Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Archive for March, 2009

Don’t Look Back

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 31, 2009

Don’t Look Back is a flash platform game, released 5 March 2009 by Terry Cavanagh. Mac and PC versions are also available.

Before I begin this review, I urge you to play the game. There are links there to the online and downloadable versions of the game. It only takes a few minutes, and much of the enjoyment will come from learning the story as it’s revealed. That warning given, I’ll not refrain from spoilers below.

The game opens with the player character standing at a grave. We are instructed that we may use the arrow keys to move, and, being the seasoned gamers that we are, we take that as an invitation to proceed to the right.

After a bit more instruction on the controls, we come to a cliff. There is no other option than to leap from the cliff, whatever the consequences may be. Fortunately, in typical platformer fashion, falling from a great height is no hindrance, and the game proceeds like any other platformer.

We eventually pick up a gun, and we have the usual jumps to make, spiders to kill, and falling spikes and other moving obstacles to dodge. Failure means that the screen is restarted, with no other consequence.

After a bit, though, we enter an area  that is dark–though the enemies can be seen, the walls and floors are hidden. This doesn’t make the puzzles that much harder, but it certainly adds to the atmosphere: walking through a dark, seemingly empty room, when sudden spiders start to drop from the sky just ahead of you; you try to run past only to be stopped by a hidden wall; now there’s no hope of dodging–they have you! And the screen restarts and you must try again.

The darkness doesn’t last forever, though, and the game continues. There are two bosses to face before we reach the deepest part of the cave, and they may be defeated in the usual way–dodge the attacks, exploit the weakness. Finally, after all this, we can see what was our goal in entering this place.

Here floats the ghost of a girl–undoubtedly, the ghost of the girl whose grave we stood before at the beginning of our quest. But the game does not end here; we must now escape the cave with the spirit following.

There remains one caveat, though: you must not look back. Should you turn to face the spirit of the girl, she will fade away like so much mist. And here it becomes clear what the title means, and just what story is being told. This is a close retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and our hero has journeyed into the underworld to retrieve the spirit of his beloved.

So, we make our way back out. The puzzles are different (since we take a different route), and are tailored to our new weakness (the inability to turn back). I found the above screen particularly heart-breaking, since I missed the jump for the ropes more than once, and had no choice but to turn back, consigning the spirit to her fate. Granted, the screen restarts, but being forced by my ineptitude to deliberately entrap the spirit in the underworld was a cruel punishment indeed for my failure.

Now, having faced all the trials both on the way into the cave and back out, and having resisted the temptation to look back on the face of our beloved, we reach familiar territory. For better or worse, the endgame is near, and we will see what reward we shall reap for our efforts.

Finally, we return to find… our hero, still standing before the grave. Moments later, both the spirit and the player character vanish, carried away by the winds, and the title screen returns. All this effort, everything was only imagined by the mourning hero–wishing that he could indeed journey to the underworld to save his beloved, though ultimately no more able than Orpheus to carry this out.

The revelation, without words, of this story–the hero’s motivation and intent, and the eventual resolution of the story–is very well done. As a platform game, Don’t Look Back is only average, but as a piece of storytelling it is really excellent. Everyone should absolutely spend the few minutes necessary to complete this game. The post on the author’s blog has links to each (identical) version of the game, so go there now and play it.

Gameplay: 6/10
The puzzles aren’t hard, but they’re well designed, and the controls are pretty good.
Graphics: 8/10
The simplicity of the pixellated graphics is all part of the charm, and the monochrome red color scheme sets the mood nicely. The only complaint I have is that it wasn’t clear until after I retrieved the spirit and realized this was the tale of Orpheus that the dog was Cerberus, or that the final boss was Hades–the sprites weren’t identifiable. Of course, there’s only so much you can do with that resolution, and it was all made clear eventually, so only two point off.
Sound: 9/10
The music fits the game very well, and the sound effects are similarly well done. Cerberus’s growling was really frightening, and the sort of gasp/sigh when you look back and the spirit is swept away is very nice, too.
Story: 9/10
The story is very simple, and a classic. The revelation of the plot is very well done, and the ending, too, is good.
Personal Slant: 9/10
Total: 8.2/10
The platforming aspect could have done with better and more challenging puzzles, but the storytelling was right on. I had fun with the puzzles and the desire to see how it would all end kept me going, full of anticipation. Don’t Look Back is short, and well worth the time it takes to play.

Posted in 2009, Flash, Freeware, Full Review, Good, Mac, Platformer, Windows | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »


Posted by Tracy Poff on March 30, 2009

Excitebike, released by Nintendo in November 1984 in Japan, and October 1985 in the US, is a classic racing game for the NES.

Two modes are available, Selection A and Selection B. In Selection A, you race against the clock, alone on any of five tracks.

You play the red motorcyclist, and must pass the required number of laps on each obstacle-strewn track before time runs out. If you fail to beat the third place time, you lose. Since you can select which track you want to play on, this isn’t such a big deal,though, and the early tracks are pretty easy.

The track consists of four lanes, which you can switch among with the up and down buttons. In addition to changing lanes, you have the choice of the slower or faster gear for your bike. The faster gear has an obvious advantage, but also a disadvantage: as you use the faster gear, your bike heats up, and if you keep it up too long, your bike will overheat, forcing you to wait on the sidelines until it cools off again. Using the slower gear will allow your bike to cool, as will running over arrows that appear on the track. As a result, much of the strategy involves knowing when to use the faster gear and when to take it slower. Use the right gear and avoid or manage the obstacles, and you shouldn’t have much trouble until the last two tracks.

In Selection B, you still must beat the clock but there’s an additional difficulty: other racers appear on the track.

The other racers don’t seem to be intelligent–they don’t seem to try to block you intentionally, but they do get in the way, and running into them can cause a crash, costing you precious seconds. This mode is a little more interesting than Selection A, because of the added difficulty, but play is basically the same. I’d suggest playing Selection A if you’re trying to get the best possible times, and Selection B if you just want to race.

In addition to the two play modes, there’s a design mode, which lets you select from the available obstacles to make your own track.

You can try to make some interesting tracks this way, and it’s a little amusing, but the inability to save means that it’s a bit of a waste to spend much time trying to make a really good track, since it’ll be gone when you power off the console. It’s not that there isn’t a save option–it’s right there on the menu, and will happily spend a few minutes claiming to save, but it’s intended for use with the Famicom Data Recorder, a cassette attachment which was never released outside of Japan. The rest of us are out of luck.

AI: 6/10
The computer-controlled racers provide a little extra challenge, and a little extra scenery, but it would have been nice if they were aggressive and tried to keep you from passing.
Gameplay: 8/10
The game controls smoothly, and it’s really quite fun. If it had more tracks and supported two players, it might get a perfect score. Even without these, Excitebike is an excellent racing game.
Graphics: 8/10
Ordinarily, I say you should never to anything 3D on the NES, but Excitebike pulls off the 3D obstacles very well–it’s easy to see how tall they are and what slope they’re at, which is the most important thing for this game. I can’t score this any higher, though, because the tracks are pretty bland, and the most variation we get on different tracks is a palette swap. Not bad, but they might have done a little more.
Sound: 4/5
I’m only counting this half since there’s no background music during the races, just sound effects. That said, what sound exists is not bad, but a little repetitive. Like Indy 500, the main sound we hear during the race is the constant roar of the engine. Unlike Indy 500, that is actually useful since you can tell how hot your bike is by the sound of the engine. It still gets a little old, but at least it’s functional.
Personal Slant: 10/10
Whatever shortcomings Excitebike has, it’s still quite a fun old game, and I have very fond memories of it. Especially given it’s age (it was one of the first NES games, 25 years ago), I can’t really find fault with it.
Total: 8/10
Fun fact: Excitebike fit on only 24K of ROM. By comparison, this review, together with the five screenshots it contains, takes up about 23K–just about the same size as the game that is its subject! There’s certainly a lot of excellent gaming packed in such a small size. This is one game that’s absolutely worth playing, and since I understand that it’s available on the Wii virtual console we all have the good fortune to be able to play it, even if we can’t find a working NES.

Posted in 1984, Driving, Full Review, Good, NES | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Tracy Poff on March 7, 2009

Bastet, written in 2004 by Federico Poloni, is a Tetris clone with a twist.

It seems like an ordinary game of Tetris at first, allowing you to choose the level you start at to determine the game speed, and with the usual controls–left and right to move the piece, up to rotate it, down to drop it. That “Won’t give you this one!” thing seems a little odd, though…

After a few pieces have dropped, you might begin to suspect that something is wrong, or at least that you’re having a very unlucky game.

As the game progresses, you’ll see that Bastet does live up to its name: “Bastard Tetris”. The AI in Bastet calculates how useful each piece would be to you if it were dropped next, and then refuses to give you the few most useful pieces. In fact, it has a high chance of giving you the piece it computed would be least useful. As a result, getting even a single line can be quite a challenge, and getting more than a few lines is very hard indeed: the author noted on his page when he released it that his friends hadn’t even managed to pass twelve lines.

When the game ends, your score will be saved to the high score list. As you can see above, my first attempt yielded a high score of zero points. Challenging indeed.

Bastet was originally written for Linux, but a Windows port (by Salvatore Meschini) is available, which is essentially the same, though the colors are a little different, which I’d attribute to the change to PDCurses for the Windows port. You can download either or both from the author’s web page.

AI: 9/10
Bastet absolutely lives up to its name. The AI will consistently give you the worst, most annoying pieces, just as it should. If you want to compile it yourself, you can modify the difficulty, too. Minus a point for requiring recompiling to do that.
Gameplay: 8/10
The game behaves as it ought to, though the high difficulty makes it probably a little less fun that it would be if it were somewhat easier. That’s the goal of the game, though, so I can’t penalize it much.
Graphics: 4/5
The game looks nice. I’d prefer it in a graphical game so I could see the edges of the pieces I’ve already placed, but for a text-mode game it looks fine. I’m counting this one half since it is a text-mode game.
Personal Slant: 6/10
I like Tetris, and this is a competent implementation of it, but the difficulty stops me wanting to play it very much. Perhaps some people looking for a real challenge will like a little more.
Total: 7.7/10
Though you probably won’t want to play Bastet for long, owing to its difficulty, it’s worth a download just to see how hard Tetris could be if the game were really intentionally giving you bad pieces.

Posted in 2004, Decent, Falling Blocks, Freeware, Full Review, Linux, Windows | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »