Monday, 5 June 2017

Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf - Sega Mega Drive (1992) & Commodore Amiga (1993)


Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf was released in the first half of 1992, a year after Operation Desert Storm had ended and with the Middle East still fresh in mind. The plot involves a Middle Eastern despot invading a small Emirate and trying to gain weapons of mass destruction.  Some could accuse EA of shamelessly cashing in on these appalling events.  Whatever, it turned out to be the most successful game they had yet produced.

On my shortlist I had the Sega Mega Drive original and conversions for the Sega Master System, Super Nintendo and Commodore Amiga.

The Sega Mega Drive was the first version of the game and was released early in 1992 with the first conversions arriving later in the year.  It could be described as the definitive version of the game with great graphics and sound, and slick controls.  Although I had never played it before if felt familiar.  It then dawned on me it played pretty much like cross between Cyclone and Raid on Bungeling Bay.

I played the Master System version next which, it has to be said, was not very good.  It could not compete with any of the 16-bit versions here and was quite basic in all areas.
The Master System is a poor mans Desert Strike.  The helicopter doesn't even have a shadow.
I really liked the look of the SNES version at first, with its nice big helicopter sprite.  I quickly realised it was only big due to the lower resolution graphics.  The display has a zoomed-in look and therefore doesn't show as much of the play area as the Mega Drive version.  Little touches are also missing such as the wake from the ship you start the game from.  Gameplay is more or less the same as the original.
Desert Strike on the SNES.  Plays pretty much the same as the Mega Drive game but at a lower resolution.
The Commodore Amiga version appeared in 1993.  To quote the manual - 'when it came to designing the Amiga version of Desert Strike there was one question on everybody's lips - what can be done to improve the game?'.  For starters they used the Extra Half-Brite Graphics mode to display 64 simultaneous colours.  Some graphics assets such buildings, targets and especially explosions have been greatly improved.  Music is better and it features sampled sound effects and speech.  The presentation is also much slicker.  The Amiga conversion does have its drawbacks though.  Firstly, the game plays a lot slower which can be a blessing or a curse depending on the situation.  There is also disk loading which is absent on the consoles.  Lastly, the controls are compromised - where the Sega controller has a multitude of buttons, an Amiga joystick has only one (or rarely two) fire buttons.  This means cycling through weapons and accessing the map are via the keyboard.
Mega Drive [left] vs Amiga.  The jets on the Sega look a bit odd to me. 
Of the above I felt the Amiga and Genesis titles came on top.  Each had its own advantages and disadvantages so I was unable to split them.


Rather than forming a coalition to send Kilbaba packing, the powers that be decided that all is needed is one man and his chopper.  Desert Strike plays over four 'campaigns' divided into several missions.  The first is called 'Air Superiority'.  Your missions here involve destroying radar sites, power station, airports, command centres, and finally picking up a secret agent.  Although the missions can be played in any order it is recommended playing in the order given as destroying the radars and power station reduces the range and accuracy of enemy anti-aircraft weapons.  The Secret Agent has copies of the Generals plans and his whereabouts is only shown after destroying the command centres and capturing the commander within.

Before you begin the game you must choose your co-pilot.  There are several to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  One is marked MIA and can be rescued during the game - he's located next to a downed aircraft on the first level.
Choosing you co-pilot on the Mega Drive [left] and Amiga [right]
I must take issue here with the sprite of your gunship.  Although the game box, manual and in-game stills reference an AH-64 Apache, the main sprite only half resembles one -  the front half.  It looks like they have grafted on the back end of an RAH-66 Comanche with the ducted fan tail rotor and high tailplane.  The Apache has a conventional tail rotor and low tailplane.  I'm guessing this was to simplify drawing the many frames of animation.

The game proper starts with your chopper sat on the back of a frigate and you must head east towards the desert.  You navigate the area by using the map / status screen.  The map shows your objectives as well as the position of ammo crates, fuel, MIAs, missile and gun emplacements.  You can also get a reminder of completed and remaining objectives.  The screen additionally displays remaining fuel, weapons and armour, lives left and the number of MIAs you are carrying.
Status screen on Mega Drive [left] and Amiga [right].
Your gunship is armed with, from least to most powerful, a chain gun with 1,178 rounds of ammunition, 38 Hydra rockets and 8 Hellfire missiles.  The weapons can be fired in the general direction of the target with the accuracy determined by your selected co-pilot.

Ammunition supplies can be replenished by collecting ammo crates that are scattered around the play area.  The finite amount of fuel you carry can be topped up in the same manner.  Fuel and ammo pickups are displayed on the map screen, even those hidden in buildings.

The enemy territory is heavily defended with Rapier surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft guns.  Tiny enemy soldiers carry rifles (they also shoot at MIAs) and portable SAMS. There are also mobile VDAs (armoured vehicles carrying AA guns) roaming the map.  Every hit reduces the armour on your helicopter - you get a buzzer (Mega Drive) or warning speech (Amiga) when it gets too low.  Armour is also depleted if you fly into rock outcrops, high buildings, power lines and other tall structures - the chopper flies at fixed altitude so you can't fly over them.

Armour can be increased by picking up MIAs that are dispersed around the map and taking them to a dropzone. Six MIAs can be wedged into the Apache at one time.  Very rarely armour pickups can be found (usually hidden in buildings).  These pickups do not show up on the map.
Rescuing some MIAs and dropping them off at the LZ for more amour (Amiga)

Once a set of missions has been completed it is back to the frigate for the next level.  Your Apache is limited to three 'lives' which are replenished after each campaign.  You also get a password so there is no need to start from scratch.
Stormin' Norman sets out your objectives for the second campaign (Mega Drive)
And the further you get the tougher the enemies (Mega Drive)

There's a lot to like about Desert Strike whichever version you choose to play.  The handling and momentum feel just right as does the camera which always has the helicopter facing into the screenIt would be fun as just a straight shooter but the limited fuel, weapons and armour adds some strategy.  An excellent game all round.


Gameplay from the Mega Drive

 

I had a hard time getting Amiga gameplay to look okay on YouTube but here's my best effort (it looks better in reality)



Monday, 1 May 2017

Defenders of Oasis - Sega Game Gear - 1992



It can safely be said that I'm not a fan of mobile gaming.  I have never been tempted to download a game to my phone and the only portable system I have is a barely used Nintendo DS Lite I won many years ago in a competition.  Until I started Defenders of Oasis I didn't think a mobile system would appear on my blog and I certainly didn't think a Game Gear was capable of running a surprisingly good JRPGAs soon as the game comes on it starts telling the back story.

Long ago the world was terrorisd by Ahriman, the Wizard of Darkness. Ahriman was finally defeated by a hero called Jamseed and sealed away using three rings given to him by the Wizard of Light. Although stripped of his power, Ahriman sent his servant, Snake King Zahhark to attack the kingdom of Shanadar which was founded by Jamseed.  Jamseed was defeated and the world was once again plunged into an age of darkness. After 1,000 years a new hero called Fallidoon appeared and defeated Zahhark bringing about a new age of peace. When these events were all but forgotten, the evil Empire of Eflaat rose up and once again Shanadar is threatened....

The game begins with you controlling the unnamed prince of Shanadar, a descendant of Jamseed. On this day Shanadar is due to be visited by the princess from the kingdom of Mahamood. A cut scene has the king telling you to escort the princess from the dock back to the castle.

The first thing that struck me was the quality of the graphics. Bearing in mind the original hardware, I was expecting big blocky graphics, but they were well detailed and colourful, even on a large screen. Gameplay is cut from the same cloth as Dragon Quest and practically every other JRPG in between - a top down tiled view with random encounters and turn-based combat.

I took the opportunity to wander around town which was a bit depressing as the townsfolk do not hold a very high opinion of the prince. I visited the weapon and armour stores but couldn't afford anything with my 200 dinar, but bought some herbs, holy herb and snake act from the goods shop. I then headed off to the docks only to find the princess missing. She turned up in the tavern being accosted by some ruffians. 

This introduced combat, which is the usual JRPG turn based fight. Winning the combat gave me some more dinar and enough experience to go up a level, which increased some of my stats. It's than back to the castle for a rest.

During the night Shanadar is attacked by the Empire of Eflaat and the castle put under siege. The King says you should take the Princess and escape to Mahamood. He also gives you a ring.

You are met at the port by the traitorous General Kohle who was offered the kingship for betraying Shanadar. The ensuing battle is unwinnable as Kohle was given a magic sword by the emperor which causes you to faint with one blow.

It's down to the resistance to save your arse and you come to in the their hideout. The leader says you need to get the lamp from the treasury in order to defeat Kohle. It turns out the lamp contains a genie who once served Jamseed – my first party member. 


The Genie is the only member of the party who can use magic. He is also the only member of the party who can't level up. His attributes can be raised by equipping with various items bought or found throughout the game. Hemp, for example, increases his magic points, gilding increases hit points and crystal increases defence. These items are rarely found and are expensive in the shops.

We seek out Kohle and use the spell Varyu to stop him using the magical powers of the sword. He is still a strong enemy but was easily beaten. With Imperial reinforcements on their way we hop on a ship and set sail for Mahamood.

The general plot involves finding all the Rings of Light before the bad guys destroy them and allow Ahriman to regain his full power.  I will note my thoughts below....

  • I pick up my second party member, Saleem, when we stop off at an island to collect some fresh water. Saleem is the captains son. The captain gives us some money to buy water, but when we return to the ship it has been boarded by Ahriman's elite troops. They kill the captain and take the ship and the princess leaving us stranded on the island. It is here the Genie gains the Raag spell which can teleport us between known locations.  This avoids cramming in an overworld map onto the Game Gear cartridge.  It also shows your progress as the destinations grow.

  • The Genie starts with three spells but more are collected by reading inscriptions on walls.  One gripe is the nonsensical names given to the spells which means you have to refer to the manual.  Not ideal when gaming on the go.
Why can't you just call it "Lightning"

  • Our fourth party member is Agmar the thief.  We find him in a prison cell after falling through a trap door in a dungeonFortunately the Genie has the Kshasla spell at this point which can get us through the locked door. 
  • Apart from the normal combat moves each character has a their own special ability.  The Prince can use 'Run' to escape fights and the Genie can cast magic.  Saleem can use 'Dance' in which he attacks all enemies but causes less damage than targeting a single one.  Agmar can use his turn to 'Hide'.  On his next turn he can use 'Assault' to cause more damage to an enemy.
  • There are many useful items that can be found during the course of the adventure.  Most are described in the manual and throughout the game, but there are few that have to experimented with to find their use.  You inventory seems unlimited with the amount of different items you can carry, but you are only able to hold up to 9 items of each type.
  • There is decent music playing constantly during the game. Sound effects are limited to a few bleeps and a couple of undecipherable speech samples.
  • One plot point I didn't like (and I seem to remember something similar happening in Final Fantasy II) is that once you gather all the quest items - rings in this case - one of Ahriman's generals simply takes them off you without you putting up a fight.  He proceeds to burn them, releasing Ahriman.
Little does he know the ashes still have some power...

...and neither does Ahriman.

Despite being a relatively simple JRPG, I really enjoyed Defenders of Oasis.  It's not a game that requires lots of grinding - I did a bit to get better weapons but character stats are limited to 99 points so you can't go on levelling forever.  The economy is also good - once you have the best weapons and armour there are still silks and gilding to buy for the genie at several thousand dinars a pop.  The graphics are well drawn and colourful. I played the game in bite-size chunks (as a mobile game would normally be).  It doesn't have a huge overworld so travelling between towns is accomplished using the Raag spellThis is good as a lot of JRPGs over stay their welcome by being unnecessarily long with random combats becoming a chore.  The Arabian theme also made a nice change from the usual fantasy settings.

The End....
And finally a JRPG where the ultimate boss has only one form

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Dark Queen of Krynn - PC (MS-DOS) - 1992


As I've said before, the longer the Gold Box series of games have gone on, the weaker they seem to have become.  They certainly started well enough with Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, but none of the subsequent games have managed to match them.  Maybe the developers got lazy (it certainly seems so with Secret of the Silver Blades).  Maybe it's more rewarding finding your first +1 sword, being able to afford your first set of plate mail, or casting your first fireball than it is to start a game with god-like warriors.  Whatever the reason, my initial interest in the series has certainly gone off the boil. This culminated in Pools of Darkness which I could not bring myself to finish.  Combat was eminently frustrating and mainly decided on which side cast the first spell.  As my mages had a dexterity of less than 18, I lost out on initiative most of the time.  Having to get rid of your best weapons to cross the planes was the final straw.  I knocked that game on the head.

With the Forgotten Realms games out of the way it's time to return to the Dragonlance setting for the final game in the Krynn series.  In The Dark Queen of Krynn the combat is still challenging but a lot fairer than Pools.  Your characters will be turned to stone, disintegrated and level drained on a regular basis.  They will often be sliced and diced by blade barriers and barbecued by a barrage of delayed blast fireballs.  Even so, the enemy still feels beatable in fights where you are not first off the mark.  And you can keep your good gear.

In a change of format I am playing this game on the PC.  Where there is not much to choose between the sound (what little there is), the PC graphics are displayed in 256 colour VGA.  The Amiga is stuck with 16 colour graphics.
You can show me your wares anytime, love.

To this end I recreated my party from the last game using the modify function to replicate their stats.  For the first time in a Gold Box game you do not have the option to create a custom avatar.  Instead you are given a selection of 49 pre-drawn characters to choose from.


The manual starts with a letter from General Lauralanthalasa summoning you to the city of Palanthas.  This is a menu town where you can go straight to the palace or visit the temple, training hall, shop, inn or bar.


At the palace the General says there have been reports of Draconians gathering in the south.  She urges you to travel to Caergoth to see if the reports are true (won't be much of a game if they're not).

You arrive to find Caergoth a smouldering pile of rubble.  Evidence points to the attack being carried out by draconians and blue dragons.  Indeed, the first encounter is with two blue and one green dragon.  The draconians have already departed taking Crysia, the sister of a sea captain, with them.  You set sail with Captain Daenor in hot pursuit.  I don't remember there being an option to return to Palanthas to report your findings to the General.

I will note my thoughts below.....


  • While chasing the draconians and Crysia your ship is wrecked in a storm.  You wind up in a city of Sea Elves as it is under attack from various sea monsters.  This offers an interesting twist in combats as your movement is slowed, missile weapons are unusable and some spells (such as fireballs) won't work.  The most reliable spell is magic missile which doesn't always affect Sea Dragons.
Underwater combat requires a change of tactics

  • As with all Gold Box games the economy is broken.  From the outset you can pick up pocketfuls of coins, gems and jewellery but there is simply nowhere to spend it.  Inns are free, training is free, and most shops sell items no better than those you start with.
There is more treasure in this one haul than I spent in the entire game.

  • I don't know why they bothered to include the Area command.  It only worked in a few places at the beginning of the game.
  • I had to consult a map a couple of times.  The first was after I spent hours fighting gorgons, beholders, iron golems and countless giant spiders to get to the top of the Luminari Lighthouse.  Once there I was confronted with a dead end.  The map showed a teleporter deviously hidden behind a false wall at the bottom of the tower.  I'm not even sure the Lighthouse was necessary to complete the main quest anyway, even though the plot pointed you in that direction.
  • The 3D window contains more detailed graphics than ever before.  However, mapping takes longer as it's not always clear which way passages go from a distance.
  • I encountered an annoying situation/bug in Hawkbluff Tower.  I got into a random battle with enemies behind a wall with no way to reach them.  Grunschka, an NPC that I can mostly control, was played automatically so it took ages for the battle to resolve itself even after I had made the rest of the party flee.
  • Go to spells in this game were Delayed Blast Fireballs and Haste.  Haste ages your characters by a year each time it is cast.  By the end of the game Crockett and Lumley were 64 years old, while Carraway and Hazel were 383.  It didn't seem to hamper them in combat. 
  • Another strange thing happened when exploring Hawkbluff Tower.  While mapping the maze-like levels the game displayed an unexpected message after finding book...

It may not appear strange but I hadn't met anyone called Davik.  I marked the location on my map and reloaded in case this message was a game breaker.  I later found Davik in the dungeons.  A similar thing happened in Champions of Krynn where the game expected me to do things in a certain order.
  • There is a large overworld map covering two screens.  Two places you need to visit are not marked (one I stumbled across, the other I had to look up).  Another location I couldn't get to as I was beaten back by hidden bowmen.

  • I would have needed a dictionary to play this back in the day.  Lissome?  Fule?  Immolate?
  • Invisibility doesn't seem to work.  Casting Mass Invisibility on your party seems to have no effect.  Even characters wearing a Ring of Invisibility are targeted as if they were in full sight.
  • As mentioned, combat is a lot more difficult in this game (although not as bad as Pools of Darkness).  The Draconians have been made much more powerful since Champions of Krynn. For example, below is the start of one of the tougher fights.
o   The Enchanted Kapak Draconians are the least powerful and just leave some pools of acid behind when they are killed.  The acid damages both the party and other Draconians.
o   Enchanted Sivak Draconians like to get in close and explode when killed.  Any party member within two squares take a lot of damage.  Other Draconians are not harmed.
o  The green Enchanted Bozaks ‘zap’ anyone who hits them with a melee weapon.  Hasted characters can take a lot of damage this way.  When they die they explode harming any non-draconian within two squares.  They can also cast magic spells such as Lightning Bolts.
o   Enchanted Auraks seem to have two lives.  The first time their Hit Points reach zero they ‘Go mad’.  This causes them to ‘immolate’, sometimes damaging nearby party members.  The second time they lose their Hit Points they 'Rise in a new form' and continue to ‘immolate’ but are unable to move.  After a couple more rounds they explode harming any adjacent PC.  They can also cast spells, favouring Delayed Blast Fireballs.

On top of this, Draconians are somewhat immune to magic.  On average an area effect spell such as Delayed Blast Fireball damages only about 50% of them.  Targeted spells such as Magic Missiles do not always work.   This particular battle took a few reloads.  My best result was one dead character, one unconscious character and one surviving Gnome out of six.  It didn't help that my spellcasters started closest to the enemy.  Long before this fight most of my party were ready for levelling with no training hall in sight.


As the plot moves on you come to realise that the various cities are being infiltrated by Draconians, with the shape-shifters replacing each King with one of their own.  Liberating the Gnomish city of Aldinanchru allowed us to use their windships to cross the lava sea to reach the Draconian power base - The Tower of Flame.

When traversing the Tower of Flame the game likes to tell you which level you are on and prompts you to press return every step.  Every. Single. Step.  
This isn't going to get annoying.
At the end of the Tower of Flame are two consecutive battles (no chance to save or rest between).  The battles are tough and after the second one you step into the Abyss.  Why?  I don't know - I didn't have a choice.
Thank you.

The Abyss appears to be empty in all directions and I encountered some tough monsters.  It took a couple of reloads to work out where I was supposed to go which was a square building.  I found some dude called Raistlin Majere chained up and there was another combat.  This time magic did not work and enemies included Enchanted Sivak and Bozak Draconians.  Going toe to toe would have been suicide so I kept moving away (risking their free hits) and peppered them with my meagre supply of missile weapons.  Raistlin explained that the evil god Takhisis had created a portal between the Abyss and Krynn in order to wreak havoc.  The portal could only be used once and would then close.  Again it was out into the emptiness and with no clue which way to go I headed north.  After a while Raistlin (un)helpfully said I should I should go east.  I got there just in time to see Takhisis disappearing into the portal.
A right little ray of sunshine you are.

The second attempt didn't end too well either.  I took a wrong option somewhere.  Takhisis saw us and killed our arses.

I finally managed to get through the portal but took a lot of damage on the way.  I thought now we had trapped Takhisis in the Abyss the game would end but not so.  I was a bit confused over what happened next.  We met a bunch of gnomes standing around the 'Grathanich' (whatever that is).  They said they would guard us while we rested but they ran off after the Grathanich when it sunk through the floor.  Meanwhile we were left facing a five-headed dragon.  Tahkisis intended to to use the dragon to receive her spirit when she came to Krynn.  It went down quite easily due to the Dragonlance that Crockett was wielding.

After winning that battle I was stuck as to what to do.  After wandering around aimlessly for a while I came across some Draconians communicating with Takhisis via a mirror.


After wandering around some more I gave up and looked at a walkthrough. It seems the Grathanich doesn't re-appear until triggered by an encounter with another bunch of Draconians in a specific place, which doesn't make sense to me.  Where was it in the meantime?  

Anyhow, you encounter the Draconians trying to encase the Grathanich in an iron ball.

 
After three consecutive battles against Draconians and Dragons, the Grathanich ends up lost at the bottom of the lava sea.

You are then whisked back to Aldinanachru where it's time to paaartay.

Unfortunately it gets crashed by some dragons we helped earlier.

Another battle ensues against a dozen or so dragons.  Although Hazel had died at the Tower of Flame and couldn't be resurrected I managed to beat them on my second go.  Just two characters were (barely) left standing and the game was won. 

    
The Dark Queen of Krynn has been criticised for being buggy and a combat-centric hack n’ slash affair.  Personally I didn’t encounter any game breaking bugs and the turn-based combat is one of the series strong points.  There is a varied array of enemies from Black Puddings to Zombie Mintotaurs and whole bunch in between.  Having underwater combat and fights with no magic helps mix things up.  Some fights were difficult (especially towards the end), but the outcome didn’t necessarily rely on who had the initiative which was the main issue I had with Pools of DarknessThe plot is pretty mundane and there is some padding (eg. Luminari Lighthouse, Hulderfolk Wood, consecutive battles) but overall I liked this game a lot.  A fitting climax to the Krynn series.