Friday, November 16, 2012

Space Quest III For MS-DOS

Space Quest III is a remarkable game for a lot of reasons. The PC version was one of the first games to support a mouse and Sound Blaster card, for example. But what I find most remarkable about it is how unremarkable its story is. The other Space Quest games pit you, an everyman shlub, against impossible odds, and the fates of entire galaxies are decided by the actions you take; typical ho-hum adventure game plots. But in Space Quest III, the stakes are far lower and the adversities you face are far more mundane. In many ways, it's a game about nothing in particular, and SQ3 never lets plot get in the way of a good joke. It's Seinfeld in space.

Like the first two Space Quest games, SQ3 is an early graphical adventure game, and as such, it still sports a text parser. You guide the hero, Roger Wilco, using a mouse, joystick, or arrow keys, and you issue commands such as USE OBJECT, PRESS BUTTON or LOOK AROUND by typing them. SQ3's parser has a larger vocabulary than its predecessors, making issuing the right commands to Roger much less an exercise in frustration. As the last in the series to use a text parser and the first to use a mouse, SQ3 marks the beginning of a sea change to the simpler point-and-click style gameplay that now dominates the adventure genre.

Space Quest III picks up shortly after the events of the previous game. Roger is in cryogenic sleep inside an escape pod drifting in space. His pod is retrieved by a robotic garbage scow, which considers it just another piece of space flotsam. Roger wakes up inside the scow, and as the game proper begins, he looks for a means to escape. With a little exploration and puzzle-solving, Roger soon gains access to a new spaceship, the Aluminum Mallard. He hits the spaceways and swings by planet Phleebhut to asks for directions at an alien tourist trap. He runs afoul of an Arnoid model debt-collector robot, grabs a bite to eat at Monolith Burgers, plays a few rounds of Astro Chicken, and after revealing a call for help hidden in the game, finally stumbles into the game's plot. The Two Guys From Andromeda, a couple of game designers modeled after real-life Space Quest creators Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, have been kidnapped by space pirates and forced to make crappy videogames for shady game company, ScumSoft. For reasons never really explained, Roger takes it upon himself to liberate the Two Guys, and thwart the evil machinations of ScumSoft's prepubescent CEO, Elmo Pug.

A common complaint with SQ3 is that it's too short; that its plot really gets going just before the game ends. While that's true, the fun of SQ3 is in the ride, not its conclusion. The game has a very wry sense of humor, and pop culture references abound. The garbage scow is packed full of derelicts from classic sci-fi movies and TV shows, and LOOKing at every last one of them produces a winking reference or an offhand comment from the narrator. Astro Chicken, SQ3's game-within-a-game, is a deliberately lame sendup of cheap shovelware games. ScumSoft's evil lair is depicted as the kind of soul-crushing corporate cubicle farm Murphy and Crowe felt Sierra On-Line to be back in the 80s. There are some very devious puzzles lurking in SQ3, behind all the jokes and winks. They usually make more sense than the puzzles in the first two games, but make no mistake: this is an old-school adventure game. There's no hand-holding at all, and it's possible at several points to miss some object critical to completing the game. Save early, save often!

Of course, like all classic Sierra games, Space Quest III will kill you as frequently and creatively as it can. Wrong steps, careless commands, close encounters with nasties, or even loitering will violently launch Roger into an early grave. While a certain perverse pleasure can be derived from viewing all of the many unique ways Roger can die, the fact that it happens so easily and so frequently makes exploring the locations in SQ3 an exercise in frustration. Again, frequent saves are a must to avoid too much backtracking, especially for players unfamiliar with the various hazards in the game. This was common practice for most old adventure games, but the constant threat of death is antithetical to the spirit of exploration that good adventure games should engender. I'm glad the practice fell out of favor with the release of the decidedly non-fatal LucasArts adventure games.

For a 16-color EGA game,  Space Quest III looks remarkably good. As the first in the series to abandon support for older 8-bit computers, SQ3 supports a higher screen resolution, allowing Roger and the world he inhabits to look much less like a stack of Lego blocks. SQ3 employs a pseudo-3D look, as Roger can move behind objects in the foreground, and he scales appropriately while moving closer to or further away from the camera. Given the hardware limitations they had to work within, the artists squeezed a lot of detail into most of the game's graphics. The planets Roger visits look suitably alien and unique from each other. Cheesy slices of Americana, like fast food restaurants and roadside tourist traps are expertly transposed to the futuristic setting of Space Quest without losing their mundane, plasticy charm.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the game's incredibly catchy MIDI soundtrack. Featuring original music composed by ex-Supertramp drummer Bob Siebenberg, SQ3's soundtrack is a cohesive collection of related pieces; closer to a movie score than a typical video game's disjointed of collection background music. The classic Space Quest theme permeates the soundtrack, interpreted as a triumphant opening theme one moment, and as tinkly supermarket muzac the next. Like most games that utilize MIDI tracks, the quality of the music's reproduction varies wildly with the type of computer playing it, or in the PC's case, the sound hardware installed. Played through a lowly Sound Blaster card, SQ3 is certainly enjoyable, but gamers lucky enough to have owned a Roland MT-32 synthesizer or LAPC-I card in 1989 were treated to the most spectacular-sounding video game music available.

As a testament to its lasting appeal, the Space Quest series has remained available in one format or another for over 25 years. Today, has a bundle of the first three games available for purchase online. Even better, a collection of all six original games, as well as the VGA remakes of SQ1 & 2 was released on CD-ROM by Sierra in 2006. Though it's now out of print, copies are readily available on eBay, and all games in the collection play superbly inside DOSbox.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Missile Defense 3D For Sega Master Syster

So I've finished tearing apart Zaxxon 3D, a 25-year-old game on a system hardly anyone plays anymore. Now what? Well, I still had my SMS hooked up and one more game with '3D' in the title hanging out on the shelf. Let's dust it off and--hey, it's a lightgun game!

As my huge army of obsessive followers are no doubt aware, I am a huge fan of lightgun games. Missile Defense is a pretty unique one too, as it also uses the same 3D goggles as Zaxxon 3D. Essentially, it's a 3D first-person game of Missile Command played with the Sega Master System's Light Phaser. Each match in the game is divided into two or three stages. The stage begins at a missile launch site, where your goal is to shoot down as many as possible before they escape or collide with your laser cannon. At the end of the stage, the game tallies the total number of missiles launched and the number that escaped. Stage two pits you against the surviving missiles as they reenter the atmosphere. Stage three is your last chance to destroy the inbound missiles and protect the major metropolitan centers, East City and West City from nuclear annihilation. If a single missile impacts a city or all of your laser cannons are destroyed, the game ends and a summary screen admonishes you for the nuclear holocaust you allowed to happen. As an allegory for the futility of escalated nuclear conflict, Missile Defense 3D is about as subtle as a brick to the head.

 The 3D effect in Missile Defense 3D is much more convincing than in Zaxxon 3D. Missiles really do appear to launch from silos and fly toward the viewer, travel along deep ice crevasses in the North Pole or spiral down through a cityscape. The doubling effect I noticed in Zaxxon is much less apparent here, since the white missiles aren't as heavily contrasted against the much brighter backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the accuracy of the Master System's light gun leaves much to be desired. My shots were all over the place; they only hit their targets about 50% of the time, even when the gun was pressed against the TV screen. I don't know if the problem's limited to my gun or if they all suck equally bad, but it quickly made Missile Defense 3D unplayable as the higher levels. Speaking of which, there's not much variation in the levels. Obviously you shoot nothing but missiles in this game, but there's not much variety in either the missile types or the locations in the game. It's fun for a few minutes, but without any variety, it quickly becomes monotonous. A bonus stage or something would've gone a long way towards extending the entertainment value of Missile Defense 3D.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we save a couple of pig-faced ingrates from the Pirates of Pestulon in Space Quest III!

Zaxxon 3D For Sega Master System

The Master System, Sega's 8-bit also-ran, had an interesting trick up its sleeve when it was released to compete with the NES. Among its handful of accessories was a pair of SegaScope 3D goggles, which plugged into the card slot on the front of the console. 3D wasn't entirely unheard of on the NES, as Rad Racer sported an anaglyph 3D mode. However, Sega's goggles created the 3D effect without screwing with the games' colors... all 32 of them. Only 8 3D games were released, one of which is Zaxxon 3D.

The original Zaxxon was an arcade space shooter released by Sega in 1982. Played from an isometric viewpoint and already sporting pseudo-3D graphics, Zaxxon was a logical choice for a full-3D makeover. Zaxxon 3D is more of a remake than a proper sequel. It keeps much of the original's gameplay intact, but moves the view behind your ship. Like the arcade original, you fight off waves of alien fighters in space, and then assault the aliens' base. At the end of each level, you fight a boss. The fuel gauge also makes an appearance in Zaxxon 3D: you die if it runs out, but it can be refilled by blowing up fuel tanks scattered around the alien base. The only real change to the game is the addition of additional weapons and power-ups. The weapon upgrades increase your rate of fire and the damage you can do per shot, but at the cost of increased fuel consumptions. Power-ups grant you bonus lives and increased maneuvering speed, but again at the cost of faster fuel consumption.

Zaxxon's biggest failing unfortunately makes its way to Zaxxon 3D. Your ship moves at a snail's pace around the screen, making dodging enemy fire and obstacles an exercise in frustration. The speed power-up is a welcome addition, but it comes up too rarely and it sucks your fuel tank empty in a hurry. The weapon upgrades don't do much to help matters, either; I barely noticed a difference between them in terms of effectiveness. The lack of detail in the alien bases is a distinct step down from the arcade original. Zaxxon sported an alien base built on an asteroid and loaded with intricate turrets, missile silos, tanks, and energy barriers. Zaxxon 3D lacks most of these details, instead flying you over an abstract, rectangular blue trench occasionally occupied by a green wall or a handful of very basic-looking enemy sprites. Maybe the extra overhead of creating a 3D environment meant Zaxxon 3D's graphics had to be scaled back, but frankly I've seen more impressive-looking Intellivision games. Finally, the 3D effect isn't very convincing. The goggles use LCD shutters to block out light to the left & right eye in sequence with the image displayed on screen. Unfortunately, the shutters can't block enough light to completely obscure the TV screen, so bright objects appear blurry and doubled. If you've ever wanted to know what playing a videogame with a concussion looks like, Zaxxon 3D's your game. Pressing the pause button at the title screen brings up a hidden options screen wherein you can disable the 3D effect.  Doing so strips the gimmick away, leaving you with a thoroughly mediocre shooter and a poor follow-up to an arcade classic.

Thanks for reading my review! Up next, another Sega-powered 3D shoot fest, Missile Defense 3D!