Apr 28, 2010

Dune Wars: The Dune mod for Civ IV

Dune Wars Civilization 4For some odd reason I haven't played a game of Civilization IV for more than a few years. Even more shockingly Civ IV has never been installed on my latest PC, despite being one of the first games ever reviewed for Gnome's Lair. Happily and thanks to this most interesting Rock Paper Shotgun post, things are about to radically change; apparently a new version of an excellent free mod for the game has been made available and it's all about Frank Herbert's political, epic, eco sci-fi masterpiece that was Dune.

The mod's name is none other than the rather apt Dune Wars and can be download in its spankin' new 1.8 version via modDB. It is of course free and apparently a total conversion of the original Civ IV, featuring a ton of new rules, buildings, graphics, units, models, sounds, factions, wonders, civ abilities and even AI, that should make this the best turn based strategy game in the Dune universe ever. The production values seem fantastic too, though nothing sounds as exciting as a worm eating up a unit or having the Guild transport units from other planets.

Here are the piccies that will whet your appetite (click for larger versions):

Dune Wars Civ IVDune Wars Civ 4Dune Wars Civilization IVCiv Dune mod

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Apr 27, 2010

ten gnomish questions / Matt Barton

Matt Barton is one of the smartest and most interesting people you can find online discussing, loving and showing off old & new games. Now, although you should preferably get to know him via his work on Matt Chat, the Amrchair Arcade and some rather impressive books, reading the following interview should be both enlightening and considered as an appetizer.

1. Matt, care to introduce yourself to the merry retro loving lot that are the Gnomeslair.com readers?

I'm Matt Barton, host of Matt Chat, a weekly YouTube show dedicated to classic games. I'm also co-founder of Armchair Arcade and author of Dungeons & Desktops and Vintage Games (co-authored with my friend and colleague Bill Loguidice). I'm also an assistant (soon to be associate) professor of English at St. Cloud State University, where I teach classes in writing, rhetoric, and new media.

2. And what would you say some of your favourite games are? Any particular love for a genre or a gaming machine?

My favorite genres are adventure games, role-playing games, and strategy games. Some of my favorites include Baldur's Gate, Pool of Radiance, World of Warcraft, Civilization, and the Nancy Drew series of adventure games. I have many consoles, but my favorite gaming device is the PC. Going further back, I will always be an Amiga and Commodore fan at heart.

3. So, Armchair Arcade, how would you describe the site and what's the story behind it?

We were friends on a forum dedicated to Shane R. Monroe's Retrogaming Radio show. We talked about putting together an online magazine, and eventually set it up. For awhile we focused on "issues" and tried to make it look like a retromag. We were amazed by how much attention it got, frequently mentioned on Slashdot and many other sites (even Slate and the Discovery Channel). Eventually, though, we morphed into a blog format and started selling our features to other sites (especially Gamasutra). Now we use AA as our home base for communicating to fans and fellow retrogamers, talking about our latest projects, and so on.

4. Same question on the incredibly well produced Matt Chat episodes... How did you decide to start a video show on retro games, and what would you say is this little something that makes Matt Chat unique (for, believe me, it is unique)? By the way, love that gaming wall you got in the background.

Matt Chat has come a long, long way in a short time. When I first started, it was just me and a webcam trying to hawk my books. The production quality was terrible! But I wanted to learn more about videos because Bill and I are producing a feature documentary for Lux Digital Pictures (Gameplay: The Story of the Videogame Revolution). I figured I needed more experience with videos to really handle a project like that, so I kept learning and experimenting, trying to refine my techniques. If you notice, I usually try to put in one more technique or one more refinement per episode, so I'm always learning something new.

I don't think Matt Chat is unique. There are many, many other YouTubers out there doing similar shows. For instance, ianwilson1978 does great work on the Sega Genesis and Marlin Lee covers a variety of games. I guess one thing that makes my show special is that I feature games from all platforms, especially covering PC and computer titles that the others miss. Most other shows are dedicated to consoles, especially Nintendo classics. I figure those games already get enough love, so I try to cover ground that is not covered by the other shows--such as Dungeons of Daggorath for the Tandy CoCo, Tunnels of Doom for the TI-99/4A, or even the PLATO platform. I also feature interviews with classic developers, such as John Romero and Al Lowe. I'll soon release my interview with Chris Avellone.

5. Really, is it tough producing something of this quality on a weekly basis?

It can be. Sometimes my editing program (Sony Vegas Platinum) crashes so much during rendering that I'm tempted to just give up. I would really love a better setup! The other big problem is capturing footage from games, especially old Windows games. Even with fraps, virtualdub, and the rest, it can be a nightmare sometimes capturing decent footage.

Other than these purely technical problems, though, it's not hard at all. I can easily come up with things to say, and I like researching the games anyway. I also enjoy inserting inside jokes and humor, and interacting with the fans is a real joy.

6. How about your books? They are two on games and one on Wikis, correct? Do you feel gamers actually bother reading?

I think most gamers are highly intelligent; at least the ones I talk to. I know plenty of professors and graduate students who are serious gamers. But, of course, there are many who never pick up a book. That is sad, of course, since I couldn't imagine living life without good books to read. It's really important to read good books, not just newspapers and such. You can always tell when you're talking to an avid reader, because he or she will be more knowledgeable on a broader range of topics--plus, I think it makes you more articulate and, frankly, intelligent. I had a friend who read War and Peace just for fun, but he told me later he felt more intelligent after reading it. Some people laugh at comics and graphic novels, but they are actually much more sophisticated now than they used to be. You could certainly learn a thing or two from Moore's work.

There's really no excuse for being ignorant. So read!

7. Now, let's focus a bit on the rather epic Dungeons and Desktops. Why CRPGs? Could you briefly describe the book? Has it sold to your expectations? Did you enjoy writing it?

It's pretty much what it says; the history of computer role-playing games. I tried to talk about every important or even remotely influential game in the book, describing what makes them fun and how they fit into the grand history of the genre. I tried to show connections across eras and styles, so you could get a sense of the diversity. Someone may have heard of Baldur's Gate, for instance, but be unaware of Planescape: Torment, Pool of Radiance, or Eye of the Beholder. I meet people who may know all about Zelda and Final Fantasy, but have never heard of Ultima or Lord British. That bothered me, so I thought it was time to write a book on the topic.

The book has sold well. Of course, something like this won't be a bestseller. But I wrote this book for people like us, not the mainstream. By "us," of course, I'm talking about people who love games like Wizardry and Fallout and enjoy nothing more than talking and thinking about them.

8. Should we expect more books from you? Maybe even a new project or collaboration?

Almost certainly, though it's very hard to find publishers interested in game books. I have been dying to write a book on adventure games similar to D&D, but no takers so far. Bill and I have been talking about a book on the Atari 2600, and I've got one on virtual worlds that needs development. We will probably also write a book based on our documentary.

9. And now for something that interests me quite a bit on a personal level. How did you really manage to -effortlessly, it seems- combine an academic career with all this quality work on computer and video games?

In a sense gaming is my job. A professor is expected to research as well as teach, and game studies is an important part of new media. I'm presenting on aspects of gaming at two national conferences later this year (Computers and Writing, Rhetoric Society of America). People tend to think of "English" strictly as literature and grammar, but it's far more than that! There are many of us studying games as well as other technologies like wikis and social networking. All of these things involve communication and rhetoric.

10. Finally, have you thought about actually creating a game yourself?

I have, though I'm not satisfied with the results! But a few years ago I taught myself C++ out of some books and made a simple adventure game, which I entered into the Interactive Fiction contest. I was shocked that it was 28th in the 12th annual interactive fiction competition. At any rate, it was fun learning C++, and I'd love to try something more ambitious one day.

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Apr 22, 2010

Darkstar - The Interactive Movie

Darkstar"It's more than a game. It's an interactive movie."

Takes you back to the mid to late nineties, doesn't it? The much-maligned age of the interactive movie, the ending of the adventure gaming golden years, but also the time when such FMV masterpieces as Gabriel Knight II and Wing Commander IV were released. Interesting times and, well, judging by the fact that Darkstar has been in development for probably more than ten years, I guess its little marketing slogan is more than okay. After all this will -allegedly- be a proper interactive sci-fi movie featuring over actors including the whole original cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and even the late Peter Graves.

What's more, we can be more than hopeful that Darkstar won't go the way Duke Nukem 3D. The brand new, extensive and most brilliant interview at Slightly Deranged will convince you and also let you know the story of the production so far, as well as offer some unique glimpses into the creative minds responsible for it. It is after all an interview with more than one participants. Go read it. Now.

More information -including further links, production stills, trailers, news and a synopsis- on Darkstar (by Parallax, mind) can be found on the game's official website, whereas the main trailer can be watched here. I'm quite amazed. Go FMV! Oh, and here's a rather ancient by Internet standards preview.

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Apr 20, 2010

S.K.U.N.K.Z. - The Shooter

SKUNKZ, doesn't only sound like something straight from the eighties, but actually plays like a glorious old school side scrolling shooter (that doesn't quite scroll), which, in my Spectrum-loving book, is a great thing. It's a simple, tough little game, with some excellent cartoon graphics that would shine in an arcade cabinet of yore and even features some interesting midi tunes. You can download the first episode of SKUNKZ (for free obviously) here. Oh, and I suggest you do try the cursor and s,d,f keys while gaming. Mind you, it could use some refinement in the controls department...

Apr 16, 2010

Eye^Game^Candy: Maniac Mansion

Maniac Mansion CoverManiac MansionManiac Mansion ScreenManiac Mansion by Lucasarts (then Lucasfilm) was released back in 1987 and was a truly revolutionary adventure game. It was after all developed and designed -mainly- by Ron Gilbert and was the original point-and-click adventure. The ur-adventure if you will. What you see above are images from the PC EGA version (oil, on canvas, on scanner).

Apr 14, 2010

Of plastic guitars and pop music - Band Hero

Band Hero WiiOne of the reasons I truly like and still enjoy my Wii despite that silly hardcore gaming debate, is that it easily manages to offer me a radically different gaming experience; especially when considering I've always been more or less a computer gamer. Interestingly, playing with Band Hero must be the pinnacle of such experiences, and I should know. I've had its ridiculously big box in my place since December and have since been moving those drums and guitars around in order to watch TV or access the DVD player in that crammed lair of mine on a daily basis.

Now, as I'm quite an impressionable gnome and not that experienced in the rhythm game genre, I would never attempt to actually and properly review Band Hero in contrast say to Rock Band or the earlier Guitar Heroes. Sorry about that, but that's what mainstream gaming sites are for. What I can do, on the other hand, is admit the fact that clicking on plastic buttons on a fake guitar, while friends attempt to sing to a most demanding karaoke machine and more friends bang on fake drums can be immensely enjoyable. The definition perhaps of a party game. A shockingly party-ish party game even, that can also be attended by people that aren't your average gamer. And women. And even babies. 

What's more, the whole Band Hero thing -starting from its brilliantly oversized boxed- feels like an (admittedly not erotic) toy made for adults. Getting hold of it feels almost as thrilling as getting that huge toy back when you were 10. And to think I really didn't care much for that sort of game... To think I believed it was nothing more than a pointless attempt at further commercializing music. Well, it is rally, but it also is extremely fun and actually feels like playing an instrument, at least as much as a flight simulator makes you feel like piloting a soviet fighter against the Nazis.

Anyway. Better not digress. Let's stick to some review stuff.

As a game Band Hero makes a great job of introducing new comers to the genre, feels real polished and judging by the fact that nobody among the people that tried it managed to impress on the more demanding difficulty settings, I guess it should offer enough of a challenge to satisfy those obsessed Guitar Hero 12-fingered masters. The song selection, though decent and quite rich, is not to my liking, but happily there are much better selections of songs to download, even though the prices aren't exactly bargains. Oh, and having a band of friends trying to play American Pie is quite the spectacle...

Verdict: I like it. Really. Don't quite know why.

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Apr 12, 2010

Three indie game reviews in one handy post

Mr Smoozles Goes Nutso

Mr Smoozles is an anthropomorphic cat. Nothing to shout about, I know, except he's an anthropomorphic cat starring in his very own web cartoon and a creation of Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky writer/artist Steve Ince, meaning he's a pretty smart cat indeed. Mr Smoozles goes Nutso, on the other hand, is quite obviously the game of said smart cat, which also happens to be a rather brilliant, humorous and particularly cartoony arcade adventure by -again- Steve Ince, sporting a preposterous plot about alien invaders, parallel realities, more anthropomorphic cats and mind control.

The game plays like a simplified adventure with some light arcade elements and mostly demands that the player solves simple puzzles, embarks on a few fetch-quests, avoids the rampaging Mr Smoozles and a few other enemies, explores the impressively detailed game world and generally stays alive. Nothing too demanding really, but excellent -if a tiny bit repetitive- fun dressed up with some lovely graphics and a suitably retro soundtrack. Oh, and do expect some brilliant and at times elaborate easter eggs, as well as more than a few references and nods to Revolution games.

You can (should, really) buy a copy and/or download the demo over here.

Galcon Fusion

Deep yet incredibly simple strategy games have been a firm favourite of mine ever since I spent eight hours waiting for a ship and playing Advance Wars. Happily Galcon Fusion doesn't have to be played under dire circumstances to be enjoyed and is probably one of the best games of this sort the PC has to offer. It really is simple to learn, incredibly addictive and an absolute bastard to master. All the player has to do, you see, is click on a planet and then click on another planet, and a fleet will leave the first and attack or strengthen the second. That's the basic gameplay mechanic and it only gets marginally more complex, as you learn that fleets can also be clicked on and that the mouse-wheel is a most lethal space war weapon.

Getting to grips with the whole thing and taking on multiple opponents in a variety of scenarios is -initially- a simple and extremely enjoyable experience. Try going for the game's challenging bits and online multiplayer masters though, and you'll discover the huge difference between simply enjoying and actually mastering Galcon Fusion. Can't find fault with it really, though truth be said it's not a game for everyone. Smart retro-visuals are quite nice too, though what should really impress retro lovers is the text-only mode of the thing.

Find out more, look at the iPhone version and give it a try here.

Grid Runner Revolution

When Grid Runner first appeared on the VIC-20 it was nothing more than a great but a simple and quite unassuming little budget game. Now, over 20 years later, Jeff Minter, the game's original creator, has evolved it into the absolute shmup extravaganza, complete with tons of levels, fluffy sheepies, amazing pyrotechnics, eye-melting visuals, an ear-melting soundtrack, many extras and that quirky Llamasoft humour. Oh, and some finely tuned shmup gameplay with some brilliant touches, that even manages to subtly innovate. Losing a life, for a example, can be mitigated by picking up a nice sheep, whereas each life is represented by a different ship (not sheep, mind) with unique features.

What's more, the (almost) original VIC-20 and C64 versions of the game have also been included, as well as an excellent Thrust-like game mode, online leaderbards and a wealth of other features, that make it an essential purchase. Yes, even people that don't really like shoot-'em-ups will enjoy this one. It really is excellent, and the free demo will easily convinve you.

To get a copy of Grid Runner Revolution (and of course the equally brilliant Space Giraffe) and all of Llamasoft's now freely available classic games just follow this woolly link.

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Apr 9, 2010

Senscape Interactive Unveiled

Good news everyone! And they are straight from Argentina and covered in creepy spider webs: the site of Senscape Interactive has just(-ish) gone live. No, really, follow this very imposing link and see for yourselves. The new company of Agustin Cordes (of Scratches and Risk Profile fame) and his band of merry adventurers is ready to let you know all about this -mostly adventure game focused- new development studio and its three upcoming releases. Yes, three, including the incredibly promising yet conveniently still unnamed Unnamable Project, the team is quite close to actually releasing. It will of course be a properly scary adventure. Even got its chilling teaser site ready.

What's more, the company logo looks fantastic. Quite reminiscent of a certain Infocom box actually. Oh, and here's the latest interview of Agustin Cordes. Was quite revealing at the time, mind.

Apr 7, 2010

A concise Monkey Island history

Created by Ron Gilbert with the more than significant help of both Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer and impressively appearing on everything from classic PCs to the Amiga, the Atari ST, Apple’s Macintosh, the SEGA Mega CD, the rather multimedia FM Towns Japanese home micro, your average Windows PC, the Xbox 360 and even the moderately modern PlayStation 2, the Monkey Island series is a definitive part of the history of the adventure game. It also most definitely is the funniest and most successful (most on-going too) series of point-and-clickers ever, and, well, here is its history; in a nutshell of course.

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

Monkey Island 1 The Secret of Monkey IslandThe game that started it all and the first adventure ever to have been simultaneously inspired by the book On Stranger Tides and -of all things- a Disneyland ride, Monkey Island 1 is a hilarious point-and-click game with a few darker bits, that is all about pirates. And monkeys. And some of the most surreal puzzles in the history of video gaming. And some lovely stylized art. And insult sword-fighting. And ghosts. And huge monkey heads. And introducing Guybrush Threepwood. The game was published -of course- by LucasFilm before it turned into LucasArts. Oh, and if you find the PC CD version, do go for it and enjoy an amazing reggae soundtrack too. An instant classic and a good enough seller to guarantee the continuation of the series and an excellent remake 19 years later. As for the secret itself, it has yet to be revealed.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991)

Monkey Island 2 LeChuck's revengeMy favorite MI installment, a sequel that bested its predecessor in every single department and probably the best comedy point-and-clicker I’ve ever enjoyed. Really. If you haven’t tried it, do yourselves a favor and grab a copy. Monkey Island 2 offers (among other things) two difficulty levels, lovely pixel-art VGA graphics, a brilliant soundtrack, an excellent selection of characters, a beard for Guybrush and the weirdest game ending sequence you could ever imagine. Which you can’t. Only Mr. Gilbert could and what he did come up with also happened to be a monumental cliffhanger. Then, as he left LucasArts before actually making the third game or revealing The Secret (tm), said monumental cliffhanger turned into a pretty unbearable one. Ah, yes, and do expect a remade special edition soon.

The Curse of Monkey Island (1997)

The Curse of Monkey IslandLacking Ron Gilbert, but still managing to cope with the series’ sublime first two entries (under the wise guidance of Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley), CMI still is a fantastic and gorgeous looking 2D adventure. It sports a then-new simplified interface, some excellent jokes, amazing hand-drawn graphics, above average though quite easy puzzles and more importantly Murray the Demonic Skull, one of the funniest Monkey Island characters ever. On the downside, MI lost its darker side, Guybrush got to marry Ellaine and the game was a bit on the shorter side of things, unfortunately lacking a proper ending. Still, it's an absolute classic. And wait till you hear a certain pirate-y song by some barbers. Anyway. Should you need further reasons to try CMI, know that both Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer think it’s a great game.

Escape from Monkey Island (2000)

Monkey Island 4 EMI Escape from Monkey IslandEscape from Monkey Island, EMI, Monkey Island 4… The black sheep of the family and unless I’ve missed something the last MI adventure game LucasArts managed to publish. The widely hated but critically acclaimed final installment, that signaled the end of an era and failed to be particularly funny. But, what is this all about? Why the hate? Well, because people tend to overreact, because it was the first Monkey Island game in 3D and because the interface is an impressive mess. Then again, there’s quite a bit of MI spirit in this one too. Not much, mind you, but there are enough references, satirical moments and familiar characters to make it a more than passable way to spend your point-and-clicking time. Actually, it's pretty good. And hard.

Tales of Monkey Island (2009)

Tales of Monkey IslandThe first episodic Monkey Island game ever and a rare moment that helped -almost- reunite the original team in order to come up with a truly excellent revival of the series. ToMI, a critical and commercial success, introduced new characters and islands, sported 3D graphics that felt correct, had some of the best puzzles in the series, managed to be properly funny and -importantly- brought that much needed darkness back into the game's universe. At times on par and even surpassing the original classics. Well done Telltale!

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