgenre, was Starcraft. Although it seemed like just another RTS at the time, it went on to enjoy lasting success due to immense multiplayer popularity. I never dared venture online myself since I never mastered the art of rapidly issuing commands to micromanage your army, that iss required for competitive play. I can vouch for the single player campaign being pretty good though, helped along by some memorable characters and lavish cutscenes.

My own personal RTS favourite of the time was Homeworld, which gives you epic space warface in full 3D. In fact it’s pretty much like taking command of a battle out of your favourite space opera. Nimble fighters zip around strafing their targets, gunships prowl in close formation, and lumbering cruisers open fire with huge cannons. There’s a still certain beauty and elegance to it today despite the chunky late-90s polygons. Fortunately the three dimensional aspect never becomes confusing, due to slick controls and interface.

Corvette on a strafing run.

Another kind of strategy was Shogun, which began the long-lived Total War series. It gives us big, realtime battles of cavalry and spearmen, far more realistic in nature than the Command and Conquer RTS template. A clever player will make use of tactics like ambushes, or holding high ground. A dumb player like me just charges the spearmen foward in a big block. Anyway this is all linked by wider-scale strategy and resource management played out over a map screen.

Meanwhile, Alpha Centauri is a 4x game, created by Sid Meier who originally brought us Civilisation It took the mechanics of that earlier game, moved them to a scifi setting and swapped the idea of nations for different ideological groups. There’s a huge tech-tree to unlock as you play, along with options for customising your military units.

Finally, we’re taking Jagged Alliance 2 for squad level combat, putting you in charge of small team of mercenaries. A key aspect of it is building stats of your mercenarines, RPG-style, and finding better gear to arm them with. There’s plenty of detail to keep a strategy nut abosrbed until the small hours, and also some highly amusing voice acting.

That’s me done, so over to Rik for part 2…

don’t touch Merlin’s stuff

May 8th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

This is something I’ve been hoping for ever since sierra adventures started appearing on GoG. They now have Conquests of Camelot! You take on the role of King Arthur, seeking the holy grail in a mission to restore the fortunes of his Kingdom. You must also find three of the knights of the round table, who went missing in their own attempts to find the grail.

My original review is here – I guess I’ll be mostly saying the same things today. It’s long been my favourite of the Sierra family, in fact one of my top adventures of all time. There are a couple of reasons I didn’t bring it up in our “top DOS games” articles recently (part1, part2); for one thing, it’s fairly obscure. Also I wouldn’t say its puzzles are the greatest. At least three of the big ones just quiz you for information in the manual, so they’re basically little more than copy protection.

Still, this the adventure that made the greatest impression on me, because there is something intriguing, compelling, about the places it takes us. We are shown a mythical version of the Dark Ages, where mysterious sorcerers practise arcane arts, and supernatural entities lurk in the wildernesses and dark places. Magic is something that peasants fear and even a King must treat with respect.

The first half of the game takes place within Arthur’s kingdom, as you follow the trail of Launcelot and Galahad. You journey through a perilous forest encountering mischevious spirits, hostile wildlife and the mysterious Black Knight. Later you explore ancient ruins haunted by angry, forgotten gods. You must also visit the Lady of the Lake; for some reason she’s currently very unhappy, and has used her magics to cast her domain into the depths of an unnatural winter.

Copper or tin for widdershins!

Later your travels take you to the holy land. After a trek across the desert, you find yourself on the dusty streets of Jersualem. You’re no revered king here, just a traveller. You spend a lot of time talking to shopkeepers about the price of donkeys and buying mirrors, which sounds mundane but is actually one of the game’s best sections of genuine puzzle solving. Also, there are once again mystical forces at work behind the scenes, as you meet the servants of an ancient goddess. This is a time of change – old powers that she represents are waning, this new-fangled Christianity is on the rise.

(Which, now I think about it, is a theme that some folks might find unappealing. Rather than go on a lengthy tangent here, I might write about that separately sometime)

The game is stuck in 16-colour EGA, but I generally find the artwork good enough to surpass that technical limitation. It’s clean and colourful with clearly differentiated themes like the green and browns of the forest, or the pristene white and blue of the frozen lake. The general sense of atmosphere is also greatly boosted by the soundtrack by Mark Siebert. He was also using fairly basic technology, the humble adlib card, yet did some great work with it. The music carries across various themes like the glory of Camelot, the somber nobility of your quest for a holy relic, or the relief of finding a well after a long trek across the desert.

Perhaps the one way the game disappoints me relates to the map screen of southern Britannia. This indicates over a dozen locations to visit. Each promises an opportunity to explore more of the Kingdom, and learn some more about the legends of Arthur Pendragon. Then you realise you can only travel to about four places; click any other and the game just tells you there’s nothing relevant there. So we get to see rather less of these lands than is first suggested.

To be fair this section comprises only half the content of Conquests. I’m not sure how its overall length compares to other adventures of the time; maybe it’s quite average. Still, since I found this game so captivating, I would have been happy for it to last an hour or two longer.

Looking to a more practical matter, this being one of those early SCI games, you can only use the mouse to walk around. To interact with stuff or talk to anyone, you’ll have you have to type in text commands to talk to people or interact with stuff.

Since this is a Sierra game you can die, and probably will do a lot. Just save often. There’s also the possibility of putting yourself in a situation where you can keep playing but it’s impossible to win, which in old adventures could actually more frustrating than dying. Here’s a hint: take the right sort of money with you on your quest, or you’ll be stuck several hours later. If I recall right, most other mistakes of this nature are fairly easy to avoid. Like, you can leave your knights to die if you find them, but you’re meant to be a champion of virtue, you bastard. It won’t go well for you.

There are a bunch of action sequences, which were sometimes jarring and unwelcome in adventures, but I figure you’re a sword-wielding warrior, so they’re not totally inappropriate. There’s a section fighting off rampaging boars which is kind of a chore, but a short while later they made a brave effort at a first-person view jousting simulator. There’s also an epic battle at the end that I found genuinely intense, two warriors of very different cultures duelling in the dust of a fallen empire.

One more high point is the snarky commentary from Merlin, who serves as the game’s narrator . The idea is he’s using his magic psychic powers to watch over and communicate with you. Sometimes he offers advice, others he gives scathing commentary (and the occasional bad pun) about the way you’ve managed to get yourself killed.

So then, I’ve acknowledged a bunch of flaws here, but Conquests of Camelot will always be particularly important to me. It’s possible I’m just super nostalgic about it. Still, I think it offers something different to the rest of the Sierra stable at least, an actual epic quest instead of twee sanitised fairytales or goofy humour. I reckon it’s worth $7 to adventure fans, anyway.

Oh also, remember Jem from the 80s? That cartoon about an all-lady glam rock band? Funnily enough this was written by the same person, Christy Marx.

Every lie takes you deeper

May 5th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there,

Today’s review takes us back to the Need for Speed series, with 2008’s instalment, Undercover.

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A marvellous box of MS-DOS wonders, part 2

April 30th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there!

So, my friend and colleague kicked us off with an interesting idea: what would the DOS equivalent of the NES Mini look like, a) if it existed and b) in the unlikely event that we were put in charge of selecting the games.

In choosing 30 to be bundled with this device, I guess the aim would be to showcase the very best of PC gaming in the early 90s. Stoo has already put forward 22 titles and, though you might quibble with some of his selection (all part of the fun of this kind of thing), I’d humbly suggest that he’s got most bases covered.

Stoo’s areas of interest and expertise cover the kinds of games that were really only made possible by the PC’s setup and extra technical oomph, so of course his list includes all the wonderful FPS, space combat and talkie adventure games that made it become such an interesting and viable gaming option. On the other hand, my areas of interest and “expertise” tend to be in areas in which multi-format releases were more likely, where the DOS version wouldn’t necessarily be the best.

Even if we’d planned this as a joint feature (which we hadn’t) then I guess his list of 22, leaving me with only 8, might have seemed a bit uneven. But as things stand I already have the feeling that some of my suggestions might be too lightweight and frivolous, so I’m perfectly happy with my lot (and the opportunity to piggy-back onto Stoo’s idea). I’m also prepared to have any of my list bumped off for more worthy suggestions from other genres. But, for the record, this is what I’m going to put forward:

Two enter the arena
As Stoo already pointed out, the PC wasn’t exactly the natural choice for old-school platform gaming, and – the first-person shooter aside – there’s not much from the action genre that you’d make a convincing argument for including on a DOS-focused compilation. Another World is an important game that stands the test of time, but it was released on every system under the sun. I also have a soft spot for the original Worms, but the same could be said for that. I could make an argument for a 90s pinball game, too, but that’d be a stretch, and my favourite – Pinball Illusions – was also released on the Amiga.

I will however suggest a PC-exclusive beat ‘em up – One Must Fall 2097. I have no idea if it’s actually a good fighting game, but it looks and plays a lot better than any of the sub-standard arcade conversions that were around at the time. Plus the music is ace.

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Touch my tissue
I won’t argue with Stoo’s adventure selections, and we even managed to include a couple of Sierra games that were sort of alright. I always kind of liked DreamWeb (again, released on the Amiga and also possibly not as good as I remember) and a case could be made for including one of the technically-sharper mid-90s adventures like Broken Sword or Toonstruck.

But, even though I haven’t played it in a long time, and we sort of have this area covered through Wing Commander III, I’ll suggest Under a Killing Moon as an example of a good use of video and an ambitious game that actually delivered.

I feel the need
If we’re going to include racing games, then the first one has to be 4D Sports: Driving (Stunts). Ok, so there might be an element of personal bias here, but how many other DOS-based racing games from the 90s still have anything like the same following?

Stunts developers Distinctive Software also produced one of the other notable racers of the time: Test Drive II: The Duel. I was tempted to include this one, even though it was – again – released on a thousand different platforms, but it can all be over quite quickly, and I don’t think the various car and scenery packs would be adequate compensation.

msdostnfs

Instead I’ll include a game that updated the Test Drive template: The Need for Speed. Ok, it was first released on 3DO and, later, the PlayStation, but the DOS version was superior. I could also have gone for Screamer, Ridge Racer’s dorky PC-only cousin, to show that the PC could do a console-style racer, but the road-racing element of TNFS swings it for me.

We should also put forward a more serious racing sim, something that only the PC could do at the time. I’ll go for Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix 2, ahead of Papyrus’s IndyCar and NASCAR games.

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We like sports
Much as I’d like to get an arcade football game in here, I’m not really sure any of them are worthy. Although FIFA International Soccer was a multi-format release, the version with commentary from Tony Gubba was a DOS exclusive, but it’s pretty dreadful to play now. FIFA ’96 stands up better but it’s still not quite good enough.

Although I was never a fan of Sensible Soccer, I’d happily put that in, but again I think both the original and Sensible World of Soccer are best enjoyed on the Amiga. The same goes for Speedball 2, I think.

Instead we’ll have football represented by Championship Manager 2. It may seem quite basic now but at least you’d be able to live out those impossible dreams of taking Swindon Town to the Premier League title, all thanks to Neil Lennon.

We need another sports game, but they were frequently better on console, or the Amiga. Or just not released on PC. I’ll go for Virtual Pool – a technical marvel at the time, introducing the mouse-as-a-cue system that did away with all those confusing power bars.

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Rebellious Dogs!
So I’ve got one more. And, having contorted myself around the various restrictions in place earlier in the list, I’m going to ignore the fact that this one was better known on the Atari ST and Amiga. It doesn’t showcase the power of the PC, and it doesn’t even have to be best enjoyed on a PC, but I think more people should play Mike Singleton’s Midwinter.

There you have it – our first stab at the 30-game DOS bundle. Suggestions/amendments welcome below!

A marvellous box of MS-DOS wonders

April 26th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Given all my talk of the NES mini in the past month or two, I thought I’d drag myself back to our usual subject matter by considering what a PC-gaming equivalent might look like. A little emulation device containing about thirty classic titles.

The approach I’m thinking wouldn’t involve new hardware, but would rather be a bundle of software for Raspberry Pi. You’d have an archive of games packaged with dosbox and a convenient installer that puts the whole lot on an sd card, ready to boot up on the Pi.

You can already do this by installing Retroarch (or dosbox standalone) then deciding on and finding some games for yourself, but this would be a lot more convenient. A package of great games chosen for the user, ready to go after a few clicks. I might call it a curated selection but “curated” is a buzzword that I find oddly irritating.

The time period I’m thinking is the first-half of the 90s. We’re looking at the height of MS-DOS gaming before windows 95 took over. The late 90s – the days of Half Life and Starcraft – can be a topic of discussion for another day.

You might well ask if this is just an excuse to list my top thirty games. Some personal bias will creep into this, inevitably. Still I’d like to think I can reasonably consider games that were classics even if I never played them much myself.

Also, it’s only going to be twenty or so. I’m hoping Rik can chip in with suggestions, particularly from genres I don’t know much about, but also any other worthy titles I may have missed.

 

Goblins and Axes

Let’s tie on our imitation dwarf beards to start with cRPGs. There are a few long-running and successful series from which we could take candidates. From the Ultima line, the seventh seems to be a favourite with its large, detailed and open world. (I played for about 30 minutes and wish I had time for more).

Another stalwart of the genre was Wizardry, taking a different approach with turn based combat and a first-person view. We’ll have the seventh (okay I am including a personal favourite here), where it broke through into VGA.

A Phoot in the Forest. Bash it!

For a more action-oriented third example I’ll return to the land of lord British for Ultima Underworld, known for its revolutionary first person 3D engine.

On My Six

Flight sims were one of the few genres where PC always did better than consoles. For some fairly hardcore realism in a modern setting, let’s have Falcon 3.0. I’m also taking Gunship 2000, to represent both helicopters, and Microprose’s balance of authenticity and accessibility.

For the second world war, those days of propellers and machineguns, we could have Dynamix’ Aces of the Pacific.

Launch all Tie Fighter Squadrons
Sometimes we were flying in space instead. X-Wing was an important title, from the days when the PC was first establishing itself as a powerful gaming platform. However I’m taking TIE Fighter instead as it was rather better polished and balanced.

We must take Wing Commander a onboard. I’m thinking either the first title or the third depending on whether we want to see the VGA origin of the series, or enjoy some of the most lavish FMV cutscenes of the 90s. Rik can advise.

Knee Deep in the Dead
It’s essential to include the early days of the first person Shooter. iD dominated in these days so let’s have a few of their milestones. Wolfenstein 3D was for many of us the first game of this sort that we experienced. Doom was of course enormously influential, one of the single most important PC games of the decade. It provided smooth, intense run and gun action, us from flat mazes to sort of-3D, aand introduced multiplayer.

I love the way these things deflate like a mouldy raspberry when you kill them.

Then there’s… Quake. Its brown. I never loved it. Yet it brought about the next generation of shooters, and was clearly loved by many. See, I can be objective!

Looking to other developers, we could also take Duke Nukem 3D. It starred one of the PC’s most iconic heroes of the day, goofy humour, and some first efforts at “real world” level design.

Goodbye Galaxy
For more old-school action gaming, like platform games, I’d prefer to stick to PC-native titles rather than ports from other systems. That does limit our options a little, though. I suggest Commander Keen 4, the finest of the Keen series with a varied set of levels and some real visual charm beyond its 16 colours. A slightly more advanced counterpart would be Jazz Jackrabbit.

What are your orders?
There are a bunch of different flavours of Strategy to consider. We’ll have Civillisation as the granddaddy of 4x empire building. UFO, with its mix of global management and squad-level combat, is still inspiring remakes today.

These were the early days of realtime strategy, so we probably want Dune 2. Clunky as it seems now, it did launch a genre. We must also include Command and Conquer, with its much improved interface and extensive FMV.

Use Rubber Chicken with a pulley in the middle
Now an indie hipster niche, graphical adventures were once a proud part of mainstream gaming. Two big companies were responsible for the majority of the most popular adventures. We’ll look first at Sierra, who churned out an awful lot of Quests. I feel King’s Quest should be represented, since it pioneered the entire genre, but the really old ones are annoying to play so I’ll stay in VGA times and pick KQ6.

Since we’re fans of officer Sonny Bonds with his sensible haircut and dedication to serving the public, we’re also taking Police Quest 3.

Getting ready to leave good ol' Lytton PD. Prepare for a godawful driving section (best turn the music off, too).

Then we turn to the Lucasarts stable. There are so many great games here it’s hard to pick a couple of the best. I’d say The Secret of Monkey Island with its whimsical humour and clever puzzles is essential, though. It established Lucasarts more forgiving approach to adventuring, as compared to Sierra’s constant threat of failure and death for screwing up.

Then for a slightly later example I want Day of the Tentacle, with its antics across one house in three different time periods, plus three of adventuring’s greatest heroes. Hoagie has been kind of a mascot for this site since the early days

That’s twenty-two games so I will stop for now. Feel free to put in your own suggestions in the comments, or tell me why I’ve made lousy choices.

I hate you, Blue Wizzrobes

April 11th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Owning the NES Classic Mini means my first priority is to play legend of Zelda. Again. I’ve just finished the sixth dungeon, which I recalled being tough, but I thought that was thanks to Darknuts.

These armoured knights are unaffected by sword strikes from head on, and also totally immune to the boomerang’s stunning effect. So you have to carefully manoeuvred yourself into a place to strike without them barging into you. Their movement is totally random, which in a sense is a good thing, as I’ve no idea how you’d hit them if they all just converged on you. It also means though that you can never predict if they will suddenly turn towards you, forcing evasive action. Which is difficult if several are nearby. The best tactic, if you risk being overwhelmed, is to drop bombs and then focus on dodging.

As it happens though the darknuts are in the previous dungeon. Six is made challenging by something worse, the goddamn wizzrobes.

The red ones are manageable by themselves – they teleport somewhere, fire one magic blast towards you if they have line of sight, then teleport again. It’s pretty easy to avoid their attacks and position yourself to strike back.

The blue ones are the bastards though. Instead of teleporting they drift erratically around the screen. If you pass in front of them they fire their magic repeatedly, whilst remaining in motion. They can also pass through solid blocks. If they barge into you, they inflict as much damage just by contact as they do with their magic. Finally, they’re twice as tough as the reds.

 

Argh! Image from zeldadungeon.net

Well at least there are only two blues here. Image from zeldadungeon.net

The good news, the big shield will at least block wizzrobe magic. The bad news, they’re often paired up with Like-Likes, which upon contact eat your shield. Want it back? You have to leave the dungeon and go buy one from a shopkeeper again.

So several rooms in dungeon six are a hellish frenzy of weaving around trying to land a hit, whilst dodging shots from several directions at once, hoping you don’t touch any blues, then also running in a panic from Like-Likes.

Oh wait there are bubbles as well, which don’t hurt you but stop you swinging your sword for about 5 seconds. Probably causing you to miss a narrow window to strike a wizzrobe.

As a final screw-you, dungeon six contains the magic rod which lets you shoot the same blasts as the wizzrobes. But they’re immune. The boomerang

If you die then you have infinite lives with which to try again, but you respawn with just three hearts. It’s not even worth trying to wade into the dungeon in such a fragile state, so you have to either chug a potion or go grind easy enemies for hearts before you try again.

Make sure you have the blue ring before you come here, or you’re taking three hearts damage each time a wizzrobe hits you. Which is pretty disastrous. Also, if you’ve done all the previous dungeons, plus found all the overworld heart containers, you should be able to get the magic sword which means you can take down the blue wizzrobes in two hits.

After all this struggle, the boss fight of this dungeon is weirdly anticlimatic. Wait for it to open its eye, fire one arrow and it drops dead. *sad trombone*

Anyway as Zelda veterans will confirm, I’m just being a wimp as I’m not even playing the Second Quest. This hard mode is accessible after beating the regular game or entering a cheat code. Dungeon layouts are changed with more hidden passages and movable blocks to hunt for, enemies are tougher, and items and dungeon entrances are moved to new locations. That sounds like some truly challenging dungeon crawling. I really should try it next.

(well, no, I should get back to PC games).

England are rapidly heading for success

April 2nd, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Tonight we’re back to the early 90s for some long-forgotten football action, with International Soccer Challenge.

isctitle

Eastmost Penninsula is the Secret

March 30th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Here’s part two of my roundup of games on the Nes Classic mini. Again my opinions range from somewhat well informed, to mostly ignorant. If you’d like more extensive reviews, I suggest you go visit our friends over at Just Games Retro.

Metroid – 1986
Platform game, notable for its structure. Instead of a set of discrete levels, the game is spread across a number of connected caverns. You have quite a bit of freedom to explore your surroundings, but, some areas are inaccessible until you gain a particular powerup. For example the famous morph ball lets you enter narrow channels, and bombs let you destroy some floor blocks.

These games tend to involve a lot of roaming, careful searching, and backtracking when you realise the item you just picked up will get you past an obstacle you ran into an hour ago. Castlevania would later take up this format, giving rise to a subgenre we call Metroidvania.

This is the one I’ve been playing the most lately on my Classic Mini. It’s quite tough; partially because it lacks features we came to expect in later metroids, but also just because gamers were made of sterner stuff back then. While you have infinite lives, when you die you respawn at the start of a zone with a tiny amount of health. There are no recharge stations so you have to grind easy enemies for health boosts. Also there’s no map, so it’s really easy to get lost in all those samey-looking vertical shafts.

Finally you can’t actually shoot any enemy below waist height, until you get a late-game upgrade. Which is a little ridiculous. So your only option is to try and drop bombs in the enemy’s path.

That’s me complaining about old games being difficult, but, I think Metroid is still quite compelling. There’s a real sense of being on a dangerous desecent into a mysterious underworld. The game gets off to a energetic start – the music in the starting zone is upbeat, and you quickly grab the first powerup. As you delve deeper though, you notice none of the creatures you encounter are remotely humanoid. The shafts seem to drop forever deeper beneath the surface of Zebes. The soundtrack switches to themes that are more haunting, or menacing. The eerie caverns are an utterly alien domain, and you’re an intruder here.

Also on a technical note, the game was impressive at the time for having two-way scrolling, switching between horizontal and vertical as you move from one chamber to another.

Bubble Bobble – 1986
Adorable little dinosaurs trap monsters in bubbles. Another “each level is one screen” arcade game, where you do the same basic task over and over, but it’s very appealing and the two-player co-op mode helps. I may have been humming along to the tune.

Castlevania – 1986
Before the series went Metroidvania. A straight up, linear platform game that takes its themes from classic horror movies. You must fight your way through a castle full of assorted monsters and undead creatures, on the way to a showdown with Dracula himself. You have an upgradeable whip for your main weapon, and interchangeable secondaries like axes and holy water. This one is still fun, albeit challenging as health recharges are few and far between.

Castlevania 2 – 1987
I’ve not really played this, but as I understand it, Castlevania 2 is sort of a Metroidvania. Not exactly the format we know today but it is more nonlinear, with town section you can visit in between levels to buy supplies and talk to NPCs.

Legend of Zelda – 1986
Top-down action-adventure, maybe kind of an RPG depending on how you look at it. Features an expansive wilderness, around which are scattered several dungeons containing more dangerous threats but also useful artifacts. The ultimate goal is to seek the sacred triforce, and rescue the princess Zelda from the villain Ganon. Spawned Nintendo’s second most famous franchise, with incarnations on every console. The latest one, Breath of the wild, is currently the only real reason to buy the new Switch.

It’s all a bit minimalist compared to sequels, for sure. There’s little story here, you’re just a guy on a quest. There are no towns, in fact few NPCs of any sort. It’s completely over-run with monsters, and the only signs of human life are a few shopkeepers and hermits skulking in caves. There’s also no real in-game map, although to be fair it originally came with one on paper. Also the inability to swing your sword diagonally is often really annoying.

That said, this remains possibly my famous NES game, and it’s another one I’ve actually put several hours into these past few weeks. The land of hyrule still promises adventure, letting you freely roam its lakes, forests and mountains. I don’t even mind the lack of people; the feeling of isolation has its own appeal. You’re making your way into a land that civilisation has mostly ceded to monsters, and only a few adventurers and travellers dare venture here. Meanwhile dungeons are mysterious, forboding, full of perils and treasure, leftover ruins of whoever used to live here.

Also, the wide arsenal of secondary weapons was a winning design move. You have the sword for your main attacks, but adjust your secondary according to circumstances. Bombs on their timer let you place one then concentrate on dodging enemies. Boomerang stuns (and can go diagonally!). The bow costs money for each shot (I guess that took less memory than having an arrow stash) but is often your best bet for dealing damage at a distance.

Zelda 2 – 1987
The black sheep of the family. This first sequel uses a map screen, jumping to side-scrolling action sections when you enter a town or palace, or encounter random wandering monsters. It’s also the most overt in use of RPG systems – you gain experience points for killing enemies, and level up every time you gather sufficient points. Meanwhile the secondary weapons were replaced with a set of magic spells.

Tougher than the first game. If you lose all your lives you can continue, but are thrown right back to the starting map location. Combat requires a higher degree of alertness and dexterity than the top-down zeldas, since you can strike and block low and high, but so can some enemies. Needless to say, I am bad at this.

Also, it turns out Hyrule is a lot larger than we first thought – it’s suggested that the region we explored in the first game is just one patch of the wider kingdom. So there are indeed towns and people elsewhere (even if monsters still fill every field and forest), useful for hearing clues, learning spells, recharging health and meeting this guy:

There are probably reasons the series never went back to this format. Zelda 3 on the SNES was based on the original, and every subsequent sequel either did the same or starting with Ocarina of Time used 3rd-person 3D. Still, this one is still worth an attempt, an epic quest for a brave adventurer.

Fun fact: chronologically, Zelda 1 and 2 are actually the last two games in the series, set centuries after Ocarina and Skyward Sword.

StarTropics – 1990 (US)
It’s like Legend of Zelda, except set on tropical islands somewhere here on earth, and you’re a kid with a yo-yo. Also you can jump.

Movement takes place in discrete steps around a grid, which I have mixed feelings about. Some actions feel easier, like co-coordinating jumps across water (where falling in means instant death), or dodging boss projectiles. On the other hand, avoiding those goddamn bat things is frustrating. What doesn’t help is, several years after Zelda, you still can’t attack diagonally.

Grumbles aside, I’ve cleared the first couple of dungeons and am intrigued enough to continue. The setting is a bit different from fantasy, at least.

Ice Climber – 1985
Break ceilings above you, climb. An early title that I think serious Nintendo fans look back on fondly, but is largely forgotten otherwise.

Pac-Man – 1984
Well, the historical importance of Pac-Man is undeniable. He was immensely successful, and one of gaming’s first real mascots. That said, I don’t think we particularly associate him with Nintendo? The original arcade game was released in 1980, so pre-dated the NES by a few years, and was later ported (or copied) to just about every system in existence.

I don’t have a lot to say about it myself – it’s probably clear by now that I don’t spend much time on the oldest games. It seems to have been around 85, 86 that gaming developed the complexity and features that grant more lasting appeal. That’s speaking in terms of my personal tastes of course. If you can get enjoyment out of the ancients, more power to you!

Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream – 1987
Originally featuring Mike Tyson as the final fight, but not anymore, I guess he fell out of favour. Another on the “not played” pile, although one I’d like to try sometime. The only boxing game I ever did play was EA Fight Night, against Rik. Where the two of us clubbed ineffectually at each other for 10 minutes while the commentator sounded so thrilled, I assumed he was watching a different game entirely. This one doesn’t have 2-player sadly.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins – 1986
Action platformer, destroy lots of spooky monsters. Really tough. You can take two hits, on the first you guys’s impressive looking but flimsy armour shatters and he runs around in his pants.

Super C 1990
Only played this for about 10 minutes. I’m a bit more familiar with the SNES sequel. In this sort of fast and frantic platform shooter, I tend to die quickly and give up. That said, I can see the simultaneous two-player mode having potential.

Ninja Gaiden 1988
Again I’ve only seen the first couple of levels of this one. Sorry, I’m not really interested in old games. I’m a fake geek guy.

Mega Man 2 1989
Platform shooters starring an amiable little blue android. You fight your way to eight robot masters, each of whom has a level themed around themselves. So Metal Man is in a world of gears and pulleys , Air Man is up in the clouds. Upon beating them you take their weapon. Once all are down, you assault the stronghold of their creator, Dr Wily. The robot master stages can be done in any order, but since each is vulnerable to a certain weapon, there’s an optimum path through the game.

This one is still greatly enjoyable. The artwork is colorful and cartoony, the levels memorable and the music incredibly catchy. Now, this is just one of a series that went all the way up to six(!), but it’s generally regarded as the most popular.

The Princess is in another castle!

March 22nd, 2017

Written by: Stoo

So I’ve switched over to NES Gaming mode for a while. As promised earlier, here are some opinions on the games included on the Nes Classic Mini. Or half of them, at least, the rest to follow later.

I’m keeping it fairly brief because 1: I haven’t forgotten this is meant to be a PC gaming site, 2: the internet doesn’t need me spilling 2000 words on a game as universally well known as Super Mario Brothers and 3: I’ve not actually played them all.

For comparative purposes I’ve put the year of release in Japan next to each game. Many NES games were reelased several months later in the US, and then took another year or two to reach Europe. Which may explain why some kids here were happier to stick to gaming on their Amiga 500s.

Donkey Kong – 1983
Mario’s first outing. Typical of an early game, each level consists of one screen, on a black background. There are just four levels that repeat with increasing difficulty. Honestly I doubt I’ll ever play it for more than 10 minutes at a time. Still, correctly timing your jumps over those barrels is still quite satisfying. Also, if you’re at all interested in the history of gaming you really should play it at least once.

Donkey King Junior
It’s Mario’s one appearance as villain, with the younger Kong out to rescue his father. You climb vines, avoid enemies or defeat them by knocking fruit down at them. A cute little game I guess but again, it’s the later and more expansive titles that give the Classic any sort of long term appearl.

Mario Brothers -1983
First game with Mario’s name on it, but before he went Super. Jump into the floor under baddies to incapacitate them, then run over and boot them. Don’t try jumping on their heads before they’re stunned. The wife and I played this for about 5 minutes then decided we were bored. Anyway you’ll encounter it as a minigame (with better graphics and music) if you play Super Mario Brothers 3 multiplayer.

This is sounding a bit unenthusiastic so far, isn’t it? That’s mostly because I’ve mentioned three very early games in a row. Don’t fear, there are positive opinions on the way!

Super Mario Brothers – 1985
You may have heard of this? It properly launched Mario’s career as gaming icon. It also featured side-scrolling levels, a major technical advancement over the ones built of single screen portions. SMB wasn’t the first scroller, but it certainly helped establish the feature as a standard in platform games.

The sequels were bigger and better, but this was a big improvement over non-super mario. Super Mario is one the earliest platformers that I still find genuinely enjoyable today. It’s definitely worth revisiting for a few tries. Go kick some koopas, jump for that flag, listen to the classic theme. Here it is being sung by some wrestler dressed as Mario.

You’re welcome. I don’t know if the Super Mario Super Show ever made it to these shores, but I recall watching it daily in America around 1989.

Super Mario Brothers 2 – 1988 (US)
The original Japanese sequel to SMB was very similar to the original, with fiendishly hard levels. Apparently Nintendo thought it wouldn’t sell well to clumsy, decadent westerners. So instead they took some totally unrelated game (Doki Doki panic) and slapped Mario and friends on it.

That’s why we ended up with a slightly odd entry in the series. There’s no block-bashing, and if you jump on an enemies head you just ride along on top of them. To defeat them you must either pelt them with vegetables, or throw them at each other. Although in later games Mario could grab onto enemies after stomping them, the turnip-throwing mechanics used here never returned. Also the ast of enemies has only shown up in a handful of later games.

On the other hand it still looks good and there are four playable characters each with their own strengths, something Nintendo really should have revisited sooner. My wife’s a fan and, honestly I’d take this over hard-mode SMB1.

Super Mario Brothers 3 – 1988
The next sequel ignores SMB2’s vegetables. SMB3 is a direct follower and logical evolution ofof the original Super Mario, bigger and improved in every way. Levels are cleverly designed and grouped into different worlds, each with an appealing visual theme. Map screens give you some choice of what level to tackle next. A bunch of new powerups are included, most importantly the racoon tail granting you the power of flight, and with it greater ability to explore the levels. Minigames provide a quick diversion in between the main levels.

If you want a criticism for balance then, well, Mario’s movement is annoyingly slippery. Which makes levels of narrow platforms and big pits rather daunting. Still, this was one of the greatest triumphs of the NES, and possibly the peak of 8-bit platform games. (well possibly until kirby showed up late to the party, see below)

Gradius – 1986
Side scrolling shoot ‘em up. I was more a fan of R-Type, which I used to play on an Atari ST (Rik may approve). I’m really dreadful at these in general.

Balloon Fight – 1985
Apparently rips off Joust. Except my childhood memories are of this one, so it gets my loyalty. You control a little guy floating from balloons, tackling enemies that are similarly equipped. you must hit them from above to pop their balloons, at which point they either fall into water, or onto land. In the latter case you have to stomp them before they re-inflate their balloons.

This is another of the one-screen early games – I’ve been a bit dismissive about some of them, but I do have a certain wistful appreciation for Balloon Fight. Maybe it’s simple nostalgia. Or maybe because its mechanics are something a little different. Unless you played Joust.

Galaga – 1985
A direct descendent of Space Invaders, the main development being more complex patterns of movement for the aliens.

As much as we like to be seen here as grizzled veterans of gaming, this sort of thing is too old to be of real interest to me. It’s a conversion of an arcade game that came out four years earlier, when I was an infant. Still good to have in the collection, just for the historical value.

Dr Mario – 1990
Segmented, multi-coloured pills fall into a space containing several germs. If you create lines of the same colour pill section, they disappear. If a germ of that colour is part of the line, it disappears too.

I assume Nintendo wanted a first-party Tetris. Dr Mario is more fiddly but since Actual Tetris isn’t here, this one goes some way towards filling the action-puzzle space.

Kid Icarus – 1986
I remember Icarus showing up in the Captain N cartoon which starred a bunch of second-tier Nintendo mascots, since Mario and Link had their own shows. Not played his game though!

Tecmo Bowl – 1989
Can’t comment on this. I know virtually nothing about American Football, beyond what my brother in law has patiently tried to explain to me. Very large men run at each other, make a big pile and throw a ball a bit, one big chap runs with it until another very large man stops him. Then the referee blows a whistle? Then it starts again.

I’m not meaning to pick on American sports here. Sport in general baffles me.

Final Fantasy – 1987
To date I’ve played two of this series, VI and VII. Oh, and Chrono Trigger, that’s at least from Square too. Not a wide sampling but enough to at least give me an appreciation for the Japanese way of doing RPGs. More focus on characters and narrative than customising and developing your hero’s attributes. A more linear path instead through the game instead leaving you to roam and explore. Better hair.

One day I’d like to play more of the series, unfortunately barring long-term unemployment I have no idea when I’ll find time. Still now at least I can go see where it all started; I’m curious to see how it compares to the the 16 bit days.

Excite Bike – 1984
Side scroller where you attempt various jumps on a dirtbike. Getting it right is not just about building up speed, but also orienting yourself correctly for landing. Unfortunately this is probably another example of 10-mins and done.

Double Dragon II: The Revenge 1989
Two denim wearing martial artists tackle gang crime by dealing out some street justice, by single-handedly beating every last hoodlum into unconsciousness. It’s a scenario very much with its roots in the 80s, and one that drove the majority of beat-em-ups that weren’t Golden Axe. Back then we were routinely marching down trash-strewn streets, karate-kicking ruffians in the junk then piledriving them into the pavement. Should I feel uncomfortable with this sort of treatment of people driven into a life of crime by economic inequality and lack of opportunity?

(I probably won’t)

Anyway, this inevitably feels a bit primitive next to the 16-bit greats of the genre. For a point of interest though, the controls are a little different: A strikes left, B right and it’s a punch or kick depending on whether or not you’re facing that way.

Kirby’s Adventure – 1993
I hadn’t realised this game came out so late; it was the last triumph of an antiquated console at a time when 16 machines ruled. Hell, the Playstation was less than 3 years after this.

I’m not greatly familiar with this one, beyond short sections played as part of Nes Remix, but I hope to make time for it in the near future. The artwork is a brave effort to be as close to the SNES as those old 8-bit chips could manage. The gameplay benefits from a number of clever features – Kirby can inflate himself to float, and can suck in enemies and copy their powers. From what I’ve seen so far, it appears charming and inventive.