Archive for 2018

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 Spidey 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, but 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 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 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.

Windows 98: The Quest Continues

My foray into obsolete hardware continues to provide puzzles and frustrations that would not be out of place in an old-school text adventure. I’m seriously considering adapting them to that format.

One bit of progress: I managed to burn a bootable Windows 98 CD. I probably burned several, actually. I wasted a number of CD-R’s, trying different software each time (including the built-in CD burner in MacOS X), but the machine I’m trying to install Windows 98 on didn’t recognize any of them as bootable. But with this last one, I thought to try booting it in my Windows 10 machine, and it worked there. This is most peculiar. The other machine is willing to boot other bootable CDs, such as my Windows XP install disc. The BIOS even displays “BOOTABLE CD DETECTED” in a text-graphics box during the startup sequence, so it’s easy to tell that it doesn’t consider my bootable CD-R to be bootable. Maybe it’s prejudiced against CD-Rs? Is that a thing that can happen?

Over on the other fork, I actually managed to procure a PS/2 keyboard, which allowed me to use the Windows 98 installer boot floppy. But this just led immediately to another blocker: the floppy runs DOS. To read from a CD-ROM drive, it needs a DOS CD-ROM driver, and, while it has several drivers on the floppy, it doesn’t have one that works with the one it has, or for any of the others that I tried swapping in, such as the one from the Windows XP box. I am once again impressed at how running DOS removes functionality that’s in this machine’s BIOS. It’s like an anti-operating system.

Now, it’s actually not hard to find DOS CD-ROM drivers online. There exist sites with incredible numbers of drivers from different manufacturers. But that just leads to the problem: How do I get them from the net to the install floppy? The obvious solution was to mount a floppy disk drive in the XP box, but by this point, between taking out the CD-ROM and installing a new CMOS battery, I seem to have rendered it unusable. For a while, it sometimes showed the POST screen when turned on, then didn’t do anything else. At this point, it isn’t even doing that. I can’t even access the BIOS. So much for having a working XP box.

I do still have one working machine that could be of use, though: the Windows 10 machine, my primary gaming device. Could I install a floppy drive in that? It looks like I can’t; the motherboard doesn’t have the connectors for it. But I could take things to a greater extreme. I know I can boot the Windows 98 install CD on it. What if I were to disconnect its hard drive, swap in the hard drive from the other machine, install Windows 98 there, and then swap it back? This might or might not work — there’s no telling what the Windows 98 installer would make of that hardware. And it has the additional risk that I might wind up permanently breaking the Windows 10 box as well.

Another possibility I’ve considered: Start with Windows 95. I have Windows 95 entirely on floppies. Once I have that installed, I can upgrade to 98 from CD. The 95 boot disk is kaput, though. I could presumably download a replacement boot disk, but then we have the “how do I get it onto a floppy” problem again.

More Adventures with Twenty-Year-Old Operating Systems

Sometimes, you really have to regard retrogaming as a journey-not-the-destination thing. I don’t for a minute believe that the experience of finally playing Galaga: Destination Earth will justify the effort I’ve been putting into it. The only experience that can justify that effort is the experience of the effort itself.

When last we left off, I had more or less given up on running this game on my usual gaming machine, even in emulation. So this weekend, I dug some older hardware out of the closet. First up was my previous rig, in an ingeniously-designed compact case made by Shuttle. It turned out to be completely intact — the last time I upgraded, I upgraded everything. Once I hooked it up to a monitor and keyboard, it booted into Windows XP without problems — it grumbled about the CMOS, due to the battery being run down, but automatically figured out what hardware it had anyway. G:DE made no claim that it would work on XP, but I figured it was worth a try anyway, because at least it was a 32-bit OS and I had vague memories of its compatibility mode being more reliable. Well, no dice. It had exactly the same problems as under Windows 10. I contemplated downgrading the system to Windows 98, but gave up when it failed to recognize my Win98 install CD as bootable. Just as well. I can imagine a working XP machine being useful someday.

Going back another generation took a little more work. My pre-Shuttle mid-sized tower case was missing a graphics card — presumably because I had transplanted it into the Shuttle box when I first got it. But I found a suitable disused one in a box of loose cards. It’s very likely the one I had removed from this machine in the first place. Strange how upgrading graphics cards used to be such a routine part of gamer life, but at this point I haven’t bothered in years. Getting it in was a little awkward, due to the case coming from an era before people got case design really figured out. Oh, it was fairly innovative for its day — the motherboard is mounted on a section that slides out for easier access. But “easier” is relative, and the device’s innards are almost inevitably an intestinal tangle of cables, just because that’s how things were back then.

Once it was up and booting, the machine reminded me that it no longer considered its copy of Window XP to be valid and would not me log in. Which is fine, I suppose, seeing how I really intended to install Windows 98 anyway. But, as with the Shuttle box, it wouldn’t boot from the Win98 install CD. Was it even bootable at all? Perhaps not; apparently some Win98 install CDs are, and some aren’t. When I had been trying to get Windows 98 running under emulation, I downloaded a Win98 install CD that I know to be bootable, because I booted it in the emulator, but burning it to a disc failed to produce a bootable CD. Apparently Microsoft disabled the ability to burn bootable CDs back in Windows 7, probably to make it harder to pirate Windows.

But there was always an alternative to booting from the CD: booting from a floppy disk.

This machine actually still had a 3.5-inch floppy drive mounted in it, albeit not connected. After I connected it, I found that the machine seemed no longer capable of getting through its startup sequence. It would get to the point of displaying “Press DEL to configure, TAB to continue with POST”, but no keypresses would get it to do anything more. I almost called it quits right there, but after taking a break, I realized that the only plausible explanation for this change in behavior was that I had wiggled or jostled something in the case while plugging in the floppy cable. Giving all socketed items a thorough additional wiggle solved the problem.

I’m a little surprised that my collection of floppies have survived as well as they have, considering how long it’s been since I’ve used them. Every bootable disk I’ve tried has booted successfully, including the Windows 98 Startup disk. But this leads to an immediate additional roadblock. Every bootable floppy I own boots to some kind of command line or prompt that requires keyboard input to do anything. And, although the BIOS knows how to get input from a USB keyboard, these programs do not. I have a USB-to-PS/2 adapter. I have several, in fact. But it turns out that these adapters only work on USB keyboards that know how to use them. I’m fairly sure I had a PS/2 keyboard around not so many years ago, but got rid of it because it was taking up space and collecting dust and didn’t fit into a neat little box the way those graphics cards did. The lesson here is clearly to never throw away anything.

And there, for now, I stand. My options going forward include figuring out how to burn a bootable Windows 98 install CD and hoping that it’ll recognize the keyboard once it’s into the install process, or gaining access to a PS/2 keyboard for long enough to do the install. My options do not include, obviously, giving up.

Galaga: Destination Earth problems

For reasons I won’t describe here, the team I’m currently on at work recently declared a month-long internal Galaga competition, planned to be the first of a series of contests around different classic arcade games. Well, it’s not without precedent for managers to officially sanction non-work-related recreational gaming. I’m unlikely to win, but I’ve been playing a little every day, and have managed to reach scores that aren’t too entirely embarrassing. But more importantly, after a few days of this, I remembered: Wasn’t there a Galaga remake on the Stack? One of those classic arcade remakes from around 2000, with 3D models and power-ups added?

Indeed there was. Galaga: Destination Earth, a largely-forgotten title for Windows 95/98 and the original Playstation. I have the Windows version, which is unfortunate, because it doesn’t work any more. I vaguely recall that it had some problems back when I first played it, too — graphics glitches and whatnot — but on my current system, although the installer runs without problems, the game itself exits shortly after starting, or sometimes just hangs, without displaying anything on the screen in either case. And that’s a pretty hard problem to solve.

Playing with compatibility modes did nothing but sometimes make it display an error message: “The application was unable to start correctly”. Googling this, I found that it could be the result of a failure to load a DLL — but which DLL? I installed a program from Microsoft called “Process Monitor” to find out, only to learn that galaga.exe was not itself reporting any failures. It was apparently just deciding of its own accord to not run.

I tried looking online for help, but this is not a well-loved game, and therefore not a well-supported one. Hasbro Interactive’s tech support website doesn’t seem to exist any more., an inestimable source of game fixes, had nothing. One disreputable-looking patch site claimed to have a fix, although it wasn’t specific about what problems it fixed. Once downloaded, it was easy to identify as just a malware installer.

As of this writing, the most extreme measure I’ve tried is installing Windows 98 under an emulator to run it there. (I still have my old Win98 installer CD, and its sleeve with the license key on it!) This hasn’t worked any better so far, but there may be a better emulator out there. And if there isn’t, I can try to put together a real Windows 98 machine out of hoarded parts, like I’ve been planning ever since starting this blog. Or, alternately, I can buy a copy of the Playstation version on ebay for five bucks. But at this point, that would feel like giving up.

The galling part is that in the process of googling for help, I found some complaints that the game is too short — just a few hours long, apparently. I probably could have polished it off in 2001 if I had just played a little longer.

Gearheads: Finally 25

Sometimes this blog fulfills the opposite of its purpose. I made a three posts a couple of weeks ago about Gearheads, a game that I own on physical media and that therefore qualifies as a true element of the Stack, but I stopped playing it after those two posts, and it’s partly because I doubted I’d have anything more of interest to say about it. It’s cute, and it launched a couple of successful game design careers, but it’s not very deep strategically, and it has no plot. Its whole attitude is that of old coin-op arcade games: you can pick up what it’s about in a second, and that’s not conducive to lengthy analysis.

The controls, too, are arcade-oriented, or perhaps Atari-2600-oriented: it’s clearly designed for each player to have their own four-direction joystick with one button, and the fact that it plays from a keyboard instead can only be attributed to it having been released at an awkward time for PC joystick support. The vertical axis switches which lane you place your toys on — the movement of toys isn’t constrained to lanes, but their initial placement is, which can be awkward when you’re trying to place blockers. The horizontal axis is used to cycle through your toys. Searching through your toy collection this way takes valuable time, which motivates the player to stick with one sort of toy for a while before switching. Which is exactly how the AI plays in One Player Tournament mode, thank goodness. I imagine it would be very difficult to play against an opponent who switches tactics more frequently.

Now, in a normal One Player Tournament level, you get a random assortment of four toys to use. This means the time spent cycling through your collection is never too bad, even if every second counts. But levels 10, 11, 22, 23, and presumably 34 and 35 (which I haven’t reached yet) give you access to all the toys. And despite how good that sounds, it’s basically a bad thing, because it means you can spend a lot more time searching for the toy you want. Maybe the solution is to voluntarily limit yourself to a span of four consecutive ones. Would that work? I don’t know. I only just got through level 23 today, and not by doing that.

Mainly I feel like I pass levels by luck, and finally getting through the second twelvesome of levels was just a matter of playing until all the dice fell in my favor. That is, there definitely is some skill involved, consisting of the rapid application of learned responses to changing circumstances, but there’s a lot that goes on that’s chaotic and unpredictable and beyond your control. Except, that is, in those puzzle-like special levels where both sides are limited to one toy. Not coincidentally, these are definitely my favorite levels.

Level 24 was a particularly good one: it gives the player Krush Kringle and the opponent Orbit. Winning this match-up isn’t so much a matter of getting your guys across the screen as of deflecting the opponent’s toys back, but you have to get the timing and spacing of the Kringles just right to accomplish this. Once I finally reached this level, it took me two tries — and, since I can now start from level 25, I never have to do it again. In other games, I’d take the ability to skip solved levels for granted, but here, I’ve had to restart from level 13 so many times.

And to be clear, that’s a self-imposed restriction. The game lets you start from level 25 whenever you like. But what kind of completist would I be if I didn’t play through all the levels?

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