Creeper World 3: Arc Eternal

Now that I’ve broken silence, I should probably say something about what I’ve been playing for the past few months. I pretty much skipped the IF Comp this year — I tried, but it was an especially big year, and I just wasn’t in the mood for it, and wound up playing less then 10 games total. Instead, I have to confess that I spent an enormous amount of time on Creeper World 3: Arc Eternal. Probably more than it deserved, but I found it a tremendously easy pastime to default to.

I’ve posted briefly about Creeper World and its first sequel before. All three games are basically novel real-time strategy games, in which you expand a network of nodes that carries the “packets” you need to build and power weapons to fight an enemy called “creeper”, which is a fluid. Creeper emerges from “emitters” and just kind of pools and spreads out until it starts damaging your structures. The third game is back to the top-down view of the first, but brings along some of the mechanical improvements of the second game: that you can harvest ore (if it’s available) to produce your own “anti-creeper” that physically acts like creeper but is on your side, and that you can actually destroy the emitters instead of just parking cannons around them to destroy any creeper the moment it gets emitted. Destroying emitters makes for a much more satisfactory and conclusive-feeling victory.

It then adds some new mechanisms of its own, steadily increasing the complexity by introducing new things you can build and the conditions that make them necessary, as is customary in RTS campaign modes. There’s a “forge” that lets you mine “aether” to research upgrades, terraforming machines that slowly reshape the land per your instructions, and so forth. I particularly like the “guppy”, a flying non-combat unit that carries a cargo of packets to a designated landing spot. This lets you leapfrog past creeper-infested areas and build in areas disconnected from your base, enabling tactics otherwise impossible. I suppose it’s the game design pattern of “Impose arbitrary restrictions, then grant the player special powers to overcome them”, but it’s a well-done example of it.

Still, even as the mechanics get more complicated, the winning strategy remains more or less the same. Rush to grab as much land as you can defend. Defend it. If you have enough power to keep a stable border with the creeper, you can spend any excess on building what you need to break the stalemate and grab more land. Levels vary what challenges they present, and what resources they provide to meet them, but the rhythm of the game remains constant.

Until Farbor.

Farbor is the second-to-last level in the campaign, and it makes you hurry. In it, a number of enemy drones are collecting ore — the same ore you use to create anti-creeper — to build a monstrous invincible spacecraft, Sinistar-style. You only have so much time to stop them. You can build weapons to shoot down drones and slow down progress, but some of them are are out of reach, and you still have to fend off creeper while you do it. It seems utterly impossible to do everything fast enough. In fact, it’s not as difficult as it seems, because it moves the goalposts a couple times. If you fail to keep the ship from being built, you’re told that it’s going to go over to another building that will power it up and make it unstoppable. And if it reaches that building intact, you’re then told that it will take a full twenty minutes to power up. But the first several times I tried the level, I quit and restarted well before that point, when all seemed lost. And I remained in that state for a couple of months.

During those months, I tried the bonus levels. And that’s where it turned from a game to a habit. By the time you reach Farbor, you’ve unlocked two distinct sets of bonus levels: Tormented Space, which consists of ultra-hard levels, and Prospector Zone, which has fairly gentle levels full of collectible nubbins. And in both cases, there are many, many levels to try. I’ve barely made a dent in even the Prospector Zone, let alone Tormented Space. Probably because of the quantity, there’s a certain sameness to the maps after a while. They vary on a limited set of axes: map size, whether or not there’s ore and aether, whether the map is fully-connected or broken into islands, what enemies you’re facing in addition to mere creeper. The standard strategy still applies, without a lot of the frills they added to the main campaign. But the fact is, that seemed to be what I wanted at that point. I could always make progress. I could always sit down at night with a level I had never seen before, and finish it. And that apparently appealed to me while I couldn’t do the same with Farbor.

Also, the predictability makes it oddly satisfying for a game about warfare. Especially in a large level, you tend to set up your weapons and just leave them alone for a while, operating as a big machine, packets zipping along their lines, guppies sailing back and forth on their errands. Sometimes you place a bunch of weapons in one part of the map and then turn your attention somewhere else, and then when you look at the weapons again, they’ve done their job and cleared all the creeper out of an area, which is oddly satisfying.

Eventually I decided that I had gained enough expertise to tackle Farbor again, and learned what I’ve already said, and finished the game. And I might have stopped there, except that completing the campaign unlocks the Alpha Sector. This is another set of bonus levels, also large but not as large as the others. But these levels were made by testers during the game’s development, apparently before they had established standards of style or balance. So they’re not as polished as the other levels, but by the same token, not as uniform. One person will have a bunch of small levels clearly made by just scribbling around in the level editor. Another will have a meticulously-planned puzzle, where only one approach works, or even just use the scripting system to make a puzzle that has nothing to do with the usual mechanics of the game. Others take things to extremes, giving you a map that’s vaster than what you’ve seen before, or one that starts both you and the enemy off with far more power than you’re used to, or that bombs you with waves of creeper spores every second instead of every couple of minutes. Some levels are jokes. All of them feel personal. And that makes them fascinating to me. I can’t always sit down and win a level, because some of them are just unduly hard — the game specifically warns you that there’s no guarantee that they’re all even possible. But I can always sit down and see something new.

Come to think of it, the Alpha Sector is a bit like an RTS version of Cragne Manor. It’s even more like the fan-made levels that lots of games collect, I suppose, but enshrined as somehow special. Context makes it feel less like a user-made DROD hold and more like the rejected puzzles in an official hold’s Mastery area.

Cragne Manor

Back in June, noted interactive fiction authors Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna sent out a call for contributions. For the 20th anniversary of Michael Gentry’s classic Lovecraft-inspired cosmic horror game Anchorhead, they wanted to make a collaborative tribute game, where each participant writes one room. They expected about a dozen people to express interest. Instead, they got more than eighty, including me, but also IF luminaries Emily Short and Andrew Plotkin, Kingdom/West of Loathing authors Zack Johnson and Riff Conner, and even Michael Gentry himself. It’s one of the largest collaborative IF projects ever. Not the very largest, though; apparently there’s a furry porn game that has it beat handily, furry porn inconspicuously leading the way as always. But it had more authors the annual IF Comp has ever had. The resulting game, Cragne Manor was released to the public just a few days ago, after a lengthy testing period where the authors shook out the problems created by putting all the pieces together.

Again, each participant was responsible for a single room, although some bent this rule by creating sub-rooms or just plain additional rooms only accessible from their main one. Part of the organizers’ core concept was that they wanted the game to be a mishmash of authorial styles and intentions, like a patchwork quilt. And so they insisted that each author work basically alone, with no knowledge of what other people were writing, apart from how it directly touched their own work, exquisite-corpse-style. The organizers provided the bones of a plot and setting (one Naomi Cragne searching for her lost husband Peter in the fictional town of Backwater, Vermont), and negotiated with each writer how their room fit into the map and the game’s puzzle structure. Some, for example, were told “Your room contains a book which is one of many that needs to be returned to the public library for a puzzle. Here’s the specifics of how to implement a library book for this game.” Some others were told “Your room should have a puzzle that uses an object from another room to obtain an object used in a different other room, and we need to coordinate on what those objects are.”

The result is, as expected, incoherent. It reminds me a little of Deadly Premonition. Near the beginning of Deadly Premonition, before you even get to the town where the murder you’re supposed to be investigating took place, you fight your way through a zombie outbreak. The moment you reach town, the existence of zombies is forgotten about. That’s what Cragne Manor is like. Individual rooms confront you with horrors beyond imagining, scientific marvels, and dire revelations about the Cragne family that are only acknowledged in that room. One author, tasked with making a bridge, decided to make it a rope bridge in a cavern, even though both ends of the bridge are ordinary streets in the town of Backwater. And yet, it’s somehow surprisingly coherent for such an incoherent work. Each room is basically its own independent reality, but they sometimes sync up in fortuitous ways. Multiple rooms contain mirrors that act as portals to the past, something that their authors thought up independently, creating a sense of a general mechanism. The aforementioned bridge room features the colossal skeleton of some extinct monster; shortly after crossing it, you come across a paleontological dig. Seeing the strange bones uncovered there, your mind automatically draws a connection to the ones under the bridge, even though they seemed to be in a completely different game.

Also, a few of the more ambitious writers created things to give a sense of cross-room connection beyond the organizers’ plans. Lucian Smith made a puzzle that follows you around and interacts with those library books I mentioned. Emily Short’s room, otherwise one of the simpler ones, contains a creepy pull-string doll that comments on random objects in your current room by scanning their descriptions for words that she guessed other people would be using. (This is useful in some places for identifying objects you failed to notice.) Nonetheless, most rooms are self-contained or almost self-contained. One of the game’s big challenges is getting used to the degree to which you should ignore stuff from other rooms. One of its big design problems is that several authors who decided to make “obtain a cutting implement” puzzles, whose cutting implements can’t be used on each others’ cuttable items.

Mainly, though, the style and mood is wildly variable in a very fun way. Not every contributor was familiar with Anchorhead; not everyone who was familiar with it chose to imitate it. Some rooms are brimming with Lovecraft mythos references (something that Anchorhead itself notably did without, despite clearly bearing Lovecraft’s influence), and one or two even imitate his prose style. Others are ghost stories, or observations of small-town life, or surrealist, or comic, or gross. Adjacent rooms are often jarring juxtapositions. (Chris Jones’ meat packing plant bathroom — just the name of the room is full of promise! — is especially notable for pulling off a number of these weird juxtapositions within itself, as if reflecting the game as a whole.) There are crypts and tentacles and dark rituals and monstrous fungal blooms. And there’s lots and lots of books. Everyone knew that there was a puzzle track involving library books, and many people seemed to take this as permission to throw in journals and histories of their own. It’s been merrily pointed out that Backwater has more libraries than bathrooms.

The game is large. Just having more than eighty rooms makes it a large game in that sense, and some of the rooms are large individually, containing enough prose or puzzle content that they could have been released separately. Hanon Ondricek’s church scene, for example, is essentially a novella, and Andrew Plotkin’s workroom is a miniature Hadean Lands/Myst mashup, teaching the player a remixable system of magic words that can transport you to other worlds. (As with nearly everything in the game, those magic words only work in the room they were designed for.) On playing the full game, it was easy to feel like my own contribution was unusually slight, but I think that’s an illusion created by the fact that the larger rooms dominate the play experience.

Largely as a result of those large rooms, the last few rooms feel anticlimactic, as you use your hard-won inventory to perform a relatively simple ritual and wind up in a relatively simple and utterly disconnected endgame that doesn’t address anything that happened before. This is perhaps inevitable. A work in this genre should end in the protagonist coming to a realization that ties all their bizarre experiences together, and how could you possibly do that exquisite-corpse-style? For my money, the real climax of the game comes slightly before the ending, in a room that directly confronts Naomi with the fractured and mutable nature of her reality and identity, which she’s been oblivious to and which the player has been struggling to ignore through the entire game.

I highly recommend playing the game, although it’s probably best done with a group. Not necessarily as a group play session, but as a bunch of people who are discovering the game independently but in tandem, who can help each other through the more obtuse puzzles (some of which are pretty obtuse), laugh together at the more ridiculous things, congratulate each other on beating the larger rooms.

Kudos to Jenni and Ryan for tackling the unexpectedly mammoth task of integrating everyone’s disparate contributions into something playable. Communication is always the most difficult part of any large project, and actually making it against the rules didn’t help matters. One notable innovation they added is a divination device, discoverable within the first few rooms, in the form of a coffee cup — a subtle Anchorhead reference; some Anchorhead players carried a discarded coffee cup from the first few rooms with them for the entire game for no reason, so this time there’s a reason. Once you learn how to read it, the cup tells you whether you’ve solved all a room’s puzzles or not, and, if not, whether you have everything you need. During testing, I played the game for a while before this device was added, and found that it drastically improved the experience of the game. I wouldn’t necessarily want such a thing in a game produced under a single unified vision, but in Cragne Manor, it was immensely useful in clarifying the ever-shifting authorial intent.

Installing Windows 98: The Final Chapter?

Back on the retro hardware this weekend. The day’s efforts had several dramatic turns, starting with a cliffhanger I had forgotten about: the machine I was trying to install Windows 98 on had stopped booting. It just went silent and lightly sprinkled the logo screen with glitches before the POST, without so much as a beep code. This development was part of the reason I stopped working on it for two months. (There are other reasons, which I hope to post about soon.) In my experience, there are only ever two causes for this sort of behavior in my experience: improperly seated components, and components damaged by static electricity. And everything had seemed pretty firmly seated before.

This time, however, I noticed that one of the little lock-in levers on the memory slots was out of position, and in fact seemed to be broken enough that it couldn’t be put into position. Shifting the memory into a different slot fixed the immediate problem. I might as well have just taken it out completely, though, because it turns out that I had more memory in that box than Windows 98 knows how to cope with. It actually complained that I didn’t have enough memory because of the overflow.

“What’s this?” you cry. “You managed to get the Windows 98 installer to the point where it was capable of making spurious objections about memory?” Yes. It’s funny how that all worked out. Basically, I discovered by chance that the rudimentary DOS that the Win98 install floppy had installed on the hard drive was capable of reading from a USB flash drive. This was particularly surprising because I didn’t think that I had been able to read from a flash drive when booting from the Win98 install floppy — but maybe, just maybe, I had never actually tried. I can’t try it now, because shortly afterwards, the floppy drive mysteriously stopped functioning. Getting old hardware working is like spinning plates sometimes. The weirdest part is that the particular flash drive I’m using isn’t recognized by Windows 98 itself. Every time I want to use it, I have to boot the machine into DOS mode. Still, this sufficed to copy the entire Win98 CD to hard disk and install it from there. And so I now have a somewhat-functioning Windows 98 machine.

Only somewhat, though, because it’s clear that I won’t actually be able to play games this way, or at least, not the emulation-resistant games I’m doing this for. Even in Windows, I still haven’t gotten it to recognize any CD drive I own. I could possibly install Galaga: Destination Earth the same way I installed Windows, by copying it over via thumb drive, but this is one of those few games that plays CD-audio music during gameplay. You just don’t see that done any more in the age of digital distribution, but it used to not be all that uncommon in the days of the games that I’m specifically building this system for. Worst yet, I haven’t been able to install drivers for the graphics card. It’s an nVidia card, and nVidia distributes drivers via installer packages that cover all their cards. The very latest such installer for Windows 98 is from December 2005. It doesn’t recognize the the card I have installed. I assume this is because it was made after 2005.

I could keep on tinkering. There’s an off-chance that one of my other disused systems has hardware that Windows 98 supports. But it’s unlikely, because this box has the very oldest hardware I still possess. I thought for sure that it would be old enough for Windows 98, but I guess I overestimated how long I’ve kept stuff. So basically it’s time to give up on this route unless I get my hands on some older, more Win98-compatible hardware. I’ve looked into purchasing an entire refurbished Win98 system, but they’re a bit more expensive than this blog can justify. As for the system I’ve been working on, maybe I’ll reinstall XP on it if I can figure out how to get past the whole “activation” nonsense.

More Failures with Galaga: Destination Earth

Since Ultimate Spider-Man showed a very similar reluctance to run under Windows 10 as Galaga: Destination Earth, it seemed plausible that the cause might be the same: DRM. Specifically, USM uses SafeDisc, which Windows 10 considers to be a security violation. I still don’t know if that’s the case or not. I haven’t found a nocd crack for Galaga online. I did find some general instructions for circumventing SafeDisc on Windows 10 by downloading and signing a driver in administrator mode, but it didn’t seem to help. Maybe Galaga instead uses SecuROM, another DRM system that Windows 10 doesn’t like, with a bigger reputation as a security risk, widely accused of flat-out being a rootkit. Or maybe the problem was never really DRM at all.

Regardless, it seems like my best bet is still to set up a Windows 98 machine, which is something I kind of want to do anyway for the sake of other games. But in the course of searching for nocd cracks, I discovered another option: archive.org has the Playstation version of Galaga: Destination Earth available to play online. And I did play that for long enough to get through the first level, but I won’t be continuing there. The sound is unbearably choppy in my browser, just constantly cutting in and out, and the resolution is significantly below what I’m willing to accept for this game. That is, it’s probably 256×224, designed for a standard definition television with a certain amount of blur. I’m not really very demanding about resolution. 800×600 is plenty for me in a game designed around 3D graphics, like this one. I might even get used to 256×224. But the sound is a real deal-breaker.

At least I did legitimately play it for a little while, though!

Ultimate Spider-Man: Finished

I guess I’m done. The rooftop fight with Venom and the helicopter was, in fact, the final mission, and a little extra health from the combat tours was enough to get me through it. The game clearly wants me to keep playing, though, doing races and hunting for tokens and so forth. It even unlocked Venom for use outside of the missions. But I’m done.

Venom gets his own races, designed around his abilities, and also a special rampage mode where you try to cause as much damage as possible to people and cars before soldiers take you down with escalating firepower. It’s highly reminiscent of playing GTA and committing crimes until your Wanted level hits five stars. I tried this out for one full session, getting to the point where they were sending helicopters after me. I don’t see a need to do it again. I do like how it started, though. Unlike the races and combat tours, there’s no in-world token you use to start a rampage. You just pick up a car and throw it, and that starts your rampage. The game seamlessly adds some rampage-specific UI to the screen in response, displaying your current Wanted level and how many points of senseless damage you’ve scored. It makes perfect sense: if a player is throwing cars around, of course they want to be in rampage mode. I’d like to see more special modes and mini-games activated naturally and automatically like this.

Overall, this game is a weird mixture of highly polished and not quite satisfying. The art is stylishly toon-shaded, but not quite toon-shaded enough to remain visually interesting. Swinging around the city is viscerally fun (especially in comparison to earlier Spider-Man games), but kind of empty, especially when you wind up mostly visiting the same two or three locations. Races try to address that, but they’re too disconnected from the fiction to be really satisfying. The combat tours have a bit of tactical depth, as you try to decide whether it’s more urgent to knock another thug down or to web up his already-fallen droogs to keep them from getting up, but there’s no application of this depth to the story missions, which are nearly all one-on-one fights. As Venom, you can throw cars around, but you can’t damage buildings. There are a lot of Ultimate Marvel cameos, but a couple of really noticeable absences: even though the game keeps telling you to go to Aunt May’s house and the Daily Bugle to trigger story missions, you never see Aunt May or J. Jonah Jameson. I think I have to regard this game mainly as transitional, an experiment in open-world Spider-manning that would eventually lead to better-developed works like the recent PS4 game. But even there, I’m seeing some reports of similar sentiments.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Combat Tours

I wasn’t having much luck in what I believe to be the final mission, a rooftop battle against Venom where he’s suddenly more powerful and also you have to stop him from destroying a helicopter. It’s possible that there’s some trick I’m missing that would make it easy. It wouldn’t be the first time I was stuck on something like that: a mid-game Venom vs Electro battle in Times Square hinges on the realization that you can destroy the electrified signs that Electro is using to recharge his powers. But I’ve gotten close enough to beating him that I don’t think this is the case for Venom. Maybe he has a second form that’s more puzzle-like. In fact, I’ll be a little disappointed if he doesn’t.

Due to my lack of progress, I did what I always seem to do at the end of GTA-like open-world games: I took a break from the missions to go grinding. Ultimate Spider-Man doesn’t exactly have an XP system, but it does provide character improvements based on optional side stuff. Do enough combat tours, and your maximum health increases. Get enough race medals, and you can throw more punches in a row. (There doesn’t seem to be a mechanical benefit corresponding to city events. Doing good is its own reward, I guess.) Both of these rewards seemed like they might help against Venom, although perhaps not much — it’s usually the helicopter that makes me lose. But perhaps if I had more health I could be a little more reckless in its defense.

I mostly pursued the combat tours, because they seemed easier than the races, although I may be wrong about that by now — new combat tours appear as you complete the old ones, and some of the new ones took multiple tries. The more I played them, the more I thought about what I was doing, and the less I liked it. The whole idea behind combat tours is that they send you seeking out members of one of the four fictional gangs roaming different parts of New York. Queens has the Yancy Street Gang, a bunch of low-level chumps from England; midtown Manhattan has the High Rollers, a bunch of rich kids with expensive weapons; uptown has the Die-Caste, military enthusiasts with cybernetic enhancements; and downtown has the Mei Hua Bang, a bunch of Chinese martial artists. That’s all comfortably remote from any real New York street gangs, although the fourth feeds into stereotypes, and it’s not like the game has any Chinese characters, or British characters for that matter, who aren’t in a street gang. Moreover, the combat tours cast Spider-Man as the aggressor. The people you’re seeking out to beat up aren’t committing any crimes before you approach them. If they were, it would be a city event, not a combat tour. You’re essentially profiling them, pummeling them to unconsciousness and tying them up with webbing on the sole basis of how they dress.

If the game were a little more abstract, I wouldn’t mind. But this is set in a fairly detailed (if artistically stylized) replica of New York City, and that’s enough for me to take the place of these game pieces in that city just a little seriously. GTA3 has similar issues, but at least it has the decency to acknowledge that it’s being a jerk.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Cross-Purposes

I’m pretty sure I’m in the endgame at this point, a longish sequence of set-pieces with no free exploration separating them. Before this point, you’re pretty much playing two separate stories that intersect occasionally: the story of Spider-Man battling various bad guys wreaking havoc in New York City (including Venom), and the story of Venom battling the mercenaries sent by Bolivar Trask to capture him and retrieve the symbiote. These stories merge when Trask figures out that Peter Parker is connected to Venom and sends forces to collect him as well.

There’s a narratively peculiar thing that happens in games sometimes, where the interactive portions make you expend effort towards an end that is then contradicted by a cutscene. Here, Silver Sable attacks Peter with a tranquilizer gun to capture him for Trask — yielding some good comedy as the only immediate visible effect of the darts is his increasing annoyance — and you have to defeat her in combat. But after the fight is over (and after a chase sequence and fight against Venom), Spider-Man winds up falling unconscious and getting captured anyway, because the story needs the action to move to Trask’s laboratory and that’s the easiest way to get all relevant parties there. So why bother fighting, if you’re going to get captured anyway? Because getting captured before the cutscene is failure, and failure ends the game. But there is no real in-story reason for Spider-Man to prefer one outcome over the other.

But then, this isn’t exactly a game about playing a role and advancing a character’s goals. The player’s goal is to advance the plot, whatever that means at any given moment, even if it means acting in contradiction to previous goals. Sometimes you’re Venom, sometimes you’re Spider-Man fighting Venom. At one point, you’re Venom defending Spider-Man from another villain, in a Joker-like “No one is allowed to kill him but me” kind of way. Later, in the endgame sequence in the lab, you’re Venom fighting Spider-Man, although the game hides this from you: you’re attacked by a smaller red symbiote that you might assume to be Carnage, but when you defeat it, it turns out to have Peter Parker inside. Presumably it was considered necessary to trick the player into attacking him. It might have felt weird otherwise.

The point is that the player’s goals very from scene to scene, even if the means of achieving those goals are generally the same: chasing, fighting, going to checkpoints, a little light puzzle-boss solving. I feel like the interstitial cutscenes often go by too fast and don’t take enough time to make the character motivations comprehensible. Perhaps someone more familiar with the comics wouldn’t have this problem. But it hardly matters, because the game is usually pretty clear about what you’re trying to do, even if you don’t always know why you’re doing it.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Chases

I have to admit at this point that I’ve never actually read any comics featuring Venom. He was invented in the middle of the indie comics boom of the 1980s, when I was turning up my nose at Marvel as a matter of principle. Most of what I know about him is what I’ve picked up through geek-cultural osmosis and secondary sources like movies and videogames. So I didn’t really get him as a character until I played the Neversoft Spider-Man game from 2000.

His depiction there isn’t much like in Ultimate Spider-Man, because The 2000 Spider-Man doesn’t take itself at all seriously. It wallows in the comics’ goofy, silly, childish side, where supervillains are just schoolyard bullies writ large. In this context, Venom isn’t just Spider-man as a monster, as I put it in the last post. He’s a bigger kid who you’re jealous of because he’s better at being you than you are. He’s Spider-Man’s Spider-Man, casually outdoing him in the same way that Spidey outdoes ordinary people. And he teases him relentlessly about it, in a deep, gravelly voice — which stings all the more because teasing your enemies is just another thing that he stole from Spidey. The encounter with Venom in this game isn’t even a fight. It’s a race, one web-swinger against another. Because apparently at this point in the continuity, Venom has made his peace with Spider-Man and no longer wants to kill him, but still wants to prove he’s better at being Spider-Man.

That race was one of the most memorable things about the game, partly because it was so hard. Getting from place to place via web-swinging using the controls in these games is difficult enough to do at all, let alone to do fast. And Ultimate Spider-Man keeps reminding me of this sequence, because so many of the supervillains you’re fighting have to be chased down first. The chief difference is that these aren’t races you can win by going faster. Your goal is to keep close enough to the enemy to keep them from escaping, sometimes with the additional constraint of not getting so close to them that they hurt you.

But the one chase that I had the hardest time with, it was because it was the first time I chased someone using Venom, and I hadn’t really learned his controls. Unlike in that first Spider-Man game, Venom doesn’t swing. His chief means of getting places fast is by jumping high in the air, like the Hulk. It’s not quite leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, but he can easily use one bound to get on the roof of a medium-sized building and leap a tall building from there. The problem is, I had forgotten how to do this, or even that it could be done. By this point in the game, I had Spider-Man’s controls down completely, because I had spent so much time just exploring the city as Spider-Man. But Venom only comes out for the Venom missions, and my explorations meant that it had been a long time since the tutorial. Thank goodness I still have the printed manual.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimate Venom

The Treyarch Spider-Man games are notable for their lack of continuity with each other, even as they build on each other technically. It’s kind of like Final Fantasy that way, but a little weirder, because they’re all adapted from different versions of the Marvel universe, and feature different versions of the same characters. Their first Spider-Man was set in the “Earth-616” universe of the comics, where Spider-Man’s extensive rogues gallery is an established fact that the player is expected to be at least somewhat familiar with. 1[15 Sept 2018] Correction: The first Treyarch Spider-Man game was in fact a tie-in game for the 2002 Spider-Man movie. The game I describe here was developed by Neversoft, not Treyarch, and released two years earlier. Both of these games are titled “Spider-Man”. Spider-Man 2 was a tie-in game for the movie of the same name. The third game is Ultimate Spider-Man, and it’s based on the Ultimate Spider-Man comics series, part of the Ultimate Marvel line. I frankly don’t know a lot about Ultimate Marvel, but my impression is that it was in part an attempt at a more accessible Marvel universe, one that wasn’t dragging four decades of confusing and ill-planned backstory behind it. Characters were simplified to their most iconic forms, or at least their most commonly-familiar ones.

As a result, Peter Parker is still in high school in this game. But he’s already an accepted part of New York’s superhero scene, with the result that other heroes can make random cameos. Johnny “Human Torch” Storm, for example, just shows up apropos of nothing early in the game to challenge Spidey to a race. Wolverine just shows up in a bar in one scene. At the same time, Peter is new enough at this that he hasn’t met very many of his villains yet. Boss fights tend to be preceded by introductions.

In particular, the designers made the very strange choice of starting the game halfway through Venom’s origin story. The intro cutscene rushes through a condensed version of the “black costume” story — the Ultimate version, in which the living-symbiote-disguised-as-a-unitard is created in a laboratory, instead of being from outer space. We hear Peter narrate how the costume enhanced his abilities and made him feel great, but we don’t get to see or experience that for ourselves. Instead, we pick things up when the symbiote first bonds with Eddie Brock.

The base concept of Venom is “Spider-Man but he’s a monster”, so playing as Venom is broadly similar to playing as Spidey, but he doesn’t quite have the same capabilities. The controls handle differently. His movements are more forceful than graceful. His climbing animation looks like it’s damaging the building. There are no “events” for Venom, no opportunities to rescue innocents. Instead, you can grab passersby with your tentacles and absorb their life essence to heal yourself. (There’s a nice little gameplay gag about this when Venom fights Wolverine in that bar I mentioned: whenever Wolverine retreats to heal himself, you have to decide whether to whack him with a tentacle to stop it or take advantage of the lull to grab a cowering biker or two.) And, generally, Venom is more powerful than Spidey, so his challenges are correspondingly more demanding. Venom is constantly under attack by heavily-armed soldiers sent to retrieve the symbiote.

Also, the Venom scenes always happen at night. For the first several days of the story, there’s a consistent pattern of: Peter goes to school; Peter goes to the Daily Bugle; there’s a supervillain fight at one of those two points; Peter goes home to Aunt May; and then it’s night and there’s a Venom sequence. And it strikes me that this structure makes a whole lot more sense for the part of the story that they skipped over: the part where the symbiote is still with Peter, and takes over his body every night to go crime-fighting without his awareness. I speculate that this was the intended design at some point in the game’s development.

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1. [15 Sept 2018] Correction: The first Treyarch Spider-Man game was in fact a tie-in game for the 2002 Spider-Man movie. The game I describe here was developed by Neversoft, not Treyarch, and released two years earlier. Both of these games are titled “Spider-Man”.

Ultimate Spider-Man

For the last couple of days, my Twitter feed has been all agog over the new Spider-Man game for the PS4. I don’t have a PS4, but I do have an open-world Spider-Man game I haven’t finished: Ultimate Spider-Man (Treyarch, 2005). I recall playing just the start of it back in 2006, in the last days before this blog. I’m not sure why I didn’t play more. Possibly I found the open world intimidating. Or maybe the framerate was slow and I wanted to wait to play it on a faster machine — it had to have been pretty demanding at the time.

Running it on Windows 10 was a little difficult. It installs without apparent problems, the game itself simply exits immediately, much like Galaga: Destination Earth did. But USM is apparently a better-loved game than G:DE, because I was easily able to find an explanation online, if not a solution, via pcgamingwiki.com. It’s all down to the DRM. USM uses SafeDisc DRM, which apparently doesn’t work on Windows 10 for security reasons, just like SecuROM. Fortunately, I was able to find a reputable-looking no-CD crack on the web. Windows 10 doesn’t much like the security implications of running random programs downloaded from the internet either, but at least it’s willing to ask me about it instead of just shutting the thing down automatically. When I’m through with this, I’ll have to give G:DE another look and see if it’s using SafeDisc or SecuROM too. If it is, it’s conceivable that I could hack around it.

One other problem: some of the cutscenes glitch up the screen badly. Only a few of them, though, and it hasn’t been an impediment to understanding what’s going on, so I’m putting up with it.

I’ve played for a few hours, and it’s already feeling repetitive. To some extent, that’s my fault. I could propel the plot forward faster than I’ve been doing. It’s just that it’s fun to just swoop around exploring, and there’s a lot of stuff clamoring for Spidey’s attention in New York: tokens to collect, timed web-swinging races, “combat tours” where you follow an arrow and beat up gang members. Those are all have GTA3 equivalents, but there’s one more type of collectible: “events”, which is what the game calls it when a citizen needs your help. A red spot appears on the mini-map, and when you reach it, you find a woman menaced by hoodlums, or a getaway car fleeing a robbery, or a man dangling precariously from a ledge. You can hardly refuse those, can you? But the game seems to have only so many event types, so they get repeated a lot.

The game doesn’t entirely give a choice, either. Before you can go to the next plot-advancing checkpoint, you have to meet a quota of “city goals”, which is to say, a minimum count of tokens, races, combat tours, and events. Your totals carry over, however, and I’m currently well ahead of the requirements on all points except combat tours. I suspect that it’s calibrated so that you don’t really have to grind the goals, that you’ll meet the minimal requirements just by doing the things you happen to come across on your way to the Daily Bugle or whatever.

Between spider-missions, there are bits where you play as Venom. I’ll talk about him in my next post.

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