B.O.B. Longplay (SNES)

As played by NOUFuzzy, an action-platformer, B.O.B., developed by Graymatter. I rented this game a few times in the early 90s, but never finished it. I think the video store owner sold the title before I could get to it. Go figure!

I haven’t done a long longplay post in a while. If I can dig up some more information about B.O.B. I’ll update this post.

Secret of Mana Speedrun

It’s hard to believe that Secret of Mana is 22 years old now and actually had iOS port too. Secret of Mana has a unique place in gaming history as it was originally intended to be a SNES-CD game. Which means that SoM was in a certain sense one of the original Play Station games. But that’s a story for another day.

This game is another one of my  old time favorites. It’s one of the few boxed SNES games that I still own today. I may talk about the deeper design of this game in the future, particularly that neat Ring inventory system. For now, enjoy a Secret of Mana speedrun:



The Good Old Days in Magic

Over at Gathering Magic, Abe Sargent takes a trip down memory lane to the very beginnings of the game:

“As someone who played in the halcyon days of Magic, I still have a fondness for some cards and concepts. The cards in the first set continue to influence us today. I thought it would be fun to build some decks just from cards from this era.”

If only the time machine were a real thing. I wouldn’t mind going back to the time when there were two or three lgs and comic shops within walking distance of me as was the case in my youth. There is a little part of me still regrets buying two packs of the Dark and two packs of Revised to complement my very first starter deck, instead of taking up the cashier’s offer on half a remaining box of Arabian Nights. But as Sargent opines in his piece, who really knew how long the granddaddy of the CCG phenomenon was going to stick around? Surely there’s some unopened product of Jyhad still lying in somebody’s basement somewhere that could be cashed in on eBay. Sealed starter decks can be had for only $12 at the time of this writing. Of all the imitators that flooded the market in the early to mid 90s, Magic had the most staying power. But it wasn’t so obvious back then even back in the “halcyon” days of Magic. (I do think it’s somewhat laughable that Abe would consider The Dark to be the halcyon days, since that’s when he started playing according to his bio. The consensus in my neck of the woods was that it was far inferior set to the vastly better Fallen Empires…)

Anyway, I enjoyed reading his modern constructed take on some of the classics. As I mentioned when I found my old U/B deck list, we didn’t have a notion of archetypes back in the early days of Magic. At least nobody in my playgroup did. Our decks were just cobbled together from whatever we could trade for and got out of random packs. In fact it was only with the greatest hesitation that we reluctantly agreed to follow the draconian guidelines we learned about from reading Duelist: 60 card decks, only 4 copies of non land cards, singletons of others, and even following the banned list.  The entire card pool of the game was slightly less than 1,000 back in the fall of ’94, so it was relatively easy to figure out the group meta when we all were following the same rules for constructed and ran with mostly the same cards. And when at most your paper route money could net you a $20 Vesuvan Doppleganger or maybe a $15 Sol Ring at the nearest lgs, you weren’t exactly going out to fill up a deck with singles. The exception being the guy who taught me, who was a few years older and had a real job.

My teacher and mentor was the most advanced player in the group for a while, and he was always happy to teach anybody who to play. That was because he was eager to get more novices into the card pool since that was often how he grew his collection by winning ante. You definitely didn’t want to be the guy who never played for ante, that’s for sure.  Magic is definitely a more fun game when you’re winning with superior cards, most of the time. As I recall, he ended up quitting (retiring as he put it) about 2.5 years into his run, shortly after Ice Age was released. By then a lot of my friends had stopped playing too and most of us traded in those worn decks toward PlayStations and Nintendo 64s. Coincidentally this was also around the time I had constructed a tribal Goblins deck and was winning 9 out of 10 games. Go figure.

From the looks of the lists that Abe put together, I would have to say the decks that I ran into the most were #4, #5, and #7 – or what he calls W/B Soul Control, W/U Sleight Knight, and Enchantress Combo respectively. W/U was particularly brutal in my group, at one point I think six or seven guys were running some variant of it. I chuckled at the combo of Magical Hack and Karma. That was good for a few rage quits back in the day. The only missing in these deck lists are Veteran Bodyguard and Personal Incarnation, which were staples. In fact I wouldn’t mind seeing Veteran Bodyguard get reprinted. If he had expanded the list beyond ABU, there would have the odd Legends card like Moat tossed in for good measure. That was only about $40 back in ’94, in case you were wondering.

We were much more willing to tinker with brews too. There’s so much data available on the game today that it’s often hard to resist the temptation to paint by numbers. Experimentation is a necessary component of coming up with that meta breaking deck, but you have to be brave enough on a certain level to do it. At one point it was fairly common to include hoser cards just to defeat one person’s deck, especially if they were managing to win 10 or 15 games in a row. Not an uncommon occurrence. So this kid got smart and decided to run an all artifact deck. His rationale he explained to me afterward was that he could use any kind of mana to cast his spells, and besides Circle of Protection: Artifacts, there weren’t any hoser cards that he could think of. He brought this deck – filled with things like Juggernaut,  Mishra’s War Machine, and Obsianus Golem. He managed to win the first couple of rounds, but that day I remember we had agreed to play with a “new” rule: side boarding. The way we played it was you could swap out 15 cards of your deck for any other in your collection. In response to this new threat, the host put in a number of Shatterstorms, as did anybody else who had the card on hand. You can probably guess what the artificer’s deck W/L record ended up looking like at the end of the day, and how red our friend’s face got.

Yes, I sure do miss the good old halcyon days of Magic.

Fields of Glory

Two hundred years ago around this time in May, Napoleon Bonaparte was busy forming L’Armée du Nord to take the fight to the Seventh Coalition armies forming up in the Low Countries. Those would be the Anglo-Dutch army under the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army under Marshal Blücher. Though he was outnumbered, Napoleon chose a strategy that would keep the initiative on his side. He would march his army in between the allied armies, driving a wedge between both of his opponents and defeating them in detail before they could reinforce each other. That was the plan, anyway. It all came to a head at the fields just south of Waterloo, along the road to Brussels in one bloody battle that set off modern European history. Closer to our present time, circa 1994, I was obsessed with a Microprose DOS game called Fields of Glory. Although it was a real time strategy game in every sense of the term it wasn’t the kind of resource management game that we think of now. It was more like a historical battle simulator and it was very good at that, as far as it went.  I split 1994 between Doom II, Fields of Glory (affectionately referred to as FOG in my household), and Mortal Kombat II, whenever I could get to an arcade. Sadly FOG didn’t have the same longevity as the other games. It’s too bad really. The engine would have been a good choice to recreate some other set piece 19th century era battles.

You can find Fields of Glory as abandonware on the net, provided you can get DOS Box or some similar emulator to run. Or, of course, you can run it if you’re a hobbyist and still have a DOS machine in working condition. I haven’t actually tried to do this myself but I probably will at some point for memory’s sake.  If I remember correctly, the four major battles of the campaign are present: Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre, and the main event, Waterloo.  There were also two scenario battles that were fictional, but don’t quote me on that. It’s been about 20 years since I last played the game. You can choose to play as either the French or the Anglo-Dutch or Prussian army, and then command your respective forces during the selected battle.  As I mentioned the battlefields and the units are recreated in glorious detail. It’s usually around there that things start to fall apart.

In fact, I may be misremembering a bit here, but I don’t believe that I’ve ever lost a game of Fields of Glory. I wasn’t exactly a military genius. I just always played as the French army. Funny thing about how the designers modeled the game engine: their meticulous attention to detail is laudable and it manages to work against the balancing of the game. Take the battle of Waterloo for example.  There’s a placement of the grand battery in the center of the French line, just as Napoleon did in history. One of his many signatures was the use of massed light artillery, and this is reflected accurately in the battle set up. And it also makes it virtually impossible to lose against the Brits. Yes, the Prussians do start to arrive later in the game (as they did in the real battle) but it’s usually too little, too late as your artillery alone is sufficient to wipe the floor with the Wellington’s finest. No massive cavalry charges required.

I admit this is a small complaint some 22 years after the fact. But this is instructive if you’re in the business of designing games, particularly war games. As excellent as the presentation in Fields of Glory, the AI was particularly dreadful. At some point in these recreations your opponent would often just start to charge you with, oh, 20 to 30 thousand troops. Remember what I said about the French artillery: let them come and your troops would often rake these slow moving columns to pieces before they even reach your lines. This would reveal the other weak point in the game. Though you could play the campaign mode, you could only move between the four prepared maps. This is a disappointing limitation, like being given a shiny toy only to discover that you can use it in only one or two preapproved ways. Ultimately if FOG was guilty of any greats sin, it was that its promise was far greater than what it delivered. Give the guys at Microprose some credit though. RTS games are some of the hardest to make and they still managed to do a good enough job to have random people like me still talk about the game 20 years later.

I wonder if anybody still has the source code lying around somewhere. Or if somebody would be crazy enough to try to reverse engineer the game.

Panzer General: Operation Weserubung

At some point in the distant past I was on a turn based strategy game forum in which one of the posters opined that most TBS games were just puzzle games. All you had to do to win was to match the tiles in your favor. He was speaking in a derogatory fashion, of course, but this little bit of insight helped to demystify some this genre for me.  Perhaps the one TBS game I’ve spent the most time with – not counting 4X games like Civilization – was Panzer General. I never had the PC version but the black disc PS1 port bears the scars of overplay to this day. It actually still works, much to my surprise. Some people may have bought into PlayStation in the 90s for the 3D graphics emphasis; others may have converted for Resident Evil or Final Fantasy and maybe even Metal Gear Solid…but me? Panzer General. I’m something of a World War II buff so it was a no brainer. Besides Operation Europe – which was lackluster at best – on the SNES, there were no World War II games that I was aware of for the home consoles. The game also happens to have one of the most difficult scenarios I’ve ever played: the invasion of Norway. When I booted up PG again a few years ago, I had that forum pseudo-troll’s cynical analysis in the back of my mind. TBS games may be pretentious tile matching, but I’m fairly sure that troll never tried to get a Major Victory in Trondheim.

The real Operation Weserubung – Weser Exercise – was Hitler’s brainchild, planned and carried out at his behest to save his northern flank from Allied intervention. It called for the rapid occupation of Denmark and Norway in your classic blitzkrieg, but with an interesting twist: the invasion force would rely initially on the German navy to ferry it to the various major ports along Norway’s lengthy coast. It took place in April 1940, about six weeks before the invasion of France. It was a gamble that paid off tactically and for the most part was a great success. But in the long run it probably cost more than it was worth: most of the German surface navy at the time was wrecked, and then there was the need to occupy Norway and Denmark, two ostensibly neutral countries. It was a difficult campaign for the Germans, and this reality is accurately reflected in Panzer General.

When you play the 1939 campaign in PG, you start off with the invasion of Poland. The Poland campaign consists of two maps that more or less reflect the two phases of the real campaign. It’s basically the tutorial section of the game.  One of the interesting aspects of PG is Prestige, the points system that rewards you for completing objectives early and not wasting it. It’s also how you upgrade your army. I’m not entirely sure what the unit limit is, but it varies by map in the early going and eventually you get capped at a certain number of units. Building and planning your army is a major piece of the puzzle – no pun intended – of winning Panzer General. I wish this mode was more fleshed out, to be honest. But it’s just deep enough to add a whole dimension of replayability to the game.  So what’s this have to do with Norway?

Remember what I said about the real campaign and how it wrecked parts of the German military?

You strive to win Major Victories in each scenario. As far as I could tell this always is accomplished by capturing your objectives (read: gold tiles on the map, usually indicating cities) by a certain turn. For instance, the first battle of Poland has two objective tiles, and you have a 10 turn limit. If you take both tiles by turn 4 or 5 you’re in a line for a Major. Since this is how you get a boatload of prestige, which in turn ultimately makes your army better and more resilient to damage during battles, this is obviously what you want. Once you’ve figured out what you’re doing in Poland and Warsaw you can get Major victory fairly easily. As you probably have guessed, doing the same in Norway is no small task. I don’t want to say it’s impossible to get a Major Victory but having played this map a number of times and tried out different strategies, it does appear that a lot of whether or not you get the Major is dependent upon luck.

You start off at the bottom of the map and have to work your way to the top. If you land the majority of your troops south, slogging up the screen turn by turn, you’re not going to do well. The main reason is that the British navy appears in scenario, ready to interdict any of your naval forces. Your ships can do some damage but they’re heavily outnumbered. Your planes – if you picked the right ones – can do some of the heavy lifting, but you’ll soon end up wishing you had like 10 more bomber units than is practical. Eventually you figure out the basic strategy for clearing this map and pray for the best. You also have to hope that most of your army makes it through for the France campaign. The other side of the knife is that if you try to optimize your army specifically to do well here, it won’t be optimized for France. I suppose this would constitute a strategy player dilemma: go all out for the immediate victory on a tough as nails scenario, or plan ahead for future battles?

Balancing is tough in any game, and I have to wonder if the desire for balance and a modicum of realistic reflection of the source material just made for a perfect storm. Norway is extraordinarily tough for third battle. There are tough scenarios later on, especially in Russia, but rarely do the odds feel as stacked against you as they do in Norway. Unless you’re playing the 1943 campaigns as the Germans but face it, if you choose 1943 as the starting off point you’re probably a masochist to begin with. And the real fun in Panzer General is crafting the perfect blitzkrieg army from scratch anyway.

Mere tile matching indeed.