• magisterrex Retro Games


    I've been gaming since the days of Pong and still own a working Atari 2600. I tend to ramble on about retro games, whether they be board games, video games or PC games. Sometimes I digress. Decades after earning it, I'm finally putting the skills I learned while completing my history degree from the University of Victoria to good use. Or so I think. If you're into classic old school gaming, this blog is for you!

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Game of the Week: Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987)

Once upon a time it was a lot more avante-guard to be a pirate, long before the unwashed masses embraced the Disney Jack Sparrow movie juggernaut, and even before some wag convinced enough people to celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day.  In the heady days of the dawn of the PC graphic adventure, pirates were nothing more than literary devices or the stuff of all things dastardly; pirates portrayed in PC games were more Blackbeard or Captain Hook than Errol Flynn. And then along came Sid Meier.

Box art for Sid Meier's Pirates!

Sid Meier is a gaming legend today, a name that is as much a brand and promise of great gameplay, but in 1987, this was not the case.  To be sure, Sid Meier’s name already carried some weight in the simulation community, as a designer of games such as F-15 Strike Eagle and Silent Service.  His games were always enjoyable and well-coded, but more importantly, sold well.  The marketing gurus at MicroProse suspected that people were buying Sid Meier games because they were designed by Sid Meier, so it seemed reasonable to help make their buying decisions for them by announcing his involvement directly in the product title.  From this reasoning the very first game to feature “Sid Meier’s…” in the game title was born: Sid Meier’s Pirates!

Sid Meier - Gamer god

Sid Meier - Gamer god

The game was for single players, made long before the mad, lemming-like multiplayer rush of today that all gaming companies seem to have embraced.  (Wait, was that an editorial?)  It was an open-ended game, letting the player make the choices on where to travel and what to do, with the only caveat being that eventually the player’s character would grow too old to continue on the pirate’s path, and would retire.  Depending on what actions the player took (that is, what rewards and successes they achieved during the game), the game would then give a litany of how their character lived the rest of their days, from a lowly beggar in the streets to the prestigious role as adviser to the King.  The game world itself was created using a series of questions-and-answers, beginning with what pirate era the player wanted to play within (1560: The Silver Empire; 1600: Merchants and Smugglers; 1620: The New Colonists; 1640: War for Profit; 1660: The Buccaneer Heroes; and 1680: Pirates’ Sunset).  This was followed by which nationality they wished to be (Dutch Adventurer, English Buccaneer, French Buccaneer, or Spanish Renegade), which Difficulty Level they wished to play in (Apprentice, Journeyman, Adventurer, or Swashbuckler).  Finally, a Special Ability was chosen: Skill at Fencing, Skill at Gunnery, Skill at Medicine, Skill at Navigation, or Wit and Charm, each with its own advantages (for instance, Wit and Charm was used to keep on a Governor’s good side; whereas Skill at Medicine kept injuries to a minimum and prolonged the character’s life).

Swordplay in Sid Meier's Pirates!

The game world was then generated from these questions.  Of course, the final variable was the copy protection, which requested when either the Silver Train or the Spanish Treasure Fleet arrived in a particular city.  Failure to provide the correct answer stacked the odds so far against the player that even the game manual stated, “Heed the advice and start over, otherwise you’ll find your situation most bleak.”  Take that, software pirates!  Actually, in some ways the manual was as interesting as the game, as there was a wealth of historical information on pirates and the historical context within which they plied their trade.  Well worth reading!

Decisions, decisions in Sid Meier's Pirates!

As for actual gameplay, the live of a pirate was sometimes short, but always challenge-filled and exciting, which the player soon discovered for themselves.  Since a pirate fought with a sword, fencing was part of the game.  Since pirates sailed the seas to prey upon treasure-laden ships, navigation and naval combat was part of the game.  Since pirates often sold their loot to merchants (money laundering was alive and well in the pirate era), trade was part of the game.  Since pirates sometimes sacked small townships, that, too was part of the game.  Since pirate ships didn’t magically manifest crewmembers to sail the seven seas, recruitment was part of the game, and since a silver tongue helped a pirate live a longer life, diplomatic contact with town governors was also part of the game.  All in all, this was an impressive pirate simulation.

Pirates! Gold for the Sega Genesis

If the Career Mode was too large of a time investment, Sid Meier’s Pirates! offered six historically accurate scenarios to test your swashbuckling mettle.  Each scenario was in a different time period, and each offered unique challenges to overcome.  These scenarios were: John Hawkins and the Battle of San Juan Ulua  – 1569 (wherein you have a slow, but powerful galleon to command, with many ports unwilling to trade and a fleet not powerful enough to force them to comply); Francis Drake and the Silver Train Ambush – 1573 (can you match the verve and skill Drake showed battling the Spanish Fleet at the height of their power with only two small ships?); Piet Heyn and the Treasure Fleet – 1628 (your fleet is powerful, but the season is late and finding the treasure ships is becoming a difficult task and will take expert planning to locate and dispatch); L’Ollonais and the Sack of Marcaibo – 1666 (an abundance of manpower but a shortage of powerful vessels make ship-to-ship battles difficult, but port sacking attractive, with the additional challenge of the fragile nature of your men’s morale); Henry Morgan the King’s Pirate – 1671 (the dangers of having a powerful pirate fleet in both naval power and manpower in that you must keep everyone fed, content and treasure laden to succeed); and Baron de Pontis and the Last Expedition – 1697 (the munchkin scenario, in which you have a large strike force and a more than reasonable certainty to win any battle, making the only challenge how much treasure can you loot?).

Pirates! for the Nintendo Entertainment System

Sid Meier’s Pirates! was first released in 1987 on the Apple II, Commodore 64 and IBM PC (PC Booter) platforms.  It was quickly ported over to the Macintosh (1988), Amstrad (1988), Commodore Amiga (1990), and even the Nintendo Entertainment System (1991).  It would be remade in 1993 with improved graphics and sound, then published under the title Pirates! Gold, for IBM PC (both DOS and Windows), Macintosh, and – because Nintendon’t – the Sega Genesis. The remakes didn’t end there, as it was again remade in 2004 for Windows XP, returning to its original title of Sid Meier’s Pirates!, and then again in 2008 for mobile devices, imaginatively called Sid Meier’s Pirates! Mobile.  Perhaps in the next decade it will be remade once again.  (I recommend they try Sid Meier’s Pirates! Gold as the title for next time.)

Box art for Pirates! Gold

Sid Meier’s Pirates! was not only popular amongst gamers, it also performed well in the eyes of the gaming press.  It was awarded “Action Game of the Year” by Computer Gaming World, and also the Origin Award for “Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Computer Game of 1987”.  The game also ranked at #18 in the Computer Gaming World’s 150 Best Games of All Time.  Clearly, this game has remained in the gaming public’s eye for a reason, making Sid Meier’s Pirates! a worthy addition to anyone’s game collection.


Gameplay video of Sid Meier’s Pirates! ()

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Game of the Week – James Bond: The Stealth Affair

Long before GoldenEye established the gold standard for James Bond action games, 007 had a PC gaming presence, with games dating back as far as 1983 (the Commodore 64 game James Bond 007).  Most were based on the various Bond movies, and were either interactive fiction, such as James Bond: A View to a Kill (1984) and James Bond 007: Goldfinger (1986), or arcade action side/vertical scrollers, such as The Living Daylights (1987) or 007: License to Kill (1989).  Some were forgettable, some enjoyable, but the first graphic adventure James Bond adventure is today’s featured game: James Bond: The Stealth Affair.

Box art for James Bond: The Stealth Affair

The story revolved around a missing F-19 stealth fighter, stolen from an American base and tracked (how did they do that?) to somewhere in Latin America.  Who did it? Could it be the Russians pulling a Red October or could it be some Latin American tinpot dictator or crime lord?  The danger of having a Latin American drug lord having stealth technology was sufficient to bring in the best troubleshooter in the business: James Bond.  The action began as fast as our man James stepped off his flight into the Santa Paragua airport, holding only a briefcase and his airline ticket, with the need to somehow get past a maddeningly efficient airport security guard.  “I don’t care who you are. In this country you are all outsiders.”  The game moved on from there, with a variety of puzzles to solve, as well as a few arcade action sequences to complete.

Splash title page for James Bond: The Stealth Affair

The Stealth Affair was a graphic adventure using a point&click interface, which means an inevitable pixel hunt.  The command menu was brought up by right-clicking the mouse, and consisted of EXAMINE, TAKE, INVENTORY, USE, OPERATE, and SPEAK.  Descriptions were provided when you used the EXAMINE command on objects, and you could either TAKE some items to later USE them in other situations, or OPERATE devices immediately.  You could not EXAMINE your INVENTORY, however.

James Bond The Stealth Affair copy protection screen

Interestingly, The Stealth Affair was a James Bond adventure game title only in North America.  The game was originally released in Europe as Operation Stealth, and it wasn’t James Bond that was attempting to recover the missing stealth technology, it was agent John Glames.  The developer of The Stealth Affair was Delphine Software, based out of France.  Their previous hit was Future Wars, but would go on to produce some amazing games, including Out of This World (released as Another World in Europe), Flashback, and Fade to Black, among others.  Interplay Productions was the game publisher who distributed Delphine’s games, and whose logo was emblazoned upon the box covers of the North American versions.  It was Interplay who acquired the James Bond license and who initiated the change to the Operation: Stealth game from a generic spy adventure game to playing 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  The powers-that-be decided that the James Bond franchise was a bankable commodity, so they altered all instances of John Glames into James Bond.  In addition, some of the action sequences were removed, presumably to make for easier gameplay, and some of the bad French to English game text was reworded. Oddly both Bond and Glames were working for the CIA, which to a Bond enthusiast, is a serious faux pas.  But I digress.

Box art for Operation Stealth

The game simply begged for Sean Connery voiceovers, but, alas, the IBM PC version lacked digitized voices.  Darn technology and/or budget limitations!  However, the Amiga version had synthesized voices (with 1 MB or higher RAM), but a serious bug in the code can lead to a full system crash if using the player got tired of listening to the dialogue and attempted to click through with the mouse button.  As one of the attention-challenged brethren of gamers, that’s a serious flaw that exploits a common weakness!

Why is James Bond working for the C.I.A.?

The Stealth Affair was released on three formats in North America: IBM PC (MS-DOS), Amiga, and Atari ST.  Reviews were generally favorable, with .info giving the game 4.5 out of 5 stars in their March 1991 issue, stating that, “No Bond fan should miss this one.”  However, some reviewers were more ambivalent towards the game, such as the review in the May 1991 issue of Compute!, wherein the game is described as, “Controlled by either keyboard or mouse, the Bond of The STEALTH Affair moves and acts in a manner like that of his namesake in latter-day 007 movies-that is, choppy and silly, trading the quiet sophistication of Ian Fleming’s hero for a goofy nonchalance.”  Still, accepting the technology limitations of its day, James Bond: The Stealth Affair was a fun game.  Perhaps not worthy of the top 100 games of all time, but still in the running for the next one hundred, and well-worth a look by any retrogamer yearning for a spy-based adventure game!

Game of the Week: American McGee’s Alice (2000)

In the aftermath of Doom and Doom II‘s critical and financial success, many software companies sought to duplicate id Software’s successes.  Some chose to attempt to out-Doom Doom, bringing forth various first-person shooters in an attempt to capture the same market.  Some chose the classic business maneuver of poaching talent, seeking to duplicate the successes of id Software by tempting their brightest minds away with a van full of candy.  American James McGee (yes, that’s his name; no, it’s not a nickname), whose resume included everything from being a tester on Wolfenstein 3D, to a level designer for Doom II, to a co-producer for Hexen: Beyond Heretic, was one of those targets.  At the tender age of 28, McGee jumped ship to Electronic Arts in 1998, and was given free rein to direct, write, and design the game of his own choosing.  That game, of course, was American McGee’s Alice.

Box art for American McGee's Alice

Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass had long since passed into the public domain, and several new visions of the setting had already come to pass in cinema, literature, and gaming (such as Wonderland).  However, McGee’s take on the Alice mythos pushed its darkness further into the open.  The game begins with a tragic house fire claiming the lives of young Alice’s family, sending her spiralling into despair and catatonia.  For years she remains within a sanitarium, until one day the White Rabbit returns – not the delightful White Rabbit of her youth, but a somewhat bedraggled White Rabbit, its absent-mindedness no longer charming, but eerie.  Once again Alice follows it into Wonderland, where all is not as it was: the Cheshire Cat is mangy and underfed (but still smiling); the Duchess and the Mad Hatter want to kill her; and the Red Queen rules with a bloody, iron fist.

Not your childhood Alice in Wonderland.

The level design was absolutely stunning in its 3-D dark surrealism. Alice follows the White Rabbit into the Village of the Damned, where she is reintroduced to the Cheshire Cat, and can locate the Vorpal Blade so she can go all snicker-snack on her opponents.  Next comes the Vale of Tears, a foggy realm that is home to the ravenous Duchess and the poor Mock Turtle who needs his shell back.  Other areas include finding the wise Caterpillar in the Cave of the Oracle; experiencing the chessboard realm of the White Queen; the twisted version of Rutledge Asylum that houses Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as well as the Mad Hatter; the volcanic lair of the Jabberwocky; and the final castle level of the Queen of Hearts. Each level shows the strength of American McGee’s talent for level design as well as the versatility of the Quake III Arena game engine it uses to bring it all to life.

Another element important to the atmosphere of American McGee’s Alice is its aural component, including the voice acting, sound effects, and musical score.  On this front, the game excels.  The voice acting was performed by professional voice actors, with experience in film, television and gaming projects, such as Roger Jackson (who voiced the Cheshire Cat, the Jabberwocky, and the Dormouse…as well as the telephone voice for the Scream movies), Susie Brann (who was the voice of Alice), Andrew Chaikin (who voiced the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, and the March Hare), Anni Long (who voiced the Red Queen and The Duchess), and Jarion Monroe (who voiced the Caterpiller).  As for the game’s soundtrack,  Chris Vrenna (who drummed for Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails for 8 years), approached the challenge of composing the music for the game by looking for instrumentation that sounded like they could be from the Alice’s era, but also having a “creepy” or “bizarre” sound that “created a mood”.   To this end he used toy pianos, penny whistles, toy accordions, wind-up musical boxes, zippers, grandfather clocks, and more.  Ultimately, between the eerie music and the wonderful voice acting, the game fulfills all its audio expectations.

Of course, American McGee’s Alice is not a perfect game. The level design is brilliant, but the gameplay has its pedestrian moments. For instance, if you are a fan of games that require platform-style jumping to avoid enemies, locate items and switches, and to find level exits, this is the game for you. For those that find all this leaping about a tad annoying…not so much. It’s best to familiarize yourself with the controls for jumping quickly in this game, as you will be doing a lot of it. However, if you can get past that, the rest of the gameplay has enough variation to keep the player wanting more.

American McGee's Alice battles the Red King

American McGee’s Alice proved popular enough to inspire a toy line from Milo’s Workshop.  These limited movement action figures featured Alice with the Cheshire Cat, the Card Guards, the Jabberwocky, the Caterpillar, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mad Hatter, and the White Rabbit.  The quality is similar to Todd McFarlane’s toy line, and were released from 2000 through 2004, and continue to have some value on the collector market.

Examples of the Milo's Workshop toy line for American McGee's Alice

It’s been over 10 years since Electronic Arts released the game that gave us all a disturbing insight into the mind of former id Software level designer American McGee.  That’s right, American McGee’s Alice was released in October, 2000, so those who remember buying it on its release date, should take a moment to realize time is marching on.  For those who never played this classic PC game, pay your respects to those of us who did.  After all, we’re probably Elders of the gaming community at this point.  With the sequel finally being released, do yourself a favor and play the original.  Your Elders demand it.

Game of the Week – Zork: Grand Inquisitor

In 1996, Activision released Zork: Nemesis, a visually-stunning game, but with an overtly dark theme and a serious – even intense – game atmosphere, very unlike any other game in the Zork series.  (So dark, in fact, that the Infocom label was not included on the box!)  Nemesis was a great game, but something had to be done to bring back the humor and irreverence of all things Zork.  And so, a year later, in 1997, Activision released a new game in the Zork / Enchanter series, set 580 years before Return to Zork, and with an eye to bringing the series back to its roots – Zork: Grand Inquisitor.

Box front of Zork: Grand Inquisitor

The story behind Zork: Grand Inquisitor was fairly basic: magic has been banned by the merciless Inquisition, and the Dungeon Master has been trapped within a trusty adventurer’s lantern.  The player is called upon by the Dungeon Master – “I shall call you ageless, faceless, gender-neutral, culturally ambiguous, adventurer person. AFGNCAAP for short. ” – to restore the magic outlawed by the Inquisition in Quendor.  To do so, AFGNCAAP must locate the lost Zorkian magical treasures of the Coconut of Quendor, the Skull of Yoruk, and one of the Cubes of Foundation, with which a torrent of magic will be released, defeating the plans of the Grand Inquisitor and his minions.  Sounds easy, right?

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.

The technology used by Zork: Grand Inquisitor was a modified version of the Z-Vision game engine first used in Zork: Nemesis.  A full lateral sweep of 360 degrees was available to the player, but not any vertical movement (with a couple of exceptions based on unique scenes at GUE Tech and at the Flathead Mesa).  Human characters were portrayed by actors in full motion video, while non-human characters, such as Marvin the Goatfish, were clay models which were then digitized and animated.  Zork: Grand Inquisitor used lighting effects to draw the eye of the player to explorable areas, permitting the player to spend more time engrossed in puzzle-solving rather than the standard mouse click-fest and hunt-and-click routines of many adventure games.

The Voice of the Inquisition

The voice acting was superb, with Hollywood-class talent giving life to the various characters, which included Michael McKean (as the lantern-trapped Dungeon Master, Dalboz of Gurth) and David L. Lander (whom many will recall played Squiggy in Laverne & Shirley, as the font of ridiculous proclamations, the Voice of the Inquisition).  Some of the actors involved who had both visual and audio parts included Dirk Benedict as Antharia Jack, Rip Taylor as Chief Undersecretary Wartle, and Erick Avari, as Mir Yannick, the pompous, over-his-head but desperately attempting to fake it, Grand Inquisitor.  The effect was to improve the gameplay, especially during cutscenes, which can be excruciating when players are forced to watch the programmer’s second cousin who once acted in a school play gamely work their way through a script. *shudder*

Mir Yannick in Zork: Grand Inquisitor

Zork: Grand Inquisitor received good reviews (PC Gamer Magazine gave it an Editor’s Choice award and scored it at 88% in its May, 1988 issue, while GameSpot scored it as a 8.0 “Great”).  The biggest fault that reviewers agreed upon was that it seemed too short, and a longer visit in this archetypical gamer universe was wished for.  Now that’s a complaint any developer would like to hear!  It was released for both Windows and Macintosh platforms, and played the same on either one.  Also, a DVD version was released in 1998, which also included the full version of Zork: Nemesis as an added bonus.

"I love it when a plan comes together."

Never forget who is the boss of you. ME!  I am the boss of you!”  Combining the visual appeal of Zork: Nemesis with the humor of the original series, Zork: Grand Inquisitor was a laudable addition to the Zork milieu, and certainly a worthy entry into this Game of the Week series.  Bluntly put, this game is well-worth a playthrough, especially if you are a fan of the Zork series!

Game of the Week: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

If there was one axiom in the PC gaming world back in the 1990’s, it was that LucasArts produced incredible adventure games.  So many went on to become cherised memories in the minds of gamers, such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Loom, and Day of the Tentacle, but also the subject of this edition of the Game of the Week: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis box front.

Fate of Atlantis was a superb Indiana Jones game because it featured all the aspects of an archetypal Indy adventure.  To begin with, Indy fought and competed against Nazi.  “Nazis. I hate these guys.”  The best Indiana Jones stories cast Hitler’s ever-dangerous forces and sympathizers as the good professor’s main antagonists.  After all, who doesn’t hate the Nazis?  (I mean, besides extremist fringe political groups.)  They’re the quintessential villains for the time period: efficient, brutal, and seemingly omnipresent.  The second major aspect is the need for Indy to be on a quest for an artifact of extreme potency.  Finding an object to match the mystery and sheer majesty of the Ark of the Covenant or the Cup of Christ required shifting the religious overtones from traditional sources to the New Age movement.  Incorporating the alien, time-lost feel of the ultimate symbol of New Age mysticism, the lost city/continent of Atlantis, was a brilliant decision, and gave the game the same epic feel of the movies.

Splash page for Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

The man responsible for the Fate of Atlantis’ adherence to the Indy mythos was Hal Barwood.  Barwood had a broad background working in the film industry, including being credited for writing Stephen Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express, co-producing the box office flop/cult classic Dragonslayer, and writing the Gregory Peck World War II movie, MacArthur.  However, Barwood had a much more limited computer game background, having been involved in the production of a mere two titles (as “Special Guest Film Director” on The Secret of Monkey Island, and mysteriously credited as “Works like crazy!” on Monkey Island 2).  Still, LucasArts needed someone who thought in cinematic terms, so regardless of his relative inexperience in PC game design, Barwood was given the Big Chair for their next Indiana Jones project.

Exploring the ruins in Fate of Atlantis.

Barwood showed his good judgment immediately upon receiving the script for the yet to be titled Indiana Jones game.  The script was originally submitted as a potential movie script for a fourth Indiana Jones film, but had been rejected.  Barwood realized that the rejection was sound, as he stated, “It was rejected for a reason, though, and I thought it was hopeless.”  He and his co-designer, Noah Falstein, “marched down to George’s wonderful research library and started thumbing through Dark Mysteries of the Past -type coffee table books.”  There they came across an artist’s rendition of Atlantis, and immediately realized its potential as a game setting.  From there they decided that the game’s version of Atlantis needed to have some grounding in our reality, so they “decided to fasten on Plato’s reality to give the thing legitimacy.”  And with that as the foundation, Barwood proceeded to write out the plot of the game, birthing a true gaming classic in the process.

Atlantis as described by Plato in Timæus and Critias.

In some ways Fate of Atlantis was a typical LucasArts adventure, but in other ways, atypical.  The game used the SCUMM game engine (first used in Maniac Mansion, hence the abbreviation for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion).  It used 256-color VGA graphics, and had an outstanding audio score.  (Later versions would include digitized voices, and an inspired Indiana Jones sound-alike performance by Doug Lee.) Further, players traveled throughout a vast game world (200+ locations) searching for objects that helped solve a variety of puzzles.  Yet the differences Fate of Atlantis showed were remarkable.  For instance, unlike games such as Loom or The Secret of Monkey Island, the wrong decision in Fate of Atlantis could result in Indy’s death.  This was an interesting departure from the LucasArts Canon (detailed quite eloquently and yet most verbosely by Ron Gilbert in a 1989 missive, reprinted here).

Magazine ad for Fate of Atlantis.

Another key difference was that Fate of Atlantis included a multipath scenario for gameplay, which was originally envisioned by Noah Falstein, but left to Hal Barwood to implement.  These paths had different playing styles, unique puzzles and situations, differing game world locations, and even alternate cutscenes.  The game paths had titles which indicated their favored strategies: the Fists Path, containing plenty of fist-fighting and an emphasis on action; the Team Path, which involved Indy adventuring with the game’s female love interest, Sophia Hapgood, and treated her as a kind of in-game hint book; and the Wits Path, which de-emphasized the action in favor of more and more complex puzzles to solve.  This was not a completely user-driven game world, however, as Fate of Atlantis always began and ended in the same way, with the option to select one of the three paths coming somewhat in the middle of the game.

Onboard a Nazi U-Boat in Fate of Atlantis.

Of course, even before Fate of Atlantis was released, Indiana Jones was already a cultural phenomenon.  There had been three movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and at the time of Fate of Atlantis’ release, a television series was in its first year of production (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles).  Games based on the movies had been released on several platforms, including Indiana Jones in the Lost Kingdom in 1984 (C64), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1987 (AmigaApple IIAtari ST, C64, DOS), Indiana Jones in Revenge of the Ancients in 1987 (Apple II, DOS), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Action Game in 1989 (C64, DOS, Atari ST, Amiga), andIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure in 1989 (Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, Macintosh).  In other words, this was a franchise with both a solid history and strong fan base.

A Fist Fight in Fate of Atlantis!

Fate of Atlantis was released on several platforms, with versions for MS-DOS, Amiga, Macintosh, and FM Towns. As you can imagine, releasing the game on several gaming platforms ensured its best-seller status, selling over a 1 million copies (with the obvious caveat that the game was also good).  Fate of Atlantis was not only a hit among the buying public – it garnered many accolades among game critics, including “Best Adventure Game of the Year”  by Computer Game Review, a solid 90% game review from Amiga Power, and was even named #93 in the 150 Best Games of All Time list in 1996 by Computer Gaming World (CGW).

Indy swinging into action in Fate of Atlantis.

Ultimately, all the awards and positive reviews are meaningless if they don’t convince you to play the game – and enjoy it.  Yes, the graphics are dated compared to today’s 3-D visual masterpieces with photo-realistic images, but if you’re a retrogamer, the graphics aren’t your chief concern, the gameplay is.  And Fate of Atlantis delivers great gameplay with a professionally written story that immerses you into what could have easily been the fourth Indiana Jones movie script.  Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is highly recommended, and clearly deserving of its Game of the Week honor!

Retro Game of the Week: Ascendancy (1995)

Some games are released and gain an instant cult following, yet do not find a larger audience with the larger PC gamer market.  Sometimes they are too quirky.  Sometimes the game’s instructions are confusing, and require a great deal of experimentation to learn and understand.  Sometimes the genre is experiencing market oversaturation, and no matter how good the game is, people are too tired of playing that kind of game.  Whatever the reason, great games have been released that did not find more than a toehold in the gamerverse, and disappeared into the mists of gaming history.  Ascendancy, released by The Logic Factory in 1995, was one such game.

Cover art for the 1995 PC game, Ascendancy.

Ascendancy was a turn-based strategy game set in a sci-fi universe, and gave the player several species options to choose from – 21 in all.  (Interestingly, Humans were not included as one of those races. )  Each species had its strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages.   For instance, some races were better negotiators, some better scientists, some better weapon makers, some better at defending their turf, and some better at invasion.  How soon you met these other species depended on how dense of star cluster you chose at the beginning of the game.  The denser the cluster, the more planets existed, and more star lanes connecting them.  Those star lanes were the key to victory, as could be controlled by a particular alien race, and that control could vary as systems were conquered.  For even more variety, the computer randomized your opponents, which meant never knowing exactly what you faced; the game was different every time you played it.

Title screen for the 1995 PC game, Ascendancy.

An interesting feature of Ascendancy was the Tech Tree, which was a three-dimensional representation of the scientific advances that were available to the alien race.  As each discovery was made, new paths – branches – were opened for development.  The Logic Factory outdid itself with the names of the techno-advancements, with such titles as Tonklin Diary (which allows for Tonklin Frequency Analyzers) or Spacetime Surfing (which allows for Star Lane Drives) or Gravity Control (which allows for Quantum Singularity Launchers) or Momentum Deconservation (which allows for Concussion Shields), and so on.  Of course, you could jumpstart your research by locating and searching through alien ruins on the planets your fleet visited for lost technology, which was yet another random variable that made Ascendancy both ever-changing and immanently replayable.

Choose your race in Ascendancy

Ascendancy was a wonderful game with a huge flaw: the AI.  Although casual gamers enjoyed the game’s challenge, more advanced gamers found the AI to be weak and easily mastered.  The Logic Factory responded by issuing a patch which greatly enhanced the game’s AI, but in 1995 few people were on the Internet, so the patch never found widespread release.   For those itching to play the original Ascendancy with the Antagonizer patch, here it is: ANTAGONIZER and README.

Planetary screen in Ascendancy

As could be expected in any multi-civilization strategy game, Ascendancy included a robust diplomacy element.  As new species discovered your existence, their attitudes and responses were influenced by how you reacted to them.  Peace treaties, hostilities, technology exchanges, invitations to join in current conflicts were examples of some of the outcomes resulting from an exchange of diplomatic pleasantries.  As in real life, species who considered you weak would make broader demands and reject overtures; species who considered you strong worked on making you their best friend.

Successful research screen in Ascendancy

Ascendancy was a quirky game, but it found a receptive audience due to its stellar gameplay.  It earned a 93% score and an Editor’s Choice award from PC Gamer, and received some high praise from the grognard’s grognard, William R. Trotter (which has an interesting story and legend surrounding the review and his subsequent strategy guide work on the same game).  Ascendancy also won a Codie Award for Best Strategy Software in 1996, in a field that included Allied General and Command & Conquer.  (Mind you, they gave the Best Adventure/Roleplaying Game award to Oregon Trail II that same year.)

Searching the ruins in Ascendancy

Time has passed and the prospect of a sequel remain dim.  However, a new version built for the iPhone (and iPad) has been released, and has received some solid reviews from those who game on those platforms.  But for the retrogamer, the original Ascendancy remains supreme in turn-based space strategy exploration and conquest, and well worth investing a little time playing once again!

Retro Game of the Week – Lode Runner (1983)

Way back in time, when I was gaming the night away on my Apple II clone (a Circle II), all things Zork ruled my gaming existence.  But when I needed a respite from adventuring in the Great Underground Empire, Lode Runner was the game that took its place.

Lode Runner for VIC-20

Lode Runner was an arcade hit published by Broderbund Software in 1983.  The game’s backstory was that a vast fortune in gold bullion was heisted by the Bungeling Empire, and it’s your job to recover it.  Some of the gold sat around waiting for you to pick it up, and some was carried by various agents of the Empire –  which required a slightly more creative approach.  Essentially the only way to get their gold was to bury them alive, and wait for the gold to pop out once they were crushed to death.  Your Lode Runner was able to blast the dirt to either side of him (and more than one square, if needed), which would eventually automatically refill.  The trick was to make certain that an Agent would fall into it, and be unable to get out in time before the hole refilled.  Blast too soon and the hole would refill long before the Agent arrived; blast too late and the Agent would either climb out of the hole and expunge your Lode Runner from virtual existence or the hole would not open at all.  Timing your blasts, and knowing when to kill your Agents off, was the point of the game.

Lode Runner for Apple II screen

Yes, it was simple. What 1980’s game wasn’t?  But it was fun.  And clearly many, many gamers thought so, too, as Lode Runner was released on multiple platforms, including: Apple II (1983), Atari 400/800/XL/XE (1983), Commodore 64 (1983), MSX (1983), PC Booter (1983), VIC-20 (1983), Macintosh (1984), Nintendo Famicom (1984), ZX Spectrum (1984), PC-88 (1986), Nintendo Entertainment System (1987), Amstrad CPC (1989), and the Atari ST (1989)…among others!  That’s a lot of systems, a large audience, and a reason why Lode Runner remains a classic gaming memory.

Lode Runner: The Legend Returns cover.

Like any classic game, Lode Runner had its share of updates and sequels, again a sign of a game that has a classic appeal.  The list is impressive:

  • Load Runner’s Rescue (Commodore 64, 1985)
  • Hyper Lode Runner (GameBoy, 1990)
  • Battle Lode Runner (TurboGrafx, 1993)
  • Lode Runner: The Legend Returns (DOS/Macintosh/Windows, 1994)
  • Lode Runner Online: The Mad Monk Returns (Windows/Macintosh, 1995)
  • Lode Runner 2 (Windows/Macintosh, 1998)
  • Lode Runner 3-D (Nintendo 64, 1999)
  • Battle Lode Runner (Wii, 2007)
  • Lode Runner (Xbox 360, 2009)

Lode Runner has been considered a classic for some time. It made #80 on Computer Gaming World’s 150 Best Games of All Time list, and was mentioned in 2003 as one of the best games of all time by Gamespot in their The Greatest Games of All Time series.  The creator of Tetris, the classic puzzle game that all puzzle games are compared to, was quoted in a 2008 interview with Edge Magazine that he considered Lode Runner to his favorite puzzle game for many years.  There was even a 1986 Lode Runner board game created by Donal Carlston (the creator of the still-popular board game, Personal Preference)!

Lode Runner Online: The Mad Monk Returns cover

Back in 1983, a big bowl of salt ‘n’ vinegar potato chips, a jug of chocolate milk, and an afternoon of wiping out agents of the Bungeling Empire was a recipe for good times.  Now that I’m older (married with children, no less!), there’s no more chocolate milk nor salt ‘n’ vinegar potato chips, and my afternoon gaming has now been replaced with late evening gaming. But Lode Runner will always hold a special place in my gamer heart, and if you’ve never played it, find one of the updated versions and have great time!