Sunday, March 11, 2018

Toejam and Earl

ToeJam and Earl is a quirky, humorous, two-player take on the roguelike genre released on a home console, making it an unusual departure for the genre on several fronts.  But does this game succeed at providing a memorable and fun experience, or is this one randomly-generated adventure you can safely skip?

Greg Johnson is a name known to many fans of classic CRPGs, having helped develop the two Starflight games.  Said games were highly acclaimed in their heyday, featuring a vast and almost completely randomly-generated galaxy for the player to explore, encounter alien races and collect resources in.  Drawing obvious influence from Star Trek, but also the classic title Rogue, it proved to be a hit and remains a genre classic to this day.

After attaining some success with later EA projects, he and Mark Voorsanger (another Starflight 2 developer) formed their own studio and began to produce a Rogue-like title for the Sega Genesis, Toejam and Earl.  However, it would prove to be an atypical example of the genre - rather than being set in a medieval fantasy world, it would be set on modern Earth, and the protagonists would be two crash-landed aliens attempting to rebuild their ship and return home.  Playing on the unusual concept, quirky enemies like chickens with mortars, mad scientists and runaway ice cream trucks would become common sights in the game, and the powerups within it would be equally bizarre.

Treasure chests in the game take the form of wrapped presents, which can contain a variety of items that can help or hinder the player, and which items each box contains are randomized in each new game.  These include spring shoes allowing one's character to leap over hazards and take shortcuts, rosebushes to stop pursuing enemies, rocket skates that allow very quick (albeit hard to control) movement over both land and water, and the occasional slingshot or basket of tomatoes to defeat persistent enemies.  Negative ones include the "Total Bummer" (which instantly causes one to lose a life), a raincloud that depletes the player's health for a short period, or, perhaps worst of all, the Randomizer, which scrambles the effect of all gift boxes and forces the player to start from scratch figuring them all out again.

Money also makes an appearance in the game, though as in most rogue-likes, opportunities to spend it are somewhat scarce.  The most prominent use is to order various one-use items from mailboxes, but a few others exist as well.  One can pay a wizard to fully restore their character's HP, for example, or pay a "wiseman" two dollars to identify a present without having to open it themselves, sparing them some risk in opening it themselves.  Finally, and most humorously, paying an opera singer three dollars will cause her to sing, instantly destroying all enemies on-screen at the time.

Also unusually for the genre, Toejam and Earl does not reward the player based on defeating enemies; as weapons to defeat them are relatively rare, the player is instead encouraged to avoid them entirely.  Instead, experience is earned by exploring the maps and opening presents.  When enough points are gained, the player's "rank" increases (starting at "Weiner" and slowly working up to the top rank of "Funkmaster") and their character's maximum HP increases.

Another unusual trait of Toejam and Earl is that it features support for two-player cooperative play - one player controls Toejam and the other controls Earl, and when they move far enough apart onscreen, the game shifts into a split-screen mode, allowing them to cover more ground in a shorter period of time.  This proved to be a surprising technical achievement for the Sega Genesis platform, and its inclusion makes it one of the better co-op games on the platform.  Both characters also have slightly different abilities, with Toe Jam moving slightly faster while Earl starts with slightly more health.

Those unused to randomized challenges have an option to play the game as well.  Toejam and Earl offers a "fixed" game world, where ship parts and maps are the same each time the game is played, which removes a significant random element from the adventure and generally makes it easier to complete.  However, presents in the games are still randomized, so it works well as a warm-up for the main attraction, in which all items, enemies and maps are created from scratch each tim the game starts.

When all is said and done, Toejam and Earl is a competent and atypical roguelike on the Sega Genesis, managing to carry the genre's randomization and high level of challenge and make it accessible to console gamers.  Its overall gameplay is somewhat slow paced, but it still manages to be a very entertaining romp, especially for two players.

Developer: Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Genesis, Wii Virtual Console, Playstation Network, Xbox Live
Released: 1991, 2006, 2012
Recommended version: All of the later re-releases are direct ports of the Genesis game, so pick whichever suits your platform of choice.

Friday, March 9, 2018


Heralded in its day as a highly enjoyable action-RPG and a worthy answer to Zelda, Crystalis is one of the more beloved genre titles of the NES era.  But does SNK's grand adventure still satisfy today, or is this one title that they've largely forgotten since for a good reason?

SNK is a well-known company among many retro gamers, largely remembered for the Neo-Geo system (both its home and arcade counterparts) and for producing a large of fighting games over most of the 1990s that utilized the Neo-Geo's hardware to deliver smoothly-animated, hugely detailed sprites.  Before all of that, though, they released a few relatively low-key games on the NES like Iron Tank, Ikari Warriors 2 and 3 and P.O.W.: Prisoner of War.

One of their few games that wasn't a port from an arcade game, however, was Crystalis.  An RPG that drew obvious inspiration from Zelda in its overall format - a top-down, action-oriented title with a large open world to explore and a significant emphasis on puzzles.  However, it also utilized many more traditional RPG elements, like having a magic meter to power a variety of spells, shield and armor upgrades that must be found or purchased over the course of the adventure, and an  experience meter that would rise as enemies were defeated, granting the protagonist a boost in HP, MP, attack and defense once they filled it and raised their level.  Status effects also cropped up, such as Poison (which slowly drained the player's HP) and Paralysis (which prevented him from attacking).

Something slightly unusual about the game was in its controls, which were unusually fast and smooth for games of this format.  Crystalis features full eight-directional movement, with the player able to adjust their facing on a moment's notice to attack enemies - a very good thing, as enemies, particularly late in the game, came at the player almost constantly and could do large amounts of damage with only a hit or two.  The hit detection is occasionally spotty, however, which can lead to some hits from enemies feeling "cheap" or your own attacks not registering at key moments, leading to some frustration.

Another major element of this was in the game's focus on the four Greek elements.  Many enemies and all of the major bosses in the game were themed after them, gaining immunity to some elements and only being vulnerable to others.  As the player ventured through the game, they'd find four different swords to match these elements, each with their own sets of special moves - the Wind sword could launch a powerful tornado to mow down enemies, while the Thunder sword could unleash a powerful full-screen attack that devastated all foes in range.  Unfortunately, at times this also led to particularly annoying dungeons where one room's enemies were vulnerable to a certain element, while those in the next room over (or even the same screen) could be completely immune, which led to frequent and annoying sword-swapping in order to make one's way through them.  This came into play with certain barriers as well, which could only be destroyed by a particular sword's magic attack.

Being an early RPG, much emphasis was placed on the puzzle-solving element as well. This not only frequently manifests as having to travel to various areas to locate a key item in order to proceed past a hazard one can't normally overcome, but also in having to figure out where and when to utilize particular spells or items.  One example is the Change spell, which allows the player to turn themselves into one of several forms in order to access areas they normally wouldn't be able to (such as entering a village where only women are allowed).

As per SNK's usual standards, Crystalis was quite a gorgeous game to behold in 1990, with intricately detailed backgrounds in some areas as well as smooth animations throughout, as well as some rather unusual (but distinct) palettes that made heavy use of greens and purples.  Some boss battles also utilized clever technical tricks to bypass sprite limitations and the like, such as the giant insect boss in the swamp area actually being a background layer instead of an ordinary sprite, allowing it to be displayed without flickering.

Crystalis is also notable for its setting; while it does have obvious fantasy influences, the setting is actually a post-apocalyptic one, taking place after a nuclear war that has left the world overrun with powerful mutated monsters.  Amidst all of this, an evil empire has arisen and is attempting to claim the power of the "Tower" in order to rule the world.  So while there is an obvious Wizardry/Dungeons and Dragons influence here, Crystalis seems to have been more heavily influenced by franchises like Fist of the North Star and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind than anything else.

While it has a few rough points and it shows its age in some respects, Crystalis nevertheless remains an adventure worth undertaking for genre fans.  Its fast-paced gameplay, as well as its inventive setting and puzzles, make it a game of interest for fans of 80s and 90s titles.  If nothing else, it's certainly worth a look to see a take on the RPG genre for a company known almost exclusively for fighters and action games, and a surprisingly competent one at that.

Developer: SNK, Nintendo Software Technology
Publisher: SNK, Nintendo
Platform: NES, Game Boy Color
Released: 1990, 2000
Recommended version: The Game Boy Color version of the title make several changes to the game's storyline and structure while adding in a few bells and whistles like digitized voice clips for key items and events.  However, it is also largely seen as an inferior version - enemies frequently attack the player from offscreen and the music is a significant downgrade from the NES version, quickly becoming annoying.  Much of the clever nuance of the original version's plot is also lost in this version, as the story is reworked to more of a generic "destined hero" plotline and the villains being more of a generic, nebulous evil force.  For those reasons, the original NES version is the superior experience.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Icewind Dale

Black Isle takes the helm for another adventure in the Infinity Engine, made famous by Baldur's Gate and its sequel.  But does Icewind Dale's greater focus on combat ultimately help or hinder its playability?

Black Isle (later rebranded "Obsidian" after Interplay's financial troubles) is a name synonymous with many beloved RPG franchises, having worked on games like Fallout 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Planescape Torment and a few others like Alpha Protocol and Dungeon Siege III.  They also contributed to the Baldur's Gate franchise, and would later take their own crack at the Infinity Engine without Bioware's support in Icewind Dale.

Like virtually every prior video game both licensed and inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, Icewind Dale largely exhumes the device of a tabletop role-playing game as a storytelling vehicle and instead focuses almost exclusively on combat.  This is even more apparent in this game's case, however, as encounters in the game are frequent and massive in scale compared to Baldur's Gate - one can easily walk into any room in a dungeon and face a small army of roughly twenty monsters bearing down on them all at once.  Similarly, virtually every spell in the game is geared toward combat, removing many of the utility spells from Baldur's Gate in favor of adding more elements, enchantments and healing spells to give the player more tools for the battles they will face.

All of that said, Icewind Dale is at least one of the better-polished games in this format.  Combat, while frequently challenging, feels far less "cheap" than Baldur's Gate, with considerably fewer instances of spells that debilitate one's party and scarcely any foes that feel overly "broken" and all but require the player to use underhanded tactics (and savescum) in order to succeed.  This is aided in part by having numerous new equipment choices that allow the player to resist many status effects that neither Baldur's Gate ever allowed them to, but also by having a more linear progression to the game that ensures they won't stumble into, say, a Beholder lair before it's something they can reasonably handle.

The more linear format, as well as a lighter focus on story, comes into play in other tangible ways as well.  Most notably, since the story is no longer focused on a single character but now on the party as a whole, there are no longer immediate game overs when the lead character dies.  Loot is no longer fixed as it was in Baldur's Gate, but now somewhat randomized - most encounters have at least one item drop that is randomized each time one begins a new game, which helps prevent "powergaming" with one's party to a degree.

Icewind Dale also takes many efforts to better balance the class and alignment choices afforded to the player, unlike its predecessor.  Bards, for example, now have many exclusive equipment choices that can help the party to resist (or cancel) negative status effects, as well as unique pieces of weaponry and armor.  Druids, Paladins and Rangers, as well as Multi and Dual classes, are considerably more viable choices as the low level cap of Baldur's Gate 1 is no longer in effect.  Furthermore, many good pieces of equipment are restricted to particular alignments, encouraging the player to mix them up among their characters - a stark contrast to the Baldur's Gate games, where characters of alternate alignments would violently conflict with one another.  This unfortunately means that alignment has little impact in terms of storyline or player choice, but does allow the player to take advantage of spells and abilities they might not otherwise see in a pure "good" or "evil" character playthrough.

Efforts are made to give higher-level parties something to do as well.  There is an expansion that adds in a fairly large optional quest to undertake, recommended for parties at level 9 or higher, as well as an extra quest included in the final patch called "Trials of the Luremaster" recommended for even higher level parties.  One can also begin a second playthrough by enabling the "Heart of Fury" difficulty setting, which gives all enemies the player encounters a large boost to their HP (multiplying their default total by 3, then adding another 80 on top of that to be exact), but to compensate for this, they give out far higher experience totals as well.

High-level play is not without drawbacks of its own, though  Those who have played Throne of Bhaal can attest that it was a fairly long slog, with the player having little in the way of challenge to face aside from some foes that required cheesy tactics to defeat, not aided by the comically overpowered high-level abilities they were granted (such as turning every attack they fired into a critical hit, or summoning exceptionally powerful monsters like Planetars to aid them).  Icewind Dale does not have any such abilities and is thankfully much more of a well-planned experience; however, Baldur's Gate's hard experience cap of 8,000,000 is handled in an equally inelegant way here - by giving every class a hard level limit of 30.  This applies to each class for a Dual/Multiclass character, which means that single-class characters ultimately fall by the wayside in a high-level game in favor of Fighter/Mages or Fighter/Thief/Mages or Fighter/Cleric/Mages - effectively the opposite of Baldur's Gate 2's high-level power dynamic.

At the end of the day, Icewind Dale aims for a combat-driven Infinity Engine experience and ultimately realizes it quite well.  Those looking for a deep storytelling experience probably won't find much to enjoy here, but fans of large-scale tactical combat with a D&D bent and a heavy emphasis on dice rolls (and more than a little savescumming/rolling back to earlier saves) should have quite a lot of fun with Icewind Dale.  If nothing else, it's probably the Infinity Engine game that holds up the best over time - besides Planescape: Torment, of course.

Developer: Black Isle Studios, Overhaul Games
Publisher: Interplay
Platform: PC, iOS, OSX, Android, Linux
Released: 2000, 2014
Recommended version: The 2014 "Enhanced Edition" updates the game into the Baldur's Gate 2 engine, allowing for a much greater number of class choices, reduced spell durations on many effects (most prominently Charm and Sleep) and a much less cumbersome interface.  Higher resolutions are also supported, updating the title to modern standards, and party AI is much improved over the original releases, with many new options for adaptive AI that make party management significantly less cumbersome.