Saturday, October 27, 2012

The 7th Guest For MS-DOS

You're alone and afraid, trapped in a dilapidated gothic mansion with no memory of who you are or how you got there. You wander its lonely, dusty halls in search of escape, all the while antagonized by the ghoulish, disembodied voice of its former owner. Suddenly a flash of movement registers in the corner of your eye. You whirl around and find yourself face to face with the most obscene horror imaginable: A game of Reversi! 

So anyway, The 7th Guest is a very early multimedia game for the PC, and the first on the platform to utilize full motion video. The game is set in a small town in upstate New York in the 1920s. A murderous drifter by the name of Henry Stauf had a vision of a beautiful doll one night. He carved his vision into a real doll, took it into town, and sold it to the local bartender. Word of Stauf's amazing dolls spread fast, and soon everyone in town wanted one. Stauf set up shop and quickly became rich off the sale of his unique dolls. Filthy with lucre and now the talk of the town, Stauf built an enormous, imposing mansion on a cliffside overlooking the small hamlet. But then, a strange disease swept through the town's children, killing all of them who owned Stauf's toys. Stauf dropped out of sight and the house fell quiet for years, until six guests received an invitation to spend the night, as well as the promise of winning their hearts' desires if they could solve the mansion's puzzle.

The game is played in a first-person perspective as you, an entity known only as Ego, travel from room to room in the mansion. Each room contains a puzzle that must be solved in order to advance the plot and unlock more rooms. As you progress, you learn the ultimate fate of each guest, told through FMV cutscenes featuring some of the hammiest, scene chewingest acting ever put to film. The acting is supremely cheesy, but in the context of the story, an old-fashioned gothic horror tale, it works well enough. The puzzles, on the other hand, just don't fit with the theme of the game at all. They're all very stylized and they look great, but despite The 7th Guest's best efforts, there is nothing inherently terrifying about solving a brain-teaser. There's no consequence for losing a puzzle, other than having to start it over, so there's really nothing at stake and no way to lose the game. The hardest puzzle, a You-vs-Stauf game of Ataxx played inside a microscope, can be completely skipped. Too many puzzles rely on tedious, boring repetition to draw out the length of the game. It's cool to see knights materialize out of the bathroom floor's tiles, but after an hour or more spent solving that puzzle, the novelty is long gone. There's not a whole lot of variety in the puzzles, either. Though a few are unique, too many are of the chess piece movement, card/coin flip and picture puzzle variety. There is a book in the library which provides hints, and ultimately solves most of the puzzles for you if you visit it enough. It's a convenient way to finish the game quickly, but it certainly kills the challenge. With long puzzles grinding the game to a halt, The 7th Guest never builds a sense of momentum, and since the rooms and cutscenes can be played out of sequence, the plot is sometimes hard to follow.

I found simply exploring the haunted Stauf mansion to be the most enjoyable aspect of the game. It's a beautifully-rendered building, and it feels at once fantastical and completely realistic. It has a classic Hollywood haunted house feel to it, where no lamp ever seems to radiate any light, and every hallway disappears into an inky blackness. It's easy to imagine a fake skeleton on a string hiding inside every closet and waiting to jump out at you at Stauf's place. Since you're presumably non-corporeal, you don't so much walk through it as glide, and smooth animations take you from one fixed location to another, like you're in a theme-park ride. You can even travel through secret passageways in the fireplace, behind the walls, or through the plumbing. Most locations have hotspots of spookiness that can be tripped by clicking on them or approaching them at the right moment. These moments, and the mixed feelings of curiosity and dread they engender, are much more entertaining than the puzzles.

Gameplay issues aside, The 7th Guest was a huge step forward in videogaming. Released to the PC nearly 20 years ago, it was one of the first games to fully exploit the nascent CD-ROM technology. It's an impressive-looking game by today's standards, and in 1993, it was jaw-dropping. There are no particularly horrifying moments in this horror game, (except for the clown in the game room--yeesh!) but the creepy jazz score, the dark hallways and the grainy, transparent videos make for a very atmospheric gaming experience. For a long time, The 7th Guest wasn't playable on a modern computer outside DOSBox, but now that Trilobyte Games is back from the dead, it's making appearances on iOS devices, in the Mac App Store and on Good Old Games.

Thanks for reading my review! Next time, it's Zaxxon 3D for Sega Master System.

Mr. Bones For Sega Saturn

Mr Bones for Sega Saturn is an unusual game to say the least. In it, you play as the skeletal remains of a blues guitarist, the titular Mr. Bones. He abruptly wakes from his eternal slumber and finds himself in a graveyard surrounded by an army of skeletons with glowing red eyes. They've all been reanimated by the evil wizard DaGoulian, who wants to conquer the world. However, Mr. Bones managed to retain his free will, so he takes it upon himself to stop DaGoulian and his freaky deadite army.

Mr. Bones is essentially a collection of 20 some-odd mini games connected by the occasional full motion video cutscene. Most levels in Mr. Bones are of the side-scrolling platforming variety, but it also throws in some rhythm games, memory games, shooters, puzzles, and the like. The amount of variety in the game is impressive; almost no two levels play the same in Mr. Bones. You may be running from a tyrannosaur skeleton in one level, and telling jokes to a crowd in the next. A few common elements tie the levels together, though. For example, Mr. Bones loses bits of himself as he takes hits, to the point where he's reduced to a skull and spine bouncing around the level. Scattered throughout the game are replacement arms, legs, hips & ribcages that Mr. Bones can use to reassemble himself. His only method of attack in levels that have enemies is a short-ranged lightning beam that sucks enemies of their vitality and adds it to his own. It doesn't sound like much, but once acquired, it makes the platforming levels exceptionally easy, as nothing can get close enough to deal damage anymore.

Given that the main character is an ex blues musician, the game's atmosphere is thick with the blues. Tasty blues guitar licks permeate the game's background music in each level. Our hero gain access to a magical guitar from a blind, blues-playing hermit, and he uses this guitar to liberate the souls of Dagoulian's deadite army with the power of music. Hell, one of the levels even sports a disembodied voice opining at great length on the nature of the Blues. It's all goofy as can be, but in a game as self-effacing and silly as Mr. Bones, it actually works. Mr. Bones himself is eternally unflappable and optimistic in the face of overwhelming undead opposition.

Unfortunately, the game lacks balance in its levels. Some levels are way too easy, while others are controller-smashing hard. The very first level in the game is frustrating enough to make players swear off Mr. Bones forever. The variety in the levels is nice, but the player is too often dropped into new, confusing, and downright punishing situations that nearly guarantee instant death. It may take three or four playthroughs to even get the gist of what's happening in a level, which is even more frustrating as you only have one life. If you run out of health and die--again--the game ends and, after an agonizingly long loading time, Mr. Bones drops you back to the title screen. You can reload any level you've unlocked from the options screen, but there's no continue option. Mashing the start button, as one is wont to do after dying umpteen times, just starts the game over from level 1. This is Mr. Bones' major failing, and in my opinion, it keeps it from achieving videogaming greatness, despite its clever level design and memorable characters. I firmly believe that, with a little more playtesting, Mr Bones would have been a household name in video gaming. However, if it ever earns a re-release, or if you still have a Saturn lying around, I recommend playing it and experiencing a rare, truly unique video game.

Thanks for reading my review! Up next is the granddaddy of all CD-ROM games, The 7th Guest.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Splatterhouse For TurboGrafx-16

If there's ever an award given for most apropos game title, The TurboGrafx-16's Splatterhouse would surely take home the gold. It takes place in a house, and man do things go splat! Adapted from a 1988 Namco arcade game, Splatterhouse may well be the very first truly gory horror game to appear on a console.

The story of Splatterhouse goes like this: Rick and his girlfriend Jennifer take refuge from a raging storm inside an spooky abandoned mansion. Unbeknownst to the two lovebirds, (or possibly beknownst; the game doesn't really say) this mansion once belonged to the mysterious parapsychologist, Dr. West, who performed grisly occult experiments. They're immediately set upon by freaky demonic monsters, and Rick is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, Jennifer is nowhere to be found and Rick's face has become fused with a freaky red mask that grants him superhuman size and strength. He hauls his ponderous bulk off the floor, picks up the nearest blunt object, and sets about the task of beating every monster that stands between him and his missing girlfriend into a bloody, quivering pulp.

Splatterhouse is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that plays a bit like Final Fight, but only on a 2D plane. Rick can move left & right, duck or jump, but he can't move up or down within the level. Rick's main methods of attack are a punch, a ducking kick and sliding kick. However, there are several weapons scattered throughout each level, like 2x4s, meat cleavers, rocks, throwing spears and shotguns. Incidentally, the shotguns in Splatterhouse act like actual shotguns and not ping-pong ball shooters, which I'm pretty sure is a gaming first. Anyway, each weapon has certain tradeoffs: The 2x4 and the cleaver give you added reach, but take time to swing, leaving you vulnerable if you don't time your attacks right. The rocks and spears can only be thrown once, and the shotgun has limited ammo.

The game's seven short levels are laid out in a pretty linear fashion. Some levels automatically scroll forward, while others let you set the pace. Though Splatterhouse never strays from the side-scroller style, it throws a few fun twists into most levels, such as a hall of mirrors, wherein you're attacked by your own reflection. Some of the levels give you different routes to take, and different types of enemies to fight, but all of the routes eventually take you to the same boss battle. Some of the boss battles are fairly clever too, like level two's knife-and-artwork-thowing poltergeist. The monsters you fight range from bloody bats to shambling zombies to ethereal ghosts to grotesque fetuses. Environmental hazards come in the form of spikes that shoot up from the floor, tortured corpses that vomit dangerous viscera at you, ghostly hands that try to drag you underground, and zombified wolves that chew on the remain of the enemies you killed. Yes, there are plenty of terrifying creations lurking the halls of this house.

Unfortunately, the biggest enemy in Splatterhouse is control. Rick's built like a brick shithouse, but he moves about as fast as one. He lumbers along too slowly to dodge enemy attacks, so when he's unarmed, he has to rely solely on his pathetically short-ranged punches and kicks for defense. It seems that his attacks only connect with enemies on the right frame of animation and on a small part of his fist or foot, often leaving him wide open to cheap hits from enemies. Splatterhouse also seems to have borrowed some of the more annoying control aspects from the Castlevania games: Rick jumps in the same floaty, hard-to-control manner that Simon Belmont does, and like Belmont, he gets knocked backward when hit. This often leads to some frustratingly cheap deaths, but mercifully, there's very few platforming moments to be dealt with in Splatterhouse. The weapons do a good job of evening the odds, but only if you can hang onto them. Rick drops whatever he's carrying every time he takes a hit, and if it scrolls off the screen, it's gone for good.  The weapons can't be carried from level to level or even from section to section within the same level, leaving you to kickpunch your way through most of the game. You can't backtrack to pick up missed weapons either, even in the levels that don't automatically scroll.

The graphics and sound are a mixed bag. The game opens with what looks like a tossed-off MS Paint rendering of a house partially obscured by trees or shrubs or just overzealous use of the spray-paint tool. Fortunately, things improve once the game begins. Rick and the baddies are finely detailed, sporting a rich but muted color palette of browns and greens and greys. The enemies have different death animations depending on how you dispatch them: Punch them to death, and they collapse in a heap on the floor. Swing at them with the 2x4 and they fly into the wall, stick momentarily, then slide down into a gooey mess. Blast them with the shotgun, and their torsos explode, leaving only a pair of legs to wander about aimlessly. This goofy, over-the-top violence is a hallmark of the Splatterhouse series, and though the shock value has long since passed, it's still very endearing. The sound effects aren't great, but they get the job done. The 2x4 makes a convincing whoosh when swung, and if it connects with a monster, that monster hits the wall with a mighty splort! On the other hand, Rick makes an annoying, synthesized "Oow!" every time he gets hit, and Jennifer's plaintive cry of "Help me!" sounds like something out of a Popeye cartoon. Likewise, the background music is at turns effective/moody and repetitive/obnoxious. The game is pretty generous with extra life hearts and continues, so it's not too difficult to beat. With a little practice, Splatterhouse could be finished in about a half-hour.

In short, Splatterhouse is an unabashedly violent gore-fest that can be uneven and frustrating to play, but it still stands out as one of the best games in the TurboGrafx-16's library. If clobbering gooey hellspawn with building materials sounds like good times to you, give Splatterhouse a try.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I sing the blues with Mr. Bones for Sega Saturn.