Silpheed

Silpheed was the second Game Arts release to be brought over to DOS by Sierra coming out in 1989. It’s a shoot em up consisting of 20 levels of 3D-ish arcade space shooting action. As with Thexder, it originally came out for the PC-8801 a few years earlier before Sierra got the rights to port it. It’s a game I already know well enough but I wanted to try it out on the Tandy anyway.

There is the usual quality Sierra box art even if the version of the game I have is the cheaper re-release. I do have some of the innards of the original release on the right with the more colourful disks and manual.

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The manual does actually tell you the story this time but it’s about as generic as they get. The evil bad guy, Xacalite, has stolen a super powerful spaceship called Gloire and will use it to destroy civilisation as we know it unless you fly a prototype spaceship to stop him. It’s a SHMUP, how much plot do you need anyway?

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The game starts will some utterly incomprehensible speech through the PC speaker as the villain of the piece presents himself as a giant disembodied head. This speech is not improved in the slightest on the Tandy. Later versions would add much-needed subtitles which I didn’t have here. It’s so bad I would imagine early players may well have not realised it was sampled speech in the first place.

The graphics at least are presented well enough in Tandy mode looking barely any different from what I’m used to playing in MCGA. Silpheed is a sort of vertically scrolling shooter but with the axis tilted to give a 3D effect, similar to Mode 7 on the SNES. It’s not especially smooth but the graphics were decent in their day and the sprites all scale as they move around.

Where Silpheed has always stood out for me, is the excellent music which translated brilliantly to all of the early PC soundcards. On the Tandy, it’s still not bad for what it is although it does lose much of the impact. The shooting is still PC speaker beeps but at least it’s more consistent with the music playing it this way.

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The gameplay is straightforward enough. There are a handful of powerups in the levels which can be used to speed up, auto fire, create a barrier to enemy fire or power up your weapons. Silpheed is equipped with a shield which ticks down one notch at a time when you get hit. Once it’s gone, the next two hits will damage one of your subsystems (weapon or engine) and after the third it’s game over. Thankfully, all versions allow the player to restart from the last level played making Silpheed far less hardcore a game than Thexder. In fact, it’s quite an easy shooter as these things go and I can easily play through most of it normally.

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Every 50,000 points gets you a new weapon to pick from before beginning the next level. The only ones I ever really use given the choice are the automatic aim particle guns and the forward firing lasers which are useful in the fortress levels and final level of the game.

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There are about 30 enemy types that come in a wave at a time in predefined patterns + several types of boss ship at the end of each of the levels. You really don’t need to memorise the patterns in this game as it’s quite forgiving and the patterns such as they are, get reused for the various enemy types. The Tandy version can be a little harder though, especially on the planet missions as the colour scheme goes an eyestraining red and blue making it difficult to pick anything out. I gather that they didn’t use the white as there are some graphical tricks going on to speed everything up.

I did a DOSBox longplay of this on YouTube years back (part one of which is above) for anyone wanting to see the whole game. Silpheed is still fun but I can’t say it’s anything too special. The main thing it has going for it over other shooters are it’s accessibility (ironic given how tough Thexder was), and the awesome soundtrack on the MT-32. This was one of the first games I remember playing on a SoundBlaster and after many years of nothing but beeping speakers it blew me away. When I eventually got an MT-32, it only got better still.

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The Tandy does it’s best but Silpheed doesn’t have quite the same appeal when the music is coming through a 3 channel PC speaker set up. It didn’t seem to run quite as well either and I actually struggled to finish the last level. I didn’t ever seem to have any chance to dodge the lasers on the last boss. Booting with the CPU at the slower speed solved this ultimately but kind of feels like cheating. I have no idea what the target CPU was.

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While I was at it, I had a quick blast through the IIGS port. This is considerably more colourful and has music nearly matching the MT-32 without the need for any extra hardware. Where it suffers is a complete lack of planet graphics and it’s really slow (much slower than the slowed down Tandy was). This port is also particularly easy due to a ridiculously high refire rate. You can blast through some levels just by sitting in the front middle of the screen holding down the fire button. It also lacked all the ending graphics when I beat it but the rest of the cutscenes were there.

I still like Silpheed but I can’t really recommend it as there are just so many better options available. The soundtrack is what keeps me coming back and the game is easy enough to not outstay its welcome without ever offering all that much challenge. The FMV packed Mega-CD version looks like it would be more up my street but I’ll leave that for another day.

A game that is offering me a challenge is Thexder 2, which I’m about halfway through. Should I ever finish it, that will probably be coming up next.

Thexder

The next game I’ve picked out from the pile is Thexder, a 1987 release from Sierra which originally came out in Japan on the PC-88 in 1985 via Game Arts.  Sierra would go on to publish ports of several more of their games in the 80’s but this was the one that started the ball rolling.

I seem to be playing more than my share of Sierra games but I’ve been looking for Tandy compatible titles and most of the good ones seem to come from Sierra. They more than any other company were flying the flag for PC gamers throughout the 80’s, long before it became a mainstream gaming platform. This was presumably much to the detriment of sales on systems like the Amiga where games like Space Quest II weren’t exactly stretching the hardware in the same way as Defender of the Crown, despite both being released in the same year. The Japanese PC gaming market on the other hand had the likes of the PC-88 with an actual sound chip and better graphics. Sierra’s port  may have been 2 years later than the original version but it was still a step down in hardware terms.

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The box is the typical Sierra affair and makes a big deal on the back of the merits of Japanese arcade games. The manual is actually a folded up poster with a map of the first level on one side and installation/play instructions on the other. I can only assume the plotline was lost in translation as it is barely hinted upon. You control the only Thexder in existence, a dual-armour robot-jet transformer armed with heat seeking lasers. The aim is to destroy the central computer on level 16 of the Forbidden Zone. Why you need to do this or where this Forbidden Zone is we will never know as that is as much plot as we get.

My original plan was to play the DOS version on my Tandy since it has a lot going for it on the Tandy with better graphics and music support. After trying a couple of ports out, I went for the IIGS instead which is a little more colourful, has better audio and most usefully allows you to load from the start of the last level completed. The PC version did appear to be slightly easier but it has you play through the whole game in one life. It’s difficult enough as it is without having to keep starting over.

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The IIGS version has a slightly nicer title screen than the Tandy, still lacking the animated sky from the PC-88 mind you. It also has some sampled Japanese speech which I don’t understand any of except the word Thexder.

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The audio reverts into English when starting the level with an unenthusiastic “Warning. Intruder.” and the action starts. The game is essentially a side scrolling action platformer in which you simply have to get to the end of each level. There are several things that make it unique, not least the transforming robot you control which can shape shift into a jet and fly around unconfined by gravity.

When in jet mode, firing your laser works as you might expect in any game with the laser coming straight out in the direction you are facing. When in robot form, it quickly cycles between any targets on screen in front of the player. This is both curse and blessing as you can automatically hit from very acute angles but have no control over which enemy is targeted first. If some enemies are behind a wall, your laser will try to hit them anyway wasting your energy and giving enemies you can see a chance to close in.

Another highly unusual feature is that none of the enemies move as soon as they go off screen. This may dampen the realism, such as it is, but you would be constantly swarmed otherwise. Enemies will continue draining your shields as long as you are touching them in this game and getting surrounded is a death sentence.

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Firing lasers or getting hit drains your energy. If it drops to zero, it’s game over and believe me this will happen a lot. You do have some shields which can be activated to make you invulnerable until they run out (at the cost of 10 energy) but this removes the 100 points energy bonus you receive at the end of every level prior to using it. You start each new level in the same shape as you finished the last otherwise and will need this bonus to stand much chance. In other words, you don’t ever want to use the shield except maybe when first learning a route around a level.

There are about 20 enemy types that usually try to move directly toward the player but they have certain patterns like only moving diagonally. All of them have a tendency to get stuck on walls and a staple tactic of Thexder is to lure hordes of these to a narrow entrance so they all get stuck together and then shoot them as a jet from the other side.

Some enemies raise your energy when destroyed, a handful even increasing the maximum percentage you can store (up to a max of 500) but there is never enough energy available. This has to be one of the harder games I’ve ever attempted to play and around level 3 and 4 I was wondering if it was really worth the effort. I resorted to looking a couple of playthroughs and the enemies in this IIGS version seem to be a whole lot less sticky than others, honing in more quickly on the player. However, I did discover that holding down space (at least on the IIGS) causes the player to stop wherever they are after a couple of seconds. Since the jet mode causes the player to constantly move forward otherwise this allows you to hover taking out advancing enemies. This made a massive difference although I do wonder if it was intentional or not since I’ve not seen it in other ports.

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Once I’d learned this trick, Thexder got a whole lot easier after level 4 until I got quite near the end. Some levels are even repeated with slightly harder enemies, meaning I already knew the best route before I started. The numbers of enemies seriously stacks up in later levels with the game able to handle 30-40 at once. The screen above has a whole tank of them that fall on top of unwary players destroying the one block holding them up. It’s the open areas that are the real killers though where it’s much tougher to control the enemy movement. I only got through levels 14 and 15 with use of the shield and really didn’t have much energy left by level 16.

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Just as well for me, the final level is a simple blow everything up affair with no real opposition. There is a tile graphic representation of the central computer to shoot, then the game loops back to level two. Not getting an actual ending is a big letdown after a couple of weeks of effort to beat this game but not all that unusual for the time.

It took a while to warm to but I really did enjoy Thexder in the end. It’s quite slow-paced on the IIGS and is far more of a strategy game than arcade. Beating Thexder is all about working out how to get through the level without getting hit and there are usually tricks to any situation. Since enemies only move while on-screen, they can be lured out of harms way, or you can approach just far enough to get one or two on-screen at once which can be killed off before they reach you. Many of these tricks require the player to be pixel perfect though. Expect to replay levels over and over early on.  Much of each level can be bypassed when you know your way around but they do need properly exploring to find sources of energy and any secret areas (revealed by blasting away the walls).

The graphics are reasonably nice, if a little blocky and the music that there is excellent. I just wish they had changed this music every level as a brief loop is not enough for a game that takes this much time to finish. The 16 levels are huge scrolling affairs and offer a real challenge to any player. Possibly too much challenge really. I could definitely give Thexder a guarded recommendation but don’t expect it to be easy. It could really do with a slightly more modern presentation in truth which may be where the sequel comes in. I’ll definitely be playing that in the near future but will have a quick look at the next Game Arts release Silpheed first.

Escape From Monkey Island Strategy Guide

Escape From Monkey Island was the last in the long line of Lucasarts adventure games and was no doubt one of the factors in its demise. The previous entry Grim Fandango had been critically well received but was something of a commercial failure. Neither game was helped by their use of a new game engine which shelved point and click in favour of Alone In The Dark style tank controls. This was a huge step back and resulted in a control scheme that was slightly more awkward than Sierra’s AGI games had managed a decade earlier, with no benefit whatsoever for anyone playing the game on a PC. The tail end of the 90’s was an era when everything had to be in 3D no matter what though, much to the detriment of adventure games of the time.

At least Grim Fandango had a great game underneath (admittedly with a few unfair puzzles). My memories of Escape From Monkey Island are far less favourable. The humour and story were a real letdown, with much of the game rehashing tired old Monkey Island clichés and failing miserably when trying to introduce anything new. If this was where Lucasarts were heading, I should probably be thankful that Sam and Max 2 and Full Throttle 2 both ended up being cancelled.

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It did of course get a Prima strategy guide in 2000 which is what I’m supposed to be posting about here. I must have scanned this in years back and never got around to uploading it but the pdf is now available on the downloads page. I don’t normally read any of these things until I’m playing or have just played the game in question so this has been sat around unread for some time. I did have a quick flick through and while it brought back bad memories of the game, it looks to be a potentially decent read with some nice concept art, a history of the first 3 games, brief hints, an entirely useless map section, and a lengthy walkthrough (as told by Guybrush).

You can download the guide here.

Uncle Henry’s Mindblower

If anyone were to ask me what the rarest game I own is, I can think of a few possible answers but only one of those passed so far under the radar as to seemingly carry no market value despite being from a famous developer. That game is Uncle Henry’s Mindblower, also known as Uncle Henry’s Playhouse outside of Europe.

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This was the fourth game from Trilobyte Software who had hit the big time immediately with their first release. The 7th Guest, perhaps more than any other game, sold the CD-ROM format to PC gamers in the early 90’s. It also had all the tropes of that wave of FMV games with simplistic puzzle based gameplay tied together by all the video but this was cutting edge stuff at the time and players lapped it up in large numbers. In a dual pack with Dune, it was the first game I ever bought and played on a CD drive.

The inevitable sequel arrived in the form of The 11th Hour which used near enough the same formula but upped the technology stakes being the first game I ever saw to run video at 30fps. This sold well but considerably less so than The 7th Guest.

Not to be put off, Trilobytes third game rehashed the exact same formula but no one really cared at this point and Clandestiny would only sell in tiny numbers and not that many people have even heard of it. This should really have been the end of it but Trilobytes next game (Tender Loving Care) was costing so much to produce that they needed a cash injection which is where Mindblower comes in.

Getting this game running these days is not all that simple. It refused to run on anything newer than Windows 98 and even then glitched if I didn’t use an older graphics card. I needed to find a patch on the web to get it to start at all even on a period appropriate PC and when you finally do get it to run, the speed of some of the animations is all over the place. Don’t even think about running a screen capture program at the same time either or it’s instant blue screen of death. Sorry but that means more photos of CRT’s which are becoming a staple of this blog.

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Uncle Henry’s Mindblower runs with Trilobytes existing formula of puzzle based gameplay, except it does away with all the FMV parts which were of course the main motivations for playing their games in the first place.

The game sees the player presented with a doll house crafted by Henry Stauf, the evil toy maker of The 7th Guest himself. Each of the rooms in the doll house contains a puzzle from the earlier games. Beat all 12 of these and you are rewarded with a 13th original puzzle in the attic. The selection of puzzles is mixed with some easy and some more challenging but anyone who has played Trilobytes previous games will of course breeze through all of them.

The animation is mercifully quicker than I remember in The 7th Guest so when moving chess pieces around, there isn’t a huge wait. The whole presentation is considerably less slick however given the highly variable frame rate that all these animations play at.

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There are no videos for walking around the doll house in this game. Instead nearly all the FMV is saved for adverts for Trilobytes earlier games + a couple of mentions of their forthcoming titles, Tender Loving Care and the never to be released Dog Eat Dog. These adverts are stored in a book menu system which also has the instructions for each puzzle.

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It took all of about 30 minutes at most to play through to the final puzzle. This offers something new at least and involves guiding Stauf around the doll house into the same room as each other guest one by one. When you find/murder each guest another door opens somewhere else. This puzzle is simply about doing everything in the correct order so that you don’t get trapped.

I can’t say this took all that long to solve either and the presentation was extremely basic with little cardboard cutouts representing each character. It’s a step back from anything in The 7th Guest from 4 years earlier.

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Once beaten the dollhouse bursts into flame and there is brief mention that The 7th Guest 3 is coming soon and that’s it. I gather 7th Guest 3 was to be pushed into production to be a further money spinner for the struggling studio but the game would never see the light of day either.

Given all the advertising it contains and the reuse of assets, Uncle Henry’s Mindblower comes across as more of a demo/sampler disc to drum up interest in The 7th Guest. On that level it would be passable if it were given away with magazines but this cost £15 to buy which is presumably why so few people took Trilobyte up on the offer.

As such, if it’s famous for anything (which it isn’t), Uncle Henry’s Mindblower is possibly the biggest failure in PC gaming history allegedly selling 27 copies in the US and 176 copies worldwide which is where the rarity stems from. I’ve little doubt that many more copies were manufactured and have found their way into circulation since of course but there still can’t be many of them about. Value is about both supply and demand of course and in this case the demand isn’t there. My copy was all of £1 in an open Ebay auction a few years back and having now finally played it for the first time, I’m not so sure it was worth it.

I dug around in some magazines to see what the opinion at the time was like. It wasn’t a game to warrant a full review by the looks of it, only getting a mention in the minor releases. PC Zone were never one to hold back on their opinion and gave it a pasting in their August 97 issue:-

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The slightly more refrained folks at PC Format were equally scathing in September 1997:-

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And those were all the mentions I could find at all. Trilobyte wouldn’t publish another game after this, although Tender Loving Care would see a release by Afterdawn a year or two down the line. Trilobyte did resurface in recent years with a failed 7th Guest 3 kickstarter and releasing some of their earlier games on smartphones. There is still fun to be had with those earlier games and I do have a nostalgic affection towards The 7th Guest, whatever it’s shortcomings. Uncle Henry’s Mindblower has not received a modern port and for now at least remains mercifully and deservedly forgotten.

Playing Wing Commander 4 DVD The Old Fashioned Way

As something of a follow-up to my attempts to get Wing Commander 1 running on an ancient Tandy, I thought I shouldn’t neglect what was for a long time my Wing Commander game of choice, Wing Commander 4. The only version ever sold in stores was on CD-ROM’s but in the mid to late 90’s, Creative released a bundle with a 2x DVD drive, MPEG-2 decoder and best of all a DVD-enhanced edition of Wing Commander 4. This bundle was the only way to get hold of this DVD as it was never made available in any other way that I’m aware of.

I seem to recall that I already owned the rest of the equipment at the time but still wanted that DVD enough to buy the whole package when my first DVD drive bit the dust. The hardware is long gone but I do still have the DVD in its unassuming packaging. It’s a single layer DVD but is a flippy disk with the video on both sides. Any earlyish adopters of the DVD format will remember movies coming on these flippy disks and you had to get up and flip the disk half way through the movie.

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Before I get going, I should point out that this is basically a pointless exercise since thanks to the hard work of various people over at the WC CIC, the DVD version is already available to play through GOG. Of course all that ease of setup and convenience wouldn’t be the authentic 90’s experience so with that in mind my aim was to get it running on something approaching the original hardware. Step one was a trip to Ebay to buy one of these:-

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This is a Sigma Designs REALMagic Hollywood Plus DVD Decoder. In the 90’s PC’s were simply not powerful enough to decode a DVD on the fly so they needed dedicated cards just for this one task. Creative’s variant was called the DXR-2 but used the same chip if I recall correctly so it’s the same card to all intents and purposes.

Something I didn’t recall until after I’d got the card was that it needs a special cable to operate correctly. The way these worked in that you would pass the video out from your VGA card into the decoder card with a cable, then connect your monitor directly to the DVD decoder. When doing any DVD decoding, the VGA card would render anything else on the screen leaving an empty box for the video which would then be layered over the top when the signal reached the decoder card. Early 3D cards worked the same way and I’m sure I had to loop my video signal through 3 cards at some point in the 90’s which didn’t do a whole lot for picture quality. These cables are completely non standard but I had a search in my big bag of old cables and lucked across exactly what I needed.

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Getting everything installed then was relatively easy. I’ve already got a Windows 98/DOS PC for just this sort of thing. I did have to swap out the CD-ROM for a DVD drive ruining the beige aesthetic but this PC will never be a thing of beauty. Tracking down some drivers for the decoder was simple enough so I soon had that set up.

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Getting the DVD version to run was slightly tricky. It’s Windows only and refuses to start at all unless your desktop is in 640×480 in 16 bit colour. Of course the readme file neglects to mention this whatsoever. When I figured that much out, the video ran fine but the game would give a DirectDraw error as soon as the spaceflight sections started.

I’ve got 2 video cards in this PC, a Voodoo 3 and an older PCI Trio64 card. I can choose which I want to use by swapping the BIOS over to use AGP or PCI for graphics. The reasons I have 2 cards are firstly because the VFX-1 headset is extremely picky and on the rare occasions it gets used I have to be using the PCI card. Secondly, a whole lot of old software doesn’t like using the Voodoo 3 as it’s just a little too new for it. Usually it would be display corruption rather than actual errors but in this case, swapping to the PCI card fixed the problem and I could finally shoot down a few pirates in WC4.

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So what’s it actually look like? Well, the DVD video quality isn’t too bad at all off the Hollywood Plus and looks much like any DVD player. It’s a far cry from a modern Blu-ray though and has a visible wobble that is hard to describe. It was impressive enough back when the only competition was VHS but considerably less so these days. I seem to remember it working far better through a TV. The decoder has a tv-out for this purpose and I used to watch the video parts of WC4 on my TV while playing the game on my monitor when I first got this. I do like playing these low resolution games on a CRT but it’s only the gameplay segments that benefit here so that was no doubt the way to go back when everything I owned was in my bedroom. The TV is a bit too far away to try that these days.

As ever when I start playing WC4, I didn’t want to stop at any rate and it somehow feels more correct playing it with a creaking 90’s Thrustmaster joystick. If all we had was the CD-ROM version to play these days, this process would definitely be worth the effort. As it is, I do like using the original hardware when possible but for 99.9% of people I’m sure you are better off sticking with the GOG version.

There were a handful of other DVD-enhanced games and I also had these in mind when I was getting this set up. Especially Tex Murphy – Overseer which doesn’t have a decent method of being run on modern hardware that I’m aware of and I’ve not played it for some years as a result. Other than that, the only other DVD game that springs to mind is Zork – Grand Inquisitor which I’ve not had the chance to try at all as of yet. DVD technology arrived slightly too late for the FMV crazed mid 90’s or I expect more games would have seen DVD releases.