Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Monuments of Mars

Monuments of Mars is 4-part platformer released by Apogee in 1991, designed by Todd Replogle (who no longer works in the video game industry, I ran across an interview with him from 2001 where he discusses the video game industry, he is oddly quoted as saying "I'm not sure there is a future for the video game industry. Unless one has the capability of using both the left and right hands independently, I doubt video games will sell like they used to." What the hell man? You picked a bad time to get out of the video game industry, it's since exploded into billion-dollar-bills lining the pockets of corporate fatcats. You could have been one of those fatcats) and they are, to say the least, brilliant.

Unfortunately, Monuments of Mars doesn't run in Windows anymore, and you have to emulate it using DOSBox, a DOS emulator specifically designed to run old computer games. You might, however, have a problem obtaining the final 3 chapters to the Monuments, because only the first part was released as shareware, and the others have been lost to the internet aether. Luckily I came across a download page, and you can download all 4 episodes here.

But before we go any further, adjust your expectations. Monuments of Mars provides a few things, like fun puzzles, (troublesomely) addictive gameplay, and powerful (artistically) graphics. But it's riddled with problems. It's curious, often when reviewing games we point out the flaws to no end creating a heap of broken shards, nothing and a shallow blindness that refuses to acknowledge good design. I've played games my entire life, and I can easily be bored, distracted, or uninterested in some "perfect" games. Other games don't have to be perfect, because their merits are strong enough to exalt the game. For Monuments of Mars, I'll break it apart, but by the end of the article I hope the Monument is re-assembled to the satisfaction of the Martian overlord.

The game uses CGA graphics, meaning only 16 colors in their entire program. During gameplay, however, you'll see five: Black, Red, Brownish-Orange, and Green. Unsurprisingly, the art turned out well, and the lack of colors adds to the game by encouraging creativity. Monuments of Mars has the same intense light that classic arcade games possessed(LINK), the luminous glow of neon on black. This method of display has always been eerily popular. Why do we like bright colors on a black background so much? Does it remind us of the stars, glowing against the vacuum of space? Of signs and city lights ripped out of T.S. Eliot? How many games have you played that are bright colors on a black monitor?

The hit detection isn't spot-on (a result of the graphics engine used, FAST: Fluid Animation Software Technology. Apparently, the used fluid very loosely, because the movement is jerky. FAST registers hit detection based on the sprite's bounding box, so... don't get too close to anything or you'll explode. This engine was previously used in two other games, Pharaoh's Tomb and Arctic Adventure, to which Monuments of Mars bears more than a slight resemblance), walking up and down hills is slightly odd, and there is no music (I've created a Monuments of Mars playlist, mainly involving Dragonforce), and the sound effects are "clicky."

You have infinite lives, and this makes you something of a demigod. Or a Prometheus, dying only to reborn. A viking warrior living eternity in Valhalla. Take our pick, the actual story can be read in one of the screenshots.

There's a typo in the story... but I get a kick out of things like that. I know 8-Bit City is speckled with typos, despite my best efforts to edit and proofread.

Some levels will kill you in the first second, hilariously exploding your spaceman 7-8 times before you wise up and hold left as the level begins. There is a save function, so infinite lives is a nice feature because it saves you the trouble of actually having to save. Each level takes a few minutes to complete (after the initial "tutorial" levels, I use the term in quotes because there are no explicit tutorial levels, just some easy screens at the beginning that teach you about the engine) and some of the trickiest parts come right at the end of a stage. I wonder if part of the appeal of video games is that you can correct your mistakes, and learn from them... a luxury we don't have outside of digital worlds, and even then, not always. In this sense, video games are quite capable of transcending time (though still bounded by it).

Each stage is a single board, filling a single screen. You'll have to navigate your spaceman around enemies, collecting triangles and air tanks, sometimes stepping on a certain tile, falling through a certain hole, or grabbing a specific triangle will create/destroy some blocks, and alter the level. Every level is a puzzle, and you have a limited supply of laser beams (which, oddly enough, are represented by the air tanks you collect). You'll explore the barren Martian Landscape (and it does look a lot like Mars), Martian ruins (possibly those from Total Recall), and what appears to be construction sites.

I think the graphics that made me appreciate this game as a child, though outdated in 1991, we have the opportunity to refer to them as classic, but whatever you call them, they do a great job of suspending your disbelief and immersing the player in a sprawling landscape. With 80 levels spanning 4 games, Monuments of Mars makes a massively monumental monolith.

If you decide to give this game a try, take comfort in your independence, because no one else is playing it. No one else is writing about it, there are no FAQs (though one website has maps), or discussions other than this article. It's proof that fun games are often forgotten, and exposes the bias that time has on video games.

Had Monuments of Mars been released (sigh, how often do I say something along these lines) in 1981 it would have out-shined (or at least compared to) the arcade games of the time. they missed a chance to release this game on the arcade (for the scene was already dead and dying by 1991), it would have been a hit.

Released today, I think the game could see a renewed fan base and enjoy a healthy amount of popularity, provided it was priced accordingly. If released on WiiWare, I think the game would prove more than popular. People are willing to shell out 5 bucks for almost anything, and 80 levels of the distilled essence of pure platformer would be perfect. It couldn't hurt.

In order to best enjoy Monuments of Mars, purchase the shareware 3.5" floppy from a local drugstore, or download it off of UseNet, install it to your IBM 486 and sit in the dark while you play. You better be running the game out of DOSShell. Because sometimes Old School just isn't Old School enough and I want to play a game so archaic it echoes the chalk murals of the cavemen. Like T.S. Eliot said when saw the Lascaux murals, "Art never improves, but... the material of art is never quite the same."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pixel Art: Gigas

A robotic monster.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cave Story Wii Ware Screen Shots

New screens were posted to Go Nintendo, Kotaku, and, as expected the official Cave Story Wii blog. If you haven't been keeping up with development, the game is actually set to launch THIS YEAR, if all the bugs get worked out and whatnot. I suspect (hope?) that they will take their time, and not release the game until it's ready. Like Miyamoto said: a delayed game is good eventually, but a rushed game is bad forever. Above you can see the comparison of Quote, old and new. Below, are two screenshots from Cave Story, running on a Wii. You have the option to play with the old or new graphics... and for a while I was determined to stick it out and play the game with all of the original graphics/artwork... but damn, does the new artwork look good. Could Pixel defy logic and prove that more pixels == better? Yes, probably.

If you are a fan of Cave Story (if you aren't, I highly recommend you visit the official site, Tyrone R. (the producer for Cave Story Wii) and Pixel have been posting fanservice (not THAT kind) for weeks. You can check out other updated characters, enemies, Pixel's sketches, etc. etc. to etc.

Q: How many pixels does it take to upgrade Cave Story graphics?
A: Just one.

Help for the simple-folk: Double-click pictars make them bigger.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is the latest entry in Konami's (as far as I'm concerned) best franchise. Taking a page from Symphony of the Night, it continues the Metroidvania formula, but adds multiple levels to the mix. It's similar to Portrait of Ruin in that respect, but is much more focused, cohesive, and enjoyable. The lead female protagonist, Shonoa, is a refreshing change, but, unfortunately, doesn't get much characterization because of story-related issues.

Having recently defeated Dracula (i.e. last night), I've just started to explore the extra content that makes Castlevania games so damn enjoyable/replayable. You've got Albus mode (a teleporting gunslinger), hard mode, level caps, new game + and a boss rush mode; all unlockable after completing the main quest. I could go on and on describing the various aspects of this cart, but, and I hate to say it, it's really similar to the other titles in the series. What's impressive, is that this game still feels fresh. I recommend this title to anyone with a DS (though if you haven't played Dawn of Sorrow, you're probably better off starting there).

There was a time when I thought 2D gaming was dead for good. Today, not many gamers fear for the fate of platformers, and its titles like Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Contra 4, and Mega Man 9 keep the genre alive in the commercial world. Indie games also embrace the 2D game, arguably out of technical limitations, but perhaps out of a love for the gameplay and an aesthetic appreciation less dimensions. It's nice to see 2D gaming develop as a distinctive style and maintain momentum in modern time.

I wish I had the time to go through all of the extra modes, but they will have to wait for a few weeks. My list of games to play is out of control. Want an idea of how bad it is? I've started (and would really like to finish in the next 6 months) Chrono Cross (need to completely restart because its been so long), Twilight Princess, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, Ys: Book I & II, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, Final Fantasy 9 (once again, I've got to restart it), Final Fantasy 7: Dirge of Cerberus, Yoshi's Island DS, Super Paper Mario (on the LAST level), Dragon Quest 8 (have to restart, been waaay too long) and La-Mulana.

There really is a superfluity of great games out there, and trying to play them all does lead to over-consumeration of video games. Yes, games are a commodity, but they are also art, and require a large time investment to be fully appreciated. Also, plenty of games are made and given away free (see, Cave Story, 8-Bit Killer, Hasslevania) so the idea that video games are purely a commodity is obviously flawed. I don't play games to waste time, I play games to better understand life, video games, software, art, programming, music, visual arts, design and to enjoy time spent.

Yesterday I began playing through Septerra Core, and ancient RPG from 1999 that was incredibly overlooked, which I started in about 2001 but never finished.

I needed an RPG to slow me down a bit and relax from all the twitch gameplay I'm so fond of. Thus far it is nothing short of amazing. I am only 2 hours into it, but plan on playing for 6 hours after this post. It's an ambitious title with a unique setting, interesting characters, and a serious storyline.

It's got a healthy dose of nostalgia, because I can remember fragments shored against the ruins of my memory. A cutscene or line will leap out, disturbingly familiar, yet different because of the time gap in between playthroughs. Nostalgia teaches us about ourselves, how we saw the game them, how we see it now, and often exposes the shortcomings of memory and the nature of time. Like visiting you high school after college, you notice the changes, and you learn about yourself. The connection is more prevalent in video games because the architecture doesn't change. The game is exactly the same, and the ability to be in identical spaces years apart creates an uncanny reality.

Shanoa art by hf-Zilch

Maya art by dune3001

Monday, November 10, 2008

Random Thoughts

By popular demand: another post!

Recently I've been playing the new Castlevania (Order of Ecclesia) and, as expected, it fails to disappoint (that is, it's awesome). However, it feels shallow to do a review, because we've all played Castlevania games before, and it's that standard fair. Though, the catch this time is that the game is broken up into stages AND Dracula's Castle, providing the player with more than enough to do.

But what's really on my mind (aside from programming) has been a freeware game, La-Mulana. I've seen screenshots of the game for a long time now, but I only played it a few hours ago, on my lunch break. Immediately the quality was apparent, and it's caused me to re-evaluate my approach to game design. It's very similar to Maze of Galious, an obscure MSX game (which, admittedly, has been in the blogs lately, probably due in part to La-Mulana). I'm going to hold off on posting a full review, because I'm yet to explore the depths of this massive game (place 5 skills points in dungeonering, please!) but I'll get there soon (saved right outside of Dracula in OoE, then I'll be free to play La-Mulana), so expect an update at some point.

The time for indie games is now, we are witnessing an explosion in creativity and dedication by indie developers. With modern technology gamers and artists are able to create and surpass games in the style of retro titles and technology. Exciting times, to be sure.

Finally, HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Sami, 8-Bit City's number 1 girlfriend and reader!