Review: Ultima – The First Age of Darkness

Fresh off the heels of my Akalabeth review, I’m back with a look at the first true game in the Ultima saga, Ultima – The First Age of Darkness.  This game takes many of the concepts and design elements from Akalabeth and expands on them. The result is the fruition of Richard Garriott’s original vision; a computer-based Dungeons & Dragons style role playing game.

Originally released for the Apple II in 1981, Ultima was the game that launched an entire series of RPGs that would dominate the market for nearly two decades. It was released to rave reviews and due to its popularity, was ported to a number of systems. In 1986, a remake of the game (retitled “Ultima I“) was released for the Commodore 64 and the PC. Being the only official PC version, this 1986 release is the version I played for this review.

The storyline behind Ultima is both a continuation of Akalabeth and also somewhat of a re-imagining. This time, the game takes place in a world called Sosaria – a land under siege by the evil wizard Mondain. Despite many attempts to overthrow him, Mondain has plunged the world into an age of darkness. Protected by a powerful gem of immortality, he is completely invulnerable to any attacks against him. As a result of his rule, beasts and foul creatures roam the countryside causing common folk to go into hiding. The lords of the land stay cloistered behind the secure walls of their fortresses. Only one leader, a king by the name of Lord British, dares to defy Mondain’s rule. In Ultima, you play as a young hero willing to answer the call and discover a way to defeat the infamous Mondain.

As I mentioned above, Ultima takes the core concepts introduced in Akalabeth and turns them into a much better game. For example, there’s still an overworld map and dungeons. There’s still bounty-style quests. There’s still a supply of food to worry about. But this time, there’s also a bigger story and much more to explore and do. The game begins just outside of the town of Britain (the domain of Lord British). Here, Lord British tasks the player with seeking out a specific location in the game world. As the player explores the land, they will discover other kingdoms. The rulers of these other lands will also provide various quests for players to undertake. For example, to descend into various dungeons and slay specific monsters (something straight out of Akalabeth).

Completing these quests will either net the player increases in their ability scores or they will be rewarded with magical gems. The collection of these gems is crucial to the completion of the game. (But I’ll avoid any potential spoilers and say no more on that subject…)

The overworld map, castles, and cities featured state-of-the-art graphics for the time. The first person dungeons are reminiscent in style to those found in Akalabeth. The main difference here is that the layout of the dungeons do not randomly generate each time the game is loaded (as they do in some versions of Akalabeth). Instead, they are static throughout the entire play session. This is true even if the game is saved and reloaded later.

Like Akalabeth, it’s very easy to exploit the game by saving before attempting risky maneuvers (like stealing from shops), then simply reloading it if things don’t go your way. It’s relatively easy to cheese your way to riches in Ultima using this method. However, to really experience all the game has to offer, I highly recommend against doing this. Starting out weak and working your way up is big part of what makes this game enjoyable. Don’t be shy! Get out that graph paper and map those dungeons! It’s fun. Trust me.

For its day and age, Ultima was a groundbreaking game. Modern players experiencing it for the very first time today will likely find it to be rather antiquated and confusing. There’s certainly no hand-holding and reading the game’s manual before play is essential. Like Wizardry, Ultima is one of the grandfathers of all modern RPGs. With that in mind, it certainly deserves a look from any real fan of the genre.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima features many of the same challenges found in its predecessor. However, this time there’s hints and breadcrumbs provided by NPCs. That does make finding your way in the game a bit easier. Again, this game is really only difficult if you don’t exploit the save/re-load feature. Taking advantage of this technical loophole makes the game a cinch.

Story: The game features a fairly unique story. By having the game take place in a semi-apocalyptic world ruled by an evil wizard, Ultima manages to stand out among a genre typically filled with either “save the princess” scenarios or glorified treasure hunts. It is often difficult to create a unique narrative in the fantasy game, but Garriott was able to do so by combining his love for both sci-fi and fantasy and translating them into a digital version of a pen-and-paper style RPG.

Originality: At the time Ultima was released it was simply revolutionary. Fantasy games were not unheard of, but Ultima provided gamers with a number of new and unique experiences. It’s hard to imagine this by looking at the game today, but it was truly a cutting edge release at the time. Taking a fantasy world where everyone speaks Old English and mixing it with a space shooter? That’s pretty unique.

Soundtrack: Ultima is limited to basic taps, beeps and bloops. Nothing much to get excited about, but this was par for the course in the early days.

Fun: Fans of retro-style RPGs are likely to be the only modern audience for a game like this. But for those of us that enjoy such things, Ultima can provide a surprising amount of entertainment.

Graphics: These days Ultima looks almost laughably basic. But for its day and time, Ultima was state-of-the-art. It’s certainly a massive leap above what was seen in Akalabeth.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. At this price, it’s worth a look even if you only have a mild curiosity about the game.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Ultima was without a doubt a groundbreaking game. But it isn’t perfect. Despite being designed with the intention of being a rather challenging title, it’s all too easy to exploit the game mechanics and turn the entire experience into a piece of cake. Despite this flaw, Ultima is a classic that paved the way for the RPGs of today. Older fans or even younger gamers with an open mind can still find quite a bit of adventure of they are willing to take a look.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

R.I.P. Stan Lee

Today the world has lost a wonderful talent. Stan Lee, the creator of Marvel Comics has passed away. Stan Lee was the brains behind some of the most iconic super heroes and stories ever put to print. He had a way of standing up against injustice without engaging injecting partisan politics into his work. He will forever be known as one of the most sincere, kindest people in the business.

Rest in peace, Stan. EXCELSIOR!

 

Review: Akalabeth – World of Doom

Starting off my Ultima reviews with a game that’s not technically part of the series may seem a bit weird. But in the eyes of many, Akalabeth is indeed the prequel to very first Ultima game. In fact, it is often referred to as “Ultima 0” and was even labeled as such when it was included in the Ultima Collection from 1998.

Akalabeth was the first game published by Richard Garriott (aka: Lord British). Originally only available on the Apple II, a fan-made DOS version of the game appeared on the internet sometime in the mid 90’s. A few years later, an official DOS port of the game was included with the Ultima Collection. These days, the game is available for free on the GOG platform. However, players should be aware that both DOS ports of the game come with their own issues.

The default version offered by GOG is the fan-made port. In many ways, this is the version that is most like the original Apple II release of Akalabeth. However, this release of the game also includes a nasty bug that can make the game un-winnable. (Basically, players are never given a bounty to kill. Thus, have no way to complete any objectives. This breaks the game completely). Once upon a time, there was a patch available to fix this bug. But these days it seems to have been lost to the antiquity of yesterday’s internet. Thankfully, the official port of the game does not have this problem. But it does not maintain the randomly generated levels found in the original release. Also, the 1998 version of the game includes the ability to save and reload your progress. This makes the game very exploitable and takes nearly all of the challenge out of the title. Also, the official version of the game includes color and a midi soundtrack that was lifted from Ultima III. These changes make many purists, like myself, cringe. Thankfully, both versions are actually available on GOG. (The 1998 port is included as a bonus download.) For the sake of this review, I did play the default GOG version. But I generally recommend the 1998 version to most people curious about the game.

The story for the game is simple. Not long ago, the world of Akalabeth was razed by an evil wizard named Mondain. A hero by the name of British rose up and drove the evil Mondain from the land. Now, having been crowned king, Lord British seeks adventurers brave enough to help him cleanse the land of any foul beasts that might still remain.

Akalabeth is one of the earliest CRPGs games ever to be made available. And despite appearing to be very basic in its design, it is surprisingly quite complex. When first starting the game, you will be asked to provide a “lucky number”. The number entered here actually serves as a seed of sorts. It helps generate the game’s maps and the character’s stats. Next, you will be prompted to enter a “level of play”. This is essentially the difficulty level for the game. Next up, you will be given a set of stats for your character and you will be asked to either accept them or re-roll. You can continue to re-roll stats for as long as you like until you find a set that seems acceptable, there’s no limit to the number of times you can try.

The game consists of four main screens; shops, the overworld, dungeons, and the castle. After creating your character, the first thing you will see is the shop screen. Here, you can spend your starting gold on a weapon and food. Buying lots of food is crucial in Akalabeth because every step your character takes consumes a bit of food. If you run out of food, you die. Essentially, most players will continue to re-roll their stats until they are given over 20 pieces of starting gold. Then they’ll buy a cheap weapon and spend the rest of the gold on food. If you neglect to buy any food, then you will die the instant you leave town. Brutal.

After leaving the shop, you will find yourself on a very archaic-looking overworld map. The next step in the game is locate a nearby dungeon, enter it, and kill monsters for gold. Each monster you slay will provide you with a few gold pieces. Once you have earned a significant amount of gold or once your food supply starts to run low, you will want to hightail it to the nearest shop so you can replenish your provisions. Once you are able to amass a small hoard of food, it is time to explore the overworld map in search of Lord British’s Castle. It’s also important to note, that each time you leave a dungeon, your character’s Hit Points will increase in accordance with the number of monsters slain.

Finding the castle is where the game really starts. From here, you begin a chain of quests. Each essentially requiring you to venture deeper into a dungeon in search of a specific monster. Once that monster is slain, you return to the castle to receive a new quest. Once you’ve slain all the monsters on Lord British’s list, you win the game.

When first exploring the overworld map, new players are often taken aback by the large number of shops and dungeons. The dirty little secret here is, they are all essentially the same. It doesn’t matter what shop or dungeon you enter, the contents never really change. So the real trick here is to simply find a shop and dungeon that are in close vicinity to Lord British’s castle and use only those locations to complete the game.

The dungeons themselves are where the real action takes place. Dungeons are presented in a crude 3D view, very similar to what you see in the early Wizardry games. Depending on which version of Akalabeth you are playing, the layout of the dungeon may change every time you exit and enter, or it may stay the same. Either way, it’s really not TOO difficult to navigate. The grid itself and the ladders leading up and down are always static. Only the location of the doors and the walls vary from level to level. I always recommend that players map out their journey on a piece of graph paper when playing to avoid getting hopelessly lost.

Being an older game, Akalabeth will certainly seem crude and undesirable to many modern gamers. It is definitely not a game most people these days will want to seek out. Personally, I enjoy older dungeon crawls like this. But then again, I grew up with them. I suspect that for many, this game would only serve as a curiosity. But, if you are adventurous and willing to take the time and patience needed to explore everything this game has to offer, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Difficulty: Hard –  If playing the game as intended, Akalabeth offers quite a challenge. Food management can be downright brutal as can many of the monster encounters. That being said, anyone willing to invest a little time in grinding should be able to boost their character to a point that makes the game manageable. If playing the 1998 version, it’s easy to cheese your way through entire game by exploiting a specific save/reload loophole thus reducing the game’s difficulty to nil.

Story: The game features a very barebones backstory. But considering the entire game really nothing more than a programming project by an ambitious high school student, this is forgivable.

Originality: When Garriott began designing this game, it was 1977. Despite being largely inspired D&D and Lord of the Rings, the concept of an RPG-style dungeon crawler was almost unheard of at the time. Some people like to argue that Akalabeth might actually be the first graphical RPG game ever made.

Soundtrack: The original game is silent and has no sound whatsoever. The 1998 release does include some basic noises and midi music (ripped from Ultima III), none of which are particularly impressive.

Fun: For most, this is a hard game to recommend. It’s random and tedious by today’s standards. Old grognards like me might appreciate it. But for the vast gaming population, Akalabeth is a pretty hard pill to swallow. Regardless, if you have a love for old school RPGs like Wizardry and Zork. This game might be worth a look.

Graphics: The graphics in this game are about as basic as you can get. But, for a game programmed entirely in BASIC, it’s actually quite impressive. The dungeons are white on black wireframe. As are the monsters and overworld map. Players on the Apple II get treated to the classic Apple II color palate. The 1998 remake also adds some basic colors to the text and wireframe models.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Both versions of this game are available today completely free of charge.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – This is a tough one to score. Personally, I really like this game a lot. It reminds me of the games I used to play when I young. But understandably, it would be very difficult for someone accustomed to modern games to wrap their head around something like this. I first encountered Akalabeth in 1998 when it was released as part of the Ultima Collection and I found it enjoyable then. Revisiting it now, I can still appreciate it. But, even I can admit it has not aged very well. This fact, combined with the technical problems of the fan-created port that is distributed by default make it a pretty tough recommendation.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

Project: Ultima

For the most part, when I play and review games from my backlog on this site, I do so by generation. For example, some of my earliest reviews tackled classic NES games. Next, I moved on to Super NES titles, etc. Occasionally, I’ll go off on tangents as I did back in 2012, when I undertook the task of playing through the entire canonical Castlevania series in order of release. Then, in 2013, I did the same with the legendary Wizardry series (some of my favorite games of all time). This trend continued in 2014 with my “Final Fantasy Initiative”.

Today, I’m going to announce another playthrough project that’s been long overdue. I’m calling it, Project Ultima. That’s right, if there’s any classic CRPG series that can go head-to-head with Wizardry, it’s Ultima.

Both series debuted in 1981, but the development of the games couldn’t have been any different. Wizardry, created by two college developers, was thoroughly tested and received professional packaging and publication. While, Akalabeth, the precursor to Ultima, was written by a high school student and sold in ziplock bags with hand-drawn artwork. I suppose if we’re getting technical, the first game in the series, Akalabeth, isn’t an “Ultima” title, per se. But, it does serve as a prequel of sorts for the whole series.

The creative force behind Ultima is a man named Richard Garriott (also known as Lord British). As mentioned above, he began designing games as a student in high school. One thing I admire about Garriott is his drive to always better himself with each product he creates. For example, when he learned how some players were abusing certain mechanics in his games, ie: stealing from merchants instead of buying goods with gold, he then decided to include a moral/karma system in the next title to encourage honorable behavior. Concepts like this, have earned him a reputation in the industry for being a pioneer of sorts. Those curious about Garriott can read all about him in his biographical book, Explore/Create (which I reviewed on this site a while back).

My first encounter with Ultima came in the form of the Ultima III for the NES. While the early Ultima games were initially released on Apple computers, they were later ported to PC and other systems as well. This game made me into an instant fan. From there, I continued to gobble up each new Ultima port as they were released for the NES. Despite my love for the games, it would be several years before I would finally be able to properly explore the roots of the series. It wasn’t until 1998 and the release of the Ultima Collection, that was finally able to enjoy every game in the series up to that point. I am even a proud member of the Ultima Dragons, a special online club for fans of series.  (StainedDragon reporting in!)

For this project, I plan to explore every title under the Ultima banner. I’ll be starting with Akalabeth, and playing straight through to Ultima IX. My project will include the Ultima Underworld games, as well as a look at Ultima Online. The whole project will wrap up with a look at Lord British’s newest venture, Shroud of the Avatar.

To accomplish this, I won’t actually be using my old Ultima Collection disc. As the versions of the games included on that disc were designed for Windows 95/98 and still assume that an actual form of DOS is loaded onto the host machine. So instead, I’ll be using the versions of the games that are currently sold through GOG.com. GOG packages their games with built-in DOSBox emulation. In my opinion, GOG always seems to offer the best solution for those interested in playing legacy DOS titles.

So without further ado, I will begin my playthrough tonight. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Retro Rewind: PC Classics

I’ve discussed retro PC games a number of times on this site. In fact, some of my earliest posts were focused on games from the classic Wizardry series. But when I started discussing PC games, I quickly jumped ahead from the 80’s to the 90’s to take a look at titles like Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. The truth is, PC games from the 80’s deserve quite a bit more attention than I’ve given them previously.

The very first PC game I ever played was called Castle Adventure. I encountered it when I was maybe seven or eight years old.  Now, at this point in my life I was no stranger to video games. I owned an Atari 2600, but I guess I just didn’t realize that you could actually play games on a personal computer. I remember walking down the hall at my friend’s house and seeing his older brother sitting at his desk. At this point, I always imagined computers were exclusively for data crunching and other obscure uses. When I noticed his brother was playing a game, I was a bit puzzled. I stood next to him and watched, completely enthralled.

Now, Castle Adventure was very basic sort of game. It had ASCII graphics so it wasn’t anything particularly exciting to look at. But it captivated me nonetheless. The point of the game is to explore a castle, find treasure, and escape. That simple. But despite it’s simplicity, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring every nook and cranny of the game. I was a fan.

Today, a faithful ground-up remake of Castle Adventure is available here for Windows:  CASTLE ADVENTURE .  It isn’t pretty, but if you’re curious, it’s the purest experience one can get.

Castle Adventure

When my family finally purchased a PC of our own, I naturally asked my father for some games. A few days later, he came home from work with a stack of floppy disks that a co-worker had copied for him. Now, back in those days, piracy was not that big of a deal. Making a copy of a game for a friend was as simple as having two floppy disks and knowing how to type “diskcopy” into the DOS prompt. The stack contained titles like Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Battle Chess, etc. All fun, I’m sure, but nothing I saw really caught my eye. That is, until I got to the very last game in the stack. A disk that was obscurely titled “ZORK”.

Of all the games my father brought home that day, ZORK ended up being my favorite. ZORK is an interactive text-based adventure game. It is actually quite a bit older than Castle Adventure. In fact, ZORK is just about as old as I am.  When I say it’s a text-based game, that means exactly what it sounds like. There’s no graphics, just words. For example, the game will present a scenario much like this:

“You are standing in a field in front of a large wooden house, facing south. There is a road leading to the east and west. A forest lies to the north.”

The player then has to type commands to drive the game forward. For example “Walk North” or simply “North”. The game then describes the next set of events. Players can enter command like “Open door” or  “take sword”. The entire game is played in this fashion.

ZORK

I couldn’t began to guess the amount of hours I spent with this game. And I wasn’t alone either, ZORK was extremely successful. Over the years it spawned a slew of sequels. I’m proud to say, I’ve played every entry in the series and despite being extremely “old school”, they are still quite enjoyable. These days, all of the ZORK games are available on Steam and GOG. I plan on reviewing them collectively at some point in the future.

Naturally, as technology continued to improve, this type of game would eventually be combined with visuals. One of the earliest examples I remember playing was a game called Transylvania. Oh, how I loved that game…  It took the basic gameplay elements from games like ZORK and gave you some crude graphics to enhance your immersion. There were three games in the Transylvania series, but sadly none of them are officially available on any platform today. For me, these games were just amazing. What I wouldn’t give to see some sort of remake or re-release. But, considering how I’ve never met another person who’s even heard of them… I won’t hold my breath.

Transylvania

It was games like these that prepared me for a game that might very well be my favorite game of all time, Wizardry. I’ve talked about the Wizardry games in detail on this site. So I won’t be rehashing them again with this post. But, any discussion of old-school PC games would be amiss without a mention of the series. In fact, when it comes to classic CRPGs, old grognards like myself usually fall into one of two factions. The Wizardry fans and the Ultima fans.

Like Wizardry, Ultima is a series of games that has also reached legendary status. Together, these two franchises set the bar for nearly all future RPGs. Games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest would not exist if it wasn’t for these titles.

I could spend hours writing about the impact these games had on me, and I will eventually. In fact, I plan to start a complete playthrough of the Ultima series in very near future. But for now, let’s move on. There’s so much more ground to cover.

The PC played host to countless classic RPGs; Bard’s Tale, Might & Magic, and King’s Quest for example. But RPGs were not the only thing that made PC’s great. Educational games were exceptionally popular on the platform. You’d be hard pressed to find someone my age who doesn’t have fond memories of titles like Where In the World is Carmen Sandeigo? or Oregon Trail. But the PC also played host to a vast library of action games like Commander Keen and Prince of Persia.

Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego?

As part of my Retro Rewind project, I plan to occasionally revisit some of these gems from the depth of the vault and hopefully introduce them to a new audience.  As I mentioned above, I’m going to start with Ultima. This is a game series that I’ve wanted to review for quite some time, but never took the time to do so. When I was young, I played through the first eight chapters in the Ultima saga, but I never finished the entire series.  The time to complete Ultima is upon us! Once I publish this article I’m taking a brief respite from both my Retro Rewind articles and my regular backlog list to focus exclusively on the series. I hope you enjoy it.

Retro Rewind: Sega Master System

When it comes to the 1980’s, I think it’s fair to say that Nintendo emerged as the clear winner in the home console market. Once the NES overtook the Atari, nothing was able to stand in their way. But every story has an underdog. In this case, it was the Sega Master System.

I remember seeing the television commercials and I even had a few friends that owned one of these systems. But personally, I never had much hands-on experience with the console. In truth, the Master System just couldn’t compete against the vast library and developer support that Nintendo was able to garner. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of your attention. The Master System did actually have a handful of games that would go down as classics. Games like Alex Kidd, Wonder Boy, and of course, Phantasy Star. These titles still rank up there as some of the best home console titles ever.

Phantasy Star

For me, Phantasy Star is of particular interest. It is an odd mix of first-person CRPGs like Wizardry and Ultima, and overhead RPGs like Dragon Quest. But despite having roots spawned from other classic games, it was groundbreaking in so many other ways. The game launched a whole franchise and it is still hailed as one of the most legendary RPG titles to date. As far as I’m concerned, Phantasy Star was THE only reason I wanted to get my hands on the Sega Master System. But to date, I still have yet to experience this legendary game. Thankfully, the game has been ported a number of times and is pending a digital release on the Nintendo Switch in the very near future. So getting a copy to review isn’t going to be very difficult.

If you’re curious about other games from the Master System, getting a hold on them may prove to be a bit challenging. While Sega has made it fairly easy to enjoy their older games historically, (almost every “essential” Master System title was made on the Wii Virtual Console), there’s really no good way to enjoy the majority of them on today’s hardware. Hopefully, this is going to change very soon. As I mentioned above, Phantasy Star is about to become available on the Switch as part of the Sega Ages collection and a few other Master System games have been announced as well. So, time will tell. I certainly hope to see some of these older games made more widely available, otherwise emulation will continue to rule the roost and Sega will lose countless dollars to piracy.

It Came From Netflix: Stranger Things

Happy Halloween! When I was a kid, Halloween was tied with Christmas as my favorite holiday. There’s just something about it that really appealed to me. Even today, I love everything about the holiday. The crisp fall air, pumpkins, spooky costumes, horror movies – it’s just magical. This year, both of my children decided they were too old to go trick-or-treating so we stayed in and watched spooky stuff on TV instead.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, Netflix is certainly what I’d recommend as your first stop. There’s no shortage of great paranormal selections in Netflix’s lineup. But if you’re not sure where to start, allow me to make a recommendation: Stranger Things.

Netflix has been producing it’s own films and serials for quite a while, but Stranger Things is what caused everyone to pause and take notice. In fact, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to discuss the show. Everything about Stranger Things fits right in with the content on this blog; 80’s nostalgia, Dungeon & Dragons – it’s all there. Heck, even the titlecard is modeled in the style of the old-school Stephen King book covers.

At the time of this writing, two seasons of Stranger Things are available to view. But be warned, once you start it is hard to stop. This is the show that made the term “binge-watching” a household term.

The first season takes place in 1983 and it follows a group of young outcasts. These kids are what you would commonly refer to as “nerds”. They are not into sports or other popular activities. Instead, they sit around and geek out over things like D&D and comic books. Early in the show, one of the characters, a boy named Will, goes missing. The remaining friends band together in an attempt to find out the fate of their friend. As it turns out, Will’s disappearance is linked to a nearby secret Federal facility where some rather unorthodox experiments are taking place. During their investigation, the friends come in contact with a strange young girl (an escapee of the previously mentioned facility). After working together, the group learns the shocking truth behind Will’s disappearance and now has to try to convince the adults in their lives that he’s still alive (and part of an unbelievable government conspiracy).

If all that sounds a little over-the-top, that’s because it is. But, the way the story plays out is flawlessly executed. This show takes a number of classic 1980’s tropes and mythology and blends it perfectly into a gripping and unforgettable story. If that wasn’t enough, the second season takes the weird-level and cranks it up even higher. The end result is a fantastic homage to retro-geekdom. I mean that. This show is truly gift to nerds everywhere.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of experiencing this series yet, do yourself a favor and watch it tonight. Take whatever steps you need to to minimize distractions, turn off the lights, make yourself a snack and enjoy. This is one show that I can’t recommend enough. Plus, it is perfect for a rainy Halloween night.

Target Audience: Retro lovers, kids of all ages and paranormal fans. No matter what genre of horror you might enjoy, there’s likely to be something for you in Stranger Things.

Mature Content: YES – Mild language, gruesome imagery, horror & peril

Number of Episodes: 17 (Two seasons)

Score (1 out of 4): 4

Review: Night Trap (25th Anniversary Edition)

You didn’t think I’d let the month of October go by without posting a review for a horror game did you? I know I usually review something spooky and paranormal. But this year, I decided to change things up a bit and go full-on campy with Night Trap.

If you’ve never heard of Night Trap, you’re not alone. It wasn’t exactly a big seller. To start with, it was released on the Sega CD, which was an add-on product that didn’t see very big sales in the first place. Second, it was extremely rare to find on store shelves due to a nearly unprecedented level of controversy. You see, Night Trap was labeled as one of the most morally offensive games of all time. Any parent who allowed their child to be exposed to such filth should be locked up! It was called pornographic and filled with excessive violence. The negative buzz around the game actually got so bad that many retailers pulled the product and refused to sell it. So what was the big deal? Is Night Trap really as disgusting and violent as its critics claim?

The answer is no. Not at all. I’m actually a pretty conservative guy when it comes to what I allow my children to be exposed to, and I’d let either of them play this game. I mean, there’s literally no concern. So what was the big deal? Well, to start with, Night Trap is not your regular video game. Instead, it is made up of actual video footage. It is very much like an interactive movie. I suppose having an interactive game featuring REAL scantily clad women in fictional peril was just too much for some. It stirred up so much hullabaloo that  Night Trap was one of the games directly responsible for the formation of the ESRB.

The gist of the game is simple. There’s been a rash of mysterious disappearances around the house of a very prominent family. It’s been determined that the house is equipped with a slew of traps and security features. To get to the bottom of the mystery, the police have sent in an undercover officer into the home with a group of teens. They’ve also been able to hack their way into the home’s security system, thus giving the police access to all of the traps remotely. Your job is monitor a number of security cameras and use the traps to capture any intruders or suspicious characters that might pose harm to either the undercover office or the teens in the house.

As the story goes on, you learn that the home’s owners are in league with a weird band of vampires called “Augers”. You must capture as many Augers as possible and avoid letting the house become overrun. This is easier said than done, as you will have to switch between a number of live feeds on they fly in attempt to detect any suspicious activity.

The original version of Night Trap was notoriously difficult. Today the game is available in a special 25th Anniversary Edition. This package includes the game in its original form, as well as a handful of alternate UI versions. Some of these new renditions do make the game a bit easier by allowing the players to see previews of all of the camera feeds. This can help save time by not forcing the player to constantly jump from screen to screen when monitoring the house.

The game itself is actually quite a novel idea. In a time when CD ROM drives were still considered to be jaw-dropping technology, making an interactive film was inevitable. Sure, the acting is terrible and the script is even worse. But the whole concept behind the game is both original and brilliant. Playing Night Trap is akin to experiencing an interactive B-grade horror flick. I was surprised at just much fun the game actually is. If you’re a fan of cheesy horror movies and you’re looking for something different this Halloween, Night Trap might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Difficulty: Variable –  Completing this game is no simple feat. This is true even when using the modern UI. If you really want a challenge, the original layout of the game makes things even more difficult. The trick to Night Trap is repetition. The more you fail and start over, the easier it gets. You’ll learn the story and memorize certain cues. But some parts will still require near perfect execution in order to avoid failure.

Story: Despite being exceptionally cheesy, the storyline for this game is well done and entertaining. The way it is presented is also very enthralling. At any given time, there’s a handful of different scenes available to watch. To see everything, you’ll need to play the game multiple times. The more you watch, the more you’ll see how the entire plot twists together. It’s actually quite brilliant.

Originality: At the time Night Trap hit the scene, there was nothing like it. Sure, interactive films were not a new concept. I remember seeing VHS tapes in the 80’s that would have you rewind and fast-forward to achieve a similar result. But never before had anyone taken the “interactive film” concept and made it so easy to use.

Soundtrack: The game features two memorable pieces of music. The first is a little background music that is heard whenever bad guys appear on the screen. The second is a terribly-good bubblegum song performed by one of the characters. Everything about the music in this game is B-grade cheese. But that’s actually part of the charm.

Fun: While there’s not much to the gameplay, it is actually quite fun. There’s a certain satisfaction achieved when you are able to perfectly anticipate and catch a handful of sneaky Augers. I enjoyed this game much more than I expected to.

Graphics: Being a FMV-based game, there are really no “graphics” to score. The game itself is made up of real video. The source material is quite old but holds up surprisingly well in the 25th Anniversary Edition.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are quite simple. On the PC its point and click with a single keyboard button to tap. On consoles it also just as simple.  The game is very dependent on the player’s reaction time, but offers no playcontrol issues whatsoever.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Campy violence.

Value:  If you’re going to play this game, your best bet is find a digital copy. The game sells for around $15 digitally and is also frequently on sale. If you’re looking for a physical copy, be ready to spend a upwards of $70-$80, as the game is already out of print.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Night Trap is a strange beast. Most people seek it out simply for the mythology that surrounds it. It’s very much a curiosity for many. But if you actually sit down with it and take the time to learn its charms, you just might find a pretty good game hiding under all the hearsay. I recommend this title to anyone who enjoys 80’s camp. It’s a riot and surprisingly pretty entertaining.

Available on: Steam, PS4, Nintendo Switch

Retro Rewind: Nintendo Entertainment System

So far in my Retro Rewind series, I’ve talked a bit about classic coin-op arcade games, as well as some of the earliest home console games made popular by the Atari 2600. But no discussion of retro gaming is complete without mentioning the Nintendo Entertainment System. This is the machine that took gaming and changed it from being just a casual pastime, and turned it into a real hobby.

Now, I’ve discussed the NES and many of its classic games in great length on this site in the past, so I’m not going to rehash any of that with this post. Instead, I want to talk a bit about how best to experience these classic games today.

In recent years, a number of NES titles have been available to gamers through both the Wii/Wii U virtual console service and the 3DS eShop. Sadly, the Virtual Console does not exist on Nintendo’s most recent hardware, the Nintendo Switch. Instead, Nintendo has replaced it with a subscription-based online service. This service features a number of classic games already, with new ones rolling out as time goes on. This is great for some. But many gamers, myself included, don’t like to sit and wait on a specific game to become available for play.  So what’s the best option? Well, if you’re asking my opinion on the best way to experience classic NES games today, I’d have to point you to the NES Classic Edition.

Much like the Atari Flashback console I discussed in a prior post, the NES Classic is an all-in-one box. You simply plug it into the TV and go. It’s just that easy. The system comes pre-loaded with thirty games, many of which are fan favorites. Let’s take a look at what’s included:

Balloon Fight, Bubble Bobble, Castlevania, Castlevania II, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Double Dragon II, Dr. Mario, Excitebite, Final Fantasy, Galaga, Ghost n’ Goblins, Gradius, Ice Climber, Kid Icarus, Kirby’s Adventure, Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, Pac-Man, Punch Out!!, Star Tropics, Super Contra, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Tecmo Bowl, Legend of Zelda, Zelda II.

That’s certainly an impressive list. But one that includes some interesting gaps. For example, the NES Classic features Double Dragon II, but not the original Double Dragon. Same thing with Mega Man. Now, I understand the reasoning behind this. Double Dragon II offers a much better two-player experience, just as Mega Man 2 is a much more iconic game that the original Mega Man. But what if you still want to play these or even other old school NES games? Well, there’s a solution. But, this is where things get a bit shady…

You can put other games on the NES Classic. It is possible, and actually quite easy to load your own ROMs onto the system. In fact, it’s almost as if Nintendo purposely built the unit with this in mind. First off, while the NES Classic only comes with thirty games installed, it actually has enough free space to hold hundreds. Installing other titles is as simple as plugging the system to your PC via USB and moving files over. Of course, actually getting game ROMS is the sketchy part of the whole equation. It’s not illegal to possess, or even use ROM flashes of NES games. But it is illegal to download them without possessing a copy of the same game. Of course, Nintendo ROMS are readily available all over the internet if you know where to look. So, do with this information what you will…

That being said, if you ever wanted to experience rare Japanese-exclusive games like the original 8-bit version of Final Fantasy II or eve the controversial Megami Tensei games without having to resort to setting up emulator software, this is your best solution. No more tinkering with controller settings or setting up the emulator to work with your device. Just drop the ROMs in the directory and go.

For this reason, the NES Classic is what I recommend for everyday 8-bit NES gaming. Now that I’ve taken a moment to discuss this system and its potential, I’ll be using it to fill in some of the gaps in my backlog foir future posts. Thus making Retro Rewind Reviews a recurring feature on this site.

 

D&D: Family Game – Lost Mine of Phandelver (pt 2)

It’s been about two months since I first shared my progress on my family’s D&D adventures. Unlike many D&D players who can clock in whole afternoons or weekend-long marathon sessions, my family typically only has a few hours a week in which to play. So it’s taken us about two months to get about six-eight hours of playtime in. But things are going well!

Since my last post, my wife and children searched the site of the ambush and discovered the trail back to the goblin’s cave lair. When encountering some goblins outside of the cave entrance, they decided to take one of the goblin guards captive. Hence, the character of “Gronk” was born. Despite trying to follow the adventure as detailed in the book, Gronk ended up being a creation all my own, but one that is also likely to be one of the more memorable parts of the story.

Gronk provided the party with various bits of information (and misinformation) regarding the goblin’s hideout. My youngest son actually became quite fond of the character, and as a result was vastly disappointed when Gronk seized the first opportunity to alert the other goblins in the cave to the party’s presence. As the PCs explored the hideout they came across both the goblin’s bugbear leader and his ambitious second-in-command (who was more than willing to trade a human captive in exchange for the bugbear’s head).

The small hideout detailed in this part of the adventure served as a fantastic introduction to the concept of the “dungeon crawl”. By the time my family was ready to exit the cave, they were very careful to check for traps and other unexpected nastiness around every corner. (Experience can be a brutal teacher). So far, this adventure has truly proven to be a fantastic introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. Next session (assuming my family doesn’t do something completely unexpected), they should end up in the town of Phandelver itself. So far, any actual roleplaying interactions have limited to conversations with Gronk (who was not much of a conversationalist), so I’m interested to see their interactions with actual NPCs over the next few sessions.

More to come.