Archive for January, 2009

Rocko’s Quest

rocko-villageSo, I’ve pretty much devoted this month to just getting things off the Stack quickly, chosing games that I don’t expect to take long to play. Success rate so far: 50%. I figure I have just about one more chance before the month is over. Rocko’s Quest, a budget 3D platformer/brawler from 2003, is a natural but risky choice. My first run on this game ended with a consistent crash at a point that I have every reason to believe was right before the final boss fight. I’ve undergone enough upgrades since then that I’m hopeful things will work now, but it’ll be a little while before I know. This is not a game that lets you save whenever you want, so my prior progress only counts for so much.

Rocko is a big muscular half-naked sword guy on a mission to rescue his girlfriend from goblinoid kidnappers. The manual cracks wise about how stupid he is, but there’s really no evidence of this in the game, apart from the prejudices the player brings to it. I purchased this game because it was cheap during a time of my life when that was all it took. And indeed it certainly feels cheap. It’s made mostly of huge polygons that scream “3Dfx” to a gamer of my vintage, and has that budget-title mismatch between what it purports to be and what it is. For example, it purports to be humorous. It’s got a jokey manual and a cartoony hero and comedy background music, but it stops short of actually having anything funny happen, unless you count the simple slapstick of hitting people and having them fall over. (This relates to what I was saying earlier about I Was In the War. I’ll probably return to this point in my next post.)

Also, it seems to want to focus on swordplay — certainly it throws enough enemies at you — but the swordplay is far too simple for that. And I don’t mean easy (although it is that too), I mean simple, in the sense of having few components. There aren’t any special moves, just an attack button that takes a swing in the direction you’re moving at the time. The more powerful weapons tend to be heavy things that swing ponderously, even in the hands of a Rocko, so I find it generally worthwhile to repeatedly step forward when swinging and backwards to avoid retaliation (a maneuver I think of as the Underworld Shuffle, for its utility in the Ultima Underworld games). This technique is effective for every fight in the game, including the bosses.

So fighting isn’t difficult. The difficult part is the traps. Mostly these take the form of something slamming back and forth across a hallway, killing you instantly if you go through with the wrong timing. Moving platforms over bottomless pits also play a role. Instant-death traps like these are the main way the game extends its gameplay: you only have so many lives to expend before you have to start the level over, and the levels are fairly long. The final level was particularly deadly, with some traps that could easily consume a dozen lives for each time I got past it. I remember developing various little tricks to help me get past the traps — moving the camera to make it easier to see exactly how close I could get safely, drawing or sheathing my weapon for the change it made to Rocko’s gait. But since I don’t remember all the tricks now, my current plan is to practice up first by going through all the prior levels at least once. I’m currently up to level 4 of 8.

Tender Loving Care: More tech stuff

After my post about my difficulties getting TLC working, I got a couple of comments with suggestions. Unfortunately, neither has been enough to get things working.

The first suggestion, from Jason Dyer, was to get the official patch from archive.org. Unfortunately, the copy there seems to be corrupt: it’s a self-extracting executable, and it failed to unzip itself. However, finding a patch there inspired me to look for patches elsewhere, and I found a working zip file (not a self-extractor) at patches-scrolls.de. This had a tangible effect: after installing it, I no longer got the error messages about inability to adjust the DVD volume. However, it still skipped over all the video content.

The second suggestion, from malkav11, was to use a video player, such as VLC. A surprising suggestion, perhaps, but apparently Groovie isn’t so much a programming language or development system as a video playback system with a certain amount of scripting capability. Which explains a lot about the design of The 7th Guest. True, it’s a bit more powerful than ordinary DVD scripting — consider T7G‘s infamous microscope puzzle. But even an ordinary DVD player has to be capable of doing more than just playing a sequence of data tracks on a playlist. DVD data includes menus, and that means responding to user input in a scriptable way. Viewed thus, there’s no reason a DVD player couldn’t handle TLC if it could load its scripting engine.

That said, after an evening of fiddling with VLC, I still haven’t convinced it to do anything more than play the individual noninteractive video and audio tracks. Much of the video content is in the form of VOBs, the familiar elements of ordinary video DVDs, but since they’re not in a directory called VIDEO_TS, DVD players won’t recognize the disc as something playable. So, obviously I’m hoping that malkav11 will respond with more details about how he got this to work (although I’m not hopeful, because he barely remembered as much as he said).

Browsing forum posts, I find it suggested that my problems might stem from the lack of an MPEG2 decoder card. Now, I hope that isn’t the case, because that would be silly. No one who has a machine capable of playing Half-Life 2 needs dedicated hardware for DVD decoding. But I don’t know a lot about how Windows DVD drivers work; I’ve basically assumed that programs that need to do MPEG2 playback just make some system call that can be handled through either software or hardware, but what if I’m wrong?

[ADDENDUM] I’m seeing some evidence that there are in fact two different DVD versions: a Groovie-based DVD-ROM one (which is what I have), and a standard DVD version that can be played in an ordinary DVD player. It seems like the simple-DVD version would lose any advanced Groovie scripting, but I don’t know how much TLC takes advantage of that anyway. It’s kind of like the whole problem with “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” interfaces: the interface tells you very little about the underlying model. You just can’t tell how deep or shallow it is from a single playthrough. It might be all on the surface, a simple series of forking paths, or it might be keeping hidden variables, using all your past actions rather than just your present choice to determine what happens next. At any rate, I’m giving up on the play-it-in-a-media-player route for now.

The Next Tetris: Examining the Zipper

tnt-zipperOK, let’s try to analyze this a little. The Next Tetris practice level 19, “Zipper”, has the initial layout pictured here. There are seven rows of garbage squares. Only the bottommost row — the grey one — counts for completing the level, but the gap in that row can only be accessed by fist getting rid of the row above it, which in turn needs the row above that deleted, and so on. The level is supposed to be completed in nine moves, which means adding 36 squares to the board. There are 18 empty spaces, which leaves 18 squares to lump up on top. The board is 10 squares wide, so at most one additional row above the initial garbage can be filled, leaving 8 squares left at the end. One of the big questions here is whether it’s worthwhile to try to complete such an extra row.

Here are the nine pieces, in the order they appear:

The nine pieces in The Next Tetris practice level 19

(Recall that color is significant. Blocks of the same color fuse together and fall as a unit, while a piece composed of multiple colors will break apart upon first coming to rest. This has some non-obvious consequences. For example, if you drop the first piece here the opposite way up into one of the gaps on this board, it’ll stay the shape it is until you delete the first row, at which point the right side will fall one row farther than the left side, and the red squares on both sides will stick together, forming a unit two squares wide.)

Now, all of the gaps in the initial layout are one square wide. Of the 36 squares that compose our nine pieces, 11 have a horizontal neighbor of the same color no matter how they’re rotated, and thus cannot possibly fit into a one-square-wide gap. Let’s call these “blocker squares”. Another 11 squares are directly attached to blocker squares of the same color. If these are placed in a gap, the adjacent blocker square will have to be above it, preventing access to any further gaps in that column, unless you can complete that extra row and delete it. The remaining 14 squares are detached units or straght columns that can be used to freely fill in whatever needs them, provided they don’t glob onto something else of the same color and get stuck.

The obvious thing to do with the straight piece (or “I” piece) is to put it in the 4-deep straight hole on the right. But obviousness is no guarantee of correctness — the I could also very well fill the vertically-arranged four gaps in the very middle. This works well with the level’s name — the I is like the zipper that pulls downward through the middle and tears the whole structure apart. Also, the I is a color that isn’t used in any of the other pieces, which makes it more useful in the middle, where it helps to keep things from getting stuck to each other. But if you put it there, you’ll have to come up with some other way to fill in the straight gap, and nothing else fits quite as easily. Filling an extra row is almost necessary in such a scheme.

Two other pieces are of special note. The 2-by-2 block (or “O”) is composed entirely of blocker squares, and is of no use whatever for filling gaps in the garbage. It’s also composed of a color almost unused otherwise, so it isn’t much use as a complication either: just throw it to the side and it won’t interfere. This makes me think that it serves in the puzzle to help complete the extra row. At this point, there’s so much circumstantial evidence in favor of the extra row hypothesis that I’ll be really surprised if it’s wrong.

The other is the final piece, the green “S”. Because it’s the last piece, it has to either fill in the final gap, or trigger a cascade that fills it in. On purely aesthetic grounds, I suspect that a final cascade won’t involve only part of the initial layout. Either the garbage above the goal row will all be gone by the time this piece is placed, or it’ll all still be there. In the latter case, there’s some difficulty in placing the S. This scenario requires all but one of the gappy columns to be capped with a tower of pieces waiting to fall into place. The only original gap that could possibly accommodate the S in this situation is the straight pit on the right, which would have to have three pieces in it already and have nothing on its left to keep the S out; this could clearly only happen if an extra row had been deleted. Alternately, the S itself could complete the extra row.

So, I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s probably an extra row to be built and deleted, and the I could plausibly go in the middle. I’ll have to try things along these lines the next time I play.

The Next Tetris: I am sad

Well, I’m still stuck on that last practice level. It’s a toughie.

The puzzle title is “Zipper”. It features filled and unfilled squares in a checkerboard pattern, which means that whenever you use a piece that’s more than one column wide (after taking splitting by color into account), you’ll wind up with an overhanging bit that prevents you from filling in the space beneath it. Recall that pieces (or piece fragments) of the same color stick together, potentially fusing into a piece that’s more than one column wide after you’ve placed them. This makes this puzzle unique among the practice levels in that the challenge has a lot to do with not just making the most of the pieces you’ve got, but also finding ways of getting rid of the ones you don’t want.

At one point, I was about ready to give up on this one. I hit Gamefaqs, hoping to find a nudge in the right direction. And indeed there is a guide to the practice levels there! It even features nice gentle hints, describing the general approach you have to take for each puzzle and letting you work out the details yourself. It’s always a relief to find well-written hints. Far too often the hint-writers just give everything away. Unfortunately, the person who wrote these hints couldn’t figure the last puzzle either, so it’s not a lot of use to me.

The Next Tetris

nexttetrisWhat an terrible title! Not only is it far from distinctive — a completely different Tetris variant called The New Tetris was released around the same time — it’s also quite arrogant. Or at least it is if you interpret it as “The thing that will be as significant to game culture as Tetris was”, as in “Every game designer hopes that their creation will be the next Tetris“. If you interpret it as “One more Tetris among many”, it’s a bit less so. Under that view, it even implies that the gameplay is so generic that they couldn’t come up with a descriptive title. Which isn’t really true: The Next Tetris delivered some genuine innovation within the Tetris format, subsequently reused in other titles. Instead of making every block completely static once it’s finished falling, staying with its row even when isolated and unsupported, TNT makes blocks only stick together if they’re the same color and fall otherwise. Delete a row, and bits of the row above have the potential to fill in gaps in the row below, potentially making Bejewelled-like cascades. To promote this kind of behavior, the designers decided to make two-color pieces that have the potential to split apart immediately on placement, if placed right.

Doesn’t this all make it easier? Well, yes. Yes it does. Even ignoring the potential for cascades, the frangibility of the pieces means that you don’t need to spend so much time waiting for the straight piece to come up. The designers compensate for the increased ease with horrible, horrible time limits.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. The main game here is, for me, a sideline. The real reason I picked this game up is that I learned Scott Kim was involved in its creation. Although he’s probably still best-known for his invertable calligraphy, Kim is also an accomplished puzzlesmith with about a dozen games under his belt. Among them is Obsidian, which provided me with one of the most beautifully transcendent moments of realization I’ve experienced in a lifetime of gaming. 1Figuring out the override for the non-regulation flight, in case you’ve played it and were wondering. This memory was still fresh in my mind when TNT came out.

Kim’s specific contribution to TNT is a series of puzzle levels — yes, real puzzles, with designed solutions which you can discover by thinking about them, rather than the random configurations and speed play of normal Tetris and most other so-called “puzzle” games. In each, you’re given a fixed initial board and a fixed sequence of pieces, and you have a figure out how to delete the initial “garbage” in the minimum number of moves. (If you exceed par, the game lets you keep playing, but you know you’ve failed.) Some of them seem to be just a matter of trying different configurations until one works, but the better ones have some gimmick, some underlying principle that makes the whole thing easy when you think of it. For example, in the screenshot included here, the trick is to make the blocks into an inverted copy of the empty space, so that everything just cascades into place when the final piece unlocks the whole structure.

The puzzle levels are not a large part of the game, or one that it draws a great deal of attention to. I suspect that there are people who have played TNT a great deal who don’t even know they exist, just as I ignore multiplayer mode on most games. They’re listed under the main menu as “Practice Mode”, which is a lie: practicing the main game by playing these levels would be like practicing swimming by taking a long shower. It involves the same elements, but applied in a different way. Normal Tetris doesn’t allow you to replay the same situation over and over until you get it right, and that makes a huge difference. So does the certain knowledge that there is, in fact, a solution. You can’t blame the random number generator for your problems. No, you’d have to blame Scott Kim.

There are 19 practice mode levels. In my last session, I solved all but one, although not in order. If it takes me more than one more session to figure out the last, I will be sad.

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1. Figuring out the override for the non-regulation flight, in case you’ve played it and were wondering.

Tender Loving Care: Tech stuff

Tender Loving Care is one of an all-but-dead breed, the Interactive Movie. A lot of people seem to have been convinced at one point that this was the future of digital media. The whole phenomenon was inextricably bound up with the introduction of the CD-ROM, with its impressively large storage capacity compared to floppy disks, making it suddenly practical to include heaps of choppy low-res video content in games. The irony is that, by the time DVD-ROM technology was in wide use and we could really do interactive movies properly, the fad was pretty much over. Producers had figured out that people didn’t want interactive movies, they wanted games.

That being the case, TLC is easily seen as trailing the wave: it was made in both CD-ROM and DVD-ROM versions. Even the DVD version doesn’t have DVD video, though. It features video data for the “Groovie” engine, the system used by The 7th Guest and very little else. 1To be precise, the complete set of Groovie games consists of T7G, The 11th Hour (the sequel to T7G), Clandestiny, Uncle Henry’s Playhouse (a collection of minigames from the three previously-listed titles), and this. I’ve already played T7G, T11H, and Clandestiny. Once I get through TLC, I can reasonably claim to have exhausted a data format. How’s that for completism? I suppose they had to use more or less the same format as the CD version, except of course at higher quality.

I purchased the DVD version when it was new, mainly because I had a DVD-ROM drive and very little to use it with. 2Game publishers were a lot slower than users to embrace the DVD, and for good reason: even if 90% of your potential audience has the newer technology, you don’t want to lose 10% of your sales if you can avoid it. I got a few hours into the story, but then my drive decided to stop recognizing the disk and crash the program. Since the system only saves your progress when you quit, and I hadn’t quit, I’d have had to start over from the beginning, and I didn’t feel like sitting through the same videos — or, worse, through different ones, because I doubt I’d be able to duplicate my choices from the first time, but didn’t want to confuse myself with two different stories just yet. So I set it aside and resolved to wait until I had forgotten it all and could approach it afresh. And here we are, ten years later.

And in those ten years, my window of compatibility seems to have closed. Whenever the game is supposed to play video content, it instead pops up an error box stating “Unable to adjust volume on this DVD platform”. Compatibility mode doesn’t help — indeed, it makes it crash immediately on execution most of the time. The game’s official site is still up, and mentions a “DVD-ROM update”, but the link it provides is broken. Web-searching hasn’t turned up any help yet — it has the handicap of being a rather obscure work with a title that’s a common phrase. So until I find a retrogaming site that knows about it, back on the stack it goes. Maybe if I wait a few more years ScummVM will support it.

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1. To be precise, the complete set of Groovie games consists of T7G, The 11th Hour (the sequel to T7G), Clandestiny, Uncle Henry’s Playhouse (a collection of minigames from the three previously-listed titles), and this. I’ve already played T7G, T11H, and Clandestiny. Once I get through TLC, I can reasonably claim to have exhausted a data format. How’s that for completism?
2. Game publishers were a lot slower than users to embrace the DVD, and for good reason: even if 90% of your potential audience has the newer technology, you don’t want to lose 10% of your sales if you can avoid it.

Peggle

My first taste of Peggle, PopCap’s immensely popular Breakout/pachinko hybrid, came from the official demo. I generally try the demos of PopCap’s games as they come out. They provide a solid hour of entertainment, and once the hour is up, you’re done. Every once in a while there’s one that’s interesting enough to make me register it, but usually I just walk away when I hit the time limit. And that’s what I did with Peggle. The demo left me with the impression of a game that had a lot of lovely sparkle and glitter, but one that was not terribly deep and heavily luck-based, as it’s usually impossible to predict where the ball will go after its second bounce.

Then I got the Orange Box, and with it came Peggle Extreme, an Orange-Box-themed Peggle demo with background pictures of rubble and headcrabs replacing the pastoral scenes and woodland creatures of the original. 1I notice that the Steam version of the Orange Box no longer includes Peggle Extreme, but that’s because it’s now downloadable for free. But the art wasn’t the only thing that was different. Instead of limited time, it offered limited content — ten (new) levels and as much time as you liked to beat them. It was finishable, so I finished it. Then I played all the Challenge levels. Then I played all the levels again, going for 100% completion on each, and at some point I realized that I was going to have to get the full game.

I think that part of the reason the Extreme demo worked so much better for me is that I needed the extra time, and access to the Challenge levels, to see that there was more to the game than luck and a little trivial decision-making. Luck is a big factor — heck, the game sometimes awards a 25000-point “Lucky Bounce” bonus. Yes, a reward for something that’s explicitly unintended and out of the player’s control. But random elements in a game just mean that you have to learn to play the odds. You can’t control what happens, but you can try to play in a way that makes beneficial things more likely. For example, there’s a score multiplier that increases as you clear orange pegs. Scoring big on a single shot is important because it gets you more balls, so it’s good to get a lot of orange pegs early on, and, if possible, leave the blue pegs intact so they’ll be worth more once your multiplier is up. So you look for clusters of orange where you’ll be likely to hit more than one at a time and go for those first.

Also, there actually are definite points of skill in the game, just ones that I didn’t find in my initial hour. It takes practice to aim into a curved line of bricks so that the ball slides along the whole line rather than bouncing off, a technique that’s crucial to getting 100% completion on some boards. Then there’s the “ball bucket”, which bounces from side to side at the bottom of the screen. When the bucket catches a ball, you get to use that ball again. For most shots, the ball bucket amounts to just another random factor, because of the unpredictability of how the ball will bounce after the second peg. But when the board is clear enough, you can try to get into the bucket on a single bounce. This takes practice, and the game recognizes this: getting one peg and the bucket nets you a 5000-point bonus, which is far from enough to get you an extra ball 2Remember, extra balls are awarded for scoring high in a single shot, not for cumulative score., but can help considerably in those Challenge levels with a target score.

One point of interest I didn’t get from either demo: choosing teachers. You always have some kind of teacher (in the form of a cute animal mascot 3Or, in a couple of cases, a cute vegetable mascot.) with a magical power that activates when you hit a green peg. Some examples: Making the green pin explode and take out everything in its immediate vicinity; providing a pair of pinball flippers for three turns; automatically nudging your next shot to make it better. In Adventure mode, each teacher has a set of levels associated with it. But after you’ve completed Adventure mode, you get to select which teacher to use whenever you start a level. This adds a new element to gameplay: assessing a board to choose the teacher best-suited for it. The pinball flippers can keep a ball in play for a long time on a board that’s suited to them, but if the pegs are placed to funnel the ball to the middle rather than the sides, they’re useless. Explosions are only good if the green pegs are close to lots of other pegs.

Still, for every point of skill or choice, the designers seem to have gone and put in a compensatory gratuitous point of dumb luck, as if afraid of losing the prized casual-gameplay audience. And the end result is a classical example of the addictive qualities of partial reinforcement. Your control over the ball is limited, but it’s hard to avoid feeling like everything that happens is the result of your actions. Heck, sometimes it’s hard to refrain from leaning and gesturing this way and that as you watch the ball plink here and there, as if in hope of influencing its arc by sympathetic magic (a phenomenon familiar to bowlers).

Of course, the high production values help too. Of particular note is the music, which follows the progress of a level. When you start a level, you just get a basic rhythm-and-bass track. More instruments are added as you clear orange pegs and increase your score multiplier. It’s a classy touch, and subtle enough that it takes a while to notice what’s going on. Once you notice, the music becomes an extra channel of feedback, letting you know the exact moment when the ball hits the crucial peg and thereby enhancing the illusion that you’re in some way involved in what’s going on at that point.

Anyway, I’ve made short work of the initial 55 levels, and have the Peggle Master trophy on my start screen to prove it. Presumably my experiences with Peggle Extreme helped a little. For consistency’s sake, I think that should be enough to get the game off the Stack, even though I intend to keep on playing the Challenge levels. I don’t know if I’ll be able to beat them all. Some of them look very challenging indeed, but then, the high luck factor means that even if I don’t have the skill, persistence will eventually suffice. It seems like the campaign mode is really disproportionately short compared to the content it unlocks, but that seems to be how PopCap generally writes games these days.

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1. I notice that the Steam version of the Orange Box no longer includes Peggle Extreme, but that’s because it’s now downloadable for free.
2. Remember, extra balls are awarded for scoring high in a single shot, not for cumulative score.
3. Or, in a couple of cases, a cute vegetable mascot.

HL2E2: Final Fight

The scene I abandoned at the end of my last session is in fact the final combat sequence of the game, and quite a scene it is — by far the most satisfying fight in the episode, full of fiero and adrenalin. Let me describe it in detail.

First of all, as I said in my last post, Striders are marching on your base, which is located on a lushly-wooded mountainside dotted with rustic cabins. The cabins hold supplies, including dispensers for a kind of sticky bomb that you can lob at the Striders with your Gravity Gun, then shoot with a pistol while they’re stuck to destroy the Strider instantly. The bomb dispensers are important because you can only carry one bomb at a time. The Striders more or less ignore you, but they’re escorted by their smaller cousins the Hunters, which don’t. So right away there’s a tradeoff in where you devote your attention: you can’t ignore the Hunters, but it’s bad to let the Striders stay alive too long too, especially since they can blast apart the cabins where you get your bombs. In addition, Hunters have weapons that can disintegrate the bombs you’ve tossed (without detonating them), so if you’re going to try to kill a Strider before demolishing its escort, you have to at least make sure the Hunters are distracted or too far away to do anything about it — which is actually pretty easy to accomplish, because the Hunters will break off to chase you while the Strider just keeps on walking.

Except if you wind up in a running battle like that, you’re probably going to wind up too far away from the bomb dispensers to attack the Strider. The battlefield here is large, and what’s more, too heavily forested to see more than a small part of it at a time. You have a car: it lets you get around faster than you could on foot, it’s equipped with Strider-detecting radar, and if you have room to accelerate, it makes a pretty good anti-Hunter weapon. But it’s not as maneuverable as you might like on those rough mountain roads, and you can’t launch bombs from it, so you have to get out sometimes, and it’s all too easy to get separated from it when you’re dodging Hunters.

So there’s a whole mess of conflicting motivations that you have to sort out on the fly as the situation evolves: attacking the Striders vs defending yourself, staying maneuverable vs getting places fast, going where the enemy is at the moment vs staying where you can get more bombs. It’s all a mad scramble. There are friendly soldiers stationed here and there to help you through it, but, since they don’t have any anti-Strider weapons, their main role in combat is distracting the Hunters. Their real purpose in the game, though, isn’t tactical at all, but emotional: they’re there to give a sense that you’re not fighting this battle singlehandedly (even though you pretty much are), but that you’re all in this together. Whenever a Strider is downed, they let out hearty yells of triumph and congratulation. The whole level would feel very different without that detail. Where most of the combat scenes in the series are designed to give a sense of calamity or panic, this is the “Oh my god we’re actually winning” level.

Afterwards, all that’s left is some staged scenes where plot events occur around you as you walk to the final room, where there’s a dramatic reversal and a cliffhanger. And now, for the first time since I began HL2, I have to wait along with everyone else for the next episode.

Half-Life 2 Episode 2

Time to get the numbers down. Time to try a game that I can reasonably expect to finish in a weekend.

After my first multi-hour session of HL2E2, I’m well into the sixth of its seven chapters, facing what amounts to the Half-Life version of the Battle of Hoth, trying to repel a dozen Striders marching on the rebel base. Striders are the immensely tall things that I’ve referred to before as “tripod robots”, but by now I’ve had enough opportunity to see them close up and realize that they’re not robots at all. They’re three-legged alien cyborg crustaceans. Most of the Combine war machines are at least partly organic. One of the new monsters for this episode, the loping tripodal Hunter, doesn’t have any visible organic components, but its behavior is animal-like enough to suggest that it at least has an organic brain.

The other new monsters this time around are the luminescent acid-spitting variants of the Antlion. Much of the midgame is spent in their warren of glass-smooth tunnels, helping the Vortigaunts on an errand that would have been a lot easier if they still knew how to use pheropods. I found the new antlion grubs particularly disquieting. They’re about the size of your forearm and completely non-aggressive. There’s some evidence that they’re fed on human meat, but they basically just sit there glowing and occasionally wiggling, waiting for you to squish them. If you don’t want to squish them, tough. You’re going to squish some whether you want to or not, because they’re often on the floor in places where you want to walk. The worst part is that when they’re squished, they emit a little glowing crumb that, when picked up, restores a little bit of health. Is Gordon eating something that came out of a dead alien bug? Intellectually, I know that I’ve eaten worse things in Nethack, where consuming monster corpses in order to gain their powers is a pretty important part of the game, but it’s all very abstract there, without the visceral revulsion you get from graphics. Still, you get used to it, just like you get used to the violence and gore.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The hype over the new Prince of Persia game inspired me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: replay Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the 3D platforming game that reawakened the dormant franchise. Apart from just wanting to refamiliarize myself with its plot events to see if the sequels make any sense at all in terms of them, I had a specific goal in mind. I wanted to master the wall rebound.

The wall rebound consists of leaping feet-first toward a wall and then propelling yourself sword-first toward an enemy. It’s one of several special acrobatic combat maneuvers in the game that can knock an enemy down instantly, and like all such maneuvers, it consists of a series of button-presses that I couldn’t tell you, even after mastering it. It does no good for the conscious mind to memorize such things. It has to go into muscle memory to be effective. At any rate, although I managed to pull it off accidentally a few times in my initial playthrough years ago, I never really learned how to do it. Instead, I had early on come to rely on the vault move, where you leapfrog over a foe and stab him from behind, which worked really well until I started encountering enemies that could block it, at which point I basically reverted to mundane swordplay. Some time afterward, an acquaintance of mine noted that he was pretty much exclusively using the wall jump in combat toward the end of the game, so I figured I should give it a try and see if it made the endgame easier.

Part of my thought on this matter was that it might be easier to learn all the moves if I used a proper gamepad. I have the PC version, and the first time through, I used mouse and keyboard. Well, it turns out there’s a reason I used mouse and keyboard: the PC version doesn’t support anything else. My gamepad driver can be set up to emulate a keyboard, but I didn’t bother, as it makes the analog controls iffy. Even using the mouse has its problems in that regard: where a modern gamepad gives you four analog degrees of freedom (via two sticks), keyboard/mouse only gives you two. As you might expect, the game binds (camera-relative) movement to the keyboard and uses the mouse for rotating the camera. This is usually adequate, because it lets you move in any direction by positioning the camera to point in that direction and moving forward. But there are a few scenes where the camera jumps to a fixed position and becomes temporarily immobile, and one particular such bit, where you have to swing on a rope and leap off towards a spot that’s just slightly off from straight forward, is made much harder than it should have been. But then, I suppose the parts where you walk along narrow beams are made easier by having a button you can press to go straight forward.

At any rate, I did manage to figure out the wall rebound, but it turns out to really be no more powerful than the vault. Yes, there are enemies who are vulnerable to the rebound and not the vault, but there are also enemies that are vulnerable to the vault and not the rebound. One of the last fight sequences consists entirely of wave after wave of three different sorts of big muscular-looking foes, one that’s vulnerable to the vault, one that’s vulnerable to the rebound, and one that’s vulnerable to neither and which, I speculate, must have some other weakness that I never discovered. This leads me to speculate about the intent behind the combat system: that it was intended to create increasing difficulty by means of increasingly specific weaknesses. Assume that there is in fact a third knock-down move. The earliest enemies would be vulnerable to all three. Tier two enemies would be able to block one move, tier three enemies would block two. The problem with this is that the player would have to be using all the special moves regularly from early on in order to notice it, and once you know one ultra-powerful move, you don’t have a lot of motivation to try anything else. (Call it the Double Dragon syndrome.) Now, I’ve looked at guides at Gamefaqs, and there really doesn’t seem to be any support for this theory there. But that might just be a symptom of the problem. At any rate, however it happened, the end result is that the game got a reputation for weak combat that ultimately resulted in the act of overcompensation titled Prince of Persia: Warrior Within.

But you know something? I don’t really care that the combat is weak and unvaried. Combat is not what this game is about. It’s about climbing things and dodging traps. Combat serves the purpose of breaking up the climbing scenes and providing a little variety, but the bulk of my time spent on the game was spent climbing things and dodging traps.

Or, to some extent, figuring out how to climb things. One thing that struck me the second time around is that this is basically a pretty short game — I can imagine someone who knows what he’s doing playing it from start to finish in a single session. It lasts as long as it does partly because of the time you spent wandering around confused, trying to figure out where you have to go next. The game tries to help you out: the camera is always trying to lead you to the right place by panning or zooming to show you your next goal, but I find that’s often not enough. There’s one bit in the final climb where I could enter a crack in a chimney-like hollow and couldn’t figure out how to get down without dying. The solution? I was supposed to be going up, not down. Once I figured this out, I remembered being stuck in the same place in the same way in my first play-through.

Overall, I’d say The Sands of Time still holds up well. The graphics aren’t quite as detailed as you’d expect today, but graphics had already more or less plateaued in their ability to impress. There’s a nice sense of mystery in the disappearing bonus areas of questionable reality — something that the sequels sensibly didn’t even try to address. And the two main characters, the nameless Prince and his sometime companion Farah, are appealingly human: working together but constantly bickering, plainly attracted to each other but, due to circumstances, unable to trust each other. The scene where the Prince muses to himself about the possibility of marrying Farah had me wincing at his clueless arrogance, but in a good way. This is something the sequels pretty much destroyed in their attempt to macho things up. Even when Farah shows up again in The Two Thrones, she’s been transformed into just another oversexed badass.

The really interesting thing about Farah is that she could easily be the protagonist of her own game, running concurrently with the Prince’s. Farah can go places the Prince can’t and vice versa, due to Farah’s ability to squeeze through small cracks and the Prince’s trademark wall-running, so they spend long periods of time separated. Who knows what puzzles she faces while you’re off doing your part? At one point, she leaves the Prince behind, and in the areas you go through as you try to catch up, the level designers conscientiously included a plausible route of narrow cracks for her.

I notice that I haven’t even mentioned the time-rewinding factor. I guess that means it was just a gimmick.

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