Below the Root (1984)

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Below the Root is basically the fourth and final part in a three-part book series from the late 70ties by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. It’s a trilogy of books that reads like children/young adult fantasy fiction but are rather some kind of stealth science fiction.

I read the first at the end of 2013, planning to read the other two in short succession to then start with the game, but man did I hate that experience and stalled after I started the second. I recently tried again and it’s just as terrible now as it was then. So instead of trying to push myself through them (mind you, these are short volumes, shy of 200 pages each, but man does reading them feel never-ending), I just read a summary and be done with it.

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The game was developed and published simultaneously in 1984 for three computer systems, Apple II (left picture), the C64 (right besides the cover) and a PC Booter (right picture). The Apple II and the PC Booter had a similar momentum-based movement scheme as other earlier platformers, to move right or left you start walking, to stop you counter it with pressing the key of the counter-direction.

The C64 has a more modern control-scheme, though I assume this is more born from primarily being joystick-controlled, not from actually thinking of improving the control scheme. Jumping is handled terrible in all versions, though JoyToKey helps with that. The C64 version is also the only one with good sound and the best graphics (worst were the ugly CGA graphics in the PC Booter).

As for gameplay, this is basically an adventure with a 2d perspective and traces of platformer games. I almost want to go as far as saying it’s a typical 2d-action-adventure, but in truth the game is missing on the action part. You can’t attack or even kill the few enemies that turn up in the game, likewise you can’t die either from attacks or falling from the tree or falling into water. All it does is set you back day, and since there’s a time limit of 50 days to finish, not advisable.

The game is really impressive as early example for an exploration-driven 2d game sporting a large continuous world and lots of elements that came to later mark the whole metroidvania genre: you have to get new abilities to get past certain obstacles and reach new ground, you have stats right out of cRPGs and the world in front of you is truly massive. With the game there came a map of some of it (the white square is your starting screen), but the real size of the world is even bigger.

Given all that, it’s not a game I see myself ever finishing. It’s not the antiquated control scheme and I quite like the graphics of the C64 version, it’s just that some of the things that irked me in the book series make me stop here as well.I don’t like the characters, I don’t like the setting and I can’t stand the overall attitude to everything, the hippy and vegan vibe I get.

Also, I like action in my games, and if there are enemies I want to defeat them. And the whole point of moving from the typical loose approach adventures have, perspective-wise that is, to something more rigid like in a platformer is too facilitate this kind of action. It’s a game that is almost where I want it to be, only to stop in front of the finish line and not go the last 5% percent. It gets so many gameplay elements right, but the things that really matter it gets completely wrong.

Another thing that really annoyed me in the books, the inflationary usage of made-up words for various things, feels just as pretentious here as it was there. It forces you to deploy mental capacity on things that should be clear-cut and part of the background, not standing out and call attention to themselves. Call it fucking mindreading and teleportation.

That said, I assume that if you approach the game coming from the adventure genre, it does well enough. I’m not the biggest adventure fan, but I assume a big world to explore with strange lingua might be just the right mix of elements to satisfy typical adventurer gamers. Me, I prefer to rack up kills during exploration, but then I’m coming from the cRPG side, so that explains that.

Suicide Squad – Extended Cut (2016)

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This is the second time I’ve seen the movie, first in the theater and now this extended version. I liked the cinema cut well enough. It’s not a smart movie, had lots of faults, but as a spectacle, despite what the critics were hawking about, more or less succeeded. There’s a varied pool of neat characters, a well-defined villain, some nice action. It’s a good package as far as superheroes goes, if you don’t overthink it (for example that creating the squad in the first place created the very enemy they were forced to fight, which is either a thinly-veiled metaphor for American politics or just dumb, your pick).

The biggest problem of the movie was always its tone in regard to the characters. It wanted to have some evil-motherfuckers as anti-heroes but at the same time wanted to make them relatable and human as well. This went down as well as you imagine and is best exemplified by Deadshot aka Will Smith. I like Smith, but his acting range is all Will Smith, and no, he didn’t pull off a psychotic assassin believable. What he did was put in his best impression of Will Smith doing Deadshot, which was basically a villain with a heart of gold. Not what the movie required.

Deadshot isn’t the only one, the movie could never decide whether it was depicting psychotic murderers or nice guy’s who just took the wrong turn in life. At times this comes of as inept and dishonest, but one of the strengths of the movie is that it doesn’t matter much. Villains lie to themselves first of all, so it kind of fits, but its clear that the movie wants the audience to buy into it as well, which works right until the movie switches the tone to evil motherfucker again and you’re reminded that there are no heroes here.

As for the extended scenes, they work against Robbie’s and Leto’s character arc, transforming a bizarre love story into something more muddled and overall less compelling. Also in general, Suicide Squad isn’t a movie that really needed to be longer. I prefer the movie cut, which is just to the point and doesn’t make you linger to long on its many weaknesses.

Shadow of the Scorpion (2008)

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Chronicles the early days of Neal Asher’s primary Polity protagonist, agent Cormac, by intertwining two plot threads, stuff that happened while Cormac was a kid and his early days as an agent for the Polity. It’s unusual for Asher in that the story is primarily character-driven, even if there’s a hunt for some terrorists going on. Also surprisingly Asher pulls this off rather well. Cormac is played not as hard-shell-soft-core hero, but as a deeply damaged person who functions well and doesn’t let the damage define who he is, even if its the foundation of who he is. It’s kind of an interesting take on the psychotic hero and of all things reminds me a bit of James Bond, somewhat.

Steam Heart (2016)

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Very short but highly enjoyable gun’n runner from this years Ludum Dare 36 gamejam. The controls are tight, the difficult is a bit one the low end (you’ll likely get through it on the first try) and the graphics are both well done and a bit of a mess, as it’s really hard to differentiate between backgrounds, explosion and general stuff going on. But it’s hard to get mad at some of the minor flaws, given the short production time and the amount of levels and bosses crammed into this.

The creator also works on a metroidvania, Ourobos Legacy, which looks great as well.

Conan: Hall of Volta (1984)

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Another of those early platformer game where the designers haven’t yet figured out the optimal controls for moving and jumping. It’s not as terrible as say Aztec, but it’s still far from pleasant. To move you speed up in one direction, but to stop you don’t let go of the movement key, instead you slow down again by hitting the other direction (this applies to the Apple II version).

Making your character stop at a certain point is quite trying and I’ve died often enough because I walked over a cliff. Jumping is iffy as well and doesn’t always work as you hoped it would. Once you have jumped, there’s not a lot you can do and you can only hope you hit the right angle and put enough power into the jump.

The game is an early forerunner for both cinematic platformers (simulationist movement physics and very concrete levels) and puzzle platformers. You have one-screen levels where you have to get to the ending often by finding keys, solving minor puzzles and doing all that in a set sequence to get out. Also there are lots of things that can insta-kill you (lava, water, spikes, wild animals).

What sets the game apart from other early platformers are the levels. Typical platformers have mostly abstract levels that follow a certain theme, but each level in Conan is modeled as if it were a real place. The outer part of a castle, a lava pit, a moat in front of the castle, some of its interior halls. It’s obviously still abstract to a large extend, else there would be no game, but each of them feels more realistic than was the norm then. You want to step outside of some of those screens and go explore further.

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The game was published on various western home computers in 1984 (Atari 8-bit, C64, Apple II) and from 1985 to 1986 on Japanese ones (PC-88, Sharp X1, FM7). While it’s not possible to see on these small screenshots, the Apple II (screen beside the cover) version had owning to the hardware a nice scanline effect that made its version look rather beautiful.

In comparison the Atari 8-bit version (the 2 screens above) looks rather drab and simple, though the controls are much better in the Atari version. Movement is less based on momentum and almost feels like a modern platformer. You move the left key, you move left, you stop, your character stops. You move the right key, and so on. Only jumping is still a bit off in this version.

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The C64 looks just as drab as the Atari 8-bit one, and also sports the same improved control scheme. One thing that stands out about it though is the sound. Compared to the primitive bleeps and blops of both the Apple and the Atari version, the sound on the C64 version is a noticeable improvement and actually sounds like real music (good too, though a bit repetitive after some time). One major drawback to this version are the loading times between levels. If you not accustomed to this you think the software has bugged out.

Alas, of the versions I tried one really did bug out after the fourth level (offering a horrendous glitch screen version of the the 4th level), and in the other where I could play to the final level, it bugged out once I finished the final puzzle. Instead of seeing the bird throw Volta into the volcano and bring Conan to safety and maybe an ending screen, everything turned black. Could be the software is still loading, but after a few minutes I gave up. Still worth for the music though.

The Amazing Spider-Man (1990)

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This is the kind of game that can only be enjoyed with an emulator and save states, as it’s an outright terribly game that only the most dedicated people could finish on the original hardware. It’s control scheme is obtuse (there’s a low and a high jump, but the second is hard to pull of consistently) and to trigger the webstring-swinging seems more based on luck than the key combination mentioned in the manual.

Taking on harm and dishing it out is also widely disproportionate. Spider-Man can be killed in a manner of seconds even by small birds, but his own punches barely make a dent in any of the bosses. Get hit a few times and your life meter will melt away. Overall, the only reason to play this is because you want to see how they adapted Spider-Man and his enemies in low-res pixel art. If you abuse save stats you can get past the worst, but even so it’s still pretty awful.

SolarStriker (1990)

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Difficulty can be a deceptive thing. SolarStriker, an early, unremarkable Gameboy vertical shmup, starts with three easy peasy levels, until it really hones in on hurting you. Strangely enough, the boss of the fourth level is the hardest of the remaining three bosses, mostly due to its immense size covering almost all of the screenspace, which doesn’t allow for much room to evade hostile attacks.

The fifth is still demanding, while the final boss is easy again. Also, from the fourth level on, the stages becomes increasingly hostile with not only enemies targeting you at sight, but also volleys of massive projectiles hurled in rapid succession from beyond the screen. Otherwise, the game is rather simplistic and doesn’t do anything interesting, neither art direction or gameplay-wise.

Wizards & Warriors X – Fortress of Fear (1990)

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One of the earliest GameBoy games, this was a sequel to the two NES games of the same series (though to this day people wonder why there’s an X in the title, not a III). The game lets you enter a castle and search for an evil wizard, though most people won’t even reach him. W&WX isn’t exactly hard, most of it difficulties come from not knowing where to go or when enemies or dangers will appear.

The seasoned veteran of the game knows exactly where to jump to reach a platform that isn’t on the screen yet, where to stand to not get hit by bosses or when to duck to avoid flying arrows. For everybody else who is not willing to learn the in-and-outs of the game this is an exercise in frustration, but I remember well how willing I was to brave the castle again and again until I actually beat the Wizard (original hardware, long ago).

It’s less a game that requires precise controls (though some of the jumps do), than knowledge. It’s a memorization game (later levels have loops if you don’t go through the right doors, so knowing which to go trough is tantamount to winning) and while I would agree in general not a good approach for platformers, I just like the graphics (unusually large sprites for a GameBoy games) and the variety of deadly traps. Also the soundtrack for the 2nd level is just godly.

Ip Man (2008)

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Film adaptation of events vaguely based on famous Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man’s life. Starring Donnie Yen as the eponymous title character, the movie boast excellent and highly entertaining fight scenes, but the main narrative arc is strangely broken and keeps the movie unfocused. The first half of the movie raises one set of expectations that goes completely off the table once the Japanese invade and sidetrack the movie into a completely different direction.

Whenever the movie makes attempts to be something more than just a fighting movie, it becomes cringe-worthy. This is not something untypical for Hong Kong movies, but here I think the main problem is that Yen’s portrayal is so saintly that it goes right off the chart. This can work in more action or comedy focused movies, but in Ip Man, once the movie tries to go the dramatic route, just becomes utterly ridiculous and breaks the illusion. Overall, watch for the fights, try to get through the other moments.

Prador Moon (2006)

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Neal Asher is a one-note writer, but he does his stick exceedingly well, which is high-octane space opera with an unusual amount of world-building and some mean aliens. And when you need a break for something simple, but still smart in a certain way, then he’s your guy. Prador Moon is the first Polity novel chronologically (though not the first published), showing the outbreak of the war between the human Polity (human space civilization lead by powerful AIs) and the Prador, crablike aliens who are all about armor and eating stuff (their own children, humans, etc.).

This is not sophisticated stuff, a first diplomatic mission, people get killed and eaten, war breaks out, and the Polity tries feverishly to mobilize and turn the tide of war. This is not introspective science fiction, this is about blowing things up in style, with mean motherfuckers as characters. What the book and Asher in general does well is keeping the plot tense from the first to the last page, keep you on your toes all the time and give you characters who while not exactly deep feel entertaining and compelling enough in a cinematic way.

Also, while this is definitely in the tradition of old-school space opera (what-fun-is-war style), Asher shows all the horror and violence up close. He doesn’t downplay, he never tries to make it out to be something else than what it is and with his straight-arrow approach occasionally manages a kind of unintentional horror that is all-too scarce in similar fiction. Definitely recommended.