Saturday, December 30, 2023

2023 Review - Best Viewed and Read

 2023 is at an end and it is time to look back at the year that has been and summarize - what was good and what was bad? Any New Years resolutions to break?

I try to keep track of the games I play, but I am very bad at it. Because of this I unfortunately can't make a good list of my favorite games this year. I also don't really play enough of them to make a list of best ones, I guess. I recall replaying FFVII and that was just as great as I remembered, which I was relieved to experience as I had worried my rose-tinted goggles might've been at work. No, that game still holds up 100% and I had an absolute blast playing through it again. Other than that it has mostly been World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Classic and me trying to squeeze in other games, and some blogging, in-between. 

My personal year has been good, other than my washing machine breaking down and me having to wash our clothes at my work for the two weeks we waited for a new one to arrive. But it is here now and it is doing what it should, so that problem is solved.

Best Books of 2023

These are by no means new books or released anywhere near 2023, but simply books I've read during the year. I read about 50 books, if you count the Judge Dredd Collection of series, which I do. Here were some of my favorites;

1. Judge Dredd - The Complete Case Files

A collection of every Judge Dredd series released in the 2000AD magazine and they are all amazing. I love reading them and I am happy there are many more for me to get. I am at the 7th book when writing this and I think they've released 42 or so. I tried thinking of some favorites, but I actually really enjoy them all - big stories and small ones alike. I'd love to explain the concept, but it needs to be experienced to be fully understood. In essence, Judge Dredd is a supercop in the future, handling all kinds of extremely crazy future problems. The tone is satirical, dark and far-out imaginative. I'm endlessly impressed by the writers abilities to come up with more and more crazy stories.

2. The City of the Chasch by Jack Vance

Not an amazing book by any means, and maybe I just liked it because I was so positively surprised that it wasn't as bad as I expected. Some time ago I acquired a haul of old sci-fi "classics" released in Sweden, in bad Swedish translations, under the Delta Science Fiction name. Most of these books have been a chore to get through. Out of the 30 or so I've read so far, maybe two or three have been worth reading. The City of the Chasch was one of them. The main character Adam Reith is sent out from Earth to investigate a distress signal on a planet called Tschai. After a crash landing he find that the planet is inhabited by loads of sentient species, many of which keep what seems to be humans as slaves. The humans themselves don't remember being from anywhere else, neither seems anyone else. Are these humans actually from Earth? The book has good world building and an interesting mystery at its core, it kept me entertained throughout but is part of a series so I haven't read the conclusion yet.

3. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite book ever. Of course I had to see if Alexandre Dumas could pull it off again. And he does. The Three Musketeers is also an amazing, fun and exhilarating read and none of the movies I have seen do it any justice (which is also true for The Count of Monte Cristo). The story of how the young adventurer d'Artagnan befriends the musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis (not their real names by the way) has everything you want in a good book.

4. Anything from Bitmap Books

This year I read Game Boy: The Art Collection and The Secret History of Mac Gaming. I already own two or three other books from these publishers. If you're into video games, nostalgia, well written facts and pretty pictures, these books provide and then some. The quality and design is superb and the books themselves are almost works of art. It helps that the content is great too. Definitely check them out, they're worth every penny.

Best Watched in 2023

I don't watch many tv-series, but I've seen a fair few movies. Here were some standouts;

1. TMNT: Mutant Mayhem

I enjoyed Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, without having watched any of the TV-series. So I decided to give Mutant Mayhem a chance too. I loved the quirky animation style, I loved the characters. The humour was spot on TMNT. Very entertaining and worth checking out if you're into TMNT.

2. Violent Night

A friend of mine recommended Violent Night, probably knowing what kind of action I am into. And this movie delivers. It's such a whacky concept that it takes all the way, and it even works better than Tommy Wirkola's previous movie Dead Snow, which was also fun. I love John Leguizamo in anything, yes even Mario Bros and Spawn, and he is great here (so is Beverly D'Angelo is a badass matron). But of course the real hero is David Harbour as Santa, and the writing.

3. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.

I don't care what anyone says, I think this movie was absolutely great. I watched it with my kid in the cinema and had good old matinee fun! Because this was the first Indy movie he saw, we of course had to go back and watch all the other ones too. It was fun to see him recognize characters from the earlier movies and Dial of Destiny is a worthy successor. I like it better than Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

4. Lightyear

I hadn't watched this yet and because I have been disappointed with most Disney outings since Toy Story 4 my expectations were low for this movie. It wasn't improved by the fact that reception was bad as well. I was very pleasantly surprised then to find a really neat sci-fi movie in Lightyear, and probably one of Disney's best movies in years (I also quite liked Onward). It gave me some hope for Disney, but watching "Wish" later this year squashed a lot of that...

What were your standout experiences in entertainment this year? I am always up for good tips in the reading, watching and gaming department.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Temple of Elemental Evil (PC, 2003)

People have a tendency to return to things that they actually really disliked the first time around. Things like giving birth, old relationships, the LFG-tool in WoW Classic... Where you first went "never again!" your brain slowly starts to whisper "was it really that bad though? Maybe you just did it the wrong way? Maybe this time it will be better because you know what to expect?". Those rose-tinted goggles can be dangerous.

This is the relationship I have with games that apply the Dungeon & Dragon gameplay system. I've tried a fair few so far - NeverWinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale to mention the classic ones. The only one that I managed to get farther than a few hours into, and in fact complete, is Planescape: Torment, which I actually really enjoyed.

Without fail, every time I try these games I have high hopes of a fun, party-based, turn-based, story-driven RPG to sink my teeth into but after a few fights I always get reminded of how evil these games are and quite frankly just badly designed. 

Everything revolves around wasting the players time and around having the feeling that you don't have all the information you need to do a good job.

Unfortunately, The Temple of Elemental Evil turned out to be no different in this regard. I went in with my classic hope of finally having gotten the grasp of these games, like the fact that you simply can't play with certain classes unless you're mega-pro, because they are too weak. And even when you have a whole party full of seemingly battle-worn adventurers that should be able to do everything from smash skulls, shoot lasers and mend wounds in-between themselves, they always turn out to be a bumbling mess of kindergartners who couldn't hit the side of a barn if it fell on them.

How was it ever considered fun that every character you play is so incredibly bad at everything they do? If I have a Rogue I expect them to be half decent at picking locks, or sneaking or setting traps or at least something. If I have a Barbarian I expect them be good at breaking things. If I have a sorcerer I expect them to be ok at throwing a spell or two. But that is just not how the Dungeon & Dragon rule set works and I can not fathom why anyone thought this was a good idea?

So I choose my first line-up, a Warrior, Sorcerer, Cleric and Rogue. Immediately I learn that the very first and weakest mobs you come across can easily hit you for 3-7 damage but my Clerics "Heal Light Wounds", which he can only cast once before he needs 8 hours of rest, only heals for 1 damage. Oh and speaking of resting, if you're in a safe zone like a city you can only rest in an inn which costs money. If you're in the wilderness you will get attacked by mobs if you try to rest. Every 2 damage any of your characters have taken, and they will take a lot of damage, takes a whole day to rest up.

This just results in a flurry of quick-saves, quick-loads and running back and forth between the town and the questing area. All the while you're doing this, your characters get stuck in the environment, behave according to their "personalities" which just means they won't do what you ask them to and overall act like the opposite of my idea of fun. I literally have a character in my party who picks up everything I loot and refuses to hand it to anyone else or sell it. He is so encumbered and just hoards all my stuff, such a prick!

I haven't even gotten around to talking about the story or the setting or the atmosphere. There is just so much frustration in me trying to navigate the controls and lack of control that I can't think of anything else or enjoy anything that might be good.

The alignment you choose (a mix of Good/Neutral/Chaotic) affects which party members you can have and also which starting quest you get. From what I can tell they still get you to the same starting area, which is a little country town called Hommlet. I quickly find more people to add to my party in Hommlet, for which I am immensely grateful. So far the only character remotely useful however have been rogues and barbarians. Everyone else either can't hit for the life of them (literally) or die in two hits. If I had a 6-man party of only rogues and barbarians I would probably do ok at the beginning of the game. I suspect the end of the game will not be as easy though. The game design expects and in fact requires that you carry half your party for a big part of the game because they won't be useful until later.

I find a few quests, some require me to try to negotiate small village quarrel, but some are more interesting. I get way-points on my map and decide to explore them. A plus for the game is that enemies don't seem to respawn once you've painstakingly got rid of them. But a huge minus is that, as mentioned, after practically every fight I have to travel back to the inn and rest. There is no challenge in that, just a waste of my time.

I've played three hours of this game and I have only managed to finish the very first quest, which literally only tasks you to find a certain someone in Hommlet. And even that took me over two hours to figure out. Maybe I am just really, really bad at these games...

It makes me a bit sad, because I am sure there is a decent game buried under all the evil game design. But to look on the bright side, as someone closing in on 40 it isn't often I get to feel too young for something, but I am definitely too young to understand this game.

So I give it another go.

This time I go in with a different mindset. This game isn't about going in guns a-blaze, it's about thinking, preparing, utilizing every tool and skill at your disposal. Instead of running my group around I sneak with my rogue, allowing me to prepare for fights that come ahead (which slightly improves my chances of survival). 

Instead of sending every character to try to chop the enemy's head off I carefully select their positioning, paths and skills to make sure they get more hits off than the enemy (which slightly improves my chances of winning).

Instead of thinking the game will come to me, I make sure to explore every nook and cranny, really listen to (carefully read and take notice of) what people say to me (which slightly improves my chances of finishing quests).

I save after every achievement, every little step forward. 

And I get a glimpse of an entertaining game, with no hand-holding, that wants you to deserve the good bits with blood, sweat and a lot of patience. But that much patience, unfortunately, I am too old for.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Moonlighter (PC, 2018)

 I've played a fair bunch of roguelites and even at their worst they always offer a few hours of fun. At best they manage to find exactly the right balance between challenge and "just another go" to keep you hooked for hours. So which one is Moonlighter? 

Moonlighter is a roguelite with a pretty straightforward concept - go into dungeons, get loot, sell loot, improve gear, go into more dungeons and get more loot. It's a loop that we're all familiar with at this point. The tiny twist to Moonlighter is that instead of selling your loot to some store, you are the store, selling your loot to other people.

It's a minor difference, but it's a fun idea. You own a store that you can improve in different ways, allowing you to make more money off the stuff you have pried from dead monsters in the dungeons. With the money you can also invest in your hometown - purely for your benefit of course. This is how you get access to a potion-maker and a blacksmith for instance.

You decide what to charge for your items, but the people who come into your store aren't willing to pay just anything for your stuff. There is a sweet spot where the buyer thinks it's worth it and you think you're getting enough. The game gives you a well designed system for keeping track of what different items are worth. It also helps you keep track off items you might want to keep to use for potions or gear for yourself.

The dungeons are comprised of rooms spread over three levels with a final boss at the end. While the dungeons are randomized in layout, they all contain at least one pool that restores your life, and an abandoned campsite of unknown purpose. The dungeons, at least as far as I have gotten (five or six levels down) aren't overly difficult, as long as you keep your focus and learn how the different enemies work. The enemies themselves are mostly bibs and bobs of this and that - meaning they don't really look like anything other than pieces of rocks, slime and sticks put together. Disclaimer here though, I haven't seen everything yet, but the enemies do repeat in style and for the first two dungeons they are mostly the same.

You find these tents, but they serve no purpose. Just like real tents.

There are clever systems that allow you to get in and out of the dungeons. If you die you lose everything you've collected in your bag, but this means you get to always keep your gear and stuff that you have in your 5-slot special bag. To get out of the dungeon you have to pay money and there is a system that allows you to vendor items inside the dungeon, but to a lesser price than you would've gotten for it in your store. As you progress through the game you get more options with how to deal with your items and how to get in and out of the dungeons that I thought were well thought through.

The graphics are endearing neo-pixel style, the music is unobtrusively mellow even in the most heated battles - definitely nothing that will neither stress you nor get your blood pumping here.

Curiously, for a game that overall has a lot of smart design choices, the game is not playable with a mouse on PC. It took me a lot of web browsing and reading of angry and frustrated forum posts before I understood this. Instead you have to control your character with WASD as typical, but also with IJKL. I can honestly say, I have not played a game from after 1990 that has required me to control anything with IJKL.

Why am I fighting this guy? I don't know.

I will say however that I don't understand the hate towards this. As soon as you understand that this is how you do it, it works perfectly fine. I never missed my mouse or thought I failed a run because I didn't have it.

As mentioned the challenge for any roguelite is to make people want to go "just one more run" - there needs to be something that keeps that feedback loop going. The best games (a lot coming out of the Blizzard studios for instance) do this to the point where it's almost addictive. Worst case the player feels what they are doing is pointless.

Moonlighter has a lot going for it, with smart systems for handling items and a lot to tinker with and upgrade, a well balanced difficulty and a little twist to make it a bit more unique - basically all the ingredients of a great roguelite. But after ~10 hours played I definitely feel like something is missing. It doesn't take me long to figure out what it is. I am missing a story.

You start off small, but with big dreams.

The game starts out with a short introduction to the concept of the dungeons and gets you wondering if there is something more to explore in there besides finding loot. In the dungeons you find scraps of paper and some times corpses left from other explorers that have come before you. They talk about (the papers I mean, not the bodies) the mystery of the dungeons and why they keep changing. But this never evolves into anything, you quickly notice that the pieces of paper are more for show than to continue a story. The people of the town don't have any personality either and don't interact with you in any other way than to do business. I am curious, I want to know more!

There is lost potential here, but maybe the developers were worried that people aren't interested in this kind of gameplay anymore and put their focus on a well designed dungeon crawler instead. There is sense in that, but to me it makes the game feel empty and repetitive pretty quickly. While some of this might come later in the game and I just haven't seen it yet, I see a discrepancy between the nice flow of improvement in game systems and complete lack of story development.

Moonlighter reminds me so much of a game on the Playstation called Azure Dreams. Your character goes into a monster tower to find items, to gain money to improve their home town in different ways. More crucially however, there is a lot of interaction between you and the other people of the town and in true mid-90s fashion you can get into romantic relationships with some of them, There is also the mystery of the final floor of the tower that constantly beckons you to try to get higher. In Moonlighter that enthusiasm quickly wanes when you get the feeling of "oh, was this it?". Even Steamworld Dig, another great game with a similar concept, made me feel like every dig was important.

To be fair to Moonlighter, I haven't played Azure Dreams for 20 years and maybe I would feel differently about it now. Maybe I am simply too old for games that just make me do things for no other reason than doing them. But if you are after an otherwise well designed dungeon crawler that lets your obsess over loot, you could definitely go worse than this game.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

LEGO Heroica - Board Game

There are some things in life that everyone knows about - things like Michael Jackson, Dragon Ball and Coca Cola. And everyone knows about LEGO. They are apparently the largest toy company in the world now. I am not surprised. They have, more or less successfully, tried their hand at pretty much everything there is now abouts and have partnered with pretty much every other IP out there (where is the Dragon Ball LEGO though?!). I am sure they are immensely annoyed over at LEGO that they missed out on being the ones who invented Minecraft, but other than that I think it is safe to conclude that up to now, LEGO is a success-story.

I wasn't surprised then to find that LEGO has also dabbled in trying to make board games. I was a bit surprised however, when doing some research for this post, at the amount of board games they have already released. I really thought it was maybe a one-off try to get into the board game market, but apparently LEGO has been releasing a variety of board games ever since 2009, almost 40 different ones by now!

It's kind of amazing then that most of them have completely passed me by. I did find one at a sale at a local toy store however - LEGO Heroica.

Heroica is maybe as close as to Dungeons & Dragons as LEGO has ever dared to wander. In it you play as a set of typical heroes (i.e. rogue, druid, archer) and fight typical dungeon-style monsters (i.e. golems, werewolves, spiders). You find treasure chests, potions, gold and can buy weapons. The rule set is extremely rudimentary, and honestly even a bit on the mean side. Getting through a stage of Heroica feels like a feat of luck, rather than tactics or well thought out planning. You roll one of LEGO's, probably trademarked, special die to decide your moves and attacks. If you're lucky you roll a special attack which allows you to do whatever your chosen hero can do, an archer can kill an enemy at range for instance. Weapons that you can "equip" also have special attacks allowing you to improve your character slightly throughout a game.

More often than not you'll die though, because Heroica is stingy with health and it's so easy to take damage from enemies. So I say put the original rules away and go bananas with what you've got at hand instead. The real strength of Heroica is exactly the same as the beauty of LEGO in general, you can transform your pieces into whatever you prefer. 

Playing it with my 10 yo, he usually loves to really stack the odds against me as the dungeon master, whereas my 5 yo is a bit nicer and often puts out loads of health for me to pick up. As such I think Heroica can be a good way to introduce the concept of Dungeon Master and role-playing to younger children. The visual aid that the actual LEGO pieces lend to the role-playing is also great. It is fun to piece together your own little dungeon filled with creatures, chambers and treasure to explore. It's easy to change and/or implement rules to fit your own preferred playstyle and as mentioned I recommend it to the rather frustrating original rule set.

There are six sets of Heroica to collect and I have managed to find three of them - Waldurk, Nathuz and Fortaan. There is also Draida, Ilrion and the mini-expansion Ganrash. They are quite expensive on places like Amazon, but if you're lucky you can maybe find second hand sets on auction sites.

There is of course also nothing to prevent you from just borrowing the whole idea, taking whatever existing LEGO you might have and craft your own little dungeons for some to explore either. It might be a genre of playing that doesn't immediately come to mind when you think of LEGO, but it works surprisingly well.

The base game might be shallow to most experienced players, but the potential is huge. Overall Heroica is a functional role-playing board game with easy to learn rules that lend themselves to exploring the concept of being a dungeon master, building worlds, crafting rules and learning how to make a fair and fun adventure for your players. Like we say in Swedish, you've just got to let your imagination flow.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

The AMAZEing Labyrinth - Board Game

I absolutely love board games. All of them (except Monopoly, f*ck that game). I own too many and I can't stop buying them. My biggest problem, besides apparently being a shop-o-holic, is that I don't really have anyone to play with. 

My friends who love board games live too far away. My family are sick and tired of me begging asking. I can nag them into playing something with me every now and then, but then it has to be something kid-friendly. Nothing wrong with kid-friendly games though, there are some great ones out there.

So let me introduce you to one of them - The Amazeing Labyrinth (pun intended). 

If you enjoy board games you might have heard of this one, it has been around since the mid 80's and spawned numerous spin-offs. I've only played the original version because honestly I don't see why you would need to change anything, it is perfected the way it is already.

The concept is simple, you and your frenemies are stuck in a labyrinth and need to find treasure (I guess a mouse is a treasure when you're lost and starving in a labyrinth). To get to the treasure you have the possibility to change the layout of the labyrinth, optimally to create a path for you and ruin the plans of your co-players. Each turn a player moves a piece of the labyrinth to create new accessways, or just be a meanie and block a part off for another player. It has a nice balance between luck and tactic, because you can definitely draw some unlucky or lucky treasure cards.

And that is it. There is a kids version that just makes the board smaller, but honestly I already think the concept is simple enough to grasp for even young children, though younger than 10 probably need some help planning their routes and some helpful (rather than spiteful) route shifting from co-players. I've played this with my kids from when they were around 2, in which the idea of finding the corresponding treasure on the map from your card is the main draw. Usually the battle stands between me and my partner and often enough we end up fighting each other hard enough that one of the kids come out winning.

This also means that it is a great game to throw on to the table when you've got friends over who don't often play board games and don't want to spend 30 minutes understanding the rules. Just like with all the best board games, the real challenge of The Amazeing Labyrinth are the co-players, not grasping the rule set.

I remembered playing this as a kid and was lucky to find it cheap on online auction, simply because I wanted the same old version I had as a kid. This board game is popular here in Sweden, readily sold in toy stores and easy to get hold of. I can definitely recommend it if you're looking for an "easy to get into, fun for all ages"- kind of board game.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Stellaris (PC, 2016)

 One of my favorite games from my childhood is Escape Velocity (and the subsequent reboot Escape Velocity Nova). As a budding new captain of a tiny but loveable space ship you roam the galaxy, explore worlds, trade with aliens, fight off pirates and build your fleet. It is great and I highly recommend it still today.

Ever since EV I've been looking for a similar game to give that feeling of exploration and expansion. I failed hard with Star Control and got lost in the stars with Rymdresa. But Stellaris looked promising, with a similar world map to EV.

One major difference between EV and Stellaris that was obvious from the start is that in Stellaris you play the controlling God of your kingdom, not a character with their own ship to control like in EV. In Stellaris you end up creating an empire, in EV you end up creating a fleet. What this mainly means, gameplay wise, is that in EV you have a natural learning curve from your one ship and onward. And while you start off small in Stellaris there is already from the get-go a hundred things to keep track off. 

Dozens of resources, leaders, ship types, planet types, ship skills, planet buildings, events, hostile and friendly aliens and so on. Things happen so quick you often and suddenly find yourself in a situation and have no idea how you got there. When my kid tried the game his planet was annexed by a hostile alien after a handful of turns, even though he played on easy.

I figured from the start that this was a game where I would need a lot of help to begin with, at least to get acquainted with the different systems and how to control them. Fortunately Stellaris realizes this as well and offers different tiers of tutorial. I ticked the "full" one which meant I had a friendly robot chatter in my ear without pause about everything I needed to look at and deal with. You can pause the game at any time, or choose to play it at different speeds, which all also is very helpful, at least once you learn to identity what situations require more focus.

So I send my science ships on missions to survey new systems, after I have chosen an appropriate science leader from the leader pool. I choose edicts and things to research. My construction ships build mining stations and research stations and star bases. There are limits to how many leaders I can have and other limits to my resources and expansion that can be changed with the right research. I survey more systems and send my colonizing ships to terraform planets when I have the luck to find a suitable one. Then there is another planet system to take care off, what should they produce and how do I want to treat the people that live here? 

The list of things to deal with quickly grows long. I make contact with aliens, prompts pop up every minute about curious things that my science ships find on their survey missions to different systems. I end up feeling like most of what I do is click things, without really having a grasp or understanding of it. I could've just as well played Cookie Clicker at this point.

I can't deny that it is fun though, somehow. I don't get a sense of purpose and empowerment the way I do playing EV, but I do get a strong sense of achievement. Every second there is something to tinker with and tweak, something to explore and possibilities to expand your territories. I almost feel like I need to be three people to be able to properly manage everything. When the tenth alien contacts me about a trade agreement or breaking down in our relationship I really want to care. But while the alien is talking, seven other things have popped up on my screen that need my attention just as much.

The UI does a good job at helping you keep track of things and there are quick buttons for everything important, as far as I can tell. After having played around 7 hours on easy and normal mode I didn't find the game particularly challenging, besides all the things you have to keep track off. Even when aliens did attack me or declare rivalries I didn't notice it make any big difference, except maybe block out a certain area for me to explore. Maybe my kid was just very unlucky on his first try. But I have been playing it extremely safe and peacefully, making sure to grovel and throw smiles and goodwill at any and all aliens that cross my path. It would be interesting to play the game as a military race, and attack everything on sight.

The creators of Stellaris have put a lot of time into making the universe feel alive and full of fascinating things to explore. Almost too full (which is also proven by the fact that it takes 1-2 minutes just to start the game). In EV there is a quiet and, unless you're being chased by pirates, serenity to space that Stellaris just never comes close to. It probably doesn't have the intention to either. But it fills you so much with the bigger picture that you lose the meaning to why you want to care about the smaller stuff. On the other hand there is so much to see and do and probably different ways to approach the game (this is also true for EV I want to point out) that the replay value feels high. In that sense I guess Stellaris is probably a pretty good Empire Management-game (that's a genre I just made up). There is a lot to get good at, a lot to fine tune, but you can also just click around randomly and get pretty far, at least on the easier modes. Something for everyone then, maybe.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Micro Machine Camper Van

I am one of the 80's kids that decided not to grow up. I think most adults are actually stuck around 16-20 years old mentally, but the people born in the 80's and onwards have embraced their childhood in new ways. It's not just about the music and the clothes and the movies. It's also about all the toys. Or maybe, let's face it, toys and TV-shows from the 80's and 90's were just something extra special, and worth revisiting.

"Kidults" have apparently been around since the 50's, but I think we've only grown in demographic and by now it is obvious that the capitalist are trying to cash in on our nostalgic nerve. I am surprised that more toy-lines haven't resurfaced, with everything from Biker Mice from Mars, He-Man, Moncchichi and Care Bears probably easy money if they thought about it. But then again, so many of them just never went away, like My Little Pony, Spiderman/Batman/TMNT, and Transformers. 

But what about the Etch-A-Sketch? Can't hold a candle to modern Ipads of course. So let's forget about that one... 

I never managed more than stick figures.

But then we have the miniature fad. Polly Pockets may have come first in the mid-80's, but they were never really my thing. Then they made the Mighty Max toy line which were way cooler (and I might write a separate post about them some day). And then there were the Micro Machines. I was never a huge fan of Micro Machines, but for some reason I really wished for the Camper Van when I was around 10. I got it and initially I was quite disappointed. Who can explain the way the mind of a kid works?

That quickly changed however, and I remember having many hours of fun with it and my friends. It has a little bit of everything, an airstrip, a car wash, a race track, high hill - you name it. It has the added benefit of being tiny meaning you could have all that fun without having to take up all your bedroom floor (a benefit that I never thought of as a kid but have realized as a parent).

In fact, it is so clever you can fold it all up and carry it around. It is its own carry-case, a design choice I think a lot more toys would benefit from.

As an adult, or at least as an adult with somewhat of an income, the possibility to re-experience my childhood through old toys has not been lost on me. I was lucky enough to find a haul of Mighty Max toys at a flea market for cheap and eventually my thoughts would wander back to my old Micro Machine Camper Van. Surely that would be available to buy somewhere as well?

Of course it was, good old online flea markets rarely disappoint. I also managed to get my kids excited about the idea and now we have it together. Easy to take out and play with, so easy to pack back up again and put away. The Camper Van still provides hours of fun. So far I haven't been inclined to check out the other Micro Machines stuff... although, I heard some of the video games were supposed to be pretty good.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Choose Your Own Adventure

 Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Sure you do. Bet you haven't actually played one in years though. Neither had I until I stumbled across one because I was looking for something else.

I am a big fan of the Judge Dredd series and I am currently collecting the ever-long Complete Case Files series (I've only made it to book 6 out of 42 and I think they are still being released). If you've never heard of Judge Dredd... well that is just impossible. Sylvester Stallone did that very 90's action movie as the titular hero (completely butchering it yet still an entertaining watch) and you've definitely seen that (you should also watch the other Judge Dredd movie with Karl Urban which is also great). Other than that you don't really need to know more than he's a British comic book character from the 70's, with the comic still running. And I love it. In post-apocalyptic Mega City 1 literally anything can happen and the stories are wonderfully entertaining social commentaries while also exploring the human nature. Judge Dredd himself is also simply the coolest protagonist of any comic, I'll fight you for it.

So while looking for more Judge Dredd comics to throw my money at I found out that they had released the Complete Dice Man which is a collection of Choose Your Own Adventure series originally published in the 80's. The cover has Judge Dredd on it. I had to get that, of course. Judge Dredd only makes up one out of 15 of the stories in the book however, but it's a great one.

In it Judge Dredd has to go into a creepy mansion to face one of his most formidable foes, the Dark Judges lead by Judge Death, who is just as peachy as the name suggests. If you've seen the Hellraiser movies, you can think of them as a type of Cenobites but inspired by the Four Horsemen. Judge Death is accompanied by Judge Mortis, Judge Fear and Judge Fire to make life shitty for everyone around them. Judge Fear is pretty useless against Judge Dredd though because he can't feel fear. Grab you pen, paper and dice and jump in!

As you know with Choose Your Own Adventure, you get a selection of actions to take throughout the story where most of them end up in brutal death (or is that just the stories I read?). Video Games like King's Quest must've been heavily inspired by these kind of books. It takes a bit of discipline not to read ahead in these books, especially the comic book ones where the imagery is right there in front of your eyes. A well designed book won't have the pathways you can take right next to each other, but require you to jump around from page to page, that way you decrease your chances of accidentally looking ahead.

It took me four tries to get through the Judge Dredd Adventure, that bastard Judge Death crushed my heart three times (he loves doing that) before I could find my way through the mansion that allowed me to trick him back to his own dimension (yeah, he never dies). But it was such a blast and now I have a craze for these CYOA books that I felt I needed to share with you guys. So dig in your cellars, check your flea markets or even better, go order some from your local book store. You will have some great non-screen-time fun.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Arx Fatalis (PC, 2002)

 I didn't really start playing PC games until around 2005, coincidentally just after World of Warcraft was released *cough*...

So when I say I have a special place in my heart for PC games from the time between 1995-2005 I suspect it must be false nostalgia at play. Or maybe these games just capture the essence of the zeitgeist in gaming for me, story-wise, graphics-wise and game design-wise.

Because of World of Warcraft it took me a long time to get around to actually playing games from this time, but since then I have slowly made my way through games like Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock 2 and Anachronox to mention some. If there is something I've learned that the main thing that is stopping me from enjoying these games is how badly the controls have aged.

This ogre makes questionable art.

And now I am at it again, playing the action RPG Arx Fatalis. Arx Fatalis was released in 2002 and developed by the French studio Arkane Studios. They went on to develop the much liked Dishonored games, of which I have played the first and really enjoyed it (you can read my review on that game here).

In Arx Fatalis you start out as an anonymous hero who has, surprise surprise, lost his memory. When you create your character you can choose which stats to focus in. I am not fooled anymore and always go for melee heavy stats, since magic usually turns out to be powerful but difficult to use in PC games of this era. Arx Fatalis is no exception, but more on that in a bit.

You wake up in a goblin prison, probably destined to become the meal of some monster, but fortunately for you getting out of said prison turns out to be quite simple. 

You can tell Arkane went a long way trying to make a control system that would fit everything that you should be able to do and also not be cumbersome. Compared to some of the solutions we have nowadays though they've definitely not ended up with the best system.

Your character can basically enter three different modes - combat, casting and inventory. To wield your weapon you have to press "tab" and to cast you have to press "ctrl" (at least in default setup on my version). You can't wield a weapon and cast a spell at the same time. Combat is straight forward enough, your weapons have a certain damage and durability, pressing the left mouse-button will let you swing it.

Casting is a different beast however. Arkane has opted for a system in which you as a player have to "write" certain magic runes, with your cursor, across the screen to cast them. Not only that, but you have to combine magic runes to do most spells. Add to this that the game is extremely finnicky when it comes to accepting your "drawings" and I pretty quickly realized that combat casting was not going to be a thing in this game. Fortunately the system allows you to pre-cast and store up to three spells to quick cast in combat. You find runes lying around in the game and I have yet to find any combat-worthy ones, so I can't say if magic is useful in combat or not.

The inventory works well, in a similar style to how I remember Diablo working. Basically a grid in which you can store items, certain items take up more slots than others. To use an item in your inventory you have to open it with right mouse-button and press F over the item. It's very unwieldy in combat, which might be intentional, but works fine outside of it. The system as a whole is a bit counter-intuitive to me and if you take a break from the game it takes a while to get back into, but it's perfectly acceptable.

Dark and claustrophobic!

The graphics are typical for the time. Dark and claustrophobic. The game is set underground, which is probably more because of technical limitations than active design choices, the story is just built around it as an excuse. This means everything is candle/torch lit, but it works well enough. Another classic for the time is the color scheme, which at least so far in the game has been 50 shades of brown. If there is music in the game I have not noticed it. The soundscape however is extremely... weird. Items, weapons, enemies are all making noises that work well, but the ambient noise are these odd swirly whirly sounds that just adds an extremely creepy atmosphere where it doesn't really fit. 

As far as I have gotten into the game, about 3 hours of gameplay, the story isn't about anything other than me trying to figure out who I am. As I escape the goblin prison I stumble upon an outpost that requires help from the kind. I promise to deliver a message to the king and then the king asks me for another favor and I reckon it is going to continue this way. Every here and there you come across some character that gives you an odd side quest or there is some other issue to solve. These problems are definitely not self explanatory, but neither are they obscure. Not far into the game I have to get past an ogre, but he won't let me. After trying to figure out how I can appease the ogre, I try to jump into the moat and sneak up the path behind him instead. That worked fine.