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Throwback Thursday: The best game setting you never played in

I was a Nintendo Power kid. I’ve always been. Long before I discovered the internet, or EGM, or Gamepro, or any of those other venerable institutions of game-related content and commentary, I was already coveting whatever issue of Nintendo Power I saw that I didn’t own yet.

I never actually owned a lot of them, since my mom kept me on a very short leash when it came to dropping money on frivolous things. The four or five I did manage to “amass” over the years got read from cover to cover so much that the ink looked like it was fading from the intensity of my constant gazing.

All I knew about games beyond my Famicom outings, I knew from Nintendo Power. It defined the realities and the boundaries of my gaming world. And then -- just out of curiosity, really! -- I happened to pick up an issue of Dragon Magazine from a Nova Fontana branch that no longer exists today.

Good night sweet prince. (picture taken from this post)

Ral Partha miniature ads featuring unsettling monsters and stunted-looking “humans”. Poorly laid-out mail-order forms for Star Trek rank badges and memorabilia. Magic: The Gathering spreads with the card text blanked out. Painterly art of monstrous demons. Women in chainmail bikinis. Polyhedral dice! Games that aren’t played on a TV! Board games for adults! Paging through that magazine was like being William in Almost Famous, discovering Led Zeppelin for the first time. It was scary and mind-blowing.

And then, of course, there was the ad about the tabletop RPG called Shadowrun.

I can’t quite remember when my first exposure to the whole cyberpunk genre was, but this could have been it: 80s-looking punks sticking cables into head-mounted ports, typing on their arm-mounted keyboards while their street samurai buddies covered them with katanas and submachine guns in meatspace. My brain was already reeling from the sheer radness of the idea, but Shadowrun even took it further, sending my developing imagination into China syndrome territory: these were elves with guns! Dwarves that flew jets with their minds! I kind of knew what these metahuman races were (thanks to the Nintendo Power Official Final Fantasy Strategy Guide), but this -- this was just enough to send me into a mouth-frothing frenzy. This was awesome. Awesome.

Shadowrun is a game currently set in 2075, but in many, many ways, its heart

is stuck firmly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You’ve got elves with a ridiculous amount of piercings smoking cigarettes in the corner of a sweaty rave, trolls with nose rings and leather jackets toting shotguns, deckers (hackers) with mohawks and 80s-cool goggles, and, well, there are dragons pulling the strings behind the scenes of this hazy neon dystopia. It’s the kind of sci-fi/fantasy blend that only a heavy metal album cover could replicate so succinctly: the love child of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Blade Runner, and Tolkienesque high fantasy, with a smattering of Native American mythology for a unique flavor. And also of course those dragons I mentioned.

Not pictured: the 2nd Edition cover art, which is identical to the first. Can you spot the Sam Fisher-alike? 'Course you can.

It’s all such a good fit for a video game and it’s a mystery why a big Shadowrun game hasn’t happened yet until now. Over the course of five main edition releases and countless supplemental setting books that have been released between 1989 and 2013, the Shadowrun setting has grown into a rich alternate universe that possesses limitless potential for thrilling team-based storytelling.

Central to the setting is of course the Shadowrun, which the first edition rulebook defines as "n. Any movement, action, or series of such made in carrying out plans which are illegal or quasilegal." Shadowrun, like many other cyberpunk settings, is all about the skilled mercenaries on the fringes of society -- the runners who risk everything and get to experience all the action. It’s an attractive prospect for a pack of gamers looking forward to a night of colorful escapism. It’s also a woefully underrepresented setting in the video game world.

Blaring in the background: "Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister.

Me, I never really got into the role-playing thing beyond a handful of D&D sessions in grade school, a couple of Mage: The Ascension games in high school, and a short-lived Vampire: The Masquerade campaign in college. My early discovery of the Shadowrun universe was without a follow-through until much, much later in the late 90s when I discovered the joys of emulation. I was tooling around with a very early Genesis emulator that was included on a disc of pirated goodies I bought from a seedy shop in Greenhills (and let’s face it -- tech and seedy went hand-in-hand back in 1990s Manila) and I discovered that there was a ROM of the Genesis Shadowrun game on the disc. I was launched back to my Dragon Magazine-fearing youth with its punks and its leather-and-chains vibe and its bad typography and you can bet I played that game for what felt like a hundred hours.

Left: SNES. Right: Genesis. Both: Ugly but faithful to the source material.

I wanted more Shadowrun. I played the SNES game, which was also a totally different experience. I tracked down whatever books I could find, and I read all the cheap Shadowrun novels I came across in sales. But I wasn’t a tabletop player, and it wasn’t enough.

That brings us to 2013 and the release of Shadowrun Returns. It’s a totally new game and not a throwback by any definition at all, but the happy feelings that will emanate from you as you play this game might as well be from the 1980s for all the retro goodness that this game will deliver. The RPG gameplay is quite good and the XCOM-ish turn-based combat is excellent, but honestly, the game is generic when detached from the Shadowrun theme. It’s the theme and the story that make it come to life as more than the sum of its parts. It’s Shadowrun, with all the leather-wearing, drek-spouting, virtual reality-hacking 80s goodness that goes with it.

Whoa. That's not ugly at all! Shadowrun Returns is great by any gamer's standards.

I believe a huge part of what makes Shadowrun Returns a Shadowrun game is the fact that one of the setting's original creators, Jordan Weisman, worked on the project. Yeah. Open one of those Shadowrun rulebooks. You’ll see his name right on the credits page. The writing it the game displays such an intimate knowledge of the setting that effectively draws you in with its inescapable combination of convincing dialogue, setting-authentic jargon, and very well-written narration.

What’s more, the adventure never has to end again! In the tradition of pen and paper RPGs everywhere, Shadowrun Returns lets players and budding designers create their own scenarios with the very tool that the dev team used to construct the campaign that the game shipped with.

Wanna learn how to work this thing? Head on over to the SRR wiki.

Just thinking about it almost makes me believe that there’s still some stories in me waiting to be told -- this time in adventure module format.

It really is a good year for Shadowrun. There’s also Shadowrun Online, which is a browser-based tactics game set in the same universe, and a whole bunch of analog products for the setting out this year.

If you want to lose yourself in an absorbing old-school RPG setting, pick up Shadowrun Returns. If you want to find out more about the universe, you can now purchase pdfs of the rulebooks. Hey, if you want to play those old Shadowrun console games, there are ways, too! Just do yourself a favor and get acquainted with its world. You may never want to leave.

Ok, chummers... be intense!

Now... how about a new Crimson Skies game?

Throwback Thursday: Reaching for the Stars

astronaut-space-walk-outer-photo-desktop-free-wallpaper The thing I wish for me to experience in this lifetime is to be able to reach outer space: to finally get to experience a zero-g environment or even to do a space walk in that dark, but star-filled vacuum. A man can only dream and wish that someone would make space travel viable already! But thankfully, I can look to games to scratch that “space-itch”. And as a young boy, space sims have captured my imagination and enabled me to live out my space cowboy fantasies.

My initial foray to the wonderful world of space sims was with one of the most iconic space fighters in the Star Wars universe: the X-Wing. Conveniently, I was accompanying my mom in the mall at that time and I somehow convinced her I needed a new game. After a few nags here and there, she finally agreed and we head on over to my favorite gaming outlet right after we did some errands. I stepped into the store and browsed through a list and the word “X-Wing” caught my attention.  After copying the game into a bunch of floppy disks (yes folks I was a young pirate), I thought I was ready to go home. But the clerk told me I needed to photocopy the manual for me to play the game, so I told her to give me a copy of that too, thinking that it was for the lame copy protection also found in other games during that time. Well, it turned out that it really was for the copy protection, and instructions with pages as thick as our school textbooks, on how to fly the ships. I was way over my head with this game, but it was too late to back out then since my mother was handing over the cash to the clerk.

XWing_Box_Cover

When I got home, I promptly installed the game into my computer and went through the manual as the progress bar steadily increased and with occasional prompts for me to change disks to be able to continue the installation. You see, I wasn’t the brightest kid back in the day, so my patience for reading anything that resembles a wall of text and without pictures immediately became boring to me. After the installation, I ran the game and tossed the manual aside after the obligatory copy-protection question. The game told me I was going into my tour of duty for the Rebellion and I needed to fly missions. Again not paying attention, I clicked my way through until I got into the cockpit of the spaceship.

What now?

Once inside the ship, I was overwhelmed but also fascinated with all those lights, screens and sensors around the ship. Then it was time to move to a waypoint. “Uh-oh” I said. I had no clue on what to do or press. I picked up the tossed-away manual gently and tried to absorb everything written on it, looking for that overview of keys and functions of the ship so I can at least get it to move. Once I found the right keys, I jabbed a finger in the keyboard and suddenly my X-Wing fighter had those iconic light streaks all around. I was going into lightspeed and heading to the waypoint. At last some progress! Then the game alerted me that enemy TIE fighters were coming in and I was free to engage them. Engage them? You mean fight them? Oh jeez! What do I do now? Again referencing the manual, it told me I can cycle through targets, fire some lasers and even shoot proton torpedoes. So I memorized the keys and now I was dog-fighting with those pesky TIE fighters, just like in the movie!

Wheeeee!

After a few sorties with the Empire, my ship finally succumbed to damage and I was forced to eject from the X-Wing and try the mission again. I read through the manual some more and tried to learn about power management for this ship and then realized that I could either distribute my power to the engines, shields or the laser cannons. This really opened up the game for me and got me to think more strategically on how to fly better. I flew more missions and really got into the game to the point that I memorized and knew the characteristic of all the ships found in the game. This actually led me to wanting to watch Star Wars again and again so I can see all those ships come to life.

img-thing

After going through X-Wing, I picked up and enjoyed more space-sim titles like Wing Commander (1-4), Tie Fighter and of course X-Wing vs TIE fighter. I enjoyed getting into cockpits of different ships, figuring out their intricacies and knowing how to exploit their advantages during a dogfight. And of course, I also enjoyed the “scenery” of space, seeing the stars and nebulas as you jump from one waypoint to the other. Oh and don’t get me started on the ship designs, especially capital ships! It was exhilarating to fly by big hunks of metal, steadily coasting through space. Having to fly with a fleet and then suddenly break out into an epic battle always has that special place in my heart.

I can't wait to hop into this baby!

Sadly, after the mid 90s, I’ve never had the chance to experience a proper space sim unlike the glory days. Luckily, Kerbal Space Program tries to scratch that itch of exploration and bewilderment with outer space. And of course, you can’t talk about space sims without Star Citizen, which sadly we all need to wait for until 2014, when we’ll finally be able to experience the masterpiece of Chris Roberts. I look forward to next year, and be that kid again who loved to go to outer space and just fly his damn spaceship!

Throwback Thursday: King's Quest VI on a rainy schoolday morning

"Howdy, neigh-bors! No? Okay. :( " Have you ever gotten up and gone through your morning rituals and dressed up for work and suddenly fantasized about taking the day off? Yes?

Now, have you ever gotten up and gone through your morning rituals and dressed up for work and suddenly fantasized about taking the day off to play games?

I did so just this morning, and I didn’t even have any particular game in mind. I just wanted to plop down and put my feet up and rewind a couple decades back to rediscover some happy sensations from the past.

Here’s an observable relationship I just made up: the sleepiness of any grade school gamer kid is directly proportional to how early it is during a school day. Said kid’s sudden adrenaline rush of pure energy is also directly proportional to how early it is when school gets called off due to bad weather or any other happy coincidence. On the coldest, gloomiest, earliest school mornings, my mood-o-meter used to snap from zero to hero at the blink of an eye the moment my school was mentioned on the radio during the weather report.

Sweet, merciful, sublime rain.

Like this, but much, much happier.

After running through the length of the house while whooping wildly, I would plunk myself down in front of the computer -- much to my mother’s chagrin, I’m sure -- and fire up a game. No-class weekdays were even more special than weekends: I would never have been awake early enough on a Saturday morning to play the entire morning away in a flurry of outwardly serene clicking and clacking. I went through many a title back in the day largely thanks to our unpredictable tropical weather: Ultima Underworld 2, Day of the Tentacle, and Dark Sun: Shattered Lands are only a few that I can recall.

And then there was King’s Quest VI, which was the last King’s Quest title released by Sierra Online during adventure gaming’s golden age from the late 80s to the early 90s, and certainly the best entry in the series.

It was not a particularly rainy morning in July or August 1994 when classes suddenly got called off. We didn’t even have the radio on to check -- another parent called to give us the good news. Imagine my elation.

Castles! High adventure! Collies with swords (partially out of frame)!

Look, there’s something to be said for anticipating something so badly and the rush that the final payoff provides, but getting handed a free pass when you thought there was none at all? Even better. After taking a few seconds to process and savor the reality that I was indeed not going to get on the school bus that morning, I hurriedly tore off my uniform, put on a nice loose-fitting shirt, and booted up the computer, all the while cheering and carousing like a drunk pirate.

Minutes later, I was on the phone with my friend as we discussed how to solve the Cliffs of Logic. This was how things were before the internet existed.

"Kids, this is called a LIB-RA-RY."

KQ6 was my flavor of the month at the time -- the game my dad bought me when I hinted that it had been a while since he bought me a new game. It was tremendous for the time -- it came on nine (9! IX! NINE!) 3.5” floppy disks, it had pre-rendered 3D cinematics and speech in the intro (jaw-dropping and in hindsight quite terrible), and tucked away in the options menu was a brief preview for the ballad Girl in the Tower, which got my attention both for being a proper-sounding song in a computer game, and for being unbelievably cheesy. Sierra Online had been running a promo back then where you can request participating radio stations to play the full song over the air.

How the world has changed.

King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow is the story of Prince Alexander and his search for Princess Cassima, whom he apparently met at the end of the previous game (which I never finished) and is now trying to woo.

Princess Cassima has that very 90s vibe going on.

This is not an easy task considering a) she has been locked inside a tower, and b) said tower is in the Land of the Green Isles, which is far away and unknown to Alexander’s homeland of Daventry. After a glimpse of the beautiful princess through a magic mirror, however, Alexander figures out that he can use the stars outside her window to navigate to wherever she’s being held, and our adventure begins.

Actually, no. Prince Alex gets a ship and a crew to man it, and he sails off to find Cassima, navigates his ship right into a storm, and gets shipwrecked. Then our adventure begins.

Back in 1994, my 11-year-old self found all this to be very exciting and adventurous, and certainly thrilling to experience while curled up into a ball in my chair, the seat comfortably cold in the stormy weather. King’s Quest has always been about mixing up various fairy tales into one strange world that didn’t make much sense, but King’s Quest VI actually got cool fairy tales that I never considered kiddy or sissy: for the price of admission, we got a powerful genie, an evil vizier, creatures based on clever wordplay (a “dangling participle”, anyone?), a picturesque garden full of sinister death traps, the Queens from Through the Looking Glass, a cult of crazed druids, and much more. It was the game that managed to be kiddie-friendly and cool before Pixar even existed, and I found it to be a perfect fit at my awkward age. It was a refreshing look into more serious stories for me as a child, and today, it’s a refreshing look into how family-friendly the games of the past used to be.

Play the game and find out!

The game itself is quite the work of art. The hand-drawn visuals are still attractive, although of course very low-res. The puzzles are satisfying and well-designed, although the game still suffers a bit from the Sierra syndrome of killing the player for getting a bit too curious. Thankfully, most of these deaths can easily be avoided this time by exercising a bit of common sense -- something that could make you feel clever indeed.

Death, on the other hand, is entertainingly portrayed by an “epilogue” scene where Prince Alexander’s spirit enters the underworld, his quest unfinished, before the standard Restart/Reload/Quit prompt appears. I got very acquainted with this underworld scene over the course of the game, which made it much more pleasing when the plot actually sent me to the same place later on as living, breathing Alexander.

"Next!"

King’s Quest VI was a bright, entertaining, and enjoyable quest that I greatly enjoyed playing on that cold morning -- it’s a feeling I don’t think I’ve encountered much since. I miss the imagination and the writing that went into it, and I certainly miss the feeling of being a kid in front of a monitor on a weekday, devouring dialogue (unvoiced in the floppy version, of course) like my head was buried in a comic book.

This morning, on my way out the front door, I gave my gaming corner a brief glance and flashed back to 1994 and the shipwreck and Prince Alexander’s quest. Maybe one day, I can come back and relive it all over again. Preferably while it’s raining.


King's Quest VI is part of GoG's King's Quest 4+5+6 pack, and you can purchase it today for $9.99.

Girl in the Tower can probably be heard on Youtube or something. I was too scared to look it up.

Throwback Thursday: My first Co-op

It’s a pretty well-known fact in the community that I am a big sucker for co-op games. I’ve written about how it is my preferred game mode and participated in numerous co-op commendation posts. And whenever some of the OMGeeks talk about a game in the Steam Chat Room, the first question I always ask is if the game has a co-op mode in it and if the answer is “yes”, I’m guaranteed to be interested. I'll never get tired look at this cartridge art

I would like to attribute my love of co-op games with one of my most vivid memories of playing an iconic game called Contra. For some reason, my father picked this game out for me so I had more games to play with the newly bought Famicom. His justification for buying the game was simple: the cartridge art had a lookalike of both Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both action heroes of the 80’s, so it must be good! My young mind also bought into this reasoning and I excitedly inserted the cartridge and waited for the screen to come alive with the game menu. But instead of a simple game menu, I was greeted with the most badass 8-bit theme that my young ears ever heard. I was so pumped to play it and was about to mash start with my tiny thumb, but then I noticed that there was a 2-player option. And I screamed at my dad that we should play while pointing at the screen. Initially, I assumed the game mode would make us go one by one and take turns every time our electronic avatars would die. But I was pleasantly surprised that I saw both of our characters on the screen together and instinctively yelled with glee “Wow! Pwede pala 2 players sabay!” (Wow! We can play 2 players together!). And from then on, I would address co-op games as “2 players sabay” kind of games.

[youtube_sc url="http://youtu.be/0x4QnQbGdfU"]

As everybody knows, Contra is ruthless! And having my dad being the guy in red pants didn’t make it any easier. We tried our hardest to dodge bullets, while firing back at the enemy and at those chrome-finish turrets. I would excitedly yell at my dad to shoot the blimp thingys and get the power up. We would also try to coordinate and execute some sort strategy with either one us staying at the top most part of the level and the other staying in the water. This would ensure that each of us was covering a portion of the level. But me and my poor dad, with just 2 medals each (which represented our lives in-game), it was just too much for us. That evil metallic wall of death with guns mounted on it and enemies pouring out was too difficult to kill. Sadly, my dad was running late for the office and he had to put down the controller and told me that we will pick it up again in the evening. I felt really frustrated that we couldn't finish the level, but on the other hand, was feeling very elated with the brief, but eventful experience. Seeing me and my dad working together in one screen and shooting down enemies was a really new and exciting concept for me and I wanted more of it. Since my dad was a very busy businessman, we never did pick up the game again. My cousins had the pleasure of finishing Contra with me. Nevertheless, I will always and forever cherish that initial moment, when me and my dad were side-by-side, comrades-at-arms, shooting electronic bad guys and covering each other like in those action movies that he would surprisingly allow me to watch back then.

Bonding like this, but with guns instead

To this day, when playing co-op games with Jed and Mike or even with the folks in the community, I still get that wonderful, tingling feeling while playing and yelling victoriously or sighing collectively, depending on the outcome of the game. Regardless, playing cooperatively with friends or family is still, and always will be, the best feeling in the world.

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