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Adam Luoranen @LateBlt


Spelunky (Windows)

Brings together an unlikely combination of influences, resulting in one of the most memorable indie games in a long time

The Good
Before I begin, I should mention that like many other Roguelike games, Spelunky contains a lot of secrets and tricks that you are meant to discover for yourself. To thoroughly review the game, it becomes necessary to reveal some things which the player is meant to find on their own, so don't read this review if you don't want anything spoiled. Ideally, perhaps you'd have already played the game before reading this review, but how are you going to know whether the game is worth playing unless you read the review first, right? Catch-22. Fair enough, although I might abbreviate this process by simply stating that if you consider yourself any kind of a gamer at all, you should probably just go ahead and play Spelunky now. That said, let's continue.

A few weeks before I played Spelunky for the first time, a friend of mine remarked to me: "Sometimes when I ask people what their favorite genre of music is, they answer 'Indie.' I don't understand that; that isn't a genre of music." At the time, I had to agree. "Indie" defines a mindset in terms of production and marketing, right? It has nothing to do with the actual content.

In recent years, there's been a surge of interest in indie computer games, perhaps as a result of the backlash against major-label games which are widely derided as rehashes of existing concepts and dismissed as valuing dazzling graphics over fun gameplay. I put myself in this same camp; I'm all for gameplay, and great graphics are secondary to this purpose. When I played Spelunky and began to think about it for a while, then, I began to understand the mindset that "Indie" is its own genre: There's a certain feel to indie games that cannot be captured by today's commercially-produced games. Regardless of whether the game is a third-person Sierra/LucasArts-style adventure (like the Chzo Mythos series), a jump-and-run platformer that recalls 8-bit NES classics (like Cave Story/Doukutsu Monogatari), or even a first-person psycho-horror series that's equal parts adventure and action (like Cactus' Mondo series), there is a certain joie de vivre in independently-made games that transcends their play mechanics. Regardless of whether the games test your reflexes or your puzzle-solving skills, these games are bursting with the sheer joy of exploring new places, a simple atmosphere that's innocent and pure, and cannot be captured effectively by any game that is produced from the ground up with the intent to sell itself.

Into this arena, then, comes Spelunky, a game which describes itself as a cross between La-Mulana and Roguelike RPGs. Right off the top, this sounds like a fairly unlikely combination, as those two games have appreciably little to do with each other, besides the fact that both of them have you doing a lot of exploring dark places full of treasure, and the fact that you die a lot in both of them. Well, Spelunky isn't really very much like either of these games, although it does retain the fact that you explore a lot of dark places collecting treasure, and it does retain the fact that you die a lot. Because it's a platform arcade game in which you play a little Indiana Jones-ish character who wears a hat and carries a whip, it at first seems closer to La-Mulana, but in terms of game philosophy, it's closer to Roguelikes, because each time you play, levels are randomly generated (no two levels are ever the same), death is always permanent (no saved games here; if you die, you have to start all the way from the beginning), and the game is very, very hard, intentionally requiring you to play it many, many times through if you're ever going to beat it.

The goal of Spelunky seems relatively simple, although you can have different goals depending on how you play it and what you want to accomplish. That said, the basic premise of the game is that you're an explorer who simply wants to go through some legendary underground caves to collect the treasure hidden there. You can play Spelunky for money, to simply see how high a "score" you can get, but the game's high-score screen has other attributes as well: Kills, saves, and time, so you could (for example) try to play the game through as quickly as possible to see how fast you can beat it. The game has a total of 16 levels, almost all of which are randomly-generated, although there are a couple of level types that have relatively set forms. These levels are broken up into 4 basic types of areas, each area comprising 4 levels.

The one aspect where Spelunky doesn't measure up to the Roguelikes it's trying to emulate is variety. The primary strength of Roguelikes is their persistent creativity: Their seemingly endless ways to surprise the player with new ways to die, or new strange events that can happen unexpectedly. Although Spelunky starts off strong on this front and has its share of surprises, it has a relatively limited set of enemies and items relative to mainstream "serious" RPGs. It might be best to compare Spelunky to games like System Shock or Deus Ex, and observe that while some fans insist those games are RPGs, at their core they're really first-person shooters that happen to have RPG elements blended in. Spelunky, then, really is just another platform action-arcade game in terms of its basic gameplay, but it has aspirations to something a little different, and to that end, it breaks a few conventions regarding how platformers are supposed to play.

Take the shopping experience, for example. Occasionally in Spelunky, you'll encounter a shop inexplicably placed in the environment that sells tools to help you on your journey. You can buy things at these shops, but there's also a twist: If you're feeling up to it, you can try to kill the shopkeeper, which, if successful, allows you to not only loot everything in the shop, but also make off with the shopkeeper's money and shotgun (which is one of the best weapons in the game, although you can also buy shotguns at some stores without having to kill for them). Shopkeepers in this game are shockingly capable of defending themselves despite their appearance as genial elderly men, and so you might at first conclude that this kind of pursuit is suicidal. However, eventually you'll realize that there are a couple of little "tricks" that you can utilize to maximize your chances of looting a shop, and for a while you'll think that this is a clever way to make the game easier. Then, after trying it several times, you'll realize that while it is a rewarding experience when it succeeds, robbing the shops in Spelunky remains just risky enough (a single blast from the shopkeeper's shotgun means instant death if it hits you) that you'll reverse your earlier decision and decide that "serious" players don't rob the shops. This somewhat mirrors Roguelikes, in which shopkeepers are also usually fierce defenders of their wares.

As a person who appreciates depth in games, I do enjoy the physics model that Spelunky brings. The greater processing power of today's computers has made more lifelike physics models relatively commonplace, and as in many other games that have polished physics models, the mere act of picking up an object, throwing it, and watching it trace a lifelike arc is one of the game's silly pleasures. Amusingly enough, thrown objects can even bounce off walls or ceiling and come back to hit you, taking off 2 points of damage; while this is annoying, one must admit it's at least fair. The presence of the physics model means that you'll need to spend some time getting used to how thrown objects behave, since the game does allow you to throw rocks and bombs to attack enemies, set off traps, and blow up parts of the cave.

Indeed, Spelunky is one of those games that takes a while to get really "good" at, but which rewards diligent players. Death lurks around every corner, but the reality is that for all its brutality, Spelunky tries to be fair. It's apparent that great effort has been taken to balance out the game and keep it playable, but challenging. Obviously, with a random level generator, this is not consistently the case, but in general the levels here are survivable by the player who knows exactly how to handle the various traps and enemies that litter these caves. Yet Spelunky also has that greed factor that sometimes bedevils even experienced players; in caverns filled with gold and gems, there's often the temptation to bear a little extra risk in the hopes of finding greater gain. One thing Spelunky players need to bear in mind is that health is always your main concern; the player starts with only 4 health points, and when they are lost, the game ends. Although extra health points can be gained by rescuing people in distress, they are still scarce enough that they're more valuable than almost any in-game item. Yet players who know this fully well will still often feel tempted to take risks--which, I suppose, is fitting, since the premise of Spelunky itself is a treasure-hunt, undertaken for personal gain rather than some noble mission.

The Bad
While Spelunky's physics are considerably more advanced than those of platformers of yore, they still feel a little dodgy from time to time. In most games like this, occasional glitches of physics usually aren't a big deal, but in a game as "tight" as this, where a single small mistake can quite readily lead to instant death, everything must work perfectly. More than once, I've died in this game because of the game's own failure to model a certain physical response consistently. To Derek Yu's credit, glitches like this have been actively worked on as the versions of Spelunky have progressed, and the latest versions feel much more "stable" and predictable, which is good--surprises in game environments are a good thing, but surprises in how your character handles are not.

One thing people tend to complain about with regard to Spelunky is the ghosts. These ghosts appear 2 minutes and 30 seconds into each level. They cannot be destroyed or hindered in any way, and touching them means instant death. There is no way to "turn them off" or prevent them from showing up, except through the acquisition of a very special item which can only be obtained near the end of the game. This means that for most of the game, you are required to finish each level in under 150 seconds. While this is more than enough time to simply blitz through each level if you're attempting a speed run, I (along with many other gamers) prefer to play games slowly and methodically, exploring every nook and cranny rather than blazing a trail directly for the exit, and rather protest the idea that things must be done with any kind of haste. Some have said that the ghost is the one thing that completely ruins the experience of Spelunky, and while I wouldn't say it ruins the game altogether, there's some merit to the idea that it makes absolutely no sense to impose a time limit on a game that is all about exploration. Regardless of what people think, Derek Yu has stuck to his guns; the ghost is no mere lark, but a serious design decision, a deliberate choice to restrict how long players can spend in each level, and although this choice may be debatable, it stands as-is. The time limit is still enough to collect most of the treasure on most levels if you hurry, but players who diligently try to collect everything from everywhere will usually find themselves coming up a bit short before they need to run to the exit.

Spelunky's music also gets old too quickly. Although the music itself is very good--a fine composition of neo-chiptunes--most of the tracks are only about a minute long and then loop, meaning that if you're going to actually take up Spelunky and commit to it for the time that it will take to get good at, those tunes will haunt you in your sleep. The music comes in .OGG files which can be changed, but a bit more variety in the music that comes with the game might have been appropriate. The game's graphics, at least, are flawlessly delightful in their cheerful retro exuberance, as are the sound effects, which appear to have been composed with authentic 8-bit waveforms.

The REAL problem with Spelunky is not the enemies, the player-character, the plot (of which absolutely none is either present or needed), the graphics, the sound, or even that accursed ghost that keeps popping up; the real problem with Spelunky is its environments. The game gets off to a very promising start with its initial environment of boring, featureless caves. The caves may seem uninspired, but at least they and their enemy inhabitants of snakes, bats, and spiders are wholly appropriate to the game's setting and theme. After the first 4 game levels, however, the spelunker is suddenly cast into a jungle environment, and things start to go downhill from here. The whole "jungle" theme has sort of been a tired, overused gimmick in video games since forever. Yeah, okay, it worked in Pitfall because it was fun to have ONE jungle game, and the idea has failed pretty consistently since then. The whole setting, from the jungle vines to the monkeys that swing on them, just doesn't quite work. I suppose it's meant to be appropriate given the idea of raiding ancient Mayan/Aztec/Incan tombs a la Indiana Jones, but it still just doesn't feel right, particularly considering the way the difficulty level suddenly ramps up; the jungle is populated by man-eating plants who are one of the game's few instant-kill enemies, and the "totem pole" structures take off 4 points of health, meaning they will usually result in instant death as well.

Players who persist through the jungle area get to watch Spelunky go completely off the rails, as the third level in the game is the "ice" area. Now, we've known for a while that no one likes ice physics. This was another clever idea that turned out to not be so clever, a gameplay mechanic which should have been tried once and then forgotten, but which has been faithfully placed at least once in seemingly every platformer that has ever been made. The ice alone would be ridiculous, but perhaps even more ridiculous are the enemies that the game suddenly trots out at this point. The vast hordes of yeti are ridiculous but at least understandable given the "icy mountain" setting; completely beyond absurdity are the alien spaceships which populate this area of the game, shoot at you if you pass underneath them, and persistently hound you so closely that it becomes difficult to move around even before you factor in the fact that this ice area has no floor. Yes, you read that right: Spelunky picks the ice-physics portion of the game to suddenly decide to have a bottomless pit at the bottom of every level, meaning that if you slide off a platform that doesn't have anything under it, you're as good as dead. Really, Spelunky? An ice area with no floor? REALLY? The game started off so well; why did this have to happen? The jungle and especially the ice area completely break up the flow of the game, taking an indie title with great promise and turning it into yet another knockoff of stale ideas that are pointless and not fun.

If you have the patience and the determination to see those two disasters through, however, Spelunky comes rocketing back to its former strength with the fourth and final area, the temple. This area is much like the starting cave area, except somewhat deadlier as it has some new kinds of traps and enemies. As if recognizing that this part of the game is arguably the best, Spelunky pulls out some of its best music for this region, a groovy little chiptune-esque ditty with some Egyptian/Middle Eastern-sounding influence. Some players have complained that this home stretch of the game is too hard, but I find it easier than the ice caves at least, and perhaps easier than the jungle as well. Besides, if you can get the golden sceptre (the most powerful weapon in the game, which is only available on level 13, the first temple level), the rest of the game becomes much easier, because the sceptre is the only weapon in the game that actually homes in on your enemies. There's no aiming, no hesitation: Just fire it, and a magical ball of energy comes out that goes directly towards the nearest enemy. It can even go through walls and floors, making it by far the most powerful weapon in the game.

If you make it all the way through, one other relatively minor criticism bears mentioning: The ending of Spelunky is rather anticlimactic. However, this is understandable; once again, it's supposed to be that way. In the true spirit of old games, there isn't a 10-minute full-motion video sequence showing the spelunker in a pillowy den of pleasure surrounded by the treasures and women he's managed to collect. It's little more than a simple "Congratulations, you won!" sort of sequence. And clearly, that's how Derek Yu believed it should be. I can't argue with him on that. In Spelunky, it's definitely about the journey, not the destination.

On that note, I should point out that winning the game isn't the greatest or the most difficult challenge to be found here. There are at least a couple of other sub-challenges that you can shoot for, including four unlockable rooms that have mini-games inside. However, these mini-games are rather boring and you probably won't play them for more than a few minutes tops; the satisfaction of having unlocked them is probably greater than the fun of being inside them. Unlocking the rooms is tough, to be sure: One of them requires you to finish the entire game, from start to finish, in under 10 minutes. Yeah, that's right: 16 levels of rather brutal difficulty in less than 10 minutes, meaning an average of 37.5 seconds for each level. The reward for doing so is definitely not worth it, but the point in trying it is just so you can know that you did it. There's also one other big challenge to shoot for in Spelunky, a secret level in which every block of the level is literally made of gold, and laying a bomb anywhere results in torrents of gold pieces being extracted for your taking. Getting to this secret level is pretty tough and practically requires you to play the whole game through from start to finish, but if you get there, make sure you go in with lots of bombs, because it would be incredibly disappointing to get there and then not have any bombs to blast that gold out of the walls with.

I'm also somewhat annoyed by Derek's constant re-working of the game with each new release. I mentioned previously that obvious effort has gone into Spelunky to make it neither too easy nor unfairly difficult, and each new release of the game tends to tweak some details of gameplay which players had just enough time to get used to before they were changed. Some of these changes are welcome, some are questionable, and some seem downright spiteful. For example, in version 1.0 of Spelunky (the first non-beta version), a new reward was introduced for unlocking all four of the game's secret rooms: The ability to play as the "Tunnel Man," a guy with a pickaxe that could be used to dig through the level. This was a vastly different experience from playing as the whip-equipped main character, and was an entirely fitting and appreciated reward, making it almost seem worth the trouble to unlock all those secret rooms. In the next release of the game, feeling that the Tunnel Man was apparently too easy to play as, the Tunnel Man's starting life points were set to only 2 (!), and all his bombs and ropes were taken away. Now, I can maybe understand the bombs since the pickaxe can tear through terrain more effectively than bombs in most cases, but leaving our poor Tunnel Man without so much as a rope to climb? Come on, we've already played the game hundreds of times to be able to unlock this special character, can't we just enjoy it?

The Bottom Line
Where does all this leave Spelunky, at the end of the day? Squarely in indie territory. For better or for worse, this game is very much the work of one individual. This is the product of Derek's ideas, decisions, and hard work, and while some might question those decisions, and to be sure, Spelunky is a somewhat flawed game, it is still probably the most innovative and just-plain-fun game of 2009. That leaves us, the gamers, with the most enjoyable independent activity of all: Playing the game and forming our own opinions about it.

By Adam Luoranen on December 30th, 2009

Viper Racing (Windows)

Best damage model of any PC racing sim ever

The Good
Viper Racing is a bit of an anomaly from the typical "real-world car" racing genre, for one very special reason. Most racing games that use real-world cars are under heavy demands from the cars' manufacturers to make sure that their precious little automobiles don't get banged up too much. (The Need For Speed series is a serious repeat offender in this regard.) In many such games, there is literally no damage model; cars simply bounce off each other like bumper cars. In other games, minor scratches or dents may show up in the paint, but the performance of the cars is not impacted. There are exceptions, of course; Midtown Madness had real street cars that would take damage (even letting the wheels fall off if they took a serious hit), and many games opt to have "damage" that affects various subsystems of the car, but doesn't actually appear as visible body deformation.

In the late 1990s, Sierra came into this industry of not-quite-driving-simulations with an apparent goal of doing serious driving games. Besides cornering the market on NASCAR sims and releasing the brilliant Grand Prix Legends, they also produced Viper Racing, a sports car sim like no other. Somehow, Sierra convinced Dodge to allow them to produce a full-on, ultrarealistic simulation of the Dodge Viper, perhaps the closest thing the Western Hemisphere has to an exotic sports car. The result is a very odd beast indeed, a driving game that spares no expense in terms of its physics model but feels a bit weak in most other areas.

Make no mistake, Viper Racing wants to be a serious driving simulation, so it's not for casual gamers who just want to mash the gas pedal and drive around fast. The game includes three realism settings, but even the easiest "Arcade" setting is considerably more demanding than most other driving games on the market. The computer-controlled opponent drivers are almost brutal in their efficiency; these aren't some goofy clowns who you can just bump off the track or zoom around as in most other games. The AI will hound you every inch of the race. Even when you feel like you've lost them, they're never far behind. The AI is actually imbued with some sort of human-like randomness that make them almost disturbingly unpredictable: At times, you'll think you can anticipate their next move, only to have them do something completely unexpected. These AIs don't act like AIs; they're programmed to act human.

Although the AI is a crowning achievement and definitely a standout in a field of games with linear, simple opponents, the main attraction in Viper Racing is definitely the driving model. No simplistic "let's bind the car's path of motion to the center of the road since the player is pretty close to it" here! Even the "Bemidji" track, so deceptively simple (it's nothing more than an oval with a chicane on one side), can mess you up if you don't handle it properly. There's only one track in the game ("Dayton") which is all about pure speed; it's a basic NASCAR-type track where the curves are made to allow you to go around at full speed. Every other track in the game will require more from the driver than to just be fast.

For the most part, these tracks are very good. They look great (especially considering that this is a 1998 game), and they also comprise an excellent spectrum of variety, from simple speed-centric tracks to winding road tracks that will take you through some excellent scenery, including a desert mesa, rocky cliffs, and pleasant forests. The variety doesn't just come from the scenery, either: The tracks require different driving styles. Some are actually high-speed tracks in disguise, with only one or two corners that require you to slow down significantly. Others are a little trickier, and some are difficult just to finish, let alone win. It speaks volumes about Viper Racing's physics model that "Dundas", probably the most difficult track in the game, has a layout that looks like it would almost be an "Easy" track on most other racing games. Don't be fooled; this ain't Mario Kart. You can't slide around those curves and corners as fast as you probably think you can. Finishing anywhere other than last on this course--especially at the most realistic driving setting--is a major accomplishment.

When you do lose control and whack something really hard (and you will), you'll uncover perhaps the most surprising thing about Viper Racing: It's got the most no-holds-barred damage model of any major PC driving title from any era. Apparently Dodge gave their full permission to let the game treat the car like a real car, and Viper Racing does! Forget about paint damage; glance off a wall with the corner of your car at 150 MPH, and you're not just going to see sparks, you're going to see a hole blasted into the side of your car, and most likely, the wheel bent into a completely unusable position. The body of the car is gloriously malleable, twisting into unrecognizable heaps of scrap just as a car would in real life. The damage model here is so good that you can make a whole game out of just seeing how many ways you can smash up your car. Try to flip it upside-down and see what happens to the top. Try to roll it and see what happens to the side. Blast it between trees and have it carom off them as if they were pinball bumpers. At times, the physics model actually seems a bit over-the-top, turning the car into shapes that don't seem like they should be physically possible, but that's part of the fun. None of this smashing-up is especially constructive (and it won't win you any races), but there's no denying how much fun it is. Kudos to Dodge for realizing that if the Viper is to be taken seriously by people who play the sim, then the sim needs to treat it like a real object.

The realism extends to the garage. Now, you and I know that lots of driving games have garages where you can tweak the car, and lots of games have buying systems where you can earn money from winning races and use it to buy better parts (Viper Racing has this too), but in this game, most of the high-end car upgrades that you can buy aren't simply "buy this and your car performs better" upgrades; they're "buy this and you'll gain an additional level of tweakability in the garage" upgrades. That's right: Even once you've bought that fancy new suspension or that hot new transmission, you're still going to have to configure it in the garage or it's going to do you no good! The number of settings you can set in the garage is simply marvelous; you don't just have a single suspension setting here, you can actually configure separate settings for your shocks, springs, and anti-roll bars. You get a full gearbox to change gear sizes in, and you can set the size of the aerodynamic spoilers at both the front and rear of the car. Best of all, the effects from these tweaks are very strongly evident in the sim. These adjustments aren't just window dressing, nor are they linear; they have complex effects that need to be understood if you're going to make the most of them.

It's clear that Viper Racing wants to be taken seriously, but the game has a somewhat hidden sense of humor as well. It comes with a small selection of "hacks" that allow you to do things like "Pave the world" (make the car act like it's on solid pavement even when it's on grass or earth), or activate the "Horn ball", a huge, heavy ball that shoots out the front of your car when you honk and will smash any cars in its path. There are also a few other car models you can pick here, although none of them are very finished; the airplane is fun but not very controllable (although it is extremely fast). These tidbits form a cute distraction, but overall, Viper Racing is no lightweight.

The Bad
Despite all it has going for it, Viper Racing has a handful of soft spots. First and foremost, despite its emphasis on a realistic physics model, that model sometimes feels questionable. Yeah, of course you can't go around a hairpin turn at over 100 MPH, but can you really spin a sports car like this out of control at only 40 MPH? Viper Racing is so different from most other racing games that it's hard to put it into any kind of frame of reference (especially if you don't actually race cars in real life), so it's hard to say just how realistic it really is, but there are definitely times when it feels like it's actually being overly tough on you. The Viper often doesn't feel like a sporty speed machine; there are times when it feels like a frightened horse that refuses to behave. Maybe that's how these high-strung sports cars really act in the real world, but either way, the game is going to be very tough on beginners who aren't used to driving with this level of flexibility. Just as a high-end flight simulator tends to turn away the casual player, so does Viper Racing. If you're really willing to put in the effort to learn it, Viper Racing will eventually reward you, but if you want a simple, fun game and don't want to spend too much time on it, you're better off just forgetting that this game exists.

The game's laudable AI opponents also have some weak spots. Occasionally, they seem to simply flake out; there's a specific curve section in the Sunset Mesa track where time after time, AI opponents just seem to forget how to drive, spinning wildly out of control, plowing head-on into rock formations, or at the very least going through the curves at ludicrously slow speeds. Other tracks have similarly bizarre Achilles heels for the computer drivers. The AI opponents also sometimes do very stupid things with no apparent reason or provocation. This is presumably part of the randomness that is deliberately programmed into them, and most of the time it works fine, but occasionally you'll see other drivers blithely rolling into bodies of water, attempting to drive through solid objects, or getting into extended ramming fights with each other. Some of this is pretty funny, but you'll occasionally get the feeling that the computer isn't living up to its usual level of competition.

The game's outstanding damage model comes with an inherent price: It's rare enough to find one car company that'll give you this level of freedom, so when you get it, you sort of just have to run with it. The Viper is simulated to an unprecedented level of detail, but it's just one car. You can only race that one car in this game, and while you can make that car behave in an almost unlimited number of different ways by tweaking it in the garage, at the end of the day it's still just one model of car. This actually isn't strictly true, since the aforementioned "Hacks" menu does allow you to pick from a handful of different cars (including a car simply called "Exotic", which is incredibly fast), but none of these cars are raceable in the game's championship mode; they're just for fun. They also have atrocious handling and cannot be adjusted in the garage. The hacks are fun, but they're little more than a distraction. Also, although I've harped on how great the damage model is, the truth is that it seems to mainly focus on the wheels of the car; your wheels can get twisted or misaligned, and your suspension can get damaged, but banging up any other part of the car doesn't seem to do anything except leave an ugly dent. The concept of engine damage doesn't appear to exist here; you can slam headfirst into concrete walls at insane speeds and keep driving, as long as your wheels didn't get caught in the deformation of the impact. Your hood will look like... Well, like you drove into something, but the car will keep on driving as if nothing happened. The damage model looks great, but in terms of its actual impact upon the car, it leaves a little to be desired.

It's perhaps not surprising in a game like this, but I should probably briefly mention that Viper Racing has precious little flash; there's no music (except a simple, unremarkable little ditty that plays when you exit the game), no video (except the usual intro video when you start the game), and unlike many other games that feature a pack of opponent drivers, no shooting the breeze with any of your rivals between races. The opponent drivers are given names, but there seems to be little point to doing this, since they have no personality; indeed, they're never even given a face. They might as well just be Opponent #1 through Opponent #7.

And finally, in a game that does everything else with such realism, there's one vexing "feature" in Viper Racing that racing purists will probably quickly come to hate: The reset button. If you smash up your car beyond the point of usability, drive it into a lake, or even find yourself facing the wrong way on the road, you can simply "reset" your car with the press of a button that will set you back on the road, with no damage, facing the correct direction, and ready to begin driving again. You can use this feature unlimited times, even in the campaign racing mode, and so can all of your opponents. If your opponents were always perfectly on the ball, this feature might be irrelevant, since even if you reset your car, the several seconds it would take to get back up to racing speed would immediately cost you the race; in Viper Racing, it often happens that somebody (either you or a computer opponent) can smash up a car to the point where, in real life, they would simply have to forfeit the race, but in this game, they simply reset and begin driving again, and actually have a decent chance of winning (or at least finishing fairly high up in the rankings). This might be an interesting feature if there were any way to disable it, but there isn't, and that's infuriating. Sometimes you can play "chicken" with the computer drivers and trick them into driving into obstacles, which by all rights should cost them the race, but it doesn't. They'll just reset and lose maybe a few seconds of race standing. Obviously unrealistic, and entirely unfair.

The Bottom Line
A must-have for serious racing buffs. Solid, fun, realistic, and challenging. Arcade drivers need not apply.

By Adam Luoranen on October 2nd, 2006

Star Control II (DOS)

A very disappointing masterpiece

The Good
Star Control 2 came out at a time when presentation was still a big thing in computer games; today, graphics in most major-name games are pretty much photorealistic, and sound is movie-quality, so nobody thinks too much about it anymore. However, Star Control 2 did a lot in its time with both audio and graphics. The graphics in the game were top-notch for its time, and the much-loved soundtrack, consisting mostly of electronica/techno music, sounds great.

Star Control 2 is one of the most open-ended games I can remember playing. In many ways, it invites comparisons to the more recent Deus Ex, and for me, that's high praise indeed. Both games provide you with several ways to deal with situations: You can try and talk your way through various conversation trees, or you can simply blast your way through. In many cases, you can sneak your way through and hope you don't get caught. Also like Deus Ex, SC2 doesn't try to moralize your decisions too much... The point here is that this is a game you can play your way, and if you want to proceed by blasting an entire race of aliens into extinction instead of bartering with them, that's your choice. The game won't stand in your way, and mostly won't make you feel bad for choosing one approach over another.

In fact, in many ways, SC2 is actually more open-ended than Deus Ex, because DX required you to follow a fairly linear plot line; you could take some minor side deviations from that path, but ultimately, the game followed a set series of events. SC2, for the most part, doesn't require you to do things in any particular order, so again, you can do things however you see fit.

The universe of SC2 is HUGE. There are dozens and dozens of star systems outlined on the map that comes with the game. Each star system contains several stars, and each star is at the center of its own solar system, most of which have several orbiting planets that you can go to. The game also includes a lot of dialog; a small text file update that installs with the game mentions "enough player-alien dialog to fill a novel", and I don't think that's too much of an exaggeration. In fact, the story behind Star Control 2 is so well-developed that I'm a little surprised we haven't seen movie conversions of it. This game is worth it, and if properly done, it has enough depth to hold its own against the Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings franchises. This is an epic story of a galaxy-wide war between several alien races, each of which has its own motivations and culture.

The Bad
I'm amazed by the number of reviews here on MobyGames that claim they can't come up with anything negative to say about this game. For all of you fans: I'm about to list several things that I think ruin this game, so if you think criticism of SC2 is blasphemy, I'm sorry, but this game is far from perfect.

The main problem with SC2 is that the gameplay isn't very well balanced. Near the very beginning of the game, you're asked by a starbase commander to go and collect some minerals from a nearby planet so that the starbase can convert them into energy to power the station. The process of collecting these minerals involves a little mini-game in which you control a planetary lander that simply drives around the surface of the planet, picking up dots which represent caches of valuable elements. "What a cute little mini-game," I thought when I first saw this procedure; "I wonder what other mini-games I'll see as I continue playing." Upon bringing the minerals back to the starbase commander, however, you soon learn that he expects you to get much more. The first delivery of minerals was just an emergency supply, to help bring the station's life-support systems back online. After that first mining expedition, the commander explains that you'll need to get more raw materials in order to get anything from the station. And most of what you'll need in this game, you get from that station: You can buy additional ships, extra crew to populate your ships, and fuel to propel your ships to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Here comes the game's first problem: The focus on collecting these raw materials.

The process of getting minerals, as I've already mentioned, is a mini-game of driving a lander around. This process is somewhat amusing the first time you do it, but you'll discover that you're expected to do it again. And again. And again. Over and over and over, you'll need to go to some planet that you haven't already stripped bare, send down a planetary lander, and steer the lander around until you've finished picking up all the minerals. Then you go to another planet and do it again.

All of this might not be so bad if the game introduced new and interesting ways of making the mining process different; perhaps little puzzles or something that you had to solve. I usually discourage puzzles just for puzzles' sake (i.e. puzzles which are clearly shoehorned into a game and don't have any real relevance to the plot), but even those kinds of puzzles would be preferable to the complete lack of variety in the mining process. The only thing that counts for "variety" in the mining is the lightning strikes and earthquakes on the planetary surfaces; however, these phenomena happen too quickly for you to be able to react to them most of the time, so they end up creating more of a "random death" factor than any kind of additional gameplay element. On every planet, the procedure is the same. This very quickly starts to feel like work. But you have to do it, because your starship needs fuel, and you can't get fuel without raw materials.

Consider the example of another much more recent game: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Now, when GTA:SA was being developed, people worried about the food and exercise aspect of the game. Unlike previous GTA games, you have to make your character eat and exercise every now and then so he doesn't get out of shape. This sounds like a dumb little distraction from the real focus of the game, but in actuality, you don't have to do it very often, so it doesn't get in the way too much. Annoying, perhaps, but it's such a small part of the game that it doesn't ruin the whole game.

Star Control 2 should have taken a similar approach. If the designers wanted to make a game in which you had to go mining, okay, maybe that could have been a little side chore. But as it is, it's actually the main focus of the game.

The other big problem with SC2 is its gameworld. People praise this game for having such a huge space to explore, with so many solar systems and planets. You could spend a long, long time exploring every nook and cranny of the Star Control 2 universe. But if you try to do so, you'll quickly discover that most of those planets don't have anything interesting on them. Yes, there are a lot of planets, but when you visit each one, you won't find much there. Nobody to talk to, no places to explore, no puzzles to solve; about the only thing that most planets have is minerals, and so the only thing you can do with them is send down your lander and play the stupid little mining game. I initially exulted at SC2's big world, thinking of all the places I would see and explore. But exploration gets old really fast, because all the planets look the same after a while, and there's nothing on most of them.

In fact, sadly, the gameplay mechanics actually discourage exploration, because going anywhere in the galaxy requires fuel, and again, the only way to get fuel is through mining. So you end up with a catch-22 situation: To go to other planets requires fuel, and once you get to those planets, there's nothing to do but mine more raw materials, which you use to fly back to base so you can buy more fuel. Seriously, what's the point of that?

Of course, if you play the game well and use your fuel efficiently, you can do more than break even; you can come up with a net surplus of raw materials, but the other things you can buy with raw materials don't make the game much better. You can buy additional fuel tanks to store more fuel (which becomes necessary to reach planets farther away from your starbase), extra jets to make your ship fly and turn faster (which is useful in combat, and also helps make interstellar travel less boring by making your ship go faster), and you can buy additional ships (which serve no purpose except in combat). These things are useful, but they still don't make the mining process any more interesting.

Now, to be fair, there is another way you can get raw materials: Combat. When you defeat an enemy ship, you scavenge raw materials off that ship when the battle is over. If you prefer fighting to trolling the ground for minerals, you may prefer to go this way, but you'll need to do an awful lot of fighting to get enough raw materials to buy the fuel you need. Yes, it's an alternative, but constantly fighting for your livelihood still feels more like work than a game. Also, whenever your ship gets hit in combat, crew members on board die, and crew members, like fuel, are expensive. (Oddly, you can "buy" crew at the starbase in exchange for raw materials too; apparently the engineers on the base have figured out how to manufacture humans from their component elements.)

All of these factors combine to make Star Control 2 less of a game. I've come back to this game time and time again, feeling like I'm missing something, and every time, the negatives I've cited here keep me from having much fun.

To be sure, Star Control 2 is a masterpiece. Clearly a lot of work has lovingly been put into the story and atmosphere; what a shame, then, that the actual gameplay mechanics seem to have been glanced over. Indeed, this game probably would be better as a movie, because if you remove the monotony and keep the plot, you'd have a winner. Sadly, as it is, if you want a game in which you drive a little vehicle around picking up minerals for an hour, then go to another place and do it all over again, this is the game for you.

The Bottom Line
A brilliant story in a vast universe... But not much of a game.

By Adam Luoranen on June 20th, 2005

Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist (DOS)

Very funny and inventive, but not without flaws

The Good
By the mid-1990s, Al Lowe had already made several Leisure Suit Larry games and was known for the silly sense of satire that he lent to games. A relatively new kid on the block by the name of Josh Mandel was making the scene at Sierra, however; he had made a niche as a documentation writer, writing the fake publications that Sierra tended to ship with their games (like the Space Piston magazine that shipped with Space Quest 4). Freddy Pharkas was the first game that allowed Mandel's talent to really shine: Where Al Lowe tends to go for sight gags, Josh Mandel's talent lies in brilliantly understated puns and in-jokes woven into dialog. Mix these two comedic talents together, and you get a game that has the chance to be among the funniest computer games ever made.

And indeed it was, and still is today. If you play Freddy Pharkas right, you can play through the game and never stop laughing for very long. Almost every game object will yield some funny message if you look at it or try to operate it. Of course, this sometimes leads to the feeling that the designers are trying too hard to make the game funny, and sometimes the overall effect is lame, but more often the game actually succeeds at being as funny as it thinks it is. For a game like this, that's no small achievement.

This game also fills the Western niche in adventure games. The over-emphasis on either Medieval or science-fiction settings was prevalent in the gaming industry even in 1993, and Freddy Pharkas is a breath of fresh air in the sense that it provides an entirely different setting for adventurers. Cowboys, six-shooters, ten-gallon hats... It's all here, and brought to life with vibrant graphics and sound effects (or what passed as vibrant in those times). This game also tosses in well-balanced bits of absurdity that aren't traditional Western elements, but which blend in well with the setting, like an improbably-accented Irish/Italian barber and a dangerous stampede of snails. (Yes, really.)

One other element worth mentioning is the scope of the game: Literally the entire game takes place in the small town of Coarsegold, California. By the end of the game, the town starts to grow on you, but I'll talk more about this element of the game in the "Bad" section.

The Bad
For all it has going for it, Freddy Pharkas has a few design quirks that can seriously impede folks' enjoyment of this gaming experience. The first one that pops up is the annoying copy-protection scheme: Back in those times, it was still standard practice for adventure games to incorporate manual-check copy protection, which required the gamer to have the manual that shipped with the game (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) to get through the game. In Freddy Pharkas, this "doc check" takes the form of the various medications that Freddy must mix up in his pharmacy lab. While the lab provides an interesting little side activity to distract from the more mainline adventure gameplay, working in the lab can also be frustrating and annoying, because when you come right down to it, all you're really trying to do is follow recipes given in "The Modern Day Book Of Health And Hygiene", the fake medical book that comes with the game (which is also funny reading, by the way). You'll basically be doing stuff along the lines of "Take 20 mg of ingredient X, mix with 15 ml of ingredient Y..." It might be a little more transparent than "Enter the fifth word on page 17 of the manual", but it's still annoying.

A much more serious design problem is the shift that the game's plot takes after the first act: Once the second act starts, you're suddenly under a timer to get a task done before you die. While the timer isn't incredibly short (you're given several minutes to do what needs to be done), time limits are generally a bad thing in adventure games. The gamer is, presumably, trying to work out a solution to a puzzle, and restricting how much time they have to do so doesn't really enhance the enjoyment of the game at all.

If you play the game like many people do today--with the intent to simply play the game from beginning to end, as if playing the game were an assignment to be completed--then you might get turned off by this aspect of the game. The right way to play Freddy Pharkas is to immerse yourself in the game's world right from the get-go. When the game begins, you are under no time limit; you can take as long as you want to advance the plot. People who have the fondest memories of Freddy Pharkas are the ones who spent the start of the game actually exploring the town, finding all the little places, objects, and people that populated the gameworld, and laughing themselves silly. If you do this, then you'll start to appreciate the game for what it is. This is important, because as I mentioned before, the entire game takes place in one town, and that town collectively gives you maybe two dozen screens to work with. This is not a grand adventure where you go journeying over the mountains or the ocean or even the forest; it's a game in which you stay in the same town all the way through. What this means is that you'll have to make that town your home, and enjoy all the little quirks that make it what it is. If you start thinking "This town is a hole, and I can't wait to get out," then you'll be waiting the whole game, because you never do get out. So accept that, and explore the natural charm of Coarsegold. The game's plot will wait for you; it'll wait as long as you want. If you want the kind of adventure where you explore distant lands and travel vast expanses, this isn't your game at all.

Many people also critique the game's puzzles. Although I don't find them to be worse than the fare from most mid-90s adventure games, some of the puzzles in this game can be tricky. Still, any veteran of Sierra's "Quest" games should find the puzzles here agreeable.

Finally, many people point out that the game is too short. This is true, but the length of the game is actually just about right to tell the story. Unlike adventures where "put the water in the jar" passes for plot development, Freddy Pharkas contains a real story of the Old West that continually develops, and to make the game artificially longer by tacking on stupid puzzles that don't relate to the plot would be worse than making a game that's a bit on the short side, which this game is.

The Bottom Line
Serious adventure gamers with a sense of humor should find this game to be a treat. Play it slow and take it all in rather than simply playing to win, and it'll reward you. If you're the kind of adventurer who wants to travel, or you don't like puzzles, this is not the one for you.

By Adam Luoranen on March 16th, 2005

The Lawnmower Man (DOS)

One of the most insanely horrible games ever made.

The Good
To understand why anyone might have ever thought that there was something good in The Lawnmower Man, one must teleport their mind back to 1993, when the game came out. It must be remembered that in this time, "multimedia" was actually a new buzzword that created the same kind of excitement that "Internet" might have created just a few years later. The whole idea of being able to play movies (even tiny movies which lasted a few minutes or even seconds) on your computer screen seemed like an impossible dream come true. In those days, The Lawnmower Man was something special, because in the spirit of those pioneering multimedia days, it entirely ditched any semblance of a computer game interface, preferring instead to simply use what looked like full-motion video for the entire game. Rather than any on-screen cursors or buttons appearing, you simply saw what must have looked like pretty decent full-screen video in those days. (Even though it's really just rendered polygon graphics for the most part.) Your character would respond to keypresses and the movie would evolve as appropriate, changing here and there as you continued to influence it. It was (and remains today) a little-used gameplay style. Whether that's good or bad, however, may be a matter of opinion. Even so, the graphics and sound effects were passable, at least.

The Bad
The Lawnmower Man has virtually no plot development whatsoever. If you haven't seen the fairly decent movie which this game was based on, you won't have any idea of the background story. Of course nobody cares too much about the story when you actually have one in a game, but it's somehow a slap in the face when you get a game which doesn't have a story; It makes the game seem somehow pointless, since you're not sure if you're trying to save the world or just in a hurry to get to dinner on time.

Indeed, The Lawnmower Man is very little more than a few arcade sequences which are completely scripted and exactly the same each time. There seems to be little point to them other than to watch yourself move through the virtual reality world and gawk at all the nice scenery. Again, the sheer attractiveness of the graphics (by 1993 standards) made the game appealing to people who would buy technology simply for technology's sake, whether they needed it or not. Well, I feel sorry for those people, because The Lawnmower Man is not fun for even one single second. The game begins with you running from some kind of cosmic giant lawnmower that's trying to run you down; As you run, you have to jump over (or duck under) some weird ghoulie ball-shaped objects that are trying to swallow you up. Not only is this sequence ridiculously difficult, there's no such thing as saving your game in this game; You just have to do it right all in one shot, and if you don't, then you have to start at the beginning of the level. The Lawnmower Man was clearly influence by coin-op arcade games, and they decided to make it really tough for the hardcore gamers who want a serious challenge from their games. But even hardcore gamers will not find anything in this game to like. I myself never made it past the first sequence. It was too hard, and every time one of the ball-monsters hit me, I had to start from the beginning. I don't mean to complain too much about computer games being too hard for me, but The Lawnmower Man crosses way over the line from "challenging" to "unplayable".

It's a shame, because the movie was actually watchable. If you ever come across The Lawnmower Man game and you're a collector, you may want to grab it (since it will never sell anywhere for more than a few dollars) just to satisfy some mild curiosity, but the game does not even begin to be an actual game that you'd want to sit down and play.

The Bottom Line
Watch the movie instead.

By Adam Luoranen on January 7th, 2003