Jul 31, 2010

The Curfew wants You to stay In

The general immaturity of gaming can easily (and pretty simply) be seen by the impressive lack of any kind of political undertones in the vast majority of games released. Politics, let alone radical or progressive ones, in gaming both mainstream and indie are either left alone or are too reactionary and Hollywood-esque to be taken seriously. If you are not killing comically evil terrorists in ways to make even classic imperialists blush, then you are most probably jumping on mushrooms, in a medium that seems utterly indifferent to commenting on society.

Although an extensive post on the subject will at some point appear on this very blog, I'm happy -for now- to announce that the situation has gotten a tiny bit better with the release of The Curfew. It's a deeply democratic, free to play, web-based adventure game written by everyone's favourite Gillen: Kieron Gillen. What's more, The Curfew is both an incredibly well produced game and a good and rather unique adventure, sporting some great FMV moments with some pretty impressive actors.

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Jul 29, 2010

A look back at Red Baron

What you're about to read, is an excellent guest post by Bill, who is a blogger for thinkSMART, that came up with some rather intriguing educational DS games and even a little something for the Wii. Bill lives in Hell’s Kitchen, once game-tested for Dynamix, and was eaten by a Grue many, many times. You can read more of his material here.
Red Baron Stomping on turtles? Watching gravity win out against science with the help of fire and lead? Barrel rolls? Spinning hedgehogs doing loop-de-loops?

All of them fun, but limited in a sense. In the early 90s, games played out in little capsules. I could win the battle, build the city, save the princess, but it all disappeared the moment I flipped off the computer. Even the occasional game that told a story through the progression of levels felt hollow – there wasn’t much of a world behind whatever obstacles I’d been tasked to overcome.

It was like some perverted version of Descartes: I play; therefore, the world exists.

Red Baron screenshot DynamixThen along came a little company named Dynamix, a game maker determined to challenge my little philosophy. Red Baron was the first game I can remember that convinced me I was playing inside a “real” video game world, and that my actions had both immediate and broad implications on its future. The world, of course, was the Western Front of WWI. And from the moment you first signed on to join the fight against the German menace, the game kept a clock running on that world. Time crept forward between battles; as you moved along history’s timeline, battles were fought, world leaders met to make big decisions, and the war machine turned out technological advancements like faster planes, or machine guns that wouldn’t overheat as quickly.

Whether or not you got to use those cool new toys depended on how you flew, and Red Baron did a great job of rewarding good play. It kept track of your kills, how many times you’d been shot down, and if you’d managed to down one of Germany’s many “real-world” Aces. Rack up the kills, move into a better aerodrome. Better aerodromes meant better planes, and the chance to fly alongside one of the Allies’ elite Aces. Nothin’ wrong with some smarter AI piloting your wingman.

Between battles, you’d keep up with the “real world” through the game’s newspaper. I can’t tell you how proud I was (or how embarrassed I ought to be, today) when the newspaper’s lead story was on my bravery in shooting down some minor German Ace, or the stoic countenance I’d sported upon receiving my first medal. There was my teenage pride when, mouse in hand and Mountain Dew nearby, I’d read that my squadron’s efforts had led to a break in the lines, or frustration in reading about the Red Baron’s exponential kill-count. The newspaper was a (virtual) tangible anchor for the game’s sense of reality. Brilliant, really.

Reality didn’t begin and end with the in-game world, however. The various flyable planes each had their quirks, strengths and limitations. Guns would jam, often at the worst possible moment. One of the planes’ wings could literally rip off if you banked too hard, too often. You might parachute out of a plane and pray you avoid getting hit with flack.

Then there was the nightmare of your pilot taking a bullet from an enemy machine gun – as you lost blood, you’d begin to black out. Lose too much without finding an aerodrome or crash-landing (and hoping for a sympathetic farmer), adios. Game over. You’d have one last chance to read about your remarkable achievements and regrettable death in the aforementioned newspaper, and that was it. Reality was pretty harsh in WWI.

All of this would be for nothing if the gameplay wasn’t fun; luckily, it was amazing. The dogfights were edge-of-seat serious business, dodging around flack while emptying a machine gun into a zeppelin was the pinnacle of fun gaming. The game stomped its left foot in the muddy history of The Great War and placed its right foot in the shifting ground of an adjustable-reality flight simulator.

Red Baron put its feet down and straddled a line called “Best Game of Its Time,” and I’d dare anyone to try and knock it off.

Which is why I’m confused. It’s a strange phenomenon: Red Baron was – at the very least – the best flying game of its time, if not one of the best flight sims ever. In my opinion, it was the best game to come out around that period of gaming, beating out the likes of Civilization. For whatever reason, however, it’s also a game that today often goes un-remembered when bloggers and game magazines come up with “best of” lists. Strange.

Well, this is my little scream into the ether, for all it’s worth. Red Baron was and is one of the best games ever made, and God help you if you disagree.

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Fish Fish Bang Bang - The Preview

Aha! So, you never expected Rob Fearon would create an arena shooter using only one key... Well, it's quite understandable really, as nobody (ever) expects Rob to create an arena shooter using only one key. His chief weapon is, after all, surprise. Surprise and an incredible ability to create games that are immensely fun, weird and look as psychedelic as a cartoon version of the Yellow Submarine (a truly odd example admittedly, as the Yellow Submarine was quite a bit a cartoon). Oh, well...

Important thing is Fish Fish Bang Bang is -unexpectedly- almost here and you'll very soon be able to play its demo and (very soon after that) the complete version in all its indie glory. As for me, I did try the rather impressive early preview build of the thing and can confirm that, yes, this is a single-key arena shooter with surreal melt-o-vision graphics, outrageous sounds, addictive gameplay, unique mechanics and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. It also is fantastic little game, that can even play itself.

Find out more about Fish Fish Bang Bang over at the excellent Indiekombat, the equally excellent Bagfull of Wrong or, simply, by clicking here.

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Jul 28, 2010

Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7

Inform, the powerful and freeware interactive fiction design system that has recently made it to its seventh version, is something I've been meaning to learn for quite some time now. Well, for a bit longer than that actually, but it seems the time has finally come, or at least will come as soon as the brilliant-looking Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 book gets released. It will apparently be both a technical and an artistic guide to creating text-adventures and actually thinking in Inform 7. Wonderful! I'll finally get to create my magnum opus and condemn Zork into obscurity. Cunning!

Anyway. The book, written by A. Read, will be 448 pages long, and will impressively feature a prologue by Don Woods and some closing thoughts by Richard Bartle. You can of course pre-order it via Amazon, find out more at the author's blog and even try a silly little web-based piece of interactive fiction I just discovered here. Oh, and why not also give Twisty Little Passages a try?

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Jul 24, 2010

Adventure Lantern - August 2010 issue

Adventure gamers rejoice and grab the latest Adventure Lantern issue by being cunning and following this very link. Its 27 PDF pages are filled with the latest reviews, including those of Puzzle Agent by your truly, The Whispered World, Eternally Us, Black Mirror II and the newest (latest too; heh) Sam & Max episode. The magazine is -as has always been the case- absolutely free and the next issue is already being prepared for your reading and gaming pleasure. Enjoy and spread the word!

Jul 23, 2010

The Book of Graphic Adventures

Harnessing the collective powers of Wikipedia, the cunning and adventure-loving Philipp Lenssen created a lovely and extensive book covering point-and-click and parser-based adventure games. It's none other than the aptly named Graphic Adventures - Being a Mostly Correct History Of the Adventure Game Classics By Lucasfilm, Sierra and Others, From the Pages Of Wikipedia. The book covers all major adventures from Loom, Maniac Mansion and Labyrinth to Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry and Myst in more than 500 pages of edited, updated and enriched Wikipedia content.

Shockingly, the official word is most enlightening:

Did you love to play graphic adventures as much as I did, and want to learn more about them? The book Graphic Adventures is the mostly correct history of the adventure game classics by Lucasfilm, Sierra and others, from the pages of Wikipedia. The book features the tales behind games like Loom, Labyrinth, Mystery House, Maniac Mansion, Space Quest, The Secret of Monkey Island, King's Quest, Myst, Zork Nemesis and Leisure Suit Larry. The book was based on the pages of Wikipedia articles, which were edited and added to. Many game creators, like Al Lowe, David Fox and Peter Langston, are interviewed and provide further historical background on these games.

You can easily download yourselves a free digital copy here or -better yet- purchase a proper printed one, either via Amazon or via Lulu.

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Alien Swarm is enjoyable

Alien SwarmNo, really. And as anyone vaguely interested in games should already know, it's completely free too, making Alien Swarm a perfect opportunity (for me at least) to taste mainstream action gaming. Possibly an opportunity to taste creativity and modding too. Alien Swarm is after all more than a game; it's a modding platform that has already come up with some interesting maps, and the first co-op, online, multiplayer, third-person shooter I got to truly enjoy. How very odd. Must be the fact that it feels like Alien Breed I suppose. Still prefer the old digital joystick, mind.

Jul 22, 2010

The (beautiful) Dream Machine

I hate cockroaches. I absolutely loathe 'em and feel disgusted by the mere mention of those satanic little helpers of the Zerg. I never even managed to play Bad Mojo, despite the excellent reviews and yet I'm oddly drawn to The Dream Machine, despite it being a Cockroach Inc. production. Even despite that terrifying cockroach on the developer's logo. I mean, really, what's wrong with these people? Couldn't they have used a puppy or a naked elf or something for that?

Anyway. The main reason I surpassed my urge to scream and decided to give The Dream Machine a try was that its graphics are impressively made out of cardboard and clay, and that the game uses stop-motion animation. It looks of course absolutely beautiful. Gorgeous. Utterly brilliant. On par with the oft forgotten Neverhood. Oh, yes, and the fact that it's a European, indie, adventure game did help quite a bit too.

Thing is, I'm delighted I played the game's demo, signed up for the beta and played through the first free chapter of the game. This is not merely a beautiful game sporting literally hand-made graphics, but a proper -and dare I say, great- adventure too, complete with good and varied puzzle design, excellent dialogue, atmospheric music and a most interesting plot involving a young couple moving into a rather odd new apartment. You owe it to yourselves to at least play the demo. You'll surely go on and play the first (still in beta) chapter after that. The Dream Machine, you see, is easily one of the best adventures I've ever played, and I do believe everyone should try it.

Oh, and while you're waiting for the rest of the chapters to come out and for Gnome's Lair to further cover the series, you can watch the beautiful trailer posted below, visit the official site and find out how the game was created via the Dream Machine blog.

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Jul 21, 2010

Gemstone Dragon: a short Review

Gemstone Dragon, or The Quest for the Gemstone Dragon to give it its full name, is as traditional a CRPG as one can imagine, provided one imagines something not entirely dissimilar to Baldur's Gate.

Actually, Gemstone Dragon is the most Baldur-eque gaming experience I've had for quite sometime, what with its sword and sorcery plot, the traveling around fantasy worlds, the looting of corpses, the quests and side-quests, the real time combat and a plot about some sort of ancient evil rising in the way ancient evils always rise in games like this: covered in conspiracy. Now, even though its game-mechanics are not based on D&D, the game remains as traditional as one can imagine, starting off with the player selecting a portrait and his/her gender and going on to gain xp, fame and shiny bits of armour.

Gemstone Dragon

RPG tradition is also evident in the simple decently done tutorial that eases you into an intuitive interface, the simple yet very D&D rules system, the inventory and all those skills, basic attributes, levels, etc.

Tradition of course is no bad thing. Especially, when a tried game logic is applied to an inspired project filled with smart touches, as is the case with Gemstone Dragon. After a while you'll forget all about mechanics, systems and interfaces, and be immersed in classic, monster brutalizing adventure to save a fantasy world. You'll meet interesting NPCs, animals, foes and monsters, visit towns and dungeons, and -generally speaking- have a proper old-school CRPG experience.

What's more, the game does offer something new, and I'm not referring to the lovely journal and the handy automap. No, all of Gemstone Dragon is made in flash and playable online, proving that flash can really handle huge, deep games, complete with all the graphics, save/load functions, animations, sounds and texts necessary. It does come with a few hiccups of course -you can't for example use the right mouse button- but it's still impressive. Would be even better if the world map could be scrolled with the cursor keys, mind...

As for the graphics, they are lovely and properly 2D, with enough detail to help your imagination do something. The sound on the other hand is mainly functional, but does help with the overall atmosphere of Gemstone Dragon. Everything actually feels like running on a simplified version of the Infinity engine.

You can try a demo of Gemstone Dragon and buy both its online and downloadable version at the game's official site.

Verdict: You probably already know if you care for Gemstone Dragon or not. It's as honest a game as is humanly possible. As for me, I definitely enjoyed it.

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Jul 20, 2010

Enter the Chamber of Horrors

HorrorSome of you have already discovered it, but I'm pretty sure most of my dear Gnome's Lair readers (btw, whatever happened to them groupies, eh?) have not visited the Chamber of Horrors just yet. Well, you should. Really. It's all about the different aspects and genres of horror -yes, games too- and is being run by yours truly and a friend that apparently shares a few of my more morbid and disturbing obsessions; or not. Oh, and spreading the word a bit would be nice too.

Remix XONG - Create Stuff

I haven't played XONG, I have never entered a creative competition and I definitely never remixed anything, but I just can't help entertaining the idea of entering the XONG Remix compo. After all, this is an open-source, freeware, procedurally generated puzzle-combat game, that can be edited and modded and changed and toyed with by non-programmers. And there's a competition without proper prizes attached to it too; a compo to act as our creative incentive. XONG looks very unique too. Oh, come on, do get interested!

[Update:] The competition has began in earnest and you can get your updates via the lisp games dev blog.

Jul 19, 2010

(Shock?) Preview: The Clockwork Man - The Hidden World

I really don't believe in the strict separation of the casual and the hardcore gamer, but I also am not particularly fond of those games that are explicitly described as casual themselves. As for them hidden object offerings, well, I've tried a couple, enjoyed their generally good art, but never really felt immersed or deeply interested; let alone wildly entertained.

I was thus more than skeptical when approaching the preview copy of The Clockwork Man: The Hidden World. It was supposedly a hidden object thingy, though admittedly one created by a developer that really excelled at the genre: Total Eclipse Games. And, yes, the teaser screenshots and trailers were definitely on the beautiful side of things and enough to get me initially interested. It apparently was a game of the steampunk persuasion too, that even claimed to sport some genre innovations and proper adventuring bits, that actually turned out to be rich enough to cover everything from inventory-based puzzles, to Myst-styled ones to exploring areas and interacting with characters.

The Clockwork Man The Hidden World

Incredibly, and after playing through the first chapters of The Hidden World, I must admit this looks like a particularly impressive and shockingly deep game, with an interesting plot, great production values and some truly gorgeous graphics. What's more, the hidden object elements are well implemented -actually enjoyable!- and mostly serve as the inventory gathering part of most traditional adventures. As for the game's adventure elements themselves, well, they are definitely there and -from what I did see for this preview- work very well.

So, uhm, yes, I strongly suggest you give this one a try. Should you decide to pre-order it (you've got till the 21st of July), you'll also be getting a free copy of the original Clockwork Man game along with a lovely selection of digital extras, including both the PC and Mac versions of the game in their glorious DRM-free forms.

The Clockwork Man 2

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Jul 16, 2010

Märklin HO and toy trains

Märklin train

Now, I'm not quite sure if most of the Gnome's Lair readers will be interested in little electrical models of trains and tiny model breweries, but, well, I thought that model-making is closely related to Warhammer and playing with toys is a sort of gaming too, so, uhm, please bare with me. After all, it's not everyday one discovers a forgotten hobby and this is exactly what happened to me yesterday, when me and the lady of the lair decided to unpack my ancient Märklin sets in order to design a coffee-table/diorama hybrid.

Yes, indeed. We'll be creative in a very hands-on way and hopefully come up with something beautiful, unique and very retro, as the origins of this very train-set are almost lost in antiquity. Or at least trace back to a few months after I was born...

The good news is, everything seems to work fine (yes, the trains, the crossings, the lamps, everything) and we'll start working immediately. Oh, and I'll be posting pictures and updates as regularly as possible. Hope you luvs enjoy this one too.

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Jul 15, 2010

Meet Manic Miner

Manic Miner

It has come to my attention that the majority of this blog's brilliantly smart and generally gorgeous readers are not, in fact, European, meaning that they most probably remain unaware of the classic platform game that was Manic Miner. This situation is of course unacceptable, as Manic Miner is my all-time favourite game of the genre and easily sits among my top 10 games ever. It also is a game everyone must play; preferably on the platform it was created for: the ZX Spectrum.

Manic Miner, the prequel to Jet Set Willy, in what can only be described as a really brief history lesson, was developed for the 8-bit ZX Spectrum back in 1983 by teen programmer and cult-icon Matthew Smith and published by Bug Byte, only to be later re-released by Software Projects (Smith's new company) and eventually get itself (officially) ported on almost everything that could load games, including the C64, the Amiga, the Oric-1, the Z88, the Amstrad CPC, the Dragon 32, Nintendo's GBA and even the Sam Coupe. Interestingly, most of these ports added new levels, new enemies and new ideas, which have finally been compiled into Manic Miner: In the Lost Levels; the best Nintendo DS game ever. But, as is customary, I digress.

Manic Miner ZX Spectrum

The game itself was inspired by Bill Hogue's Miner 2049er and was a single-screen platform game, that saw Willy, Manic Miner's protagonist, jump over surreal enemies and deadly pits, collect keys and avoid a variety of traps in order to beat 20 incredibly difficult caverns (levels). And when I say difficult, I really mean it. I've been playing the Speccy version of Miner Willy (without cheats or emulator-based saves; yes, I do have my hardcore gaming fetishes too) for over 20 years and have reached the final level only twice. I can achieve the perfect playthrough of the first 10 caverns without even thinking, mind, but still can't beat the game with the meager three lives provided.

Manic Miner Central Cavern

But, why do I persevere with it? Simple. The enjoyment provided is unequaled. Manic Miner, you see, is a masterfully crafted platformer; a true masterpiece in game design. It demands pixel-perfect precision and swift pattern recognition, yet is never unfair, boring or confusing. Each level is entirely unique both in mechanics and in appearance, utterly demented, has a ridiculous name ranging from Attack of the Mutant Telephones to The Menagerie, and features its very own assortment of enemies. And yes, the enemies have to be seen to be believed, as the game attacks gamers with an outrageous selection of baddies that includes mutant telephones, seals, Ewoks, Pac-Men, killer toilettes, Kong Beasts, penguins, safes and (much) more.

Then again, words can't do Manic Miner justice. You simply have to play it. Preferably with a Kempston-compatible joystick.

Find out more about Manic Miner over at Wikipedia, MobyGames, and of course World of Spectrum, where you can also download the game or even play an online emulated version. What's more, there are quite a few related Gnome's Lair posts that will definitely interest you:

Jul 14, 2010

The Gnome's Lair Nutso Competition

The time has come for the first ever Gnome's Lair competition, that will let us all recklessly celebrate, you know, the joys of life and indie creativity I guess. Anyway. Hooray for that, and hooray for your chance to win one whole and wholesome copy of the demented, excellent and gorgeous indie arcade-adventure (with puzzle bits in it) Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso by Steve Ince. And just to convince you of the quality of said prize, here's a link to the demo and one to my relatively recent review.

To enter the competition you can do one of the following things: a) make a tiny game/piece of art/photo that's somehow related to Mr. Smoozles or Gnome's Lair and mail it to me, b) write a blog (or twitter or facebook) post linking to your favourite Gnome's Lair article and leave a comment about it, and c) leave a comment here detailing which is your favourite Steve Ince game. Easy, eh? Well, at least it sounds interesting. You've got two weeks. 

Good luck everyone!

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Jul 12, 2010

Eye^Game^Candy: Alone in the Dark

Alone in the DarkAITDAlone in the Dark 11992, the year the original and -by far- the best Alone in the Dark game was released, was also the year the modern survival horror was born. It even was the year that gave Lovecraft fans that were sick of text adventures something else to play with: a dark, atmospheric, skillfully paced, smart game with odd angles, atmospheric sounds and terrifying geometry. Looks brilliant and surreal to this day too.

Jul 11, 2010

King's Quest: The Silver Lining

Kings Quest: The Silver Lining ScreenshotBelieve it or not, the first episode of The Silver Lining has been released! Yes, after years of legal troubles the talented indie heroes of Phoenix Online have made it and now you dear King's Quest starved adventurers can finally download and play TSL Episode One: What is Decreed Must Be via the Silver Lining site. A fully-3D and properly adventury episode where -once again- King Graham will have to save the day and pay a visit to everyone's favourite Green Isles.

Jul 10, 2010

The War on Terror: The Auctions

The War on Terror Boardgame

I'll be honest and say I've never played The War on Terror board-game and haven't really been following TerrorBull Games. Apparently that's been quite a mistake of mine as a) The War on Terror seems like a truly great and impressively illustrated satirical game, and b) as TerrorBull definitely has a taste for the weird, the humorous, the political and the downright odd. In a nutshell? Well, I'll have to do my research or most probably grab a new board game and let you know what the fuss is all about.

After all, the second edition of The War on Terror will soon be released. And -according to its publishers- it will be great. Spectacularly so. Oh, and yes, you can also get your cute little faces on the game's money via one, two, three, four, five, six outrageous auctions. It's all part of the aptly (let alone, cunningly) named Get Your Face on Money craze funded by the ever-popular World Bank of Capitalism. Or -of course- not.

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Jul 9, 2010

Senscape unveils the Asylum

Asylum concept art

Finally, the time has come for the burden of a terrible secret to be lifted... Senscape, the new company where Agustin Cordes of Scratches fame is being all creative, has officially unveiled its forthcoming horror game and I can speak freely. I can even mention its name (hint: it's Asylum). As for you, dear and fearless readers, well, you should visit the brand new official site of Asylum, where you can happily get scared away or -at least- download the trailer, enjoy the concept art, meet most of the characters that inhabit the Asylum and find out more about the project. Possibly even understand what those weird videos I'd been posting were all about.

The Asylum itself will be a horror adventure set in a creepy and well-researched mental institution, and -judging from what I've seen and inquisitively found out- will sport the most impressive graphics engine ever developed for an adventure. It'll be the same engine that will allow players to fully explore the huge mental institute, while frightening them silly. The game will be out sometime in 2011, and you can meanwhile entertain yourselves by watching the trailer posted below and by either visiting the game's or Senscape's site (or both).

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Jul 8, 2010

Gentlemen, upgrade your Planescape Torment

Having only played a bit of Planescape Torment ages ago and having finally grabbed the DVD re-release of the game, I've decided to properly play through the whole thing and let myself enjoy the delights of this apparently delightful game. Cunningly, I also decided to be all modern and contemporary about it and mod, patch and update the thing to perfection. Or as close to perfection as possible.

At the very least I did manage to improve the game's visuals from this:

Planescape Torment

... to this (click the images to see how impressive the differences are):

Planescape torment widescreen

But, first thing first. You'll have to start by downloading and installing the final official patch found here. Then download and install the Widescreen Mod you can find here, which will allow Planescape to run in any resolution you care to mention, even if said resolution is not widescreen. The next step is to eradicate the graphical glitches and interface problems that arise from said high-res graphics via this mod and you'll be ready to enjoy Planescape Torment in all its glory.

Further enhancements can come in the form of this brilliant fix-pack or the extra quests of the Unfinished Business mod and the Candlestick Quest mod. Oh, yes, and you can always try the latest Tweak Pack too.

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Jul 5, 2010

The Sierra Chest Interview

Having already mentioned the excellent online museum that is
The Sierra Chest, I thought retro gamers, adventure lovers and fans of Sierra would care to find out more about this particular corner of the web. Here's Rudy Marchant, the curator and collector of all things Sierra, to enlighten us all on said legendary company, collecting games, classic adventures and the Chest itslef.

1. Let's start with a bit on you. Uhm, what can you tell our readers about yourself?

My name is Rudy Marchant, a Belgian in his mid-thirties. I live in a small village in Slovenia (that tiny country on the sunny side of the Alps) and basically have 2 very different occupations: 1) independent trader on the US stock market and 2) my little obsession: Sierra On-Line. I know... weird combination...

2. And how did you get into gaming; adventure gaming in particular?

When I was about 7 years old, around 1983, I spent a night at my cousin's house. It was the first time I saw and played with a console. I remember playing Pacman and Space Invaders until the early hours. I was hooked immediately. It would however take several more years before I would play a game again, but I never forgot the thrill of playing those arcades. Then one day in 1988, my father brought a copy of King's Quest IV home from work. It was rather exceptional since my parents considered computer games to be a waste of time. I didn't care which company developed the game, or that it weren't the original floppies. It was the first game i played in many years, and my first adventure game. Then in the early nineties, since I still couldn't afford to buy games myself, I started getting copies of games from class mates in high school. The games were from different styles and publishers: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dune 2, Wolfenstein, Street Fighter 2, among others. Halfway the nineties I started making some money with small student jobs, and of course that went all into computer games.

3. Why Sierra?

One of the first games I bought was Sierra's 15th anniversary King's Quest Collection. Obviously because I had played King's Quest IV to death, I was curious to play the other titles as well and loved every bit of them. The King's Quest collection came with a Sierra games catalog, so that's how I became familiar with all the Sierra titles of those days. Imagine discovering Space Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Gabriel Knight, Phantasmagoria and more in just a couple of minutes by leafing through that little booklet! At the same time these titles were released as Sierra Originals (budget re-releases), so with my tiny budget I started buying the Sierra Originals which seemed most appealing to me. First the most appealing by the cover: Larry 6, lol. Then followed Gabriel Knight 2, Phantasmagoria, and so on, usually one new title per month. It went on like that for years and a small Sierra collection was born.

4. When did you decide to start collecting Sierra games?

The real collecting started not so long ago actually. Around 2003 I joined the official Sierra forums and learned the most about Sierra On-Line and their massive game range. All I knew thus far were the games they released since halfway the nineties. With exception of the Quest series, I hadn't even heard of the other classics, such as Laura Bow, the Conquests games, Manhunter, the Hi-Res Adventures and so on. That's also when I found out the horrible truth that Sierra On-Line as independent designer and publisher in fact didn't exist any more since the CUC fraud and 1999's Chainsaw Monday. In addition to playing Sierra's games, I got intrigued by the corporation itself and its people. The Sierra forums and its members, many of which I am still in contact with to this day, were a rich source of information. I began digging all over the internet for any information I could find, over the years gathering extensive knowledge on Sierra's corporate history, every single game they released, every company they worked with, and more. I guess that's when the obsession knocked in. Then I opened an eBay account and started gradually acquiring all these games from 1980 on.

5. And why not just the Sierra developed games?

That is actually a tricky question, because what is a Sierra developed game? Some would consider it only those games published by the Oakhurst studio, but even some of the old Sierra games were outsourced to other external developers, such as the Manhunter games (by Evryware) and Thexder games (by GameArts). Other people would also include the games of Sierra's acquired companies such as Impressions, Papyrus, Coktel Vision and Dynamix, companies which continued existing several more years after the Oakhurst studio was closed. By the time I knew Sierra's history, my collection already contained many games of which development was fully outsourced, published by Vivendi Games with just the Sierra logo printed on it. In addition, since I had become a moderator on the Sierra forums, I needed to stay up to date with the latest Sierra/Vivendi releases to help out the gaming community with technical and gameplay issues. Besides, there are many Vivendi/Sierra games, which I thoroughly enjoy, so I figured I might as well collect everything from 1980 to 2008. 2008, the year that Activision and Vivendi Games merged, is where the collection ends.

6. So, how many titles have you got?

I currently have around 330 different boxes, Sierra only, and the collection expands by about five boxes per month. Still a long way to go. As for the number of titles, I have no idea. Some titles I have multiple times in different releases and some boxes contain multiple titles.

7. What would you say are your three most prized possessions?

3) Ultima I: The Original. This is the 1983 release under the SierraVenture logo of the legendary RPG, made by Lord British. Not extremely hard to find, but hard to get. It occurs once or twice per year on eBay but is highly sought by collectors and bids run quite high every time.

2) Hi-Res Adventure #4: Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, the 1982 SierraVenture re-release in large folder. Not only hard to find but also still shrink-wrapped.

1) Hi-Res Adventure #1: Mystery House, the On-Line Systems release. It's the first game ever made by Sierra On-Line (back in 1980 still named "On-Line Systems") and the first computer game ever with graphics. My 7-year search for it finally ended last month. In addition, Ken and Roberta Williams (founders of Sierra On-Line and makers of the game) have kindly agreed to autograph it. So yes, this one has a definite first place.

8. Tell us a bit about the amazing Sierra Chest website.

I was planning to make a website about Sierra On-Line years before the Chest was created, but didn't do it due to my lack of programming skills. When it was announced on the former Sierra forums that, following the Activision-Blizzard merger, the Sierra forums were going to be taken down, that triggered me to launch the Sierra Chest in October 2008. Some other forum members also started their own Sierra fansite at that time and these individual independent sites are connected through a portal, known as the Sierra Gateway, of which the Sierra Chest is also a member.

I hired a programmer to create the basic design of the Chest: the layout, the underlying databases and the programming code. Then it was just a matter of filling up the databases with texts, images, videos and more. All this content is inserted by me. The site is a long-term project and will eventually contain every game developed and/or published by Sierra On-Line from 1980 to 2008, so also the Vivendi Games released under the Sierra logo. Each inserted game is covered in detail, with video and text walkthroughs, making-of sections, tech support, credits, strategies, music, demos, wall papers, you name it. In addition there will be a detailed corporate history, tons of biographies, printed publications (catalogs, InterAction magazines,...) and lots more. It's a lot of work, but it's all gradually happening.

In addition to the Sierra Chest site, there is also its Facebook profile. About a year ago, i set it up with the intention to market the site a bit more. What I did not expect however was that, pretty soon, Sierra alumni would join up as well. The word spread around pretty fast and now there are nearly 100 Sierra alumni on the Sierra Chest's Facebook profile. It is astonishing how these people, more than 10 years after Sierra's demise, are still connected with their fans and each other, talking about the good old days and sharing their stories. They also often help me out, providing additional information about the games, pictures, concept art, and such. They are very open and helpful and I learn new things from them almost every day.

9. Any particular Sierra (though not necessarily Sierra only) plans for the future?

I assume you mean plans for the Sierra Chest? If I'd have a few million bucks to spare, I'd probably be crazy enough to go knock on Activision's door with particular intentions though, lol.
As for the Chest, yes, aside from inserting game data, which is a continuous job, I'm also expanding the site to a new level. So far the Chest is purely an informative site. I want to make it more interactive, so the Sierra fans can also contribute to the site's content and get more fun from it. This would involve setting up site membership, new forums, some online Flash games, allowing members to upload screenshots, write reviews and so on. The more site members visit and contribute, the more features get unlocked, such as collectibles, new Flash games, Sierra music and so on. In addition it would help me a great deal as the members would lift some work of my own shoulders, speed up the growth of the site, and have fun in the process.

10. What would your advice to starting collectors be?

Each game is a labor of love by its makers and has its own story. Research what you collect. If you research Sierra On-Line and discover its rich history, then the collection gets a far deeper meaning.

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Jul 2, 2010

The evils of Phenomenon 32

I've been meaning to write about Phenomenon 32 for quite some time now, but hurdle after hurdle, combined with the fact that this is an impressively vast game, shamed this very Lair to a belated coverage of the game. Still, better late than ever, eh? After all, the thing is still around, freeware as ever.

So, uhm, let's start with some basic facts first. Phenomenon 32 was developed by Jonas Kyratzes, the immensely (multi) talented, inventive and controversial developer of The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge and The Museum of Broken Memories, and can briefly be described as a black and white, 2D, exploration, platform game, albeit one with quirky RPG and strategy elements. The game can be downloaded here.

Phenomenon 32, being Kyratzes' most ambitious project so far, is much more than the sum of its parts. Besides the beautiful black and white visuals, its atmospheric soundscape and a deeply depressing and simultaneously surreal game world, Phenomenon 32 is an incredibly immersive experience, designed to be savored slowly and carefully. It is after all a hard and demanding game, that simply cannot be completed in one sitting. It also is a game filled with surprises and little touches of excellence, that go far beyond what you might expect from a free game.

As for the plot, well, it's one of the best I've ever encountered in a video game ever and a key part of Phenomenon 32. Set in an alternate version of the 70s the game is engrossing, deeply political, truly unique and thought-provoking, and is supported by some quality writing and impressive voice-work. You really have to play it. Really.

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Jul 1, 2010

Desert Island Disks

Imagine yourself stranded on a tiny salty island of the Pacific with nobody to talk to, no access to the Internet, no way to communicate with the rest of mankind, no smoked salmon delivery service, no books, no sex toys, nothing but a super-computer-console emulator thingy that could play each and every game ever. Now, imagine you weren’t an anti-social sociopath. Wouldn’t that be dreadful? Of course it would. You’d hate the place.

Anyway. Having established the setting, would you now be so kind and imagine you were foresighted enough to have brought some of your dearest games with you so as to, you know, sort of ease the pain of boredom? Great! What would them games be? Too shy to speak, huh? Well, suit yourself dear reader (better yet leave a comment), but here are my Desert Island Disks (CDs/DVDs too), all selected for their endurance, in a a feature inspired by the excellent Retro Gamer magazine.

Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

Sid Meier’s Civilization IVNot as groundbreaking as its esteemed grandfather, I’ll give you that, but definitely the pinnacle of the ever-evolving Civ series and a game I believe I could play forever. Well, provided I have some mods within reach. Still, trying to beat it at the toughest setting, experimenting with a variety of tactics, playing the tons of available scenarios (random or not), reflecting on human progress, preparing never-to-be-published attacks on its mechanistic understanding of societies and living out megalomaniac fantasies should be both highly enjoyable and appropriately time consuming. Even in solitude and without the multiplayer aspect of the game. Then, should the rescuers really take their time, there’s the excellent editor/modding tools to get creative with.

Elite Plus

Elite PlusElite was huge, brilliant and a smash hit that all but dominated the home computing scene. It sported gazillions of planets to visit and/or exploit, the option to play anything from a space-pirate, to a bounty hunter, to a lawful trader and -importantly- provided with some rare opportunities at daydreaming. Shockingly, this amazing space-sim-opera of a game hasn’t aged a day. Well, ok, one day. Elite Plus cunningly updated the graphics to glorious 16-bit quality, without touching the core game and is thus the marginally better choice. Freeware remake Oolite is also excellent, but I'd rather have boxed copies on my island.

Day of the Tentacle

Day of the TentacleAdventures, my favorite genre, are unfortunately ill-suited for the desert island environment, what with their total lack of replayability. A shame, for Monkey Island would have been so appropriate. Thankfully, though, it’s been over 10 years since I last touched Day of the Tentacle and I’m bound to have forgotten most of the puzzles. Besides, there’s the full version of Maniac Mansion -one of the few Lucasarts games I have never finished- included as a game within a game. Oh, and as far as adventure games go, this is one of the best. Tim Schafer designed it you know.

Championship Manager 97/98

Championship Manager 97/98Unless you have actually played Championship Manager (or Football Manager after them corporate people got it all mixed up) you just can’t understand the sheer brilliance of this coach/manager sim. It’s the only game that, while being as utterly realistic as it is, can keep you up till 6 o’ clock in the morning chain-smoking yourself to the next division. Or the Championship League finals. If you love football, you’ll love CM, and if you love CM you'll love the perfectly balanced 97/98 edition.

Diablo II & expansion pack

Diablo III wouldn’t really call Diablo or its sequel a true CRPG, but I would definitely describe both of them as extremely addictive, time-consuming, fun and oddly atmospheric games. Oh, yes, and as action heavy hack-and-slash offerings set in a dark and horribly clichéd fantasy world featuring many nasty little (and pretty huge) devils too. Then there are them randomly generated levels and the huge variety of enemies, weapons, spells, you name it, that make sure the Diablos last more than roughly a dozen of your average FPSs. Obviously Diablo II is the better game, whereas Lord of Destruction is a typically brilliant Blizzard expansion. On the other hand, I might just go for Ron Gilbert's forthcoming Deathspank.

Heroes of Might & Magic III

Heroes of Might & Magic IIII must have wasted quite a bit of my life on this one already, but nevertheless I’m sure I could waste a bit more. Especially if stranded on a bloody island. Heroes of Might and Magic III, you see, a game I usually spell Heroes of Might and Magick for some peculiar reason, is a superb turn-based strategy affair, that is incredibly simple to get into and incredibly difficult to master. HOMM III is played on three levels (World exploration/strategic - City/resource management - Battlefield/tactical level) and happily excels at each one. Also sports tons of missions to beat. Failing to grab a copy of it (quite impossible as I own at least three), I guess I could settle for the admittedly decent HOMM V, even though I still prefer my 2D graphics. HOMM IV is just despicable, mind you.

Sensible World of Soccer

Sensible World of SocceSimply the best version of the best footie game ever and something you really have to play on an Amiga to truly appreciate. The pace is just right, the game actually feels like playing -not watching- football, the stylized graphics are pure genius and SWOS goes as far as to provide with an expanded team management bit. Probably needs a classic, sturdy digital joystick too, you know, for the complete experience. Infinitely replayable, despite the fact I can easily win the Euro Cup with Malta.

TIE Fighter

TIE FighterWing Commander was great, X-Wing was better and TIE Fighter is simply above anything else. Getting to play the bad guy -with an option for joining the order of the abominably nasty- while flying one of those highly maneuverable though totally shield-less TIE thingies, was a fantasy come true and one I’m eager to relive. Happily, I haven’t played the thing for ages either, so I guess it should last me for a good 50-60 hours, what with its training missions, dozens of historic battles and three (if I remember correctly) pretty hefty campaigns. I could of course go for its Collector's Edition, that comes packed with extra missions and spaceships.

The Lost Treasures of Infocom

The Lost Treasures of InfocomIt's a compilation, I know, but I wouldn't call picking this one cheating. It was after all sold as one hefty old-fashioned box, and comes with enough reading material to make me happy for a week. It also sports 20 of the best, most difficult and most captivating text adventures ever produced, that could last anyone a lifetime, especially if those handy hint guides were misplaced.

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