IFComp 2016: Pogoman GO!

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Freedom Force: Legion

I’m well over halfway through Freedom Force now, and slightly into the bits I’ve never seen before. And at last, I remember the game’s greatest cruelty: the cruelty of choice.

Progressing through the game means gaining access to more and more heroes. Some of them are simply slotted into your roster automatically. Others are made available for hire, and must be purchased with Prestige points. But you can only take four of them into a mission — and sometimes not even that; sometimes a slot has to be kept clear for a new arrival. And when I say “mission”, understand that most missions consist of two or three levels, with no opportunity for swapping in different heroes between. Furthermore, you don’t get the full experience of playing with a particular hero from just taking it out on a single mission as soon as it joins the team. Every hero needs to level up in order to get their full set of powers. The game is considerate enough to level up heroes that are just cooling their heels back at base, but at a slower rate than the ones in the field. If you want a hero to reach its full potential, you have to neglect others.

Pokémon had a similar dynamic, but with one crucial difference: there, you could always go back to places you had already visited for the sake of leveling up the newcomers. In Freedom Force, there is a finite sequence of missions. A single play-through is simply not long enough to fully explore the potential of all the heroes, and the closer I get to the end, the more I become aware that my opportunities are dwindling, even as my choices grow. It’s like a metaphor for mortality. I suppose the real point is to encourage replay, but that’s not something I’m likely to do soon, enjoyable as the game is.

Zanzarah: Spell Mechanics

So, in my last post about Zanzarah, I described a situation where I had to fight a team of Dark and Chaos fairies simultaneously. I had fairies that are strong against Dark and fairies that are strong against Chaos, but nothing that’s strong against both at once. In theory, I could use a Water fairy to take out the few Dark ones 1Or one. There seems to be some randomization in the battle; the last time I tried it, only one was Dark. This didn’t help. and then swap in a Nature or Air fairy to take care of the rest, but since Chaos is strong against Water, this generally just meant my fairy would die before it could make an impact. Ideally I needed a Light fairy, but there weren’t any available. (And yes, I spent some time revisiting old haunts just in case there was something I had neglected.) So I finally did the next-best thing: I equipped a Water fairy with an offensive Light spell 2Not only are you allowed to purchase spells that you can’t use yet, it’s generally a good idea to do so. That way, when you suddenly get your first fairy in a new element, you can immediately hook it up with better stuff., capable of killing any of these foes with one or two blasts. The Chaos fairies could still damage it, but they could no longer do so faster than it could damage them.

Now, for most fairies, this would be impossible. Most fairies can only use spells of their own element. It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, though. Every spell description has up to three colored spots on it, with the color indicating an element, and the number of spots indicating what we can think of as the spell’s level. The UI for assigning spells likewise puts a number of colored spots under each spell slot, indicating what that slot can take. (That number can be zero, indicating that the slot is not yet usable.) At least one of these spots will always be the fairy’s element, but sometimes the second and/or third slot will be a different color, or even rainbow-colored, indicating that it will accomodate any element. (It took me a while to figure this out, because the rainbow really looks mostly green.) So, for example, the water fairy I used in this battle had a slot with one blue (Water) slot and two rainbow slots, so I could equip it with a level-3 Water spell or a level-2 spell of any sort whatsoever. Some spells even require this sort of thing, as they contain spots of two different colors.

Spells and spell slots come in two sorts: attack spells (indicated by circular spots), which are activated in combat with the left mouse button, and passive spells (square spots), which are either always active, or trigger automatically under some condition (usually getting hit). At any moment, a fairy can have at most one attack spell and one passive spell in use, but it can have a secondary bank prepared (also containing an attack spell and a passive spell) and switch to that bank during combat. (This is something I haven’t really taken advantage of, but I suspect I’ll need to as the battles grow longer.) Thus, each fairy has four spell slots. Typically, a fairy will start with a capacity of just one level-one attack spell, and gain extra spots as its level increases. But the progression is different from species to species: a particular sort might grow its passive slots faster than its attack slots, or get to level 3 in bank 1 while bank 2 is still unavailable, or get rainbow spots in compensation for gaining them slower.

The interesting thing about this is what happens when a fairy changes type. In Pokémon, evolving your creatures was pretty much entirely positive, except that the evolved form would usually level more slowly, a penalty that Zanzarah seems to have preserved. But in Zanzarah, the spell slot progression can change completely when a fairy evolves. For example, the trick that I used with the water fairy? I can’t do it any more. It gained enough experience from that one battle to evolve into a new form, one that doesn’t have any rainbow slots. Suddenly, the “cancel evolution” option seems like it could be worthwhile sometimes.

Fortunately, as anticipated, I acquired a Light fairy in the immediate aftermath of that battle, and thus had another outlet for Light spells.

Unfortunately, I had to immediately trade it away to progress in the story. So it goes.

1 Or one. There seems to be some randomization in the battle; the last time I tried it, only one was Dark. This didn’t help.
2 Not only are you allowed to purchase spells that you can’t use yet, it’s generally a good idea to do so. That way, when you suddenly get your first fairy in a new element, you can immediately hook it up with better stuff.

Zanzarah: Elements

In Zanzarah, elemental powers are key. Every fairy belongs to one element, and every element is strong against some other elements, weak against others, and indifferent to the rest. (Canonical example: water is strong against fire. Someday I’d like to see a game that reverses that just to mess with us.) A fairy can easily beat an opponent that’s twice its experience level if it’s a kind that it’s strong against, and will probably gain an experience level for doing so without the assistance of other fairies. And since gaining a level restores a fairy’s health and partially restores its mana, this is a good way to make extended explorations without spending a lot on restoratives. I can imagine catching fresh low-level fairies specifically to take advantage of this.

The elements are: Nature (plants), Stone, Water, Air, Psi, Ice, Dark, Energy (electric), Chaos, Flame, Light, and Metal. That’s not quite the same as the Pokémon element list, but there’s a substantial overlap. You can often tell what elements you’ll encounter from the terrain — for example, snowy mountain peaks abound in Stone and Ice types — but the type is pretty much an arbitrary designation with no effect on gameplay. There are exceptions, though, where attacks have special effects. For example, there are Ice attacks that temporarily slow or freeze the opponent (in addition to doing damage), and a Psychic spell that teleports its target to a random spot on the battlefield. Now, unlike in Pokémon, attacks are not specific to particular species of fairy; any attack can be bought from a spell merchant and equipped on any fairy that’s the right element and is powerful enough to use it. So I could use these special effects if I wanted to, but they never really seem worthwhile. The freeze attack would be nice, but it can only be cast five times before refueling, and that’s often insufficient for even a single fight. The teleportation attack seems outright harmful to the caster: it takes an opponent that’s in your sights and removes it. So, for me, these specials are pretty much only done by the opponent. My own fairies are just damage-dealers in different flavors.

I don’t have fairies of all the elements at my disposal yet. One really frustrating thing the game does repeatedly is withhold an element from you until you’ve managed to beat a bunch of fairies that it would be really useful against. The most recent example I’ve encountered (and haven’t overcome yet) is a Dark Elf guarding a crucial item with a team of Dark and Chaos fairies, which, unfairly, all attack you at the same time. (Although you can switch fairies mid-combat, you can have only one out at a time. Dark Elves have apparently learned to overcome this restriction.) Now, I have creatures that are strong against Dark and I have creatures that are strong against Chaos, but to survive that kind of onslaught, what you really want is something that’s strong against both. Only one element qualifies: Light. It’s possible that there’s a Light fairy hidden somewhere that I haven’t found, but more likely that I’ll gain access to my first immediately after the fight is over.

Zanzarah: Catching ’em All

The plot of Zanzarah is pretty standard fantasy-game fare: a shadow has fallen upon the land, a prophesied hero must set it right. No one knows quite what the source of the evil is, but it’s harassing the cities with posses of fairy-wielding Dark Elves (portrayed here as light-skinned but wearing dark outfits), and apparently is also responsible for getting the wild fairies so agitated. Normally they’d be peacefully flitting about and laughing and sipping nectar from flowers and replacing human children with changelings and so forth, not attacking people on the road. (Although I have to wonder if my captive fairies have something to do with that. You’re not allowed out into the wild until you have a fairy of your own, so it’s impossible to tell how they’d behave towards someone who wasn’t enslaving their people.) So your goal is to fulfill the prophecy and stop all that.

But there is of course a second goal, an implicit one: catching ’em all. One of the basic UI overlays, along with the inventory and the map, is the Pokédex-like “Fairy Book”. Since this is a PC game instead of a Gameboy game, it can fit every type of fairy on the screen at once as a nice grid of icons, with empty boxes for the ones you don’t have. Those boxes just beg to be filled in. Best of all, since this is a single-player game, it should be feasible! None of this nonsense of trying to find trading partners and failing because the game is nearly a decade old. Every species that exists can be found and caught, or evolved from something that can be found and caught.

So it’s a bit of a shame that they messed it up. Unlike Pokémon, where every pokémon species you’ve handled goes into your Pokédex permanently, the Fairy Book only lists those species you have currently. If you evolve one of your fairies into a more powerful form, it leaves a hole in the grid where its old form was. Well, okay, you caught it once, you can catch it again if it really matters to you. Except that in some cases you can’t. There exist unique fairies. I have an “energy”-type (electric) fairy that supposedly there are only two of in the world. It evolves through at least three forms. There’s an NPC that offers a unique fairy in trade for something I haven’t got yet. Once you get it, you’re apparently expected to trade it away to another NPC. And yeah, once you’ve had and lost these things, you know that you’ve had them. But that’s not as satisfying as watching the grid in the Fairy Book fill up.

Game designers don’t always correctly anticipate how people will react to or use their designs. For elements they consider minor, even playtesting doesn’t necessarily help. I’m assuming that there are other players who shared my reaction to the fairy grid, but the designers were probably thinking of it as a reference guide to your current options, rather than as a score card. This is the sort of problem I’d expect to see addressed in a sequel, if there were any chance of one.

Zanzarah: Comparison to Pokémon

Given the extreme and enduring popularity of Pokémon, it’s strange that it hasn’t been widely imitated, especially on other platforms. Zanzarah is the only obvious Pokémon imitation that I can think of. And when I say “obvious”, I mean really blatant, right down to the level of trivial mechanics: fairies that evolve on reaching particular experience levels, a complicated system of elemental resistances and vulnerabilities, and so forth. At the beginning, you have a choice of three fairies based on different elements: “Nature” (plants), Water, and Stone — just one element different from the Grass/Water/Fire choice that I’m told is at the beginning of every installment of the Pokémon franchise. Before you can catch your first wild fairy, you need to obtain a magical silver sphere capable of drawing it into your fairy bag. (Gold and crystal spheres become available later, allowing you to catch more powerful fairies.) At first, I wondered why I wasn’t able to catch more than one fairy. It turned out that catching a fairy actually uses up a sphere, which didn’t make intuitive sense to me — until I realized that the designers were thinking of it as a pokéball.

Apart from the relatively minor matter of the 3D world, the one big gameplay difference is in combat mode. Where Pokémon‘s pokéfighting is turn-based JRPG-like selecting-maneuvers-from-a-menu, Zanzarah‘s is a minitature tag-team FPS. All combat is played on various floating arenas in the astral plane (a little reminiscent of like the “ethereal combat” in Etherlords), which makes me wonder what’s supposed to be going on in the material world while the player is busy controlling the fairies. Is Amy watching the combat too? Is she, in-fiction, controlling her combatants’ every action through some kind of creepy mind-meld, and if so, what’s preventing other wild fairies from attacking her while she’s outside her body?

The different types of fairy have different stats, and those stats govern things like how fast your attacks charge up and how long you can fly before resting. (Flight is done by pressing a button to flap your wings, Joust-style.) And this affects how you play. For example, one of my fairies, a rock-type called Jumjum, has a very powerful attack that takes a long time to charge up fully, so I spend a lot of time with him hiding behind cover. Even so, the astral arena sequences quickly feel samey. I don’t like to use the word “samey” in describing games, because it implies a design philosophy that repetition of any sort is to be avoided, and I disagree with that rather strongly. But there it is. When you get down to it, though, it’s no more samey than combat in Pokémon, which, in most battles, consists of just pressing the “A” button whenever you’re given the opportunity. But that seems more acceptable to me, as it requires less attention. The mind wanders while executing those button-presses. Sometimes it only wanders as far as planning out long-term in-game goals, but it certainly isn’t fully occupied by the immediate situation. Zanzarah‘s realtime battles occupy just enough of my mind to make me earnestly wish there was more to them.

Year Two and Revelations

So, the second year of this blog ends with another unplanned month-long outage. It’s been a pretty dismal year for the blog, with only 14 games knocked off the Stack, if I count correctly. I haven’t even finished the Orange Box yet. This is in large part because of the demands of my new job. (The first month-long outage basically coincided with my the first month of employ.) Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great job, miles better than the one I left to take it. But there have been long hours and tight deadlines, on top of a killer commute. It’s nearly an hour and a half each way by bus, which, unless I switch to a portable system, doesn’t leave a lot of time for gaming. Or, to be more accurate, it leaves a certain amount of time for gaming, but not nearly enough time to both game and write about it. I’ve really got to find quarters closer to the office, but not having a lot of time also means not having a lot of time to look for a new apartment.

And so the Oath has backfired: in order to avoid the obligation of blog, I’ve been playing games that aren’t on the Stack. But I’m not giving up. Now that the most recent tight deadline has passed, I’m going to try to ease myself back into this by writing up some non-stack games.

As for what’s remaining on the Stack, I think it’s about time I made my secret files public. There are two ways to view it. First, at some point in 2008, I discovered Backloggery through a link to this blog from a comment thread. Backloggery is a site devoted to people doing exactly the same thing as me, except with less commentary. I had always assumed that when I wanted to put my list online I was going to have to find or create my own HTML interface to it. Seeing that someone else had done the work already, I entered my entire list, and have maintained it ever since.

I found this solution unsatisfying, though, because it didn’t categorize things the way I wanted them. Backloggery sorts by platform, but not by genre. Their list of game statuses includes several degrees of finishedness (“Beaten”, “Completed”, “Mastered”), but only one unfinished status; I had been tracking only one degree of completion, but had several kinds of non-completion (“untried”, “played partway”, “was unable to complete due to unresolved technical problems”).

Then Gunther Schmidl started his own game backlog blog and showed me what I should have done in the first place: just upload the spreadsheet to Google Documents and make it world-readable. So I’ve done that too. My Backloggery page is here and the Google spreadsheet is here.

You may notice that the Google document has 301 rows, while the Backloggery reports only 299 games unfinished. I always spend a moment confused when I look at them. Well, the spreadsheet has an extra row because of the column headers, while Backloggery is missing Pokémon from the “Unfinished” list: by their standards I’ve beaten it and it would be dishonest of me to list it otherwise. I should try to contact some of the other backloggers with Pokémon on their lists to try to arrange trades. It’s probably my only hope of finding any. (Craigslist was a bust.)

At any rate, that means we currently stand at exactly 300 games listed, which is a satisfyingly round number to start the new year on. Not that this number is really all that meaningful: I’ve got 8 points to spend (that’s $80 worth of new games by the terms of the Oath, which can go quite a long way these days), and there are a number of games whose stack status is iffy. Does Team Fortress 2 count? I did buy it, but only because it came with the Orange Box. I suppose I’ll write it up when I get around to trying it, but it’s not in the list right now. What about Peggle Extreme, also from the OB? I don’t think so: it’s really just a demo, not a full game. Or The Next Tetris — a puzzling thing to be on the Stack, perhaps, as it’s not the sort of game that’s finishable, but it has a finishable component, which is what I’m counting for Stack purposes. Except I can’t for the life of me remember if I ever finished it or not. So it’s on the list just in case.

I’m sure that there are other things on the list that will provoke questions, or at least raise eyebrows. That’s why I was so reluctant to publish the list. Anyway, expect another post tomorrow (I’ve already started writing it), and happy new year.

Pokémon: Trading again

So, I’ve finally done something about the Gameboy cable problem. It turns out that GBA cables are wired slightly differently than the original Gameboy and Gameboy Color: where the older model just has two of the wires cross over, the GBA does something tricky to accomodate plugging in another cable in the middle. Furthermore, the type of connection that a game expects depends on the hardware the game was created for, not the hardware it’s actually running on — so in order to trade original Pokemon on a GBA, you need an old-style cable. This is the sort of fact that’s easy to find documented on the web, provided you’re looking for it in the first place.

I’ve seen it suggested that an official GBC cable will fit in a GBA socket (although not vice-versa), which would solve the problem if I had an official GBC cable. But I don’t, and I’m not really willing to spend any more money on this problem (buying second GBA was about my limit for this project), so I took apart the GBA cable I had formerly called “defective” and rewired it. And it works great! I’ve pulled off my first successful pokémon trades trades in something approaching ten years, and stand ready to do more.

Of course, given my track record, I couldn’t justify asking someone to trade with me until I knew it worked. Which presents a bootstrapping problem. Fortunately, I had someone else’s Pokémon Red cartridge on hand — he wasn’t using it, so he let me borrow it. (With the stipulation that, once I got trades working, I had to take in his raichu. It’s the one pokémon that he wants to still have available if he starts over.) In short, I had to engage in some behavior I had spoken of derisively before: solo trading.

Still, this was a fairly satisfying conclusion to the whole problem, because I got to play with a soldering iron. I’ve played games where I had to read the data files in order to figure out how to win. I’ve played games where I had to read the source code, or even reverse-engineer the executable — it wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say that this is how I learned how to program. But how often does the pursuit of completion descend to the hardware level like this? Actually, pretty frequently, if you count the games that you can’t even start playing until your system meets the right specs. But this is different somehow.

Pokémon: Cable Conundrum

I’m posting this several days late: again I’ve spent a week out of town, and that means Pokémon. I actually didn’t do much with the game this time, but I did make another trade attempt.

The last time I tried to trade pokémon between two GBAs, I had problems. To trade, you go (in the game) to the Cable Club, an area found in every Pokémon Center. If you’re connected to another gameboy via gamelink cable, the Cable Club receptionist tells you to wait for the other party to join; if you’re not, she sends you away. So it’s easy to tell who the system thinks is and is not connected. The Cable Club was consistently accepting one side and rejecting the other. Furthermore, when I unplugged the cable and plugged it back in the other way around, it switched which one it accepted and which one it rejected. I concluded that there was something wrong with the cable.

Well, now I’ve tried it with a different cable, and I’m usually seeing the same symptoms. Tantalizingly, the bad end occasionally manages to recognize the connection, but never for long enough to actually execute a trade, as if there’s a loose connection. Or maybe it’s just the wrong sort of cable for this game: some docs I’ve found online suggest that I have to hack around the middle socket (which wasn’t even present on the first cable, but whatever). I’m not completely sure if that’s what I actually need here, though. Like all other gameboy hardware documentation I’ve found online, it assumes more knowledge than I have. But what the heck, I’ll dig out the multimeter and soldering iron and give it a try. The worst that can happen is that I’ll lose a cable that was useless to me anyway.

Pokémon: Endless Sorrow

I’m a bit late with this post, but: the latest trading opportunity was foiled by defective cabling.

That is all.

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