• 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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Yesterday’s Freebies: The Sam ‘n’ Max Hit The Road Board Game

Squirreled away amidst the pages of LucasArts’ The Adventurer (No. 7, Winter 1994, to be precise) was a curious two-page spread entitled, Sam & Max Hit the Road: The Thrill-Packed and Completely Unrelated Official Boardgame. Just a little zany extra for fans of classic LucasArts comedic adventures, and a great ad for the Sam & Max PC game. (The Adventurer also contained an “interview” with Sam and Max, but if written slapstick humor is a lost art, this piece did nothing to locate it.) At any rate, below is the Sam & Max Hit the Road: The Thrill-Packed and Completely Unrelated Official Boardgame, ready for you to play – just click on the image to enlarge it to a usable size! (NOTE: The enlarged image is hi-res, so don’t click on it if you don’t have a fast Internet connection!)

Sam & Max Hit the Road: The Thrill-Packed and Completely Unrelated Official Boardgame


Retrogaming Ruins: Descent to Undermountain

Back in the holiday season in 1997, Interplay Productions released Descent to Undermountain, a new Dungeons & Dragons PC game hotly anticipated not only because it was a new AD&D game, but because it promised to be a 3D roleplaying experience using the Descent 3D game engine.  Many gamers did not bother to wait for the magazine reviews, as the last true AD&D RPG had been Strategic Simulations, Inc.’s 1995 classic, Ravenloft: Stone Prophet, and the intervening years had seen only fighting and strategy games released based on TSR’s many game worlds.  They were to be sorely disappointed.

Descent to Undermountain splash page

Descent to Undermountain began well enough with a deep, multi-screen character generation program.  The player began the process by choosing one of six character races (human, elf, dwarf, half-elf, halfling, and drow) in either gender.  As this was AD&D 2nd Edition rules, each race had restrictions or benefits, with humans being the only race with unlimited advancement (but unable to gain racial bonuses or multi-classing).  Elves and Drow received +1 on their Dexterity score, but suffered -1 on their Constitution score, as well as near-immunity to sleep spells. Half-Elves received partial immunity to sleep spells, no special pluses or minuses to their ability scores, but the most possible class combinations.  Dwarfs gained +1 on their Constitution score, some resistance to magic, and -1 to their Charisma score.  Finally, halflings gain +1 to their Dexterity score, some resistance to magic, and -1 to their Strength score.

Choosing a Drow Elf in Descent to Undermountain

The player next chose which of the four character classes they wanted: Fighter, Priest, Mage, or Thief.  Multi-class characters were possible for all races (except humans), but there were also some class limitations: Elves and Drow could choose Fighter/Mage, Fighter/Thief, Mage/Thief or any of the stand-alone classes; Dwarfs could choose Fighter/Priest or Fighter/Thief (or simply a Fighter, Thief, or Priest), but not a Mage; Halflings could be a Fighter, Priest, Thief or a Fighter/Thief (but not a Fighter/Priest); and Half-Elves could be any class, as well as the Fighter/Priest, Fighter/Mage, Fighter/Thief, and Mage/Thief combinations.  Congratulations, you’ve got through the first two Character Generation screens!

Generating ability scores in Descent to Undermountain

After choosing the gender, race and class of their character, the player then worked up his or her ability scores (the standard Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma) on the third screen in the character generation process.  The stats were randomly generated (you could discard them and refresh for a new set as many times as you wished), and each individual score could be swapped out with another.  For instance, if you chose to play a Mage and your Wisdom score came up 18 and your Intelligence score came up a 10, you could switch them.  In addition, each character was given an extra 5 ability points to distribute as desired.  Once completed, the player moved on to the fourth and final character generation screen, where they were able to chose the Name, Portrait, and Alignment of their character.

Name, face and alignment in Descent to Undermountain

Besides a rich character generation process, Descent to Undermountain also had a decent storyline and pacing.  You began the game determining what in AO’s name are you supposed to be doing in Waterdeep.  As the game map only showed Khelben’s Tower as a clickable item, it was off to visit the Blackstaff to see if he could enlighten you.  It seemed that kobolds were bothering Waterdeep’s merchants, and had been spotted just outside the main entrance to Undermountain.  (Bear in mind that this entrance was guarded by one of the most powerful Lords of Waterdeep, but, hey, it’s an AD&D RPG, so you should suspend all disbelief at the splash screen.)  The Lord Mage of Waterdeep even passed you a quick couple of gold pieces to pay your way in and out of Undermountain, and sent you on your way to the Yawning Portal Inn.  (Tip for anyone daring to play this game: it”s a good idea to stop at the marketplace just prior to entering the inn.)

Khelben Blackstaff in Descent to Undermountain

Up to this point players were seeing some decent high-res screens, and some good voice acting. Khelben’s voice in particular, performed by either Jim Cummings (the voice of the Terror Mask in Splatterhouse, among many other things) or Frank Welker (the original voice of Megatron) – the credits are a bit unclear on who did the actual work – was very crisp.  (Actually, Khelben sounds more like Jim Cummings.) And with all the prior work done on establishing your character, you’d expect playing the game would be worth the effort.  Ha ha ha.  No.

Descent to Undermountain wall torch.

Sometimes it’s easier to show a few pictures rather than attempt to describe how bad something is with mere words. Yes, that’s a torch.  It flickered, but the closer you got, the more pixelicious it became.  And it got worse, much worse.  Although the box stated Pentium 90 MHz with 32 MB RAM were the minimum system requirements to run Descent to Undermountain, I remember using my Pentium 200 MHz system (that handled some sweet-looking games with aplomb) yet this game ran like a Descent-engine slug.   The problem was that Descent to Undermountain was a DOS game masquerading as a Windows game, with all the system resource management problems that entailed.  Worse, the 3D objects were being software rendered, not taking advantage of the then-existing technology of 3D graphics cards.  It seemed like an old game because it was: Windows 95 had already been on the market for years; the developers had no excuse for foisting a DOS game on their RPG audience.

Blockheads in Descent to Undermountain

Hidden within this morass of poor graphics was a fairly bland RPG.  The story was very similar to a standard AD&D adventure module from the Gary Gygax days: go gather the parts to re-create the Flamesword – an ultimate Drow weapon – to prevent Lolth, the evil Drow Goddess from enacting her master plan to enslave the world of Faerun.  Along the way, the player battled kobolds, skeletons, zombies, the Shadow Thieves, a mummy, orcs, ogres, a lich, drow fighters and priestesses, a beholder, and finally the avatar of Llolth herself.  Unfortunately, a terrible AI made the creatures ignore you or move in a bizarre fashion until you disposed of them, and then, due to programming glitch, they sometimes floated nearby.   As for the story, Descent to Undermountain used a fairly linear formula:  Khelben assigned you your task, and you went down into Undermountain to complete it.  Upon successful completion of said tasks, new parts of Undermountain would become accessible, although you could return to areas you already explored, too.

Look, it's a Flood Control Dam #3 Reference!

As you might infer from the overall tone of the previous paragraphs, critics crushed Descent to Undermountain like it was roadkill on the freeway.  Computer Games Magazine gave the game a whopping 1 out of 5 in its March 1998 review, while Adrenaline Vault thought the game marginally better with a 2.5 out of 5 score in its December 1997 review.  Gamespot gave the game a hardy 3.7 (out of 10), with an article subtitled, “How could the company that produced Fallout also be responsible for one of the lousiest games to come down the pike in quite a while?”  And that seems to be a good place to end this look back at one of the many Retrogaming Ruins to have graced my gaming systems.  Full disclosure: I finished the game twice, just to make certain I wasn’t being too unkind the first time I played it.  The things we do to ourselves in the pursuit of retrogaming!

Forgotten Classics: Thunderscape (1995)

“Forgotten Classics” is a celebration of obscure PC games that weren’t released to widespread fanfare – or simply fell of the radar of gamers at the time of their release – and deserve a second look. In this installment: The World of Aden: Thunderscape, an interesting 1995 role-playing game by Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI).

Front cover of World of Aden: Thunderscape

First, a little gaming history. The AD&D gold box PC game series was a huge hit for SSI back in the day, but eventually technology outpaced the game engine, regardless of how many tweaks they could add to it. This meant a new game engine needed to be developed, which is exactly what SSI did for its next release, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands. Of course, this kind of effort is expensive, and a company needs to either have a large cash cushion to absorb it, or a high sales payoff in the first game release using the new engine. Unfortunately, SSI had neither, and the company was bought out by Mindscape, Inc., ending an era.

The World of Aden: Thunderscape was the newly sold company’s effort to mirror the success of the Ultima series in the RPG market: an in-house game engine and concept that did not require 3rd party licensing. No fees paid to TSR for the right to use the AD&D worlds meant higher profits for the company. It all sounded so elegantly simple. So why don’t we still adventure in Aden today?

The answer lies in the gaming experience. Thunderscape was a world highly influenced by steampunk. Muskets were an option (albeit an expensive one) for adventurers. Steam golems, archaic-appearing robots, could appear to threaten the party, and other steam-related technology, such as steam engines, could be found in the game. Most other RPGs were classic medievalesque fare; because of its steampunk leanings, Thunderscape was something different.

In some ways, Thunderscape played like a standard SSI-produced RPG, which made the game world even more jarring. Character development followed a familiar pattern: the player forms a party of adventurers based on race (Human, Elf, Faerkin, Jurak, Rapacian, Goreaux, Dwarf, or Ferran), establishes their individual attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Willpower), decides on their skills (fencing, sword, axe/mace, bow, shield, martial arts, polearm, knife, firearms, stealth, acrobatics, lockpicking, fast talk, see secrets, merchant, xenology, and cast spells), decide which spells any spellcasting characters may use, equip the character with weapons and/or armor, choose the portrait and name your character. Once the party is ready, off they go, looking for monsters to kill, treasure to covet, and quests to complete.

The game played out in a first-person perspective, attempting to give the “you are there” feel. There are 20 levels of fun, including caverns, cities, mines, castles, sewers, and the great outdoors. Movement is controlled using the mouse, with right-click accessing the directional arrows. Combat is also controlled by the mouse, with a special combat menu appearing when hostilities begin. And since many RPGs seem to be a scavenger hunt, accumulating inventory is also controlled by the mouse, with a hand icon appearing when you get close enough to something that your magpie-like characters want to add to their inventory slots.

Thunderscape wasn’t all hack ‘n’ slash, though. Puzzles needed to be solved to progress through the storyline. Clues were distributed throughout the gameworld that needed to be collected and used. Even combat required more than the standard, send in the walking tank while launching fireballs from the rear, as some enemies would not fall without discovering their weaknesses during gameplay. All in all, Thunderscape was a thinking person’s RPG, not a clickfest.

For all its good features, Thunderscape had some play issues. It followed in the time-honored path of releasing before all the bugs could be squished, but that’s what version 1.1 patches are for. Even so, the game did well enough to warrant a somewhat mediocre sequel, World of Aden: Entomorph Plague of the Darkfall. However, the sequel was not a huge seller, and became the final game in the World of Aden series.

Thunderscape remains a game that some recall with fond memories of many hours of deep gameplay, and others recall as a stopover between Menzoberranzan and Ravenloft titles. It’s a game that got lost in the shuffle, but a good enough gaming experience to warrant inclusion as a Forgotten Classic. For a little steampunk action that predates Sierra’s Arcanum by several years, give The World of Aden: Thunderscape a try!

Forgotten Classics: The Immortal (1991)

“Forgotten Classics” is a celebration of obscure PC games that weren’t released to widespread fanfare – or simply fell of the radar of gamers at the time of their release – and deserve a second look. In this instalment: The Immortal, originally an Apple II RPG/adventure game by Electronic Arts ported over to the IBM PC in 1991, and designed by Will Harvey, who also designed Marble Madness and, (at age 15, no less!) the Music Construction Set.

Front cover of The Immortal (IBM PC version)

The plot of The Immortal revolved around a young magician intercepting a call for help meant for someone else from his master, Mordamir, located deep within a labyrinth.  Since you – as the young apprentice – were the only help available, you set out to rescue Mordamir.  Once there, the young wizard discovered that  things are not as straightforward as they are presented by Mordamir, and many plot twists unfolded.  The dungeon was home to warring clans of goblins and trolls, whom you interacted with throughout the game, mostly through combat, but you could ally somewhat with the Goblin King for quests, information, and treasure.  There were other allies to be found in the game, but not everyone had altruistic reasons for giving you aid.  And there were other creatures living underground that considered you a possible tasty treat, as well as a variety of traps, so it was necessary to stay alert!

Anyone have a can of Spider Kilz I can borrow?

Much of the back story was given in the form of dreams that came when the young apprentice slept (on little piles of hay conveniently located throughout the dungeon levels).  The information these dreams contained was absolutely integral to surviving the quest, especially in the final sequence when Mordamir’s young apprentice had to make a choice of which powerful being he must ally with, and thereby end their stalemate.  I don’t recall a game that used this kind of lucid dreaming game mechanic quite as well as The Immortal, though opinions may vary.

Having a nap in The Immortal

The first thing you noticed when playing The Immortal was that you tended to die a lot.  Some players forgot they weren’t playing a buff warrior, but a magician’s young apprentice, so they forgot that running headlong into combat isn’t the wisest move for even an experienced wizard.  The trick was to either avoid combat (if you could!) or keep dodging around until your opponent tired themselves out, and then move in for the kill.  Sometimes this was easier to say than to do, however.  To make things more difficult, if your character didn’t die during combat, there were always the myriad traps for him to trigger.  Learning to navigate a room could result in many, many reloads, which is why The Immortal was considered a very difficult game to finish.

Successful spore attack in The Immortal

The next thing you noticed while playing The Immortal was the sheer level of violence. The combat screen graphics were fairly detailed for its day, and the level of gore they contained was a little over-the-top, which culminated with Mortal Kombat-style “finishing moves” with similar graphic details, such as decapitations, exploding skulls, eviscerations, and more.  For an early 1990s game, The Immortal was pretty intense.  (Oddly enough, the MS-DOS version wasn’t nearly as bloody as the Apple IIGS or Commodore Amiga versions.  The Nintendo Entertainment System version had much of the gore removed, but the Sega Genesis version might be the goriest of the all.)

Under the wizard's attack in The Immortal

The game played in an isometric perspective, and an argument could be made for claiming The Immortal as the forefather of Diablo in its style.  It certainly taxed the system specs of the day, with particular attention paid to the death scenes (as mentioned above).  Did Blizzard find inspiration for their epic click-fest from memories of playing The Immortal?  Play it and decide for yourself!

Under a death attack in The Immortal

Dragon fire in The Immortal

Bye-bye Mordamir!

Forgotten Classics: Wonderland (1990)

“Forgotten Classics” is a celebration of obscure PC games that weren’t released to widespread fanfare – or simply fell of the radar of gamers at the time of their release – and deserve a second look. In this installment: Wonderland, an adventure game developed by the British game developer Magnetic Scrolls and published by Virgin Games in 1990.

Box art for Wonderland

Wonderland was a game set in the Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland mythos. You played Alice as she made her way through the bizarre Wonderland landscape, solving puzzles and enduring plenty of puns. However, the plot of the game did not follow that of the book, although familiar characters, such as the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Duchess, and the Red Queen all appeared to delight the player (or confound them).  However, only the characters from Alice in Wonderland appeared; there were no characters or scenes from the sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass (which meant no Tweedledum and Tweedledee!).  Even so, there were still around 110 locations to explore in all their surreal glory.

Magnetic Scrolls developed an interesting game engine called “Magnetic Windows” which they used for Wonderland. Rather than one game screen, Magnetic Windows permitted several game screens to be opened at once (much like Microsoft Windows), and each window could be moved or resized as needed. So a player could have their inventory screen, a screen with details about a particular object, the game map, a specific room item list, a compass, a help menu, the main screen with a graphic, and more all open at once. Particularly enjoyable for those who tired of the constant switch between game map – inventory – action screen that most games used.

Wonderland received generally good reviews: “…very simply, it’s fun stuff to play” (Computer Game Review, June 1991); “Wonderland has shown me that the adventure-game genre is alive and growing” (Compute!, August 1991);  “an atmospheric and cerebellum-crushing adventure game…”  (Amiga Power, June 1991).  It was (and is!) an enjoyable romp through a classic landscape. It doesn’t have much repeat play value, but being of the adventure game genre, it’s not really fair to expect it to. For those who have never parsed a text, give Wonderland a chance to show you what gaming was like twenty years ago!

The Halloween List Pt. 6: Horror-Themed PC Games (2001)

This is a continuation of the multi-part Halloween List series that covered 1986 to 2000. There have been so many horror or Halloween-themed games over the years that only a multi-part article can encompass their sheer volume. In fact, horror-themed PC gaming has been going on for some time, beginning with text adventures and continuing with the action-adventures that we play today, although I must admit that 2001 looked a little quiet compared to other years for the genre…

Today is part six- 2001…

Visit part one here: The Halloween List Pt. 1: Horror-Themed PC Games (1986-1990)

Alone in the Dark 4: The New Nightmare (Infogrames, 2001). Edward Carnby returns with updated graphics and a new mystery to solve. This is a good adventure game, but not a great one. As with all games in the series, there are the appropriate level of things of ghoulish nature, with the ability to play Carnby or his female partner, Aline Cedrac.
Clive Barker’s Undying (Electronic Arts, 2001). Anytime a writer of horror fiction and a director of one of the classic horror movies of all time (Hellraiser) lends his name and talents to a PC game, chances are good that the result will include some uncomfortable or downright frightening moments of gameplay. The Covenant family have unleashed a curse that threatens to bring forth the Undying King, and it’s up to the player (as Patrick Galloway) to prevent the cursed family from destroying us all.
Evil Dead: Hail to the King (THQ, Inc., 2001). Ash is back, and this time on the PC! It seems the Book of the Dead has once again brought forth the demonic and undead hordes, and it’s up to Ash to save the world. The thought of playing Ash was awesome, especially with Bruce Campbell provided his voice to the game, but poor graphics, bad gameplay, and little imagination made this game a bargain-bin-at-best stinker.
Jekyll and Hyde (DreamCatcher Interactive, 2001). Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a Victorian era study of the duality of human nature, fraught with nuance and psychological terror. This game is an action-adventure game which requires you to assume the role of Mr.Hyde, to rescue Dr. Jekyll’s kidnapped daughter. There are zombies, but I wonder if the zombie is really the game itself, as it seems to lurch along at an unfinished pace.
KISS Pinball (Gathering of Developers, 2001). You know the list is weak when you have to include a pinball game to bulk it out a little. All the KISS members are here: the Starchild, the Beast, the Demon, and the Celestial, as you use a pinball table to fight the Dark Lord. It’s hard to mess up a pinball game, so you have to give the developers credit for making both pinball and KISS dull simultaneously.
The House of The Dead 2 (Activision, Inc., 2001). The popular Dreamcast game by Sega comes to the PC, two years after its original release. It’s pretty much the same game, with hordes of zombies to eliminate, as well as an autocamera that sometimes drives you mad. Even at the time, this game seemed dated.
Throne of Darkness (Sierra On-Line, 2001). Set in Japan during the Middle Ages, you play one of the Seven Samurai ( the Leader, the Archer, the Brick, the Ninja, the Wizard, the Swordsman, and the Berserker) tasked with killing a demon overlord whose minions include hordes of the undead. This is a RPG that has a strong Diablo II influence (which is not a surprise considering how many developers worked on both games).

That’s it for now. See you next year!

Forgotten Classics: Freakin’ Funky Fuzzballs (1990)

“Forgotten Classics” is a celebration of obscure PC games that weren’t released to widespread fanfare – or simply fell of the radar of gamers at the time of their release – and deserve a second look. In this installment: Freakin’ Funky Fuzzballs, a 1990 strategy game by Sir-Tech Software.

Splash screen for Freakin' Funky Fuzzballs.

With a title like Freakin’ Funky Fuzzballs, you can expect a little gaming weirdness will be coming – and you’d be right. This is the setup: you have a fuzzball that needs to be guided through various maze levels looking for the keys to escape, while avoiding its nasty fuzzball brethren who want to dispose of it. There are tiles on the floor of each maze, some which contain food for your little fuzzball, and some which contain treasures (like magic rings, armor, wands, potions, scrolls and shields). You better plan your route, as your fuzzball moves through the maze it can only cross the same tile twice before it disappears. There are also traps waiting for your poor little fuzzball, so stay on your toes!

Freakin Funky Fuzzballs

Sir-Tech was known for producing the Wizardry RPG series, so Freakin’ Funky Fuzzballs was a complete departure from their norm. (I picture the Wizardry team, burnt out from living an all-RPG, all-the-time existence, seeing this game and falling in love with its sheer absurdity.)  The game was credited as the work of Ian Currie (game design, graphics, and programming) and Robert Koller (game design and graphics).  Of the two designers, Currie would go on to work on several Sir-Tech games, such as Realms of Arkania: Star Trail, the Jagged Alliance series, and Wizardry: Nemesis, as well as more recent non-Sir-Tech offerings (since they went out of business in 2001, but not their Canadian chapter, which lasted until 2003), such as Star Trek: Legacy, Empire Earth III, and Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited.

Freakin' Funky Fuzzballs item list

This was a fun little game in its day, but even then there was not much replay value, though, as once you mastered the fine art of fuzzballdom and cleared all its levels, there was nothing more to accomplish . Even so, Freakin’ Funky Fuzzballs is a nifty little game that accomplishes what it sets out to do, and if you haven’t played it, worth picking up and playing through.  A true Forgotten Classic!

Freakin' Funky Fuzzballs


Heading into the next level…