Classic Game Covers – Confessions Of An Art Junkie

I’ve a bad habit of backing gaming Kickstarters and then if and when the final product actually arrives I never get around to playing/reading it. I’ve yet to play Wasteland 2, Pillars Of Eternity, the new Elite, etc.. all of which delivered years back. One more Kickstarter on that list was Mike Winterbauer’s book on his life creating video game covers.

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The Origin connection here is that Mike created the artwork for the SNES Wing Commander port, not to mention the two Xeen Might & Magic games which is certainly what drew my attention in the first place. The book covers both of these and Mike’s work on loads of other game covers and concept art. All the people in his paintings were based on photos of Mike, his friends + associates with some often comical shots included of these in the book. When you start to look for it, Mike has personally starred on quite a few game boxes over the years. He also had a line in covers for VHS movies which he includes in here. Lots of these appear to be B movies and I really want to watch The Brain now.

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The picture he paints throughout the book is that being an artist isn’t a great way to get rich with getting a paycheck often being as much effort as actually doing the work. He basically did it for the love of it but it sounds like his work is finally finding a market these days. He held onto his original paintings for years until starting to sell them on Ebay some years back. I don’t have any of those but the Kickstarter did include some Wing Commander and Xeen prints at certain levels which I really have to find some wallspace in the games room for.

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Some of Mike’s artwork appeals to me more than others. It can fall into that uncanny valley where it’s not quite realistic or cartoony enough in my eyes. He could do photo-realistic when he wanted though and clearly has a real talent. There are some of these paintings I would honestly have thought were photos. The book is a fun, if brief, journey through the life of a jobbing artist and the good news is you can download it for free at Mike’s website. He is also running another Kickstarter for an illustrated children’s book which is already funded but has a few days left to run if you want to get in on it.

Origin Hot Releases Flyer (1989)

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It’s about time I had something Origin on here so I’ve had a route around to see what else hasn’t made it onto the blog. I haven’t got much left that is on the more glamorous end of collectibles. Instead I present this unassuming “Hot Releases Flyer” folder from 1989.

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I’ve shown a few press releases on here before but this is particular flyer was aimed at dealers. This doesn’t appear to have been standard practice for Origin at the time as it starts with an email from Fred Schmidt (VP at Origin) who wants a covering flyer of some description to be sent along with copies of all Origin’s games to various dealers that are being targeted to sell Origin games. It has a first stab at the cover text which would be largely redone later.

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By the time of this second email, Marten Davies (Sales Director) has had a go at rewriting it and a further enhanced version is typed up on a Mac and printed on Origin headed paper.

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That gets a border stuck round the edge, printed out on cheap paper and presumably sent off for approval coming back with a few suggested amendments ultimately leading to the flyer on the right printed on nice thick linen paper. The folder says 100 copies on the front so presumably this got sent out to numerous dealers back at the end of 1989. I always tend to think of the development side of making games but with Origin self-publishing they ultimately were responsible for the whole process at this point in their life.

As for the flyer itself, there is nothing too exciting in the content. You may note that the C64 and Apple II were coming before the PC at this point which wouldn’t last much longer. The Ultima games are substantially more expensive than all their other titles, (even the new releases). There is no question what made the money at Origin in the 80’s.

The other thing I noticed on here was the IIGS port of Omega. Only two Origin games were ever ported to the IIGS, Windwalker being the second. I fired both of these up out of curiosity expecting some enhancements but they are exact ports of the versions I’ve already played taking no advantage of the IIGS graphics or sound. In fact, due to the slow processor of the IIGS they would be a little painful to play so I’ll leave those well alone for now. Both of these games were ported by Micromagic who had a fairly short lifespan doing this sort of project but worked on some major titles around this time including Starflight 1 & 2, Curse of the Azure Bonds and Pools of Darkness.

Wing Commander Riff Cast

When I was looking up the Wing Commander Orchestral Soundtrack Kickstarter a few weeks back, I stumbled across another Wing Commander Kickstarter that had entirely passed me by in the shape of The Wing Commander Riff Cast. The modest aim was to raise enough money to buy a new microphone and record a 3 man riff track, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 style, for Wing Commander – The Movie. They raised just enough money to succeed and went on like near enough every other Kickstarter to miss the target date for delivery by over a year before the riff cast came out January 2015. How you justify being over a year late for something that requires a few hours work I’m not quite so sure but no doubt they had their reasons. At any rate, it had been out over a year before I even found out it existed and I thought I should give it a go.

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The way this works is that you download an audio file and then play it along with the DVD of the movie. The DVD above is the one I won from the WC CIC birthday bash about 4-5 years back and I’ll confess that it was still unwatched and in its shrinkwrap prior to this. I was hoping it would be better quality than my previous Japanese DVD but this release didn’t get the best transfer either with the picture still not being anamorphic. It didn’t at least have Japanese subtitles hard-encoded into it which is always a plus point. The Blu-ray is no doubt the far better option but I’ve never found myself with enough spare cash to justify that particular purchase. The novel wasn’t bad but I’ve always disliked just about every aspect of the movie and it hasn’t improved any in the decade or so since I last watched it.

The riff cast itself is available from Page Of Reviews. For anyone giving this a go, don’t expect anything too professional. It’s the same standard as your typical amateur podcast and largely off the cuff. To give the guys who put it together due credit, it did in my case it did make watching the movie considerably less painful. I laughed a good number of times and even learned a couple of things along the way. Improving my experience of watching the Wing Commander movie is a seriously low target of course so I’m not exactly going to recommend this experience as such. If you dislike the movie as much as I do yet feel the need to watch it again you could do worse but my advice would always be to steer clear altogether.

I had thought about working my way through all of Chris Roberts movie making ventures for the blog but the idea of them all being like Wing Commander always put me off. I did see Outlander for the first time yesterday which was in truth fairly terrible but in a far, far more entertaining B movie way so I might revive that idea. How much Chris Roberts had to do with Outlander I have no idea mind you – there are 16 producers named on that one movie!

DND#1 on a Commodore PET

Just over a year back there was a contest announced on the Shroud of the Avatar site to port Richard Garriott’s first DND game to web browsers. The story is provided in the link but in brief this was the first in a series of unreleased DND games written by Garriott, the final one of which would become Akalabeth and start the Ultima series.

While the code doesn’t exactly mask the fact that this is the high school project of a teenager, the historical significance can’t be denied. I’ve been meaning to have a look at the game for a while and somehow never got around to it. That was until my latest addition to the man cave arrived:-

Commodore Pet

Looking every inch the stereotype of a 70’s computer, the Commodore PET was the first computer I ever used more years ago than I care to admit to. My Dad brought one home from work when I was 5 or 6 and it’s fair to say I was hooked from the start. This was long enough ago that just being able to control things on a screen at all impressed the hell out of most people. It occurs to me that his employer must have been a whole lot more trusting back then to let him borrow it as one of these would have cost near half his years salary as a university lecturer at the time. The PET was still half the price of the Apple II though which does beg the question quite how Richard Garriott was able to afford his half of the price tag as a school kid. At any rate, in the case of my 2001 series model, that 6 months salary would have bought 32K of RAM, a 1 Mhz 6502 processor and a 9 inch 40×25 character based green screen display.

The PET first came out in 1977, the same year as DND#1 and it struck me that in the absence of a PDP-11 it was the perfect platform to port the game on to for an authentic 70’s gaming experience. Also since Commodore BASIC is extremely similar to the one used on the PDP-11 there should be minimal work involved. I took a lazier option still and started from an Applesoft BASIC port by Aaron Lanterman. Both Apple and Commodore BASIC were based on Microsoft BASIC making them almost entirely compatible and limiting the amount of work I had to do.

The changes I made were:-

  • Convert everything to lower case. Despite the PET only having uppercase it needs all the BASIC commands to be lowercase when pasting the code into the WinVICE emulator.
  • Remove most of the spaces from the code. Other than the one after the line number and those in strings, Commodore BASIC ignores spaces and since memory is in extremely short supply they needed to go.
  • Shrunk all the arrays. These all appeared to be unnecessarily large and caused out of memory errors in their original sizes.
  • Hardcoded a dungeon into the code. The original game allowed the user to pick 1 of 6 dungeons which were then loaded from a file. This wasn’t an option for me so I pinched the first dungeon from the winning javascript port at http://www.kirith.com/DND1/pure-js/ and load the data into the dungeon array. You get this dungeon no matter what number you pick.

With all that done, I shoved it on an emulator, saved to a virtual cassette file, converted this to a wav and played it into my PET via one of those headphone -> cassette adaptors that people used to use in car stereos.

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6 and a half minutes of loading later, DND#1 was ready to go. Surprisingly all of this works and the game is indeed playable on the PET, or at least just about playable. The code that is run between player moves, controlling monsters and the like is more than the PET wants to cope with and the game runs at about 1 move a minute. I expect this may not be all that dissimilar to the experience on the PDP-11 and the experience is still less drawn out that playing that Ultima 1 board game. I’m sure this could be optimised but I haven’t looked at that part of the code yet. I kind of prefer to leave it as it is.

Aside from the speed of the game, I could do with putting back a few spaces into the code here and there and there is no saving but I decided it was good enough for my purposes and tried my hand at a few games.The actual game involves moving around a 26×26 dungeon finding gold, falling into pits, searching for secret doors, fighting monsters – most of the usual tropes of dungeon crawling RPG’s back before they became tropes. The map is only partially shown when the player chooses to look and the graphics are simply numbers in a grid with 4 representing a door, 5 a monster, 1 a wall etc.. I kept it simple with a fighter character and combat just involved swinging my sword and hoping to hit. In hindsight a bow and arrow might not have been a bad idea.

My games proved to be quite short (or would have if the thing ran quicker) with my usual end coming when I’d fallen down more pits than my supply of rope and spikes would allow me to climb out of. There isn’t any winning target in the game as such. Gold could be seen as a score of sorts but the player is left to find their own goals.

DND1 is very basic and not all that playable but has to be worth a glance at least for anyone interested in the pre-Ultima dark ages of early video games. It’s not hard to see how this evolved into Akalabeth – convert it to 3D and they really wouldn’t be all that much different. As for playing it on the PET, it’s certainly an oldschool experience if nothing else. A bit of optimisation to get the speed up really wouldn’t hurt – I might take another look at it some time. Any of the modern ports would probably be preferable but for anyone wanting to try this out the code is here, the tape file is here, and the wav file for loading on real hardware is here. These should also work on later 8 bit Commodore machines (VIC-20,C64,C128) since they were all built on the same framework.

The game isn’t all that user friendly. If you do play it, don’t ask for instructions or it kicks you out, make sure your player name is shavs and enter 16 (or any higher number) once you have bought enough equipment at the start to go into the game proper.

Lowlander

Earlier this week the Ultima Codex posted about a new Ultima II inspired RPG available on iOS and Android called Lowlander. This looked like a game that could have been built with me in mind so I didn’t hesitate in putting the $2 down to pick it up. Three days later, I’ve managed to finish it and thought I’d pop up a quick review. Since this is a brand new game, I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers and just concentrate on the gameplay.

Welcome to Lowlander Outside the King's Castle

The Ultima influence is immediately apparent on entering the world and anyone who has played the original trilogy should be immediately at home. The influence only goes as far as gameplay mechanics however, so no copyright infringing Ultima characters or places make an appearance although it does get close on occasion (E.g. Theeves Den). The interface has thankfully been streamlined for a modern audience with the biggest addition being an automap on the middle right of the screen.

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There is the option to enlarge the map to fill the game-window section of the screen + 4 levels of zoom available to select from. The world is roughly 500×500 tiles and the automap is a godsend when finding your way around a land of this size. A lot of the fun in the game comes from exploring the unfamiliar world and I spent a lot of time on this screen looking for areas I had missed.

Inventory

Unlike Ultima II, the player can only carry a finite amount of equipment. This led to me throwing away endless lockpicks or antidote potions later in the game but does add a degree of realism. Money was only an issue early in the game and eventually rolled over the 4 digits available long before I got to the end (Luckily for me the game still kept the correct amount in memory and just missed off the fifth digit). The spells on the right hand side are gradually made available as the player levels up – many of these are the usual sorts of healing/cure poison spells you might expect but there are a handful of more unusual options.

The stats are relatively simple and it’s nice and clear what they actually do. Strength is how much damage you do in combat. Agility is how often you hit. Intellect is how effective spells are and luck is how likely chests are dropped, or the player gets poisoned/frozen in combat. On levelling up the player receives 1-3 points in every stat and gets the option for a further boost in one of the four. I concentrated entirely on strength in the early game before moving over to agility later on. In hindsight a mix of the two would probably have been the way to go but the levelling system used forces a fairly balanced character ultimately.

Spells cost a given amount of mana but unlike most Ultimas this doesn’t recharge over time. Instead it can only be regained by visiting a healer or through the use of mana potions. As such, I don’t think I’d want to play a heavy magic user as I can imagine my mana running out in some of the dungeons all too rapidly. Spells always hit their target though so it might have balanced out if I’d put my money into intellect instead.

The pink castles are back Taling to the king

Numerous towns and castles are dotted throughout the land and just like any good Ultima, the player needs to explore all of these to get the information needed to beat the game. Most of the characters just have a single line of text but there are more verbose citizens to be found with quests and clues that will send you all over the map tracking down items. The conversations aren’t entirely serious and very much in the vein of Ultima 2. E.g. There is one town full of people telling you their favourite films/books which I assume reflect the tastes of the games author. It’s all good fun and provides variety from the combat.

The main plot involves defeating the evil Sorceress Azamon. There is a little backstory but her main crime for much of the game seems to be stealing the head of a statue in one of the towns. I won’t give any more away here but the plot isn’t really a major component. There is more going on than in Ultima 1-3 but the emphasis is very much on exploration and dungeon delving. I will say that Lowlander is a whole lot kinder than any of those games with quests and hints to prod the player in the right direction and the whole game being more structured allowing greater freedom in stages. I only once found myself stuck but it didn’t last all that long – in hindsight the clue was in the game if I’d only picked up on it.

A Dungeon

It wouldn’t be a fantasy RPG without dungeons. Here Lowlander breaks away from Ultima and sticks with the 2D overhead view. Typically there will be a key somewhere in the dungeon that is needed to open a distant door right at the other end. These dungeons are sizable and the automap proves indispensable here – you really need to explore near enough every corridor. Thanks to that automap, this is very rarely frustrating.

There are 2 or 3 dungeons in which the players torch/light spell only illuminates a single square including one particularly nasty maze-like level full of dead ends which must have taken me about 40 minutes. There is no saving in dungeons but the difficulty isn’t pitched too high and the well prepared player should never find them too much to cope with.

About to enter Castle Azamon Castle Azamon

I really enjoyed playing this and it took me over 9 hours of game time (not including restoring) to beat it making the asking price look extremely reasonable. The early stages are a little unforgiving and probably the only time I had to deliberately grind for experience but it’s nothing compared to the early stages of some RPG’s I could mention. Any Ultima veteran will not have any real difficulty once they learn the lay of the land. Survive for long enough and the game concludes with the player assaulting Azamon in her castle in a fitting finale.

There are a couple of minor quibbles. The sound is nothing to write home about, just a few sound effects here and there. That’s fine for a mobile game but I could have lived without the low health sound which you will hear every time your player moves if your health drops below a certain percentage. You really don’t need this if the nearest town is a long walk away.

I also got some minor slowdown playing on a Galaxy Note 2 on the world map. This tended to be well into longer gameplay sessions and I’m putting it down to the build-up  of monsters the game had to keep track of. I found that Lowlander really chewed through the phone battery as a result, far more than I would expect for something this simplistic.

Other than that, I loved it. I’d say the gameplay was just about perfectly balanced throughout and really captured the spirit of what it was like playing an Ultima for the first time. There aren’t any game guides up on the web yet so I was entirely on my own figuring everything out which ultimately added to the experience. It’s all too tempting to get answers via Google these days when you get stuck and I would have succumbed if it had been an option.

Anyone who enjoyed the early Ultimas or other RPG’s of the era should try this out. I could imagine some Ultima fans being put off by it being inspired by Ultima II (it is usually most people’s least favourite in the series after all), but this is a far better game by modern standards and perhaps recaptures the spirit what it would have been like playing Ultima II back in 1982 before we all knew better. Despite using the Ultima gameplay formula, it is still far enough removed to stand on it’s own and no knowledge of the series is required.

I gather that the iOS release has been temporarily pulled while some bugs are fixed but the Android version ran fine for me and is available on the Play store for about $2.