Descent Reviews

As I suspected, the UK press liked Descent a whole lot more than I did with all of the reviews I found scoring around 90%. The bulb on my scanner has gone so it’s photos only I’m afraid until I get it fixed/replaced. I’ve uploaded the images unaltered so everything should be just about legible.

The first is a matter of fact review from the April 1995 PC Review:-

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Next, the March 1995 PC Format describing Descent as the first game to better Doom:-

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This is the harshest of the reviews at 89% from the March 1995 PC Gamer:-

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It scored 94% in the April 1995 PC Zone write-up, featuring an alleged guest appearance by David Hasselhoff:-

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And finally by request, here is a review for Descent 2 from the April 1996 PC Zone:-

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Descent

VR has been hitting the headlines again recently with the release of the PlayStation VR not so long back and it made me realise that I’ve not made use of it’s 90’s equivalent in a year or two, the VFX-1. There aren’t a whole load of supported games to pick from, so I went for one of the more obvious choices Descent.

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Descent was originally released in 1995 in the wave of Doom clones that was hitting around then. Its twist on the genre was to allow full freedom of movement in all directions making for quite a unique experience to this day. It’s a game I already know fairly well having played it back at the time but I’ve never spent much time on it in VR.

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First as always, the plot. At some time in the future, a virus has taken over the robots being used to mine resources on the various planets and moons of the solar system. These robots have turned on their creators and started producing more deadly robots of their own. This threat could soon spread to Earth if nothing is done so for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the player is drafted in by the bureaucratic PTC mining corporation to go in single handed and blow up the reactors in all of these mines destroying them entirely and shutting down the threat. This story is told with a static screen intro overlaid with text. Each mission then has a little briefing text before you start to advance the plot. I’m usually all for a storyline in my games but none of this adds anything in particular. It’s nice that the developers appear to have put a little effort but in truth the game would have better off taking Doom’s approach and ignoring it.

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The basic gameplay formula is certainly pure Doom. In essence, blast your way through 30 levels, finding the 3 coloured keycards to get access to wherever you need to go. There is a boss of sorts at the end of every level in the shape of the reactor which doesn’t move but will shoot red spheres at you. The levels are huge and sprawling and the complete antithesis of your modern FPS where the player is led through the map. You should fully expect to get lost when playing Descent but there is a confusing 3D automap to help guide you back to the right path.

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The control system is quite something to get your head around with a myriad of different weapons and options. It is fully redefinable but will still take some getting used to whatever you go far. The control system is more comparable to the lights of Tie Fighter than Doom really with steering the ship best done with a joystick since this is part flight sim. It’s also part FPS and as such has strafe controls but this time you get four of them since you can also go up and down. Not to mention rolling left and right if you don’t want to end up with the ceiling underneath you. Navigating a 3D map is hard enough without having to cope with being upside down.

The ship has independent energy and missile weapons with 5 of each. None of the weapons are especially memorable if you ask me but it is important to save the heavy artillery for the tougher enemies. There are also mines to drop behind your ship which I can’t confess to ever using much when I’ve played in the past. The energy weapons draw energy from the ship which needs to be replenished by pickups off blown up enemies or by flying through a recharge station of which there is at least one on every level. Similarly shields are charged by picking up blue spheres dropped by enemies but you don’t get to charge these up any other way.

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Very strangely for a game like this, there is a lives system which is probably almost entirely ignored by anyone playing through the campaign. If you do wish to make use of it, you can restart a level from the beginning with just the basic ship loadout. All of the enemies will still be dead and if you fly back to where your ship exploded you can pick up all the gear you had before. It can act as a get out clause if you save somewhere you shouldn’t provided you can make it back to all your lost equipment of course.

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There are a wide variety of enemies in the game starting with slow moving varieties that shoot equally slow fireballs and lasers at you. It starts getting tougher when you get enemies firing missiles, especially homing missles and the Vulcan cannon firing bots that are the equivalent of Doom 2’s chaingun guy. The enemies is this game are smarter than your typical Doom enemies being able to follow you around the map and you really need to be careful when entering new areas.

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For VR, Descent uses the side by side picture approach which the VFX-1 then splits up between the two eye pieces. This loses horizontal resolution which is exactly what doesn’t suit the headset since it has far more horizontal than vertical pixels. Descent 2 would support the alternative mode with interlaced horizontal lines and looks a good deal clearer because of it. As such, I wouldn’t say my view of the world is exactly crystal clear with distant objects vanishing in a blur of giant pixels. Another quirk is that the HUD is only shown on the left window and therefore in only one eye. This does make it float above the action but causes major eye strain after a while.

It does have to be said that the 3D is very effective and does draw you into the game when you can see all the laser blasts literally getting nearer and flying past. Descent is highly playable on the VFX-1 in this respect. What doesn’t work is the automap screen which doesn’t swap the mode of the headset meaning that I have to flip up the visor and use my monitor screen to see the map. Also the head tracking doesn’t appear to work correctly only moving the view a miniscule amount.

I played as far as the end of level 7 where the first boss is encountered. This is a giant ship that keeps teleporting around a circular cavern and firing smart missiles every time it pops up. This was the final level in the demo/shareware release as I recall with a lot of the enemies and weapons held back for the later levels of the full release.

7 levels is where I stopped however. Technically Descent is really impressive but I’ve always felt it lacked the spark to make me want to keep coming back to it. I love space sims and I love Doom, this should have been a game I adore but it still leaves me a little cold. Every level is large and challenging but the gameplay gets repetitive long before you make it through the first half of the game. The whole experience lacks character for me.

This really isn’t being helped by the 90’s VR experience. I’ve played a few games on the VFX-1 with no real side effects but by the time I have played two levels of Descent on it, I’m feeling quite ill. The motion sickness induced by the full 3D environment is considerable and is combined with eyestrain because of the single eye HUD. You simply can’t play more than one level on an evening unless you are prepared to suffer for it, and Descent isn’t a good enough game to justify the pain. If there was ever a game to show why 90’s VR didn’t work out, this could be it. I’m really curious to know what the motion sickness would be like on an Oculus with a full 3D game like this.

I played a little without the headset to grab a few quick screenshots and have to say the overall experience was much improved even with the screen still split in two. There are some modern source ports available which would no doubt be a much better option for playing this than DOS. I’d no doubt more positive if I’d used one of them instead but as it is, I can’t exactly recommend Descent. There are clearly people who enjoyed it a lot more than I ever did though.

Speaking of which, I’ll dig out all the UK magazine reviews I can find around here and post them up within the next couple of days.

Demoting the BBC Master

Vecalabeth is on hold before I’d barely had chance to start as due to a couple of bugs with the Vectrex32 cartridge (including one to the firmware updating), all of the cartridges are being recalled for repair. That’s a round trip to the states and one to two weeks in the post each way. Plenty of time to play another old game or two but first I’ve got another bit of hardware to try out.

The BBC Master has made an appearance or two on this blog before, not least for a playthrough of the first couple of missions in Elite some months back. One thing that has always bugged me about it, is the fact that the Master is incompatible with a very large portion of the BBC games library, near enough all of which were originally written for the BBC Model B. I’d say about 30-40% of the games I’ve thrown at it haven’t worked and they are often the better ones for the system.

Thankfully there is now a solution and it doesn’t even cost all that much. For £20, RetroClinic.com sell a switchable operating system ROM which allows you to use a couple of variants of both the BBC Model B or the BBC Master system ROM’s. This doesn’t guarantee to get every game working since the two BBC machines are after all still different but it’s apparently near enough everything which will do for me.

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Installing is simply a case of slipping in a new chip and bolting the switch onto the case where the modem lead would be if I had one installed. It’s a very quick and easy installation process attemptable by anyone unless you are unlucky enough to have one of the few machines with a soldered in ROM chip. What took me far longer was figuring out how to get my SD drive working in Model B mode (Tip: *CARD on the command line swaps you from the disk drive to the SD card).

With that worked out, my BBC has now run every game I’ve tried on it and I’ve been having a great time trying some of them out. It’s a system with a bad reputation for games quality but it’s not entirely deserved as it was always capable. The problem it had was the high price point keeping it from ever being mass market outside of schools. As such the library of games was small and the best developers tended to write for systems where there was clearly more money to be had. There are still worthwhile games on there and it’s certainly nostalgic for people who used these in school like myself.

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Plenty of developers got started on the BBC whatever its faults including coincidentally the two biggest names at the moment in space sims, Chris Roberts and David Braben. Prior to this, the only Chris Roberts game that I’ve managed to run on the Master was Stryker’s Run which was one of the rare titles with a BBC Master enhanced version. Now all of his earlier games work including his first release of note, the cute but infuriatingly difficult Wizadore above. Comparing this to Star Citizen, we’ve certainly come a long way in the last 30 years although he did knock the games out a bit quicker back then.

I wouldn’t be half as interested in having all this old hardware without some of the modern upgrades that are available and this ROM kit is a prime example. For the sake of £20, it’s a compulsory upgrade for BBC Master owners as far as I’m concerned and I’m looking forward to trying out some more of the BBC library at long last. I only heard about this last week or I’d have bought one the moment it came out.

While I’m posting, there are two Wing Commander fundraisers going on. First off, possibly the worlds most famous Wing Commander fan, Ben Lesnick is running a GoFundMe campaign to buy all the artwork used for the Wing Commander Academy cartoon series with a view to scanning and preserving it all. This campaign is going extremely well and may well be funded by the time I post this.

More needing of the money right now is George Oldziey’s Kickstarter for a second Wing Commander orchestral CD. The first one of these turned out great and I’m certainly up for another. It could do with some more backers as funding is only about a quarter of the way there after 10 days. I’d expect it to be close at best as to whether this reaches the target.

 

Announcing Vecalabeth

I’ve been something of a fan of the Vectrex console ever since getting hold of one a few years back. The Vectrex was unique in the history of games consoles as it came with a built-in vector monitor. The pin sharp, glowing line graphics this produces are completely unlike the raster graphics we are all used to and give the console a timeless quality as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always fancied having a go at programming on one but never built up enough courage to take the plunge into the assembly coding that would be required. Thanks to a newly released cartridge, (the Vectrex32), I no longer need to.

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The Vectrex32 plugs into the Vectrex like any other cartridge. The difference is that it’s a 32 bit computer in its own right that takes over all the processing duties of the console. This means programs can now be written in BASIC instead of assembly and it vastly increases the processing power available. In addition, the cartridge can interface with terminal software on the PC via USB for easy debugging and copying the basic code over in the first place. Having spent a few hours playing around with it, it’s quite a neat system and it didn’t take long to get my first code up and running. I am finding that I need to stop each program running entirely before copying over my new version of the code every time otherwise I got file corruption trouble. This is slightly tiresome but not a major deal now I figured it out. The other snag with the Vectrex32 is that I need the real hardware to be able to try to run my code. I’d really hate to wear out my Vectrex and would prefer an emulator option in the long run.

Hopefully, the option to code in a high level language will produce a flood of new Vectrex games. I’m going to be giving it a go at least and the project I’m tackling is a reasonably faithful port of Akalabeth onto the platform all those line graphics were clearly meant for in the first place. How successful this will be is yet to be seen as there are still hardware limitations to deal with (mainly the number of lines and buttons). I thought I’d deal with the most difficult and interesting stuff first. I’ve built a single level 9×9 maze array to give me something to work with and set about getting the movement and graphics in place to wander around the level. This has proved considerably easier than I expected actually. You basically draw what’s on the left, middle, and right directly in front of the player, then scale it down a little and repeat, and just keep going scaling it down a little more for each grid of the map. No maths skills or understanding of 3D were needed whatsoever which is probably just as well.

Something you don’t realise about the Vectrex until you start programming on it, is that the lines are all effectively drawn with a virtual pen that you have to move around the screen in the code. This pen drifts a little with each move meaning that your lines don’t necessarily meet up despite having the same coordinates. I keep having to reset my pointer to the middle of the screen and draw things in chunks to get around this.

I only started this weekend and have got as far as being able to walk around the maze, go through doors and have drawn the graphics for a couple of monsters. The Vectrex can only really handle one monster at a time reliably or the cartridges 2K buffer runs out of space + the screen starts flickering with the pen not being able to keep up. This means the monsters in this version will be able to hide behind each other. I reckon with chests, trap doors, ladders, etc. they are much simpler graphics and it will be OK to show all of them at once.

I considered porting the code from the original Akalabeth since it was also written in BASIC but the two variants on BASIC looked far too different for this to be worthwhile. Instead, I’ve written everything from scratch so far other than borrowing the monster drawing code. Even this is quite different but I can still extract the coordinate numbers and scale them down a little to suit my needs. I may borrow some more of that code in the long run for maze generation and the like but I’m nowhere near that point yet. The next stage will be to finish implementing the graphics for all the different monsters and objects, then I’ll have a go at putting some actual gameplay in.

I’ll release the source code once there is something worthwhile to share. In the meanwhile, here’s a few screenshots of what it looks like so far, including a close up of the fearsome balron. You’ll never be able to get quite that close to it when I’m done as you shouldn’t really be able to occupy the same square.

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CGA Composite Graphics And My Attempts To Use Them

For reasons that I’m sure are mainly nostalgia, my favourite gaming platform/era is and probably always will be DOS. PC games have always been fun to revisit over the years partly due to being able to go back and play them with better/different hardware. There aren’t many of these technologies I’ve not been able to get my hands on at this point but one I’ve never been able to try out for real has been composite CGA graphics.

For those who don’t remember back that far, CGA was IBM’s first attempt at colour graphics dating back to the original PC in 1981. Aside from some rarely used tweaked modes, it allowed for 4 colours at once out of just 4 predefined and garish palettes leading to PC games being notoriously ugly until EGA/PC Jr came along.

This reputation was not entirely deserved however as many games used a composite mode which through the use of the TV out built into most CGA cards could be used to produce artifact colours greatly increasing the range of colours available.

I can’t pretend to entirely understand how it works but these artifact colours are produced by the interference when certain dot patterns are sent using the American NTSC TV signal. The dots would smear together to produce a block of solid colour instead. Here in the UK, this was never an option as the PAL system we use didn’t degrade in this way. While there were composite monitors around no doubt, I’ve never seen one. In the States, they are common enough which led to me importing yet another bit of old hardware, an Apple composite monitor:-

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This was in unusually good shape for one of my retro buys as I didn’t want to take a chance on importing something this size. It did of course have a load of writing all over the back of the case. Some isopropyl alcohol (only available at the chemist over here) just about removed it all but the black writing proved stubborn. The more important matter to what it looks like, is does it actually work?

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The answer so far is sort of. I’ve tried it out with my Tandy 1000 and am able to run both the CGA and composite monitors simultaneously thanks to the dual output. There is definitely extra colour produced. It just isn’t necessarily the right colour. By way of example, Kings Quest 2 above. This is rendered in high res monochrome on the RGB monitor on the right, which is converted into the admittedly colourful but clearly wrong image on the left. These composite monitors do have a tint control which can swivelled around to change the colours but I’m unable to get it to anything sensible no matter what. As far I can tell, the problem I’m having is that the Tandy composite isn’t quite the same as real CGA.

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Apart from the hires mono, the other means of rendering composite colour was to use a standard resolution CGA image with all 4 colours shown as normal and certain combinations of coloured dots would merge together to produce the extra colours. I gather the artifact colours produced this way were more flaky but it did mean you only needed one set of graphics for CGA and composite support. This explains a lot about those garish CGA graphics in early DOS games which were clearly meant to be played in composite. One such game was Ultima 2 which doesn’t look too bad at all on the Tandy in composite, although I’m sure it’s still not quite correct.

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Here’s a side by side comparison. Even on the Tandy, this shows the substantial improvement with blue water, green grass and trees and some of the player sprites look to have hair and clothing.

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I had originally planned to do a side-by-side video but trying to film this composite monitor simply wasn’t going to happen by phone. Taking photos was tricky enough. I may experiment with other camera apps but I left it for now since I’ve not got this working correctly as of yet.

I can certainly see the potential improvement to some of these ancient DOS games at any rate. The composite graphics are quite blurred with unclear text but this isn’t much of a sacrifice in your average game of the time. The main problem is my Tandy is clearly not the tool for the job. As luck would have it, I did get a true CGA card thrown in with the CGA monitor I got some months back:-

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It may be about as simple as PC graphics can get but this thing is an absolute colossus of an expansion card. The original plan was to slip this in the Tandy but it’s so large there is no way it’s getting into the case. Due to the connector design it won’t go in anything except an 8-bit slot either so I can forget trying it on my P2. In short, I need another old PC (which I’m sure can be arranged) and I’ll revisit this topic another day.