Saturday, August 28, 2010

Defending the Indefensible

Much tongue-wagging has occurred on the topic of "The Death of the Adventure Game." I'd rather not get into that at the moment, but I have noticed something occurring simultaneously as the genre began withering away in the mid 90s. Throughout the "Golden Age" of the genre (mid 80s to mid 90s) there was a general consensus among fans about the quality of the games coming out from the likes of Sierra and LucasArts. Titles like Kings Quest V and Secret of Monkey Island were almost universal praised and instantly canonized upon release. Even today, those games are still recognized as classics by almost anyone with an interest in the genre.

But this critical consensus began evaporating with the release of a number of games that polarized adventure game fandom. Probably the first to do so was Myst; followed by Phantasmagoria, the second and third Gabriel Knight games, the last two King's Quest entries... and so on. Each of these games has a very strong following. But each has also been reviled for such crimes as "dumbing down" the genre, having ridiculous plots, bad production values, illogical puzzles, being too short, to easy, too hard; the list goes on and on. Even more traditional offerings, such as those from Microïds, have drawn mixed feelings from old school adventure gamers.

Well, parts of it look pretty.

What's all this leading up to, you ask? While preparing for second half of Chrontendo's history of adventure games, I found myself playing, for the first time, the most controversial game the genre has ever produced: Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria. I first recalled hearing of it back in the 90s, when it was known primarily for its violent, sexual content, its breathtakingly realistic digitized graphics, and the fact that it was a harbinger for the forthcoming transition of video games from mere entertainment to art. 15 years later, it has a much different reputation: more of a "what the hell were they thinking?" sort of reputation. One of the charges levied at Phantasmagoria is pandering. Pandering towards to the non-gaming crowd by reducing the number and complexity of puzzles, adding a game-spoiling hint system, and tossing in some cheap skin and gore passed off as "mature" content. Aside from that, the game's poorly acted low-rez FMV scenes appear hilariously dated by today's standards.

Other parts, not so hot.

I was quite surprised, then, to find that I actually liked playing Phantasmagoria. It's certainly not the most sophisticated adventure game Sierra produced. The plot isn't too original: young couple buys old, secluded, mansion; mansion turns out to have a violent and disturbing history; forces of evil return to haunt young couple. (In this case, the previous owner, a magician named Carno, unleashed a demon, got possessed and killed several wives in quick succession. The new owners accidentally free the demon, and the husband gets possessed.) The puzzles are pretty simple and mostly involve finding typical adventure game items such as keys, old books, mysterious broches, etc, and then using them on the corresponding locked doors and secret entrances. You also need to frequently talk to members of the game's relatively small cast in order to advance the story. The game world is quite small and you can breeze through the game pretty quickly if you know what you were doing.

A mysterious sealed up room. Every home should have one.

But still, I found the spooky house setting to be pretty enjoyable, what with all the hidden rooms, underground passages and secret crypts and chapels. The whole tantalizing "locked door" ploy goes way back in video games; we've seen used in every Dragon Quest game so far. However, I think the whole "exploring the house" thing might have some inherent psychological appeal for me. Unusual houses are a recurring element in my dreams, and I often dream that I find hidden, unused or forgotten areas in a house. In a game purportedly aiming for psychological realism, however, it seems a bit absurd. Who would buy and move into a house in which large parts were inaccessible? Didn't they do a walk-through? What about an inspection?

A perfect starter home. Three bedrooms, two baths, and a gigantic auditorium-sized room which we cannot show you because its oversized ornate doors are locked.

Early FMV games tend to be mocked for cheap production values and bad acting, and Phantasmagoria has those in spades. Or at least seemingly cheap production values. An enormous amount of time an money was spent on the game, months of filming were required and professional actors were used. A huge choir was needed to perform the game's opening musical piece, a dramatic "O Fortuna"type piece of music (that video game reviewers like calling a "Gregorian Chant" for some weird reason.) It was Sierra's most expensive game by far, but also its best selling game at that point.

FMV games usually tried to rope in one familiar name or face, and here it's 1960's sex symbol Stella Stevens, playing a bit part as an antique store owner. Most of the other roles are taken by TV and stage actors such as Robert Miano, whose Bronx accent made him well suited for gangster roles, but who sounds a little strange as a 19th century magician. But despite and money and talent funneled into Phantasmagoria, the FMV scenes still look and sound awful, and some really terrible performances drag the whole thing into camp territory. Presumably the blame can be lain at the feet of director Peter Maris, whose filmography consists entirely of Z-grade action and horror movies.

She just witnessed a terrifying vision in a mirror of a woman murdered with a jagged wine glass to the face, yet she seems only slightly concerned.

But the cheesy FMV and over the top performances just add to the game's goofy appeal. Throw in some surprisingly gruesome death sequences, and you've got the video game equivalent of Troll 2, or maybe The Wizard of Gore. If bad acting and laid-back game play were all that was wrong with Phantasmagoria, I'd give it my unqualified recommendation. Though the game falls apart at the very end, with a long FMV chase sequence that requires you to quickly perform a series of actions at key points in the video, with failure resulting in death. A lot of folks hate quick time events and pixel hunting. I don't mind them too much separately, but put them together, add in a small, grainy, dark video image, and you have a recipe for game induced rage. As further proof that one man's treasure is another man's trash, several reviews of the Phantasmagoria pointed out the final chase as the highlight of the game.

What do you do? Use the hammer? The poker? The evil book? You have 1 second to decide.*

Furthermore, it's quite easy to miss many of the FMV scenes. The bloody murder scenes, which are basically Phantasmagoria's money shots, are normally triggered by examining a particular place or object. Sounds simple enough... but, the catch is that Phantasmagoria is spread out across seven CD's: one for each chapter. Each disc can only hold a limited amount of video, which means you have limited opportunities for accessing those FMVs. Checking a mirror on disc five will trigger a cut scene, but checking the same mirror on the other six discs will do nothing. If you accidentally trigger the event that starts chapter six before checking that mirror, then you're SOL (at least as far as I know.) So, it's quite easy to miss much of the game's non-plot essential content.

I can at least console myself with the fact that not everyone in the world hates FMV games across the board. Not that long ago, Sketcz over the HG101 blog posted a lengthy three-part entry on his love of FMV games, which (I assume) is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Still if there are human beings willing to publicly bestow the likes of Sewer Shark with a four star rating, then I'm willing to state that I think Phantasmagoria is pretty decent.

I just bought a house with a functioning electric chair. What could go wrong?

Postscript: Sorry for being away from the blog for a bit, but I've had to take in one of my mother's dogs, since it was not getting along with her other dog. Also: dealing with my mother-in-law's post surgery recovery. She has now temporarily moved in with us, which is going to require some major adjustments on my part. If there is an extended period of silence in the near future, it probably means I've been arrested for murder.

*As a matter of fact, in this particular screenshot you are screwed, since you didn't get the toy snowman (you're also missing the rosary.) You would think that while being attacked by a demon-possessed dude, a blunt object or holy object would be the logical choice. But no... you need to use the snowman on him.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Episode 31!!!!

At last! It's here! I have no idea why this one took so long. Maybe it was the History of Adventure Games segment; cutting it in half certainly sped things up. I think it may have just been due to laziness and the fact that I get easily distracted. But you know what to do! Go to and stream or download it!

First up - about the Adventure Games bit: because we've seen so many of the damned things, and because this episode has three - including fan fave Princess Tomato - I decided to try to get some historical perspective on the genre. So nestled in the soft folds of Episode 31 are the first two parts. Together they rush through the development of Western and Japanese adventure games up to the mid/late 80s. Parts three and four will cover the "golden years." Which means Lucas Arts era stuff in the US and games with naked women in Japan. Perhaps we'll find out if the guy from Pia Carrot actually puts the moves on his cousin. Combined, these 4 parts will be quite lengthy. So lengthy that I had to trim two games off of Episode 31! Yep, only 13 games this episode.

One thing that concerns me is that the adventure game segment won't look so hot when streaming the video, due to some of the games' text being on the small side. Everything is perfectly legible in the full size version, but the compressed streaming version makes the text look a little fuzzy. Hopefully y'all can deal.

Episode 31 is not exactly chock full of great games, but there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom

Don't worry. A simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors will take out these wimps.

Ok, this game is sort of awful. But in a lovable, charming way. Kind of like Mel Gibson. And I have to admire Hudson for putting this out in the US. Obviously, Japanese adventure games never took off over here (except among the pervert set) but at least Hudson was willing to give it a shot, unlike Nintendo. As I point out in my comments this episode, those raised on Lucas Arts style adventure games might not be too fond of Princess Tomato. Many of the puzzles simply consist of talking to characters over and over again until the games decides to open up the path to the next area. And absolutely no justification is ever given as to why you can't, for example, go down the hallway until you've spoken to Orange Princess. And having to constantly "look" and "check" your surroundings multiple times just aggravates the frustration. Look in the garbage bin once: there's nothing there. Look a second time: Oh! There's there's something in there!

I'd be remiss to not mention America's sweetheart, Percy. I don't think Princess Tomato would have any sort of cult following without him. He's a bumbling little imbecile, but we still love him to pieces. Also, as mentioned in the comments earlier, Octopus Prime has a cool text & screenshot Let's Play for Princess Tomato here. And there's another one here. So despite the game's many flaws, it's still a weird and wild game where you challenge an anthropomorphic bowl of salad to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors ("Put up you fingers!")

Video gaming's greatest heroes!

In terms of good games this episode, we have a couple options.

Final Commando - Akai Yousai/Jackal

This might not be the most awesome boss we've seen in a Konami game so far. But it's pretty damned close.

A quick run of this game's various titlings: the original arcade game was called Tokushu Butai Jackal (Special Forces Jackal) in Japan and Top Gunner in the US. So naturally, when it came time for a home port, Konami released it under the names Final Commando in Japan and Jackal in the US! Oh, Konami, you crazy bastards! Also weird is that the US version has been expanded a bit. The levels are actually horizontally wider in the US cart, and there is an extra level. So for once, Japan got the bone.

Captain Tsubasa/Tecmo Cup Soccer Game

This isn't exactly the most subtle crotch shot I've seen in a sports game.

A completely original soccer/RPG game. You move your player around the field with the d-pad. But when it comes time to pass, shoot or evade opposing players, a little DQ style menu pops up that allows you to choose your action. All the actions play out with these very slick little animations of the characters running, kicking, etc. It's difficult to describe in words, but it's sort of like Blitzball from Final Fantasy X. Only not so annoying. I wonder if other sports games used this particular mechanic? I'll guess if there are any, we'll eventually come across them.

Sensha Senryaku - Sabaku no Kitsune/Desert Commander

A cool, though very simple military tactics game. Desert Commander, with its easy to use interface and speedy battles, is a breath of fresh air after the likes of Neunzehn and Fleet Commander. My main complaint is that Desert Commander is just too short. The NES and Famicom versions are identical, except for the fact that your headquarters is embellished with a nice big fat swastika in the Japanese cart!

I've noticed that I seem to negatively compare every single military tactics game we've encountered so far to Military Madness. Now I'm worried that I've built that game up to the point that when we finally reach Military Madness in some upcoming episode of Chronturbo, you guys will be expecting it to cure cancer and walk on water. It's good, but not that good.

Also, I dunno... maybe Freedom Force?

This is a US only Zapper game from Sunsoft. Noteworthy for the lengthy animated intro which has nothing to do with the game itself, as far as I can tell. And your character's name is 'Rad Rex" (and for bonus goofiness, your job title is "Terminator") It's the typical "shoot the bad guys but not the hostages" deal. I'd like Freedom Force better if grenades and machine guns didn't shave off half your life bar, and/or there was some way to refill your life bar besides the non-existent health packs.

The terrible games this time around are:

Kamen no Ninja Akakage

Another winner from the guys behind Hokuto no Ken! Only this time you play as a ninja who wears a gigantic frickin' red scarf! I thought ninjas were supposed to be silent assassins who vanished into the shadows. One illustration of Shouei System/Bear's apparent lack of programming know-how is that there can only be one type of enemy on the screen at once. Whenever you enter an area where a new type of enemy appears, any existing on-screen enemies will simply vanish into thin air!

Another well known ninja.

Deep Dungeon III

Another damned Deep Dungeon game! For this one, Square nixed the DOG imprint, and released it on a cartridge under their own name - a sure sign the FDS is dying. I guess DD III developer Humming Bird Soft saw Final Fantasy's sales figures and decided to add a four member party and character classes to this one. However, they forgot to not make it another dull, repetitive, Wizardry clone. And, lest I forget, there's a town, complete with inns and shops, in this game. But naturally, it's... inside a dungeon! For God's sake, what is this obsession with dungeons? Not everything has to be in a damned dungeon!!


Oh great, another port of an ancient action RPG. Elysion has been blessed with a high quality fan translation. But that won't prevent it from being an unplayable slog. It's one of those old-school RPGs where enemies give 9 experience points, and it takes 500 experience points to gain a level. And when you look at a walkthrough, it highly recommends you get up to level 8 before venturing out too far. Ha, ha! Wonderful! *hits cartridge eject button*

Major League Baseball

Family Stadium? No, I don't see any resemblance and have no idea what you are implying.

LJN learns a valuable lesson here. It's better to blow your development budget on an MLB license, as opposed to putting money into the game itself. After all, it's the box art that sells the game, right? Rather than wasting valuable time and money making a decent game, instead have Atlus rip some sprites out of Family Stadium, slap them over a crappy physics engine and call it a day. The important thing is that you have you have the names of real life MLB teams and the MLB logo on the box. An important truth has been discovered that future publishers would never forget.

Also this episode:

Namco Classic

Who knows why, but Namco decided not to call this "Family Golf." Just another golf game, I'm afraid.

Famicom Tantei Club - Kieta Koukeisha

It finally happened: Nintendo produced there very own Portopia clone. Just like Mukashi Banashi, this was released on two discs sold separately.

Meitantei Holmes: Kiri no London Satsujin Jiken

History's greatest green-haired detective.

Towa Chiki releases their second Sherlock Holmes game. This one is not nearly as bananas as 1986's Sherlock Holmes: Hakushaku Reijou Yuukai Jiken, covered in Chrontendo 13.


A heavily altered port of a Virgin Interactive Commodore 64 game based on the James Clavell novel.

Whew! What a relief. I'm already looking forward to Episode 32 with... Blaster Master! And the History of Adventure Games parts 3 & 4! Until then, head over to and check out Episode 31.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How Do They Know?

How do the junk scavengers know when you've put your junk out on the curb? Within minutes, there they are, sorting through broken chairs, fried computer monitors, and excess yard trimmings. It's like they have junk radar, or something.

These things presumably work a bit differently in other parts of the world, but in this particular patch of California, we put our old crap out near the curb three times a year and the city hauls it away. This is the stuff that's too bulky to be picked up in regular garbage collection. I put out an old dilapidated recliner chair, a rusted-out wheelbarrow, and a bunch of miscellaneous crap. In theory, the city trucks will pick up everything tomorrow morning, but in reality, much of it will be gone by then. Less than 15 minutes had passed since I piled everything up, and there were already guys picking through it. I assume that quasi-professional junk collectors have copies of the pickup schedules for various neighborhoods, and develop a finely tuned sense of when people start putting their stuff out. But their uncanny ability to just know when fresh junk appears is amazing.

Incidentally, I hear in Japan they throw out lots of good stuff. I knew someone who lived in Tokyo for while, and furnished their apartment in this fashion. It seems virtually new furniture and electronics are common sights on junk collection days.

"Wait a second, Dr. Sparkle," you say. "What about a Chrontendo update?" Well, I think Episode 31 should be ready before too long. I was struggling a bit with the History of Adventure games bit, and decided that it would be too long for one episode. So the first half will be featured in Ep. 31, then the rest next episode.

Sorry it's taking so long, but there are ongoing issues with my mother-in-law and her surgery. It turns out she's going to be moving in with us temporarily after she's discharged from the hospital. So once again, thank you for your patience.