Archive for games

they’re not always as fun as you remember

Something this week jogged my memory of the iconic original-Mac classic Dark Castle, and I was intent on — nay, determined to — emulate my way to victory and spend the weekend thusly engaged.


the title screen was the high-water mark

To be clear, I didn’t actually own an original Mac or Dark Castle, but my friend’s dad did, and he was extremely accomplished. He had the fireballs and the shields and the hoo-has and the what-nots, and his in-game acrobatics generally made the Prince of Persia look like a Koopa Troopa, whatever that means.

Suffice it to say that I was mesmerized whenever he played it, and believed almost without question that, by not owning a Mac myself, I was missing out on one of the greatest game experiences 1986 had to offer. I believe I used those exact words when I described to Deb how I was spending my Saturday afternoon.

I also assumed that, with suitable practise, I too could vanquish all comers. Some twenty years on, I like to think of myself as a pretty smooth operator when it comes to this sort of thing.

This was not to be. I will state for the record, unabashedly, that I am terrible at the game and show no signs of further improvement. I would like to tell you that this is because the interface is difficult to master and the controls are unforgivably imprecise — which is true — but the fact is I probably just suck.

I think I really just like the idea of Dark Castle more than the actual experience. A game that involves climbing and jumping around a castle with bats and guards and evil lords seems like it should be inherently fun, and quite frankly I’m disappointed that this particular representation hasn’t aged as gracefully as I’d imagined.

But don’t let my opinion stop you; here’s the how-to. For science.

  1. Download Mini vMac. It appears to be excellent software.
  2. Download the MacPlus ROM and the Finder image from this handy guide.
  3. Download the game itself.
  4. Download the blank disk images and unpack the 8M HFS image.
  5. Boot Mini vMac from the Finder image, mount the 8M HFS image, and format it into a bootable disk. I don’t know why you have to do this, but if you don’t, the game offers up some kind of complaint about memory allocation (time warp back to 1986: the complaint regarded something on the order of 10 kilobytes). Might as well mount and copy the Dark Castle disk into this image while you’re at it.
  6. Reboot from that new image, et voila.

All that being said, watching what appears to be a fully-functional Mac Plus boot in less than a second is something of a religious experience.

Now that I’m back in the 1980s, I think I’m going to try to find a copy of Populous.

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I totally chipped it in from the bunker 25 yards out

I was in Toronto last week, and virtually everyone I know in that city has a Wii. You’d never know there was a shortage, the way these guys play the market.

shaver briefly mentioned Wii Sports, but he didn’t tell you how virtually every other reviewer of Wii Sports wouldn’t know fun if it reached into their pants. These people who don’t “get” Golf, or think that Parkinson’s Boxing is the bee’s knees, I don’t know what games they were playing.

He also didn’t tell you that he has the best short game in the Wii Golf world, or that I bowled a 212 less than twelve hours after the two of us effectively split three bottles of Chelsea‘s new year champagne. We learned that evening that a slice of reheated pizza, a ginger ale, and an Advil mean that you can wake up the next morning afternoon almost completely unscathed. That’s a tip, kids, you’ll want to write that down.

But beyond the simple intuitiveness of the controls, the fact that you’re really exerting yourself (unless you’re a fucking toolbox) in mimicry of the actual sport makes it feel like a goddamn triumph when you succeed. I couldn’t golf to save the entire Western world, but I will totally card a five under par on the Wii’s front nine, and I will feel like I am Tiger Woods reincarnated in a way that mouse-clicking just doesn’t replicate.

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Train Game 4.0

Just like Tycho “the joy will most likely burn me alive” Brahe, I have longed for and craved the release of Sid Meier’s Railroads! from the moment its pale shadow entered my field of vision.

You’ve seen me wax on about trains and other train-related program activities, so my inbuilt, practically genetic, biases on this subject are well-known. I want nothing more than to tell you that Railroads!, with Sid’s return as the head conductor, is everything that Railroad Tycoon 3 almost was, everything that a railroad simulation can be.

Unfortunately — and it has taken me three days to reach this conclusion, a testament to how profound and inconceivable is my disappointment — the game is sadly misdesigned in some areas, and unpolished in others. It is a ghost train, coasting along on the power of its undeserved reputation, onlookers weeping as it rolls slowly past, speaking in apologetic whispers about the train that never was.

Let’s just tackle these things in a systematic fashion. I have adopted an easy-to-understand pro and con system:

+ The game is beautiful, exquisitely beautiful. There are no complaints on that score.

+ Some aspects of track laying are outrageously improved: you can control the grade, choosing to spend more on terraforming now rather than suffer slow trains forever, or vice versa; you can place curved bridges and tunnels; there’s almost nothing, short of running out of money or a turn that’s too tight, that can stop you from laying track wherever you want. Bridge to nowhere that ends in the middle of a lake? Check. Soaring steel contraptions that brave an impossibly steep climb up forbidding Widow’s Peak? Affirmative.

+ The economy is less complicated, which at least makes it less infuriatingly unpredictable. When you connect a farm that has corn to a city that wants corn, you make money; it’s not rocket science.

+ When you buy out another company, it gives you the option to liquidate the competitor. This is huge. I often avoided a total buyout in RT3 because it meant that I had to absorb a shitty, failing railroad.

+ I like that the buildings and industries move out of your way, just like real buildings in our age of overreaching eminent domain. It makes it much easier to lay track.

+ I like the Annexes a lot. In RT3, you would build a depot in a city somewhere, and hope that the farm nearby would send their grain to your station, rather than ignoring you and your gateway to the vast commodities markets that you represent. In SM’s R!, nothing moves until you build an Annex on the farm, and then you can tap directly into the supply.

+ Maintenance sheds and water/sand stations are a thing of the past, for which I am grateful. That level of micromanagement did not interest me.

+ It declared me “Master of Beef” for my prowess at moving livestock, and when a man is right, I tell him so.

- There is no undo button. Make no mistake (zing), this is fundamental flaw number one. It is simply not always possible to tell whether a given track lay will accomplish what you want until after you do it.

And don’t give me the “but real life doesn’t have an undo button!” nonsense. If it had a planning and layout mode that would let me set everything up, evaluate it as a whole, and then say “ok, build”, that would be just fine. But it doesn’t.

- You can only lay track that connects to your existing rail network. Why can’t I operate two networks, one on each coast, where the best opportunities lie? It profoundly alters the early game, when you need to be hand-picking the best opportunities on which to spend your scarce resources, but can instead only choose what’s local.

- In SM’s R!, you have to manually lay crossovers between your parallel track segments. I hate this. It might be OK if they always worked correctly, but I’ve managed a couple times to create complex crossovers that trains inexplicably cannot traverse. It also doesn’t appear to support diamond crossings, which requires me to do the same thing in a very space-inefficient manner. It strikes me as fairly mindless busy-work, made triply painful by the lack of undo.

- It’s sometimes impossible to select certain segments of track. A few times I’ve created little bits of crossover track that I then couldn’t select, and therefore couldn’t destroy. If I just laid that track then I can reload, but if I want to expand or change a routing that I’ve had for a long time, I’m fucked.

- It’s too difficult to destroy some track, even if you can select it. You can apparently only destroy a piece of track if there’s no train on it or on its way to it. So once you have a busy stretch of railway, if you need to tear it down to expand it (like destroy a branched switch, to replace it with multiple tracks), it becomes basically impossible. You can’t stop trains (like you could in RT3), so your only option, as far as I can tell, is to destroy as many trains as it takes, fix your track, and buy them all again. Not an option.

- You can’t destroy depots. After you buy out another company and merge operations, it’s not uncommon to have some duplicate operations, and in some cases, their usefulness is outweighed by their unfortunate placement. Why can’t I destroy these?

- You can’t zoom out nearly far enough. Finding things or making long-term, strategic plans is very difficult when you can only ever see a small slice of the map.

- It lacks the wonderful financial graphing options of RT3. It also lacks any indicator of a company’s book value, so you have no way of knowing, before you commit irrevocably to spending millions of dollars in a buyout, whether liquidating the assets will be a net gain.

- It lacks the also-wonderful ability to overlay certain supply/demand indicators on the main map — which would of course be of dubious value unless I could zoom much further out.

- It lacks the “stop waiting” button, which in RT3 would tell a train that is supposed to “wait until full” to just go ahead and start moving without the rest of its cargo. Even changing the train’s orders doesn’t make it go. It’s just not possible.

There are some problems that most would agree are simply programming defects:

- It’s a little too crashy. Not so bad that you give up — and the auto-saving certainly puts a band-aid over the worst effects — but crashing about once an hour is not good. It would probably be infuriating in a multiplayer game.

- A particularly unfortunate bug involving multiple depots: some scenario objectives require you to have a Terminal in a city (which you get by upgrading a Depot). If you have two or more depots in a city because of a merger, you seem to get credit only if you upgrade the depot that you most recently received. That’s an expensive $250,000 lesson!

- Sometimes the keyboard commands (like un-pause) don’t work; it seems to be related to whether there is a pending pop-up window that will appear when the game starts running again.

And finally a few points that are not serious problems, but rather game design choices that we can reasonably disagree on:

- The less-complicated economy also seems to be somewhat less fun. I haven’t run all the numbers, but it looks like it is almost never worth it to ship anything — passengers, mail, goods — any further than you have to. You make a little more money, but it almost certainly costs you at least as much to get it there.

- Why can’t I place multiple depots in a city? Sometimes a huge hub city has more traffic than three rails can reasonably support, or the track layout is such that it would be nice to have two depots servicing lines that run in perpendicular directions. Obviously the code supports having multiple depots, since you can acquire them through mergers, so just let me build them.

- While you can still buy industries in the cities, you can’t buy farms, oil wells, or other producers of raw materials, which I miss. I also liked the old economic model better, where as a farm or industry owner, you were responsible for the costs of producing your good, but then reaped the entire sale price of the product. The new model is not bad, but it’s less compelling.

Unfortunately, because the game wasn’t made by StarDock, I have almost zero faith that any significant issues will ever get addressed, even the bona-fide bugs. If you’re not familiar with StarDock, and their unbelievable track record of post-release support — bug fixes, new features, even significant design changes if they hear from users that there is A Better Way — then you are doing yourself a tremendous disservice. StarDock is, from a consumer’s perspective, the company that the others should be aspiring to be.

It’s hard to say whether or not I recommend it. The things that infuriate me the most may very well be the things that only a train enthusiast or long-time fan of the series really notices. If you didn’t play RT3 or didn’t play it much — in which case, I demand to know what the fuck you are waiting for, or why you think this will be any different; maybe you spent four years dead for tax reasons — you might care much less about the things that set my soul aflame.

Despite that enormous laundry list of dislikes, I’m still not yet sure which train game will become my new go-to for when I crave an afternoon sorting out transportation logistics. I reserve some hope that the crashes will be improved with patches, and I haven’t had an opportunity yet for a multiplayer game, which could fulfill or dash some of those remaining hopes. The improved track laying and more straightforward economy are very compelling, perhaps even compelling enough for me to overlook the manual crossovers and associated problems. It will take more time to sort out where my loyalties lie, and see whether Firaxis makes any attempts at reparations.

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my friend knows me very well

I don’t know what Married to the Sea is, exactly, but Deb found a comic that spoke directly to me and my love of all train-related program activities.

Now I really want to play the train game.

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a list of ways that I don’t spend my non-existent free time

The second half of 2005 has been a virtual bumper crop for distractions, none of which I’ve really had time to more than cursorily pursue. But they each — I think? — represent such a divine stride forward in this area of my interests that I feel compelled to share them with you nonetheless.

The first such offering, in all truth, was released more than two years ago — although the Mac followup (having matured in an aged sherry cask for a mere one year) was our first exposure to it. I may use some superlatives in the following paragraphs, so pregnant women and those with heart conditions or a family history of stroke may wish to come back tomorrow.

Before it gets ugly, I will say simply that Railroad Tycoon 3 is a solid accomplishment in an already distinguished series. It is very easy on the eyes, with relatively few sharp user-interface corners (although some aspects of track-laying are rescued only by the ability to undo; more on this later). It is rich not only in visual detail, but also in the detail of game play: commodities, stock markets, locomotives, cities, and people: these are the fundamental components of such a simulation, and each vibrates with the intensity required to produce lust in all but the non-living.

As an aside, if you peel back the delicate, flaky layers of the Intertron pastry, some users will reveal the dark secret that the game is prone to crash or lose its ability to make the sweet music which is otherwise a siren song worthy of any ancient tale; neither Jacob nor I experienced these ill effects, but I feel compelled to offer them as a sort of disclosure that may, in any event, fall short of full.

Where the game does not excel, however, can be summarized thusly:

Point the first: some additional explanation regarding the economic model would not be ill-received. Sometimes I think I understand it, and it makes perfect sense within my own synaptic maze. Then I connect two cities which should positively brim with commerce, the meniscus of profit straining both credibility and the physics of modern banking — only to have trains run nearly empty along this dejected avenue, little tumbleweeds rendered in exquisite detail behind the rusty caboose.

Point the second: while I applaud that nebulous market forces these past few years have awakened to the fact that we enjoy playing games with our other nerd friends on your vast internet, it is almost beyond belief how shoddily this can be executed in the year 2003, by which time we already had entire lifetimes of study devoted to this singular topic. Perhaps my social circle is somewhat unique; perhaps we are the only people who, before we finished dialing the complete contents of our respective little black books, would have harnessed enough networking intellect to reconstitute the very fabric of the medium from its component atoms. But whatever the reason, someone needs to figure out why I apparently know the only ten people on earth who can make networked applications that don’t crash or lose synchronization, can restore from a previous session, and did not shed features in the online transition as a snake sheds its dessicated skin, packed with nutrients. Put simply: the online play lacks critical behaviours found in the single player modes — oops, did you just mis-lay a $4.8 million bridge? too bad, because we couldn’t be fucked to implement undo; is slow beyond human comprehension — even the local UI grinds to a halt; and generally sucks in the same way that most other online games suck, in which you spend at least five times longer losing synchronization and not restoring saved games as you do actually playing — when you get to play at all.

Point the third: I spent so much time and psychic energy on that last point that I don’t remember anymore. Maybe it will return. I rue the day that I bought the Mac version. As I mentioned, we bought this version first, which in most cases would make it a veritable feat of idiocy to return to that particular well again for the Windows version, the kind of folly that usually climaxes in me making fun of you for having three copies of the same album. In this case, it merely underscores the implausible degree to which we enjoy simulations of a train-related nature. It is difficult to articulate, this far into the future, precisely what it was about the Mac version that was so disquieting. But I believe it was fundamentally slow, and not in a simple go buy a dual G5 and shut your cranky-hole way, but a way that felt innate and unsolvable. Go buy the Windows version. I just rued again.

All in all, despite the highly-cathartic vitriol, I deem it excellent. You should interpret this through whichever lens you feel is appropriate, given my instinctive longing for trains and other train-related program activities.

Second in our little roundup: Age of Empires III has really been overshadowed by the third in our series, below, and as a result I don’t have a very good feel for it yet. Nevertheless, I am compelled to include it by simple virtue of how thoroughly its coming has dominated my cognition this past year.

Fan of the genre or not, if human blood courses through your veins, you are obliged to agree that AOE2 was a giant among men, an opus among mere songs. Having spent years meditating on this fact, honing my love as one delicately hones a fine sword of folded steel, I was rent by this very love upon release of the deplorable Age of Mythology. As I do not acknowledge even the existence of this heretical installment, we will not speak of it again.

So keep in mind that, as far as I’m concerned, this series has been effectively stalled since 1999′s Age of Kings, a game which I’ve probably purchased no fewer than three times for a variety of platforms and people. It is for this reason that I am on the very brink of disappointment, doing my best to hold my crestfallen feelings at bay, having managed to convince myself that AOE3 is, in fact, awesome, I just haven’t played enough of it yet. Sadly, deep down inside (where I am soft, like a woman) I do not believe this.

I believe that another ten or twenty of your Earth hours worth of gameplay will show me that it is the very good-looking — but ultimately still reheated and glazed with preservatives — pressed sweepings of AOE2. So far, cards or no cards, I am not finding it anything more than Age of Kings in a slightly different setting, with better animations. If I’m not careful, I catch the darkest recesses of my mind, where even I dare not to trod, finding it less.

We will see if I ever discover these aforementioned hours, perhaps in some kind of temporal repository buried in the frozen earth of my quaint New England “lawn”. If so, I shall report on my overdue findings.

Last, but most certainly not least — indeed, carefully formulated to leave the reader on an upbeat Sunday trajectory — we come to Civilization IV. Click on that link, and read the powerful green box. Do you see? Universal acclaim.

And do not be confused by the univeral acclaim also heaped upon Civilization III, as so much garbage is heaped upon other… garbage. This is the real deal.

Permit me to set aside my typically flowery — some would say overwrought, but one assumes that those idiots are no longer reading — prose and be direct: the game is beautiful. I speak of breathtaking beauty, exceeding even that of the train game — which, to be fair, it should: it had two more years to slow-roast inside the patented self-basting bag that is Firaxis Studios, steaming in Sid Meier’s very juices. Although one must make a number of small cuts in the top of the bag to prevent it from exploding, I can assure you that this nod to kitchen physics compromised neither the succulent all-white breast meat, nor the more flavourful and tender dark meats in any way. I like to protect the delicate breast from burning by covering it with bacon until the final browning, a trick I learned from Beard. It is unclear whether this method was employed in the making of Civ 4, but I like to think that it was.

The gameplay has been precisely tuned, passed through a fine sieve to remove any distasteful elements left from the failed experiments of Civ 3. The in-game abortion that was pollution control has been stripped as if it had never been; automated workers dispense with their unsavoury chores in a manner that is very pleasing; the need for micromanagement of research and production has been substantially reduced by carrying extra points over to your next turn; and so on.

The online play appears to have taken a similar, if not greater, leap forward, first and foremost by actually being included with the product when it shipped, rather than sold as an add-on a year later. But more fundamental game mechanics, such as allowing everyone to play the turn simultaneously, a thoroughly delightful permanent-alliance / team structure, and worlds of breathtaking size, make online play a perfectly splendid experience.

However, in another of the infinite demonstrations that game developers never actually play their own games before they ship, it contains aggravating, obvious flaws: too many modal dialogs, during which you miss critical parts of the action, and can’t find the information you need to make the best decision; an overly-busy city management interface, which you can usually avoid via the aforementioned modal dialog, but not if you need to look something up before choosing; a civlopedia that, in lacking a coherent index, borders on uselessness; and as always, lest we find cause for celebration that the 21st century is indeed finally upon us, multiplayer games plagued by synchronization problems — although at least save and restore appear to work reliably. I also share Rob’s frustration with the barbarians, although I offer a diffrent compromise: an option that would preserve barbarian cities and units produced therein, but eliminate the random spawning of units in fog-of-war-hidden squares. The former are predictable game elements against which a strategy can be devised; the latter are just irritating.

All in all, it deserves each and every one of its accumulated superlatives, for which it will no doubt win some phantasmagoric number of awards.

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