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what secrets lie within this ancient archive?

January 27th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

I’ve been sorting through old computer hardware lately and forcing myself to jettison some of it. I’ve always liked having boxes of spare parts, so I cling onto DVD drives, hard disks, and a Radeon 5770 that’s prone to overheating. I have to ask myself though, what do I see myself doing with four IDE cables? Am I going to build  a PC out of pre-2006 technology? Also I have three USB wifi dongles, so I should really chuck out the two from the previous decade. Epecially when I always connect my desktop to the router via ethernet anyway.

One item I came across was this:

zip

 

You may recall the zip disk: a form of removable magnetic disk, with its own dedicated drive. This particular example was bought in 2001 and could could store 100MB, about 70 times as much as a floppy disk. (re)Writable CDs already existed by this point, and had even greater capacity but I found the zip disks more convenient to use. With no need for faffing around with CD-burner software, you copied stuff via drag and drop, as easily as you would to a floppy. Also a zip disk was easier to fit in a pocket, having about the same dimensions as a floppy disk (albeit, about twice as thick).

I ended up buying a zip drive because they were fitted to many library PCs at my University. At that point we didn’t yet have internet connections in our college rooms, so, a zip disk proved the easiest way of moving large quantities of downloaded data to my own PC. Where by “data” I mean “abandonware games”. I still have them stashed on my current PC, many still unplayed, 16 years later.

Zips with greater storage did exist: there was a 250Mb version and in 2002 Iomega even announced a 750Mb disk. However, within a few years the format was killed off by the USB flash memory stick. I’m not sure if capacity was a deciding factor at first; I vaguely recall that around 2003-2004 the standard was 128-256MB for USB sticks.

However, zips did have one clear disadvantage. I mentioned them being convenient, but that only applied if the computer you wanted to use had a zip drive installed in the first place. If not then the disk was quite obviously useless. Zip drives were moderately popular, but never so much that you could assume one was going to be available when, say, visiting a friend or travelling on business. Whereas a stick could of course plug straight into a USB socket and would work with any vaguely modern PC. Plus USB sticks were cheaper than a zip drive + disk.

(I wonder how mad the university IT department was about all that cash spent on quickly-obselete drives)

My zip clung on a while for backup purposes – I’m kind of curious to know what’s on it. It must be some snapshot of important data I had around 2004. Possibly working files for an early version of this site?  I still have the drive, built into my old computer (so, yeah, I already have a pre-2006 PC…). which is currently hanging around the server room at work. Amazingly no-one’s told me to get rid of the damn thing yet.

2016: not a penny for Gaben or the gog.com guys

January 19th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

When I was 13 years old I had maybe 10 proper games for the family PC, and played them all thoroughly. Now, between my disc, steam and gog.com libraries, and I have over a hundred games I have yet to play.

Rows of them scowl at me from shelves, real or virtual, demanding answers as to why I’ve not given them more attention. Several old RPGs such as Ultima 7 demand their turn, asking exactly how long I’m going to take to complete Might and Magic 6 (been at it 18 months so far). Medieval Total War reminds me that commanding armies of knights and spearmen should be my kind of thing. Old Sierra adventures entice me back to the 90s. I behold so many games either untouched, or barely touched, and am constantly in a state of shame.

The key reason they remain unplayed is time. My existence is not what it was as a carefree 20something, and the demands of real life are significant. (They’re worth it though. Observe the ring on my finger).

I’ve also found that, even when I sit down to try something new, I end up staring at my library, paralysed with indecision. I’ve noticed a similar problem with Netflix – so many options, so little ability to commit. I guess it’s some fear that, if I don’t enjoy the game or fail to make progress, it will mean evenings wasted. So that can lead to replaying games with which I’m already familiar, which is a safe and comfortable option. So that’s how I ended up revisiting the Captal Wastelands of Fallout 3 last year. This doesn’t help the Unplayed list get shorter, of course. Also, looking at this in terms of my knowledge and experience as a gamer, my lack of boldness is denying myself the chance of discovering something new I might enjoy (and review here, if it’s suitable).

So last year I promised myself I would not buy any new games. The Unplayed list had expanded too far, it weighed on me too heavily. I vowed it would grow no further.

This required some willpower. In particular, I have been strongly wanting to get Fallout 4 and Dishonored 2. Also I’m always tempted by the pixelly VGA charms of oldies on gog.com. Even beardy RPGs and complicated strategy titles that I know I’ll never get far with. I had to harden my heart towards steam and gog sales, to delete the constant mails remding me of wonderful deals, to tell myself no Stoo, you do not have time to try Colonisation or Populous.

Still, I held firm. No purchases were made. Unfortunately this didn’t greatly help me reduce the unplayed list. In fact you’ll notice I’ve not added a review in about a year. However at least the list isn’t any longer! And it may go down this year – expect something Star Trek related and something early from Blizzard.

The ban has now been lifted, but, I’m still trying to keep purchases to a minimum. I guess last year had some lasting impact on my habits. If I get one recent game it’ll most likely be Dishonored 2, since the original was both excellent, and a better sequel to the Thief series than the 2014 Thief itself. As for buying oldies, well, I’m keeping at least a “no damn RPGs” rule seeing as I have about four other Might and Magics to play.

2016: Winning so hard

January 15th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi everyone.

2016 was generally considered to be a pretty bad year for all sorts of reasons, and as we’re probably all back to work, it seems a bit late for a retrospective. It’s days since, for example, Spotify sent me an end of year email to confirm that I basically use their premium service to listen to music that I already own but have lost the physical copy and/or mp3 of. And those carefree Boxing Day hours discovering the gentle delights of Inkle’s 80 Days (ported to the PC and very kindly gifted to us by Cape Guy Games) seem like months not days ago.

But on the other hand, it was our 15th year, and as we get older fellas like us probably need to keep a running record of what’s happened somewhere. (My own personal how-old-am-I-again-o-meter has swung from “ooh no worries, late 20s/early 30s” to “nearly f*****g 40 oh jesus” in the last couple of years, although the latter is no more true than the former, and wouldn’t really warrant any panic or swearing even if it were).

Dreamfall: A bit talky, but we kind of liked it.

Dreamfall: A bit talky, but we kind of liked it.

We started with our first and last discussion of the year, taking a look at Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Stoo then brought us a write-up of the 00s FPS Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior while I disappeared down a cul-de-sac of old football and racing games: Championship Manager 2006, Striker, Superkarts etc.

Juiced 2: Somehow not as good as the first one, with extra stupidity thrown in for good measure.

Juiced 2: Somehow not as good as the first one, with extra stupidity thrown in for good measure.

In the early part of the year we also decided to mark the site anniversary with a few pieces that were slightly different from our standard format reviews and discussions. I decided to go back through some of my older reviews and pick out some of the games that were important in terms of my history with the site, and with gaming in general, and then waffled on about them in slightly self-indulgent manner. To be honest, I had no idea whether anything worthwhile would result, but I did want to avoid simply reworking some old content.

When I Played: It all started with Wing Commander III.

When I Played: It all started with Wing Commander III.

Anyway, it all seemed to turn out ok (and I had a few messages from people who said nice things, which was, er, nice). Along similar lines, Stoo took some time to talk about his own gaming history, with Tales of a Former Flight Sim Fan.

Stoo on flight sims: “I was never a great pilot, for all my enthusiasm”

Stoo on flight sims: “I was never a great pilot, for all my enthusiasm”

Having clearly made the decision not to go back and rehash old reviews, we both then proceeded to rehash some old reviews. Speedball 2, Toonstruck and Diablo all received updated writeups, and I made another attempt to look at Sensible Soccer without being quite so much of a twat about it.

Football Glory: yet another sub-par 90s football game added to the FFG collection.

Football Glory: yet another sub-par 90s football game added to the FFG collection.

Journeying into the mid-late 00s brought middling results, most likely because of my choice of game: Stranglehold and Prey were a little disappointing, but I possibly enjoyed Space Siege more than most. Then after a fallow period I disappeared down a CSI-shaped rabbit hole and finished off our coverage of the series, including the oft-mentioned Nintendo DS release, CSI: Deadly Intent: The Hidden Cases.

RACE: Plenty of fun to be had, for a sim, beyond crashing driving the wrong way around the track.

RACE: Plenty of fun to be had, for a sim, beyond crashing and/or driving the wrong way around the track.

Things will continue in 2017, and who knows, maybe we’ll be back here again in 12 months with another smattering of new content to look back on. Thanks, as always, for reading, and all the best for the year ahead.

Out of darkness, out of mind, cast down into the Halls of the Blind

January 9th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Looking back over Blizzard’s history, I wouldn’t refer to much of their output as particularly innovative. That’s not to say they’re not great developers, highly original thinking just isn’t their particular strength. The modus operandi has been to take an established genre, polish and tune it, and release a high quality game. Much more steady evolution than revolution.

Take Warcraft, which was basically Dune 2 with tanks swapped for orcs. Okay it was a bit clunky, but so was Dune 2. A couple of years later, around the time of Command and Conquer, Warcraft 2 was well received. By 1998 we were awash in realtime strategy games and Blizzard’s third effort in the genre, Starcraft, didn’t do a lot different beyond having three different armies. Yet thanks to all the care Blizzard put into assembling its various elements – frantic combat, base building, art direction – it went on to be one of the most successful games of its type. In particular, it had a huge multiplayer scene.

Or there’s World of Warcraft – which owed a lot to previous MMOs like Everquest. Its massive success wasn’t due to being something new, more like taking an existing formula and adjusting it, in this case I think particularly reducing level grinding and being more accessible to casual players.

Nowadays outside of sequels, Blizzard’s releases have all been their own spin on popular online gaming. Hearthstone is a card game, something like Magic Online. Heroes of the Storm represents Blizzard realising the kids are playing MOBAs like League of Legends. Overwatch is a Team-Fortress-esque shooter with scifi-cartoon aesthetics.

Diablo though, I think was an instance where they did try something new, the one game that forged its own (demon-strewn) path. Not to claim it was the first ever real-time isometric-view RPG. Yet there wasn’t much like it at the time, especially not on the PC. It took old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and added fast-paced action, current graphics and a slick, mouse-driven interface. Quests were simple, character stats kept to a few key essentials. Your goal was simple to carve your way through horders of monsters, furiously clicking your mouse to swing a sword or hurl fireballs. As they fell they dropped loot, which you endlessly sorted through, keeping upgrades to your current weapons and armour, and flogging the rest. It was a dark, gothic treadmill of chopping goatmen in half and looking for a sword with a few more damage points.

It was also, of course, massively successful. Ifirst mentioned it here on this site way back in about 2002, when it was just a few years old, but last year I felt a need to re-evaluate. To appreciate its place in gaming history we need to consider not only its own sequels but also other cRPGs that the series inspired. (even if, arguably, its sequel was the really influential one).

This year Diablo celebrates its 20th Anniversary. To mark the occasion and drum up some player nostalgia, Blizzard have released a tribute in the form of a limited-time event within Diablo 3, titled the Darkening of Tristram. It’s a recreation of the original game, featuring the entire 16-floor dungeon. It uses Diablo3 assets for levels and D3 monsters stand in for their original counterparts, but there are graphical filters put over the top to give us that late-90s low-resolution feel. Apparently the animation is even choppier, to match the original. Players and monsters can only move in 8 directions, and player walking speed is reduced to that steady trudge of the original.

The Darkening of Tristram is only around for January, but if I have time to play I’ll return here with my thoughts. I do hope they’ve brought back that wonderfully haunting acoustic guitar theme.

I felt a little like a dying clown, with a streak of rin tin tin

January 8th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Happy New Year to you all. Hope you had a good Christmas.

Today’s review is of the last of Telltale’s attempts to make a decent CSI game: Fatal Conspiracy.

csifctitle

It’s in the game

December 24th, 2016

Written by: Rik

I like football games, possibly more than I actually like football. A couple of matches in the evening after work during the week is one of life’s simple pleasures. But recently I’ve found it difficult to find a footy game I can get on with. Not since PES 2008 (which. depending on your point of view, was either the worst of the series and death of modern PES, or the last hurrah for Pro Evo as we used to know it) have I invested a massive amount of time in a particular title, instead flitting between various reasonably modern versions of the two major franchises for a season or so without any of them really clicking for me.

Possibly they’re a bit too hard. This is difficult for me to admit, as someone who always felt that more complicated and nuanced football games represented progress, instead of constantly harking back to Sensible Soccer or Kick Off. As a hardened PES nut in the mid noughties I was fairly insufferable, demanding to play at the highest difficulty and scoffing at anyone with a preference for FIFA because it might have been easier to get to grips with. It was about understanding the game of football, us PES knobs used to say, and if you understood the game of football you’d know why PES was better. I never thought the time would come when I wanted an easier game.

*strokes beard* Of course, there hasn't been a really good football game since Pele's Soccer on the Atari 2600...

*strokes beard* Of course, there hasn’t been a really good football game since Pele’s Soccer on the Atari 2600…

These days, I find modern football games do replicate real football, but mainly in the sense that they’re a bit like playing in real life as an unfit 35 year old surrounded by keener and more athletic players: kind of familiar with what’s going on, but petrified of receiving the ball, desperate to get rid of it when it comes your way, and when you occasionally consider doing something vaguely clever you realise that to perform even a basic turn involves a delay of several seconds between thought and action.

In skilled hands, of course, I’m sure this is not the case. But otherwise they kind of feel like a throwback to FIFA ’97 – unresponsive players and animations not keeping up with the action – with stilted and frustrating on-pitch action the result. Bloody minded, dogged persistence can bring some sense of achievement and progress, but it all feels a little too much like hard work. A bit like when football games weren’t just about FIFA and PES, and there were viable, if flawed, third party options that had good bits and bad bits, and finding out provided a few hours of entertainment.

This wasn't the best year for FIFA, although there have arguably been worse since.

This wasn’t the best year for FIFA, although there have arguably been worse since.

There’s a bit of reluctance to look back in football games, as with football itself. Leaving aside the “Sensible Soccer is the best” crowd, the people who cling onto their favourite PES or FIFA from the past sort of seem a bit mad because of their refusal to move on. It seems a bit like me saying I’d rather support the 1992 First Division title winning Leeds team, or the 2001 Champions League semi-finalists, instead of the current rabble. But I think that might be where I find myself at the moment.

CSI: Unsolved!

December 18th, 2016

Written by: Rik

This is another review of a Nintendo DS game, kind of following on from this one, the reasons for which are explained here. Normal service (i.e. reviews of old PC games) will be resumed shortly.

Such was my fondness for CSI: Deadly Intent – The Hidden Cases, I would have been happy for subsequent games in the series to change as little as possible, to the extent that simply providing more cases using the exact same engine would have done me just fine. Realistically, that was never going to happen, given that even the most positive of contemporary reviews didn’t come close to mirroring the almost bizarre levels of enthusiasm that I have for that game.

To be fair, though, Other Ocean’s follow-up, CSI: Unsolved! (hereafter Unsolved, because I really can’t handle quite so many exclamation marks in the same piece) is very, very similar to its predecessor in lots of ways. They’re very recognisably related, and follow much the same format. But certain presentational changes have been made, all well-intentioned and with the aim of improvement, and unfortunately they all add up to an altogether inferior experience.

Start the game and you’re straight into a DS rendition of the TV show’s credit sequence. And, yes, this finally (finally!) includes the theme song, although it’s a bit of a cruise-ship cover version. The cast of characters is pretty much the same as before, except Sara Sidle returns in place of the suddenly-departed Riley Adams (so, basically, the Season 10 cast). In TV, the point of a credits sequence is to introduce the actors who are going to be starring in the show. In a game without any voice acting, you just get a run-down of the character names (in a bizarrely pixellated font, in this case).

CSI: Unsolved! continued »

Horseradish Hill and the Rhubarb Rapids

December 12th, 2016

Written by: Stoo

Today in “news from a year ago that we somehow missed”, that will be of interest to fans of classic platform games: Keen Dreams is available on Steam.

Most of the Keen series was published by shareware giants Apogee, later known as 3D Realms. However the developers, id software, had previously released games through Softdisk. After the first Keen trilogy was completed, id still had an outstanding contractual obligation to write a few games for their old publisher.

So, while this was a bit of a chore for iD, they used it as an opportunity to develop technology for the next keen. What resulted was a kind of prototype for Keen 4 and 5. It has the bolder, more cartoony graphics style of those later Keens, along with sloped floors and and some limited adlib card support. However not all the features of Keen 4 are present – there’s no pogo-stick, no background music and Keen can’t climb onto ledges. So Dreams is sometimes referred to as “Keen 3.5″.

keendreams01

It’s the most surreal of the series (it is a dream after all), putting you in a land of giant vegetables. So you’re up against killer broccoli and potato soldiers. Your weapon is different to the other games, instead of a zapper you throw little grenade things that only temporarily stun enemies. I suppose a spinoff like this is the place to goof around a little with gameplay mechanics.

Another other nickname for Dreams used to be “the lost episode”. The main Keen series has been well known to retro gamers, since two installments were given away for free, and Apogee continued continued to make their oldies available to order via mail or online (and they’ve been on Steam for a while now). Dreams however has been hard to find – it came from a small publisher, we hadn’t able to purchase it for years, and it didn’t appear in compilations with the other Keens.

However, it’s now no longer abandonware. What’s more, it’ll only set you back £2.80 on Steam. The blurb on steam says ” This classic DOS game has been updated to run on modern systems, with new Steam achievements and leaderboards”. I’m guessing that means it’s been recompiled for windows, and isn’t just bundled up with Dosbox.

(side note: the wikipedia page for Dreams says this and the later games had Parallax scrolling. This seems wrong to me – parallax is when the background scrolls at a different rate to the foreground. Which I’m pretty sure didn’t happen in any Keen. Or am I remembering wrong?)

75 tons of lasers and stomping

December 5th, 2016

Written by: Stoo

Gigantic bipedal robotic war machines are a fairly ridiculous idea, yet one that has much popularity in scifi. I suppose simply because they mix the mechanical with the humanoid, like some kind of massive armoured warrior with guns for arms, unleashing more firepower than the Red Army and casually treading on cars, houses and people. For gaming fans of such robotic engines of destruction, a favourite series was Mechwarrior. There were several installments between 1989 and 2000, then it went for quiet for over a decade. An online multiplayer-only version arrived in 2013, but we don’t really care about that sort of thing here. However here’s some good news: Piranha, the makers of Mechwarrior Online have revealed they’re working on a proper 5th instalment with a single-player campaign, titled Mercenaries.

(Which, just to be slightly confusing, is a subtitle that’s been used before so I guess this is Mechwarrior 5 Mercenaries 2?)

My own experiences of Mechwarrior come from the middle span of series, and I came aboard with Mechwarrior 2. What impressed me right from the start was how your view from the cockpit bobbed around as the mech took each massive stride. Also, you could glance around and see the mech’s arms and legs. You weren’t just some sort of disembodied presence with guns, but an actual walking war machine.

Nowadays the low-poly graphics are rather primitive, yet something about them still appeals to me. The mechs stomping around like boxy, angular avatars of war. The landscapes are bare and uncluttered. It’s like robo-warfare distilled down to core principles. Huge blocky leviathans lumbering ponderously around, swivelling at the waist to train their heavy guns on their unfortunate target. Little speedy guys loping into a flanking position. You the player, walking repeatedly into wall trying to figure out the fairly complex controls.

Then there was that important mechanic of monitoring waste heat levels. Many weapons had limitless ammo, but if you hammered the fire button repeatedly for too long, the mech would start overheating. Push the heat levels too far and an emergency shutdown leaves you standing there inert for several seconds, which dumps heat but is is an embarrassing way to turn yourself into an easy target. You can choose to over-ride that and start moving and firing again, but that carries the risk of exploding violently.

I also recall the extensive customisation options for your mech. Maybe too extensive, actually. The range of choices was bewildering. More lasers in the arms? Or maybe the torso. Or put heat sinks there. Or an autocannon. Or more missiles. Following on from that, given how totally the mech could be reconfigured, I never really worked out what separated any two mechs of the same tonnage. Looking back, I kind of wish more of a basic profile was imposed on each mech. Make this one a long range missile support guy, the next one a heavy gun carrier, another a close range assault specialist. And so on. (Maybe 4 onwards did that, I dunno).

Mercenaries (the first one) I also played, tho I recall some heavy duty cheating. This one brought in a resource management aspect. Rather than being given a fresh new mech every mission, you were now responsible for your own small army. You earned cash for successfully completing objectives, and spent it repairing or rearming your mechs. You also had to purchase new ones for yourself or your wingmen to pilot. Since your starting mech was kind of spindly and pathetic, earning your way to something more heavyweight was an urgent necessity. I’m guessing this new one will work in a similar manner.

Then onto 3, which featured more realistic graphics. Which either look closer to modern standards, or lack that kind of stark abstract appeal of the old titles, depending on your perspective I guess. I recall my favourite tactics in that one being to find a balance between speed and size, load up on beam lasers than basically try to just chop everyone’s legs off. That one had persistent assets between each mission also, though it dropped the financial part, you just scavenged supplies along the way.

Mech 4 I missed out on, it was on my “find this and play for FFG” list for ages. Neither this nor the older games have appeared on digital distribution yet, as far as I can tell, so if you want to play any you’ll have to do it the old fashioned way and hunt down copies on ebay or look at abandonware sites. No idea how compatible they are with windows 10, sorry.

Anyways, I’ll let myself get a little excited about this latest installment, but not too excited just yet as the release is scheduled for 2018.

Thanksgiving retro-gaming

December 1st, 2016

Written by: Stoo

I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks in America visiting the Wife’s family and celebrating thanksgiving. Which was pretty great, with the key traditional features of a family gathering and stacks of food. Even if due to a hectic schedule led to us chopping vegetables and making pies at 2am the night before.

Anyways my brother in law has lately been in the mood to revisit some old Nintendo favourites, so while over there I was introducing him to emulation on his PC. As it happens I learned a few new tricks myself, because instead of installing a bunch separate emulators we ended up setting up Retroarch, something I’ve not tried before.

If you haven’t heard of it, Retroarch is a front end for running emulators for many different systems. The emulators are referred to as cores, and there are a wide range available, for just about every console you’d want. For popular systems like the SNES you’ll have a few choices. The cores are created by third parties and I think many are based on standalone emulators (I recongised Nestopia in there for example).

Cores aren’t included with the base package, but adding them is dead easy as you can choose what you want to install from within the Retroarch interface. Roms however, you will have to provide yourself from external sources, of course. I recommend emuparadise.me. Then just go back into Retroarch and tell it to scan whatever directory you put the Roms in.

The gui is geared towards use on a big screen, so it’s fairly uncluttered. It’s also geared towards use with a gamepad. In fact we found xbox controllers worked great for both the gui and cores without much tweaking required.

So we were pretty quickly up and running playing Mario Kart. My brother in law wanted to revisit Chip And Dale’s rescue rangers, which I’d never played but recognised as the work of Capcom, something about the music and graphics was a bit megaman-ish. He also indulged me in a game of Final Fight 3, one of my favourite of the old scrolling Beat ‘em Ups. In which I always play Mayor Haggar because he can grab bad guys, jump into the air then piledrive them into the sidewalk.

One other matter to report: we were also taken to an amazing arcade full of old 80s and 90s games. You pay a flat fee up front, at the door, then play any games as much as you like. Which is great because I suck at these arcade classics, so infinite continues are a must. I had a blast on a bunch of games including Galaga, some truly ancient vector-based star wars game, and Gauntlet 2. Meanwhile my wife and sister in law were happy playing some old racing game, and some pinball too.

The highlight was the 1992 x-men beat-em-up, which all four of us could play together. Infinite lives meant we could freely use the health-draining special moves, so I spent the entire game spamming Colossus’ “angry explosion” attack. Which he never actually does in the comics because his powers have nothing to do with explosions. We also had a four-player go at the Turtles arcade game, a trip back to that first wave of cartoon-fueled turtles mass popularity, circa 1989. This was entertaining also, although I was occasionally trying to control entirely the wrong turtle, since they all look pretty similar to each other.

So if you ever happen to be around northern Illinois, pay a visit to Underground Retrocade in West Dundee.