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Nightmare Keep

“Welcome to Nightmare Keep, one of the most demanding adventures your players will ever experience. The challenges awaiting within these pages are intended for only the most skilled, courageous, and resourceful heroes of the Forgotten Realms. Novices are advised to turn back now.”

-Nightmare Keep, Pg. 3

Written by Rick Swan and published in 1991, Nightmare Keep is a high level adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. Designed for 4-6 characters level 18-20, the module combines traditional dungeon crawling with an emphasis on deadly traps, puzzles, and a heavy dose of otherworldly horror for good measure. It feels like TSR’s attempt to create an adventure for 2nd Edition that is as iconic and infamous as 1st Edition’s Tomb of Horrors. Did it succeed?

Partially.

Nightmare Keep never developed the infamy of Tomb of Horrors, in fact I rarely hear it mentioned in OSR circles. That’s a pity, because it is a good adventure. I would even say that it does several things better than Tomb of Horrors. However it suffers from several flaws that hold it back.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and fortunately that’s the meat of the adventure. Something evil stirs beneath Woloverton Keep; an unknown horror that has already claimed the lives of several powerful adventures. As the characters enter its forgotten halls they find themselves trapped in the maze of Icelia, an ancient lich with far-reaching plans. As they descend deeper into the labyrinth the horrors around them grow more alien and horrific and the players begin to uncover Icelia’s plot; the labyrinth itself is designed to generate and absorb feelings of dread and suffering, emotions Icelia is collecting to fuel her unstoppable army of monstrous insect creatures.

Right there, I’m hooked. Nightmare Keep is a funhouse dungeon, but one with a purpose, and that makes it work for me. Plus, the madness doesn’t begin right away, instead it grows more and more as the party descends deeper into the dungeon.

Now let’s talk about dungeon design, which is very good. With this kind of adventure it would be easy to fall into a completely linear design, but Nightmare Keep avoids this. While it is certainly not an “open” layout, and it is meant to funnel the characters deeper, there are options on how the players proceed and in what order they face Icelia’s challenges.

The environments are beautifully creepy and there is as much of an emphasis on problem solving as straight up fights, perhaps more. The progressive changes that occur in the dungeon as the players make it further in is also an excellent idea and contributes to the atmosphere of horror. The original monster designs are also excellent, with the lichlings being an inspired monster. There is also a fun set of tables for random sensory and physical encounters, strange things meant to pump up the spook-factor.

Also worth mentioning is the beautiful artwork. The cover is by Brom and has a very Conan-esq feel to it. The interior art is by Valerie Valusek and Terry Dykstra, and it warms my OSR heart. The interior art is lovely and focused on dungeoneering. It would feel at home in an early TSR adventure, right alongside the work of greats like David Trampier.

The core of the adventure is solid and worth your time to check out. As to things I’m not a fan of? There is nothing that is a deal-breaker. It’s more a series of smaller issues that collectively hold the adventure back.

Let’s start with the map.

This is a fantastic map, beautifully rendered with nice flourishes. The use of color in the map is not only aesthetically pleasing, it is also functional, making it easier for the DM to chart the players’ course through the entwined dungeon passages.

However, it’s also impractical. Printed in a fold-out poster sized format, it’s too big to be easily used at the gaming table. A tiled format would be far more useful for running the game. The poster map is nice enough that I’d consider hanging it on the wall, but it’s also printed on both sides, so half of this beautiful work would be hidden. If Nightmare Keep was produced today with Kickstarter, they’d probably release it with a map book and save the poster map for a stretch goal.

Next there is the core of the adventure. While I’ve sung its praises, there are still a few things I’d change. Unraveling the secrets of the dungeon and Iceleia’s plans is a big part of the fun in Nightmare Keep, but while there are some hints provided along the way, they’re minor. The adventure relies on a massive reveal at the climax of the adventure. I’d rather see more solid clues spread out through the dungeon. The biggest reveal would have more punch if the players already think they understand the scope of the lich’s plan.

Treasure is surprisingly shy. Again, the adventure relies on a massive hoard towards the end, and it’s a treasure that the players may completely miss out on if they overlook something seemingly minor early in the game. I’d rather see more minor treasures spread out to whet the player’s appetite.

Now we get to my biggest problems, the framework for the adventure. In keeping with TSR’s objectives of the time, this adventure is solidly tied in to the Forgotten Realms. While you could move the core adventure to any other world, there are several pages of setup for the adventure that are tied to Cormyr. The setup also includes long stretches of boxed dialog from the king’s representative that make specific assumptions about the character’s motivations. This adventure is meant for the “good guys”, not battle hardened adventures out for loot and fame. It would be hard to reconcile the dialog as written for a party that includes evil or even neutral party members. You can come up with your own of course, but seeing several pages out of a 62 page module devoted to this makes TSR’s intentions clear.

This also ties in with my least favorite part of the module, the ending. Specifically, what happens if the party fails. While I appreciate that the game is designed to allow for a Total Party Kill, the epilogue falls prey to TSR’s commitment to keeping the status quo. Should the party be wiped out, their actions have still done enough damage to Icelia’s plan that it will eventually fail. At the time, TSR was committed to keeping control of how their worlds developed and encouraging gaming groups everywhere to share the same setting. If there were going to be changes to the Forgotten Realms, they wanted it to be due to events in one of their big boxed sets, or more likely one of their novels. Seeing this written in to the adventure annoys me and blunts the significance of success or failure.

In the end, none of these are major issues. Collectively they’re an annoyance, but there isn’t anything that can’t be discarded or adjusted to suit your preferences. Nightmare Keep may not have achieved the status of an iconic adventure, but that shouldn’t keep you from taking a look at it. If you want a high level challenge for your old school game, it’s well worth your time to track down. I think it would also be an excellent candidate for conversion to Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Nightmare Keep is available in .pdf format from the Dungeon Masters Guild site (Formerly DND Classics), Drive Thru RPG, and RPG Now.

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Have you ever run or played through Nightmare Keep? I’d love to hear your stories about it.

 

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Posted by on April 28, 2016 in Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews

 

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Crimefighters

“Dark Night Dan settled into the recess of the window, knowing there was not long to wait. If his informer was right, the enemy saboteur would try to destroy the secret war material tonight. Dan would be ready in the fog to meet him…”

Dragon Magazine, Issue 47, Pg. 29

I love going through old issues of Dragon; you never know what you’re going to find. Recently I came across an interesting gem in issue #47, a complete (if rough) pulp-hero role playing game by David “Zeb” Cook called Crimefighters.

It wasn’t uncommon for games to be published in Dragon, and some were quite fun. Games like King of the Tabletop and Clay-o-Rama even saw repeated play at our gaming table and are worth posts of their own. However the idea of TSR publishing a complete role playing system through Dragon is something I never expected. Yet there it is, March 1981, and it wasn’t a small affair. The rules consist of 17 pages, with an additional four page adventure, all illustrated by Jeff Dee. This was followed by a one page article by Bryce Knorr about the history of pulps. That’s a significant page count for a 78 page magazine.

So how is the game?

It’s a fun and interesting read and it certainly looks playable and from a history standpoint it is especially fun. I doubt Cook had more than a month or so to throw the system together and I’d be surprised if it had more than a couple playtests before it went into the magazine. Yet despite its rushed feel it’s a complete game and looks like something you could jump into and have fun with. If my friends and I had owned Issue #47 I am sure we would have played the heck out of Crimefighters.

That being said, the system doesn’t hold up well by today’s standards. I have plenty of games on my shelf that do a better job, but for 1981 it was virtually alone in the pulp niche. TSR’s Gangbusters wouldn’t be published for another year. Top Secret was already on the market and was certainly adaptable, but it didn’t truly delve into pulp heroes until Top Secret S/I’s Agent 13 Sourcebook in the late 80’s.

The mechanics are an odd mix of old design tropes and new ideas, with a few interesting gems worth looking at. Character attributes are rolled randomly using a percentage system, then modified based on the roll. The modifications improve your stats proportionally, improving low rolls more than high rolls. The result is that no matter how bad you roll, you will have above-average abilities suitable for a pulp hero. Another interesting design choice is that your attributes include separate stats for your right and left hand accuracy, meaning your rolls determine if you are right or left handed, or ambidextrous.

A fun attribute is Presence, the ability of the character to influence others through charm or intimidation. At the cost of 20 points from their Willpower attribute a PC can roll against their Presence stat to force their will on an NPC. This is a delightfully appropriate Pulp idea.

Characters also have the chance to possess a mystical ability, such as hypnotism or invisibility. The chance of having such a power is slim, though a character may acquire one in the campaign by spending enough experience points. Some of these powers require the expenditure of Willpower (as with Presence) or Hit Points to activate, reflecting the mental exertion used to, “cloud men’s minds,” as The Shadow would say. The mechanics for using such powers are simple and understandable and back in the day when we were playing several times a week the acquisition of such abilities would have been a major character goal. Though were I to play Crimefighters today I’d let each player start with a randomly assigned power.

The game is skill based and here we find another interesting idea. Not all skills require a roll to be successful, for example if you have the Mechanic skill you can fix a car engine. The GM decides how long it will take based on the difficulty of the job and materials on hand, but no roll is required. You WILL get that car running eventually. We see this in modern game design, but in the early 80’s this was an unusual idea.

Combat is deadly. “In general, combat is short and quick, with the side acting most decisively and quickly getting the victory.” This is a game where you want to control the fight if you plan to survive. Players should use their wits, as on average they’ll have from 15-25 hit points, while the bullet from a .45 will do 2-8 damage. Frequent or prolonged fights are going to go against the unprepared PC.

The procedure for combat is intriguing, but is also one of the places that the game hasn’t aged well. Combat starts by determining the distance, then the players state their actions, then initiative is rolled, then actions are taken. The way actions work is unique and while I’m not sure it would work well in practice, it’s fascinating to consider. Each action takes a number of seconds to accomplish. The player can declare as many or as few actions as they wish, adding up the required seconds for the string. Once declared the player must follow through with all of them or cancel the sequence, they cannot change the plan. So a player may choose to declare a long string of actions and hope to save a few precious seconds overall, or they may declare a short action hoping to stay more flexible.

There are no classes in the traditional sense, but the character receives experience based on a role determined by the players. Defenders gain double experience for each criminal they bring to justice, but none for criminals who are killed. Avengers gain only half experience for criminals sent to jail, and then only if they confess. It’s implied, but not stated, that they get normal experience for killed criminals. Pragmatists gain normal experience for criminals sent to jail and half experience for killed criminals.

The rules include a short but solid section on creating pulp adventures and how it differs from the traditional location (i.e. dungeon) settings that gamers would be used to.There are also rules for using Random Encounters, which are not tied to the adventure plot. The value of including these in a mystery-based game seems dubious and more like another artifact from D&D, but it does give me something new to consider.

The introductory adventure is a solid, fun mystery that comes complete with a city map and a couple floor plans. It is quite suitable for anyone looking to run a short game and worth a look.

My final verdict? While the game would have definitely been worth playing in the early 80’s, I would not run it today. The real joy is in the reading, seeing what David Cook could come up with in a short amount of time, seeing the transitional design elements and recognizing the concepts that would show up in later games, and the fun of knowing that at one time TSR would devote that much space in Dragon to give its readers a complete role playing game.

Crimefighters is a delightful artifact. If you want to check it out for yourself, there is a link from the game’s Wikipedia page where you can download the rules in .PDF format.

MF-spy

 
 

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Divas, Dames, & Daredevils

A fun book hit my reading table recently, courtesy of my local public library, Divas, Dames, & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics. Written by Mike Madrid, the book is a collection of stories about heroines from the dawn of comics and includes a good deal of history about the characters and the industry.

Divas focuses in on books from the 30’s and 40’s, in a time when comics were still raw and their pulp foundations were still strong. It was a time before the Comics Code Authority sapped the life out of the books, blunting their edge and taming their characters. The heroines of these stories are hard fighting, tough characters, of a kind we don’t expect to see before the 70’s and 80’s.

“In these very early days of comic books, there weren’t as many established rules about how women characters should or shouldn’t act. As a result, many of these Golden Age heroines feel bold and modern as we read them today.”

Divas, Dames, & Daredevils – pg. 15

And bold they are.

I’ve been a comic book fan for most of my life. The pulp and super hero genres are favorites of my gaming group and one of the things we love to do is find obscure characters and introduce them into our games. This book presents us with a collection of adventurers and super heroes that covers quite a spectrum of styles.

“Modern day comic book readers might be surprised at the broad spectrum of heroines in Golden Age comics – daring masked vigilantes, queens of lost civilizations and intergalactic warriors, crafty reporters and master spies, witches and jungle princesses, goddesses and regular gals.”

Divas, Dames, & Daredevils – pg. 15

Madrid breaks the book up into sections based on different heroic styles, such as Women at War about heroines fighting in WWII, Mystery Women in the same style as The Shadow and The Spider, and Warriors & Queens whose adventures rival the likes of Flash Gordon. Each section includes a bit of history, and introduction to the featured characters, and a reprint of several adventures.

Because these characters come from anthology comics, their stories are short and tight. This does come at the cost of depth and the stories are simplistic compared to comics today, but this will be nothing new to readers familiar with golden age comics.

There are several characters who stood out in particular for me. One is Madame Strange, a vengeful woman of mystery who exterminates Axis spies without mercy. Among the Mystery Women, Mother Hubbard caught my attention for being a classic old witch complete with broomstick and potions, but who wields her black magic against crime. My favorite of the Daring Dames is Calamity Jane, a hard boiled noir detective who has more in common with Phillip Marlowe than the femme fatales he deals with.

Then there is Wildfire, a heroine with a magical power over flames. Wildfire stands out in this collection, as she is a character who would be at home in the Justice Society. Wildfire enjoys being a heroine and wields her abilities with wit and humor, showing the same “daring do” as Jay Garrick’s Flash or Johnny Storm’s Human Torch.

Another intriguing character is The Sorceress of Zoom, who possesses vast magical powers and travels the world via a city on a cloud. The Sorceress is interesting because she is not a hero, not intentionally. She is motivated by a selfish desire to expand her power and she is willing to kidnap and threaten innocent people to achieve her goals, but she does follow a personal code of honor. The Sorceress collects power for its own sake, but she comes into conflict with those who would use it for base villainy. In the end she defeats these petty mortals, rewards those who have served her well, and moves on to seek her next adventure.

It’s a delight to see these characters, heroines who have an edge and allowed to take the lead, and there is a sense of discovery as you read about these characters who have been lost to time. Madrid has a passion for these characters and it comes through in his writing. If you’re interested in the history of comic books, the role of women in early comics, or just want to read some fun adventures, I recommend getting your hands on Divas, Dames, & Daredevils.

DD&D

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2016 in Books and Comics, History, Pulps, Reviews

 

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Viscera Cleanup Detail

Viscera Cleanup Detail by RuneStorm is one of those computer games that makes you ask, “why would anyone play this?” Yet strangely enough, it works.

From the early days of Doom and Wolfenstein to today’s Far Cry and Halo, computer gamers have been splattering the guts of bad guys across virtual maps for decades. Viscera Cleanup Detail isn’t about saving the universe or surviving the apocalypse, it’s about what comes afterwards.

Namely, cleaning up.

Essentially, this is a first person puzzle game. You enter a gore-splashed environment armed with a mop, rubber gloves, and a mandate to get the place cleaned up. It’s up to you to search through whatever location you’re working in and clean up all the blood and gore you can find. Every body part and hazardous object needs to be incinerated, every splash of goop must be mopped up, and along the way you may find an interesting object or two to take home after your shift.

Clearly this is a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a goofy concept, as much a novelty as anything else, yet it is strangely hypnotic. It doesn’t provide any kind of gripping experience or captivating game play, but it’s fun when you just want a distraction and I’ve been surprised to look up and realize I’ve spent two hours cleaning up virtual body parts.

It’s kind of like playing Minesweeper or Solitaire, with ludicrous gibs.

The game offers plenty of maps to play on, including Santa’s Workshop and a map inspired by the club scene in Kill Bill. I recommend that last one, as it adds snarky commentary by your character as you clean. There is even a multi-player mode, which I haven’t tried but the concept amuses me to no end.

If you’re looking for something quirky and unusual, it’s worth a look. You can find it on Steam.

MopUHF

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2016 in Computer Games, Reviews

 

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The Collect Call of Cthulhu

Aaaaand, we’re back.

Hope everyone has had a good holiday season. I know I have.

One of the big treats I had was getting my first taste of the new 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu. I’ve been playing CoC since 3rd Edition and it has been one of the mainstays of every gaming group I’ve been in since high school, so I jumped at the chance to try out the latest incarnation. Due to the production problems at Chaosium the book still isn’t loose in physical form, but our keeper has a .PDF copy. Unfortunately this means I didn’t get to thumb through the rules, so my impressions are based on my one session as a player, but even so I think I have a good handle on where the game has gone.

The Good:

Call of Cthulhu is a tight, easy, excellent rules set and has had few significant changes over the years. New editions made some tweaks, but more often than not consisted of including additional source material and re-organizing the existing rules. With very little effort you can pick up an adventure written for 1st Edition and run it using 6th Edition rules. When I heard that 7th Edition would be making more changes than all the previous editions combined I was concerned.

However, making more changes than all the previous editions combined isn’t a very high bar to cross, and I am happy to say that I quickly fell right into the new system, even without having read the book myself. For an old hand at CoC, looking over the new character sheet is enough to clarify most of the changes and I’m pretty sure that I would be able to convert older edition material on the fly, with only a bit more effort than I could previously. This is the single most important thing I can say about 7th Edition, that it is still backwards compatible.

Changing the basic attributes to percentiles was a good move. It keeps them in line with the derived attributes and codifies the way many players were already doing attribute checks.This combined with opposed roles for tasks has replaced my beloved Resistance Table, but even I must admit that it does streamline the game. Plus the opposed role mechanic is such a staple in modern RPGs that it’s easy for gamers to pick up.

They also trimmed down the skill list on the character sheet, which was a good move. A lot of the entries on the old character sheet just took up space and were rarely used, and in traditional form the new sheet has plenty of blanks to fill in skills not already listed. I don’t know if the trimmed skills are still in the book or not, but pruning the list definitely cleaned things up nicely.

The Bad:

“Bad” is really stretching it. It’s more, “The Not Really Liked”.

The addition of a penalty die to rolls. Under certain circumstances, or if your character decides to try multiple actions, an additional D10 is rolled. This additional die counts as another “tens” die and the penalty means you take the lower of the two rolls for your result. For example, I roll two “tens” dice and get a 7 and a 3, with a 2 on the “ones” dice. My result is 32, using the lower roll. My guess that this mechanic, like the elimination of the Resistance Table, is meant to streamline the game so that you don’t have to look up penalties, but the impression that I had was that it makes the results a lot more swingy. It also makes it harder to determine what chances to take, which is an important consideration in a game like CoC. If you give me a 15% penalty on a roll, then I have a concrete figure to judge if the risk is worth it. But with a penalty die I have a harder time judging. I would love to see some figures on how using a penalty die changes the probabilities for your results, but that’s well beyond my own math skills to figure out.

I get the feeling that the penalty die was meant to offer more choices for the players, but on my initial experience with it I found it confounding.

The Meh:

Instead of being a set attribute, Luck is now a spendable asset pool. You spend them like Magic Points, but to adjust die rolls instead of fueling spells, and like SAN points you can regain them from surviving adventures. This is nothing new in game design and it does give the players an extra edge for survival, but was that necessary for a game like Call of Cthulhu? The place where I do see its value is for investigative skills, for those times you really want to nail the Library Use or Spot Hidden role so you can move an investigation forward. It’s in combat that it rankles my old school CoC heart. I am happy to say that in practice I don’t think it will remove the sharp fear of mortality that CoC players have known and loved over the years, death is still omnipresent, but it does blunt it a bit. That’s why I list this as a “meh” instead of “bad”.

They’ve also added a graduated success result mechanic. CoC has always had a critical success for combat rolls, via the Impalement result for getting under 1/5th of your skill. Making this an across the board critical success for all skills was a no-brainer and codifies what many of us were already doing in play. However they’ve added a Hard Success result for rolls under half your skill. I’m still learning all the implications of this, but it seems unnecessarily fiddly. I don’t see what it adds to the game. Maybe it’ll become more clear once I’ve played more, or once I read the manual, but for now I’m ambivalent at best.

The Summary:

All in all, I had a good experience with the game. There is nothing here that makes me want to run out and get a 7th Edition manual for myself, but I am happy that I’ll be able to sit down at any game of CoC and still know how to play, requiring only a glance at the character sheet to tell me which rules we’re using. I’m happy that I can buy new source books and know that I can use them with my pre-7th Edition rules. I’m happy that if I do switch to 7th Edition I’ll still be able to unleash horrors on my players from my library of older edition books.

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My 3rd Edition tome, battered like the souls of my players.

 
 

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He-Man! The Complete Mini-Comic Collection

Greetings Programs!

Lately, thanks to my glorious local library system, I’ve read a couple comic collections that are off the beaten path.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Mini-comic Collection

As a true child of the 80’s, I remember well the He-Man toys and cartoon show. I wasn’t a big fan of the toy line. I liked them well enough, but I was just a little too old for them when they hit big. However, being a cartoon junkie, I did watch the cartoon. One of the unique things about the He-Man line is that they packaged mini-comics in with many of their toys, and with many years and MANY toys produced, that added up to a lot of comics. Dark Horse has managed to collect them into one mighty hardbound tome, and let me tell you I think this thing can stop a bullet.

This was a fun trip down memory lane, and it was interesting to read interviews with several of the creators who went on to be giants in the industry, including Bruce Timm who brought us the monumental Batman: The Animated Series. It’s also fun to see the evolution of the He-Man mythos. The toys and comics pre-date the Filmation cartoon series, and the early comics present a different, more primal saga that has more in common with Conan and John Carter than what we are familiar with, and it is these tales that I found to be the most fun. They have a certain raw quality to them that appeals to me, and they make a good attempt to keep a solid continuity, even when some aspects of the stories end up feeling awkward as things progress.

Eternia is a changed world, where there was once a series of great wars. The details are not given, but the implication is given that the present world of swords and sorcery is built on the graves of an ancient civilization of great technology, and this is just the beginning of the differences between this world and that we came to know in the cartoon series. There is no lazy Prince Adam and cowardly Cringer acting as secret identities for He-Man and Battlecat. Instead, He-Man is a warrior from a primitive tribe who goes out into the world to seek adventure. He-Man’s powers come not from a magical infusion from Castle Greyskull, but from the armor harnesses he wears; one gives him tremendous strength and the other an impenetrable force field, but he can only wear one at a time. The secrets of Castle Greyskull are no more defined here than in the cartoons, but there is an implication that the castle holds technology saved from the destruction of the ancient civilizations of Eternia. The castle itself is home to a spirit who speaks to the heroes occasionally, but only rarely allows anyone within its walls and only in times of great need. Even the Sorceress, who is Greyskull’s guardian but does not reside within the castle. This setup for Greyskull works better for me than the one in the cartoon, where the heroes have ready access to the castle, and the hints of what powers are within is more evocative than the completely undefined secrets in the cartoon.

As an aside, the whole Clark Kent/Don Diego disguise of Prince Adam never worked for me. The excuse of wanting to protect your family is foolish when your parents are the king and queen, already the sworn enemies of Skeletor. It is not possible to put their lives in greater danger than they already are. If anything, the requirements of maintaining such a ruse puts them in greater danger than revealing your identity.

But I digress.

As the book progresses the stories do get rather tedious, and I did skim quite a few. The sheer volume of work combined with the increasing focus on the appropriate toy over characters or world building causes many stories to lose their luster. There are still fun tales to be found in the later comics, but they get lost in the mass of increasingly childish stories.

Still, the book retails for $30, a bargain if you’re an old fan. For me it was fun to read, but not something I’ll be adding to my bookshelf. However if you do have it in your local library, I recommend checking it out.

skeletor

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Pulps, Reviews

 

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Video Games that Need to Come Back

Greetings Programs!

Lately I’ve been replaying several of my old video games, both from my original copies or thanks to the digital crack that is Good Old Games. A lot of these games hold up well, despite their dated graphics, and many have innovative game play that has surprisingly never shown up in later games. It’s a common geek lament that these days there is nothing new, that everything seems to be remakes and re-imaginings, well for today’s post I’m going to give in and go with that trend. As such, here is my list of games that really need to have a new installment.

Crimson Skies: Originally a board game by FASA, Crimson Skies was released for the PC by Microsoft in 2000, and it is my all time favorite air combat game. Yes, even more than X-Wing and Tie Fighter. The game featured all the wonderful alternate 30’s Diesel Punk aesthetics, a fun pulp soundtrack, and fantastic environments. The storyline was ripped straight from classic air adventure serials and offered a variety of challenges, from taking on heavily armed zeppelins to plucking kidnapped scientists off the top of a speeding train. The controls were more than arcade level in simplicity but far from a realistic air simulator, which hit the sweet spot for complexity vs simplicity. This encouraged not just dog fighting, but barnstorming stunts, which was further encouraged by the imaginative level designs. Another fun addition was that occasionally when you would buzz through a tight spot, such as the “O” in the Hollywood sign or zipping through a tight tunnel in a jungle island, you’d hear a “click”. Then a picture of your maneuver would be added to your pilot’s scrapbook.

The multi-player was, sadly, bound to Microsoft’s proprietary service. So I never did much with it, but you could always fire up an on-demand duel with a variety of bots, challenges, and maps to play on, and some of the maps were wonderfully large and fun. The New York City map in particular was amazingly large and nothing beat screaming down through the concrete jungle of Manhattan, guns blazing, then whipping out over the bay.

Sadly the original game’s graphics don’t work well with new video cards, necessitating the use of software rendering. This reduces the graphical quality to looking like something from 1990 instead of 2000. A sequel was made, Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, but it was an X-Box exclusive title and never ported to the PC. But with it’s fantastic game play and sense of high adventure, I still dream of a new release for the PC so I can once more fly the unfriendly skies of air pirates and robber barons.

Star Wars: The Dark Forces series: The Dark Forces series for Star Wars consisted of four games. The first was the titular Dark Forces, released in 1995. The first game introduced Kyle Katarn, a mercenary soldier working for the rebellion to uncover the Empire’s “Dark Trooper” program and shut it down. It was a solid, if standard, first person shooter that was fun, but nothing groundbreaking. A sequel came out in 1997 called Jedi Knight, in which Kyle comes to terms with his own force abilities and is forced to become a Jedi in order to stop the rise of a new Sith lord. In terms of both game play and story, this game was not very good.

But it is the third and fourth games, Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy, where the series really shines. Released in 2002 and 2003 respectively, these continue the story of Kyle Katarn and are the first games to really allow the player to feel like a Jedi. The game again mixes between first and third person, and adds in an array of force powers and a sophisticated lightsaber fighting system. These games had it all; the story, the voice acting, the imaginative settings, and most importantly the game play. You’ll soon be doing force powered flips and rolls, using force push, pull, and if so inclined channel the dark side and force choke your foes. Best of all, the lightsaber fighting is excellent. The games featured other exciting elements, such as an extended level in Jedi Academy where you are whipping through canyons in your speeder bike, lightsaber in hand, and engaging in high speed battles with other bikers.

The multi-player and mod community were prolific, cranking out new skins, maps, and game modes, and in its heyday it was easy to jump online and engage in epic duels. I recently loaded up Jedi Academy and was delighted to find that there are still a number of dueling servers up, running, and with a decent population of saber swingers.

No Star Wars game since then has given me the feel of being a Jedi as well as Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy and with all the excitement about the new movie, the time is right to revisit the Dark Forces series.

Stranglehold: Released in 2007, Stranglehold is the video game sequel to my favorite Hong Kong movie, Hard Boiled. You play as Tequila, the Hong Kong cop-on-the-edge, voiced by the amazing Chow Yun-Fat himself. The story is a beautiful distillation of the Hong Kong genre, featuring cop killing Triads, mob wars, treacherous friends, emotional conflicts, and bullets. Lots of bullets.

This game is a love letter to all things Kung Fu Action, from exotic locations to highly destructible environments. As Tequila blazes his way through the levels, he builds up power that will let him use special maneuvers that let him dispatch enemies in even more spectacular manners, often accompanied by doves flying by (a staple of John Woo movies ever since The Killer). The player builds up greater levels of power by killing bad guys in more exciting ways, such as rolling by on a cart with both guns blazing, shooting signs or gantries to drop heavy objects on them, or hitting propane cans to cause fiery explosions. The game is a third person cover shooter, but you can’t sit anywhere for too long as gunfire will quickly reduce your cover to rubble.

My favorite level involves a night club with a jazz combo playing on a stage in the middle. When the Triads come pouring in the musicians look up in surprise, until the gang leader shouts, “Who told you to stop playing?” From there the band kicks up a fast paced number as the bullets start flying. The mission goals flash on the screen letting you know that not only do you have to kill all the gangsters, but at least one member of the band needs to survive. As you dive across the tables and duck around corners, occasionally you’ll hear one of the music channels drop out as a musician takes a bullet. This means not only do you need to survive, but you need to control the position of the gunfight to keep the band from getting caught in the crossfire.

Also, grenades are not a good idea for this level. Trust me on this.

There are a lot of first and third person shooters on the market, but this is the only one that’s ever tried to capture the atmosphere of Asian crime movies, and it’s high time someone revisits the idea.

Hard-Boiled-006

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2015 in Computer Games, Reviews

 

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