Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Until Enigma, I'd never encountered a real-time logic-puzzle game.* It's crazy. You want adjectives? Brilliant, frustrating, tedious, difficult, devious, intricate... how's that? You'd really have to play the game to have an opinion on how well I did at adjectivizing it, but I don't mind if you pre-judge.

You're a marble. This marble responds to the movement of the mouse. The goal of the each level is to unlock pairs of colored blocks by hitting them. But you have to hit each block of the same color consecutively; if you hit, say a red block, and then hit a purple block, it un-hits (neologism or illiteracy on my part?) the red block. The colors of the blocks, and sometimes their positions, are randomly determined, so experience counts for naught.

Logic and skill count for everything. This game is really hard to explain. Some blocks can only be reached or unlocked by moving other blocks. The only way to interact with any block is to ram it with your marble (vaguely sexual there; probably only because it's been way too long). Since you rebound from blocks at high speed, and there are pieces of terrain that will kill you if you touch them, this gets dicey awfully quick.

That's the basics. The intricacies would require tons more text than anyone would be willing to read - the tutorial is 65 levels long, for god's sake. Necessarily so. After you get through the tutorial - which is no walk in the park - there are a bunch of additional level packs, adding up to hours n' hours of addictively frustrating... fun? It's all relative. The more you want to punch your monitor, the more satisfying actually completing the level is, so in an odd way, the more you hate this game, the more fun it is.

Graphically, it's a tile-based game with decently res'd tiles, so it's not super impressive, or even impressive, but it's totally adequate, in a pretty way. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's aesthetically great, but not technologically advanced. The marble is a wonder of physics, which the graphics display perfectly, but the tiles themselves wouldn't wow you in '99, much less '08.

The sound isn't worth mentioning. Almost all you'll hear is a glass-break indicating you killed yourself, and a rebounding sound indicating you hit something. It doesn't really matter.

These levels were designed by sadistic geniuses. Honestly, there were levels that I had issues with due to personal skill at manipulating a mouse (don't laugh 'till you've tried), and levels I had issues with because figuring out what to do that would make the level solvable was hard. With such a simple concept, that's impressive. I mean, all you need to know, from a user-input point of view, is 'move the mouse, the ball moves' - and they constructed such nefarious labyrinths of interactivity that I couldn't figure out how to make it work.

I'm getting tired of mentioning that logic-puzzles aren't my cup of tea. Partially because I've said it a lot, and partially because I'm starting to feel very inadequate. This is a brilliant game, if it's your kind of thing.

The controls are responsive, the graphics are nice, and the level design - which is all important in this type of game - is straight-up great. Even though it was the most frustrating thing I've played in a while, in a genre of game I don't consider myself a fan of, I'll still be going back to it. If you dig logic puzzles, and don't mind a game that also tests your dexterity, I heartily recommend it. (note: the tutorial levels don't necessarily serve as logic-puzzles; play the regular level packs to see what I mean).

*I feel certain that I have, but I can't think of one right now. Regardless, this one stands out so much that I can't have encountered one this intense.


EnemyLines7 is essentially the same as EnemyLines3 only a bit more difficult, and missing some convenience-features that make it less fun over all.

The only difference between this one and EnemyLines3 is that the things you're shooting at stay in the sky, and fly in formation, instead of randomly dropping from the sky. 'Story'-wise (big double-quotes with fingers around the word story, here), you're in a battle-mech this time, your opponents are bombers (not robots), and you don't have a jetpack, you have 'jumpjets'. It's all cosmetic, mostly.

Your health is actually the city's health, which makes you a giant target. Combine that with the fact that there isn't really anywhere you can go that gives you a great vantage point to defend against the waves of bomber-planes, and you can see how the game is more difficult than its precursor.

The limited amount of booster fuel is as annoying as it was in EnemyLines3 but it probably matters less - if there were enough of it that you could spend a lot of time in the sky, then it would totally change the way the game was played; as it is, you just don't use it very much.

EnemyLines7 feels like an attempt to retool EnemyLines3 that the author got really bored with and never finished. Something about the way the jetpack (oops, jumpjets) moves means it's really hard to tell exactly where you're putting your feet down, which wasn't a problem in 3, and there's only one level that just goes on n' on in this one. It also forces you to quit the game whenever you get a game over, and then re-start the game from your taskbar/command-line for another go, which is just annoying.

Basically, don't bother with this. There are 8 EnemyLines games by this guy, and a lot of them are very different; I'm not sure why the Ubuntu people decide to only offer packages of 3, and its decidedly inferior demi-clone 7, but I'm sure that there's no reason at all to play 7. 3 is better, and 7 adds nothing. Unless you have a bomber-fetish; then 7 is all that will satisfy, I suppose.

EnemyLines 3

EnemyLines3 is a first-person shooter that scratches the same itch Solitaire does. It's a quick, simple to understand, infinitely replayable, and essentially mindless game. It's awesome!

There are four game types, and all of them feature the same simple mechanics: stay alive, while shooting these weird-looking little robot dudes who fall from the sky and eat buildings. There's a timed-game, where you beat the level by staying alive for a certain length of time, a kill-based level where you win by killing a certain number of the little guys, a find-the-keys level where you have to find all the keys to win (that seemed redundant, didn't it?), and a base-defense level where the goal is to keep the bad-guys from eating a specific square of building.

The graphics are old-school 3D as all-get-out, but somehow appealing anyway. My favorite is in the timed levels, because after you've gotten about halfway through the requisite time, there's a lot of building-less space, and you just see legions of the bad guys coming at you, moving in unison like faceless undead zombie hordes... of cuteness. Anything that combines undead zombie (robot) hordes and cuteness is okay in my book.

The sound's as simple as the graphics, but not really as charming. A 'zap' for your laser gun going off, a white-noise like sound for your jetpack (did I mention that you have a jetpack?), and an explosion when ever you kill a critter.

It really feels like 2D side-scrolling shooter gameplay more than anything else. It's fast-paced and fun, with minimal emphasis on tactics or strategy compared to the average FPS. Your health, ammo, and jet-pack fuel are all indicated by bars in the top-left corner of the screen, and can be replenished by waiting, or by picking up color-coded extras.

For a quick FPS-fix, this is great. The game actually connects to the developer's website after each time you die, to update the high-score list - someone had an awful lot of free time on their hands at some point, so I got nowhere near getting on the actual list, but if you're driven to compete, there ya go. For a small and very limited game experience, EnemyLines3 is just what the doctor ordered. If you demand a campaign or plot with your FPS (or multiplayer) then you're going to want to look elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Emilia Pinball

It's a shame that Emilia Pinball isn't getting worked on anymore. It's not a bad pinball game at all, and it would be nice to see someone taking this and adding a few more pinball machines to the package.

Everyone in the Western and Eastern worlds is familiar with pinball, so I'll spare you a deep description of the mechanics of play. The first board, 'Tux' is a Linux-penguin-themed level that has a couple of special spots to shoot for, and a ball trap, and... well, the bare essentials to call it a well filled-out pinball board. The second one, 'Professor', is more bare-bones, and basically boring, though it does do some neat things with elevated tubes that are fun to look at. I think it may be unfinished.

Both boards are pretty minimalistic - it seems more like a proof of concept that never got any more work. The graphics are nice-looking, and the physics and sounds complement one another for a good play experience. But the two boards that come with the game are limited, and don't do anywhere near as much with the engine as they could/should.

Emilia Pinball works fine windowed, but be leery of full-screen. I ended up having to do a hard-reset for the third time today, as after quitting the program I got a black screen with a mouse-cursor and nothing else. After the game proved decent, and performed flawlessly, it seemed doubly a shame that it would crash on me when I was done with it.

If you're looking for a free pinball game, look no further, but don't expect it to hold your interest for very long. Neither of the two boards are quite up to the level of complexity of the pinball game which shipped with certain versions of Windows, quite, but the potential is definitely there. Contrasting the the great projects that are dead, and the overly-ambitious projects that somehow keep treading water while never nearing completion is a depressing thing, I think.


Ouch. Einstein had me craving a simple sudoku puzzle in no time. For logic puzzle fans, this is a great one. For people who don't want to spend an awful lot of time staring at a screen trying to work out relationships (the mathematical kind), this is probably not something you should download. I think this would work best with a piece of (a ream of) scratch paper handy. Get ready to bang your head against a wall! Repeatedly!

The premise is simple, of course. There are six rows of six unique cards. The game gives you clues as to the relationship of some cards to other cards. Your job is to use those clues to discover which card is where. The best way to describe it is Minesweeper, without the randomness but requiring infinitely more concentration.

If you tell it a card is in a certain place, and the card isn't there, game over. Thankfully, there is a 'save game' option. I kept having to brute-force the first card or two, based on guesses, and from there I was mostly okay. If I'd wanted to get out the scratch paper, I think I could probably have worked out the position of that first card most of the time, but... yeah, I'm impatient and lazy.

If Minesweeper meets sudoku sounds like a raucous good time, this is so up your alley. It was very, very, very far removed from my alley, but I have to admit that it's a great logic puzzle, and it looks nice. Not much in the way of sound, but what there was wasn't annoying - just some plops n' the sound of breaking glass when you screw up. Great game for a very small niche.


The creators claim that Egoboo is eventually going to be a top-down (actually isometric, for the record) 3D NetHack-style randomly generated dungeon romp. It's not quite there yet.

The list of annoyances abounds. I'll start with the most important one, though it's not actually a problem with the game. Playing with the mouse was impossible, and playing with the keyboard was infinitely better but still horrible (I'll go into why in a minute). This leaves the joystick.

After I got the hang of it, the joystick was definitely superior to the other two options, but after around fifteen minutes of play, the game would bounce from full-screen to windowed, and everything would go grey. Then it would all lock up. The program was still running, and my PC was still running, but I couldn't exit from Egoboo or do anything else; I had to resort to the reset switch.

After it happened twice, I realized what was going on: apparently, Linux doesn't recognize activity on my USB joypad as input, so it was trying to cut on the screen blanker thingy due to inactivity. When I moved the mouse to try and get back to the game window, it stopped doing that, but left me in some weird limbo state where I was neither in the game, or in my regular OS window, but instead stuck.

After having to reboot twice, I took to jiggling the mouse for no reason every five or so minutes, and the problem stopped. That was seriously annoying, even if it wasn't the fault of the game. Doesn't happen in Windows!

Onto the other issues: targeting sucks. You attack in the direction you're pointing. On the keyboard, there are four directions. It's virtually impossible to hit anything, ever, without tons of work, and taking tons of damage. This is a step above playing with the mouse (you essentially can't even move, using the mouse to control). Even with the joypad, there were more misses than hits; I suck, but I don't suck that much.

Other interface problems? You have three keys for each arm. An attack/use key, a pick-up/drop key, and a put-in-pack/remove-from-pack key. They default to T,G,B and Y,H,N - in the words of the limited but simple Pandion Knight, Kalten of Elenia, it's 'bloody hindering awkward'. The joystick is a bit better, but a more streamlined interface would be nice. Even on the joystick, the setup is innately weird and non-intuitive.

There's more along that vein, but it's minor stuff compared to the movement, targeting, and interaction systems. Let's move on, shall we? The actual content is quite limited, but the game is still in development, so that's to be expected. Rather than any randomly-generated dungeons, there were a collection of static dungeons that had simple objectives; when you completed them, you didn't move on to another one with the character that you'd spent time developing, but instead were told to 'Press Escape' which exits the game.

Most of the levels had objects which had to be jumped on; jumping on switches was relatively painless, but jumping on floating platforms was a reminder to the world that Old Man Murray's Chet and Erik were right a decade ago when they decried jumping puzzles. The control issues make jumping on stuff a pain in the ass.

Outside of the limited levels, lack of character generation, and apparent lack of character progression (some of the levels suggested that characters could be imported from previous dungeons to others, but there was no evident way to accomplish this), the levels themselves were nice-looking and fun to run about in.

The camera zooms too close to the character, and there wasn't any way to pan it on my joypad (I think there is, if you have enough buttons; the config files reference it), so it was a constant struggle to see enemies before they saw me, bu the environments in my limited view were always nice-looking. Somewhere between SNES and Dreamcast quality graphics, at 800x600, which offered little to no improvement over 640x480.

Hrmn... other complaints... oh, each of the levels had a sort of intro-screen that explained your goal, and what you were doing. I think. It flashes by so quick that I never got more than half a dozen of the words. Someone should make that screen wait for a mouse-click.

The graphics, as mentioned, are adequate and consistent if a bit amateurish. The sounds are that, but more on the amateurish and less on the adequate. I didn't enable the music, so I can't vouch for it.

The bottom line is that this game is incomplete, and not a lot of fun at its current state. With control issues, a clumsy interface, no reward for extended play, and no character development, there's just no reason to bother with this release. Perhaps after it matures a bit, and comes a bit closer to its stated goals, it will offer a delightful diversion to fans of rogue-likes, but for now I'd pass.


I am not the target market for GCompris: it's "an educational software suite comprising of numerous activities for children aged 2 to 10." I'm ashamed to admit that I still had some fun with it.

I think the docs say there are a total of around 80 games, though not all work without some additional packages installed (specifically, the ones that require the computer to speak seem to require an extra voice-pack for your language). There were more than enough to occupy my alcohol-addled brain for a while, as I bounced from memory games to alphabet and reading games.

They were still a bit below my grade level, but I was amazed at the quality and level of polish. They're going for an easy-to-see, broad, over-sized, childlike sort of look, and with that in mind, the software is almost perfect. While the controls and the goals for each of the games/applications weren't always immediately obvious, it never took more than a second or three of experimentation to figure out what was going on.

And even though the games are for the 2-10 year old age bracket, some of them are actually a bit difficult, in that Brain Age brain-training sort of way. Especially fun (for me) was the kiddy-sudoku that used shapes instead of numbers; there were smaller grids a very limited number of shapes, to start with, but it kept ramping up the difficulty until it was halfway as hard as a normal game of sudoku, but also only half as annoying. I dug it.

Graphically, as mentioned, this is a child-like delight to behold. The GCompris apps all share the same sort of aesthetic, and they're all quite functional. Things which are not the same are quite obviously different, and everything it bright and bold and easy to see.

The sound was also oddly great. Background music tended toward the classical/orchestral type - presumably thanks to those studies in back in the day that suggested we learn better when we're listening to the old masters' symphonies - but occasionally wandered into more contemporary electronic terrain. Sound effects were as easily differentiated as the visual cues, letting players/students know via multiple senses that they'd done something correctly (or not).

I doubt anyone reading this is going to be very interested in an educational software suite aimed at primary-schoolers. But it must be said that this is a very polished piece of software, indeed, and is absolutely on par with pay software of the same type. It should be noted, of course, that generally edutainment software even in the retail sphere is pretty shoddy. If you've got kids in the house, this is almost definitely better than anything you could purchase. The only downside is that it doesn't contain any licensed characters to hook your kids into the learning. :)


I can predict the future. Just two posts ago, I predicted that a network-multiplayer enabled chess game was sure to follow. eboard is that game. It followed even closer than I expected.

Interestingly, unlike the other games that had single-player but no network play, this one has network play but doesn't support single-player, out of the box. You have to install a chess engine in order to play with yourself.

Network play works, which is always a good thing in a game which exists primarily for network play.

Graphically, it's 2D only, but it has support for multiple themes, and one of them is even pretty nice looking (pictured above). It's got customizable support for sounds (as in, you can tell it when to make noise; I didn't notice any option for setting what sounds actually get played, but that doesn't mean there isn't a way).

A few minutes ago, I found it hard to get excited about another chess game. Imagine how un-excited I am now. At least eboard fills the one feature-niche that none of the others did, by allowing you to play games over the internet. There is officially no need for another chess game to be on this list. I will bet good money that I end up with another one anyway. Any takers?

Monday, February 25, 2008


Ouch. DroidBattles is probably awesome to people who already code in assembly, and enjoy coding in assembly so much that when they're not coding in assembly to be productive, they're desperate to code assembly for play.

I'm so not that guy. If I had even a rudimentary understanding of any solid programming language, I'd be trying to use it to make Phantasy Star II Meets Phantasy Star III Meets Wizardry VII. I don't. And if I'm going to take the time to learn a programming language, it will be so I can make that game, not so I can play DroidBattles.

Basically, writing code is 'playing' DroidBattles. I'm sure that, at its most basic and simple level, i.e. just getting a droid to run, it's not very complex. But just getting a droid to run doesn't sound very rewarding, while the alternative - spending hours upon hours in a custom-built version of assembly writing search routines and device drivers for your droid's various components - sounds nothing at all like fun.

I did test the game, for the record. If you follow the instructions in the documentation's 'Quick Start', you end up with a little droid that goes in circles looking for other droids with a scanner, and shoots them when it finds them. All you can do with it, however, is put it in an arena with another of the same type (because I didn't have a different bot to test it with), and see which one blows the other up first.

You do not actually interact with it. It's code battling code, which is especially pointless if you're like me, and it's the same code battling itself. It's not like you're going to determine which one is better, y'know?

This game works fine, as far as I know. I was able to test its features, and they performed as described. But unless you're really into writing code, uhmm... why bother? It's actually a really neat idea, and I'm just being mean because I feel inadequate. But I can't help but think that the number of people this game would appeal to is pretty gosh-darned small. Maybe not. Does that screenshot up there make you horny? Then you should totally check out DroidBattles.

For the record, it would probably be a lot of fun at programming-challenge events. Watching matches between a bunch of droids built by a bunch of different would sort of be like the software equivalent of the robotics competition they have every year at my alma-mater.


The open-source community is apparently obsessed with chess. DreamChess is further proof of that, not that I was looking for any. It's the best of the bunch so far, though if Brutal Chess continues to improve, I 'spect it will end up my favorite.

It's got everything the others do (i.e. Brutal Chess and GNU Chess). It's also got more themes than either, and its 3D implementations are as good as Brutal Chess's, although jagged-looking as hell, like GNU Chess's 3D mode (thankfully without the horrible lag of GNU Chess). It doesn't have the fun-but-useless rotate-board feature that Brutal Chess does, so it loses points there.

Still, though, it's got all the functions of either as well a bit more graphical flair than either (DreamChess looks cooler, even though Brutal Chess looks sharper). Especially amusing was an 'Elemental' theme, where instead of white vs. black you have fire vs. ice. Also adding a bit of whimsical flair is the fact that each theme portrays a life-bar for each of the players, which goes down as pieces are captured by the other team, and also keeps a running list of which pieces each side has captured along the side.

When you get right down to it, any of these games will let you play chess with yourself or against someone else locally, and none of them will let you play chess over a network. Apparently chess games improve according their location in the alphabet, though, so I expect we'll get one with network play before we make it all the way to zed. Onward!


I've been fighting the urge to give up on this crazy quest to review Linux games, and just re-install my battleworn copy of Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant for the 1,000th time, in the hopes that this time I will beat it. I was strong, firm in my resolve to consistently review Linux games according to my master plan. But I had to test DosBox today, and so...

... yeah, I tested it with Wizardry VII. I managed to pull myself away, though. Eventually. After defeating the Horror of Ra-Sep-Re-Tep. I was very tempted to go after the Map Kit before quitting, but I knew that I would be lost, if I went that far, and I wouldn't get back to doing this review-blog for a week or two, minimum.

Which is to say, DosBox works. Oh yeah. DosBox is a multi-platform DOS-emulator; it exists so you can play old-school games on your new-school fancy computer with a minimum of hassle and hardware incompatibility. You mount a directory on your hard drive (where you have all your old DOS games) as a drive in DosBox and you're good to go.

I actually had fewer problems with it under Linux than I did the last time I set it up under XP. I had a sound-flake out (I lost digital sound but kept MIDI) for a little while, but it never happened again, after the first time, and everything was perfect. Incidentally, I first played Wizardry VII on a 14-inch monitor. Playing it on my current 21-inch for the first time today was a little bit like drinking one of those mega-sized cans of Foster's Lager (Australian for Beer, though I'm told actual Australians drink more Victoria Bitter).

DosBox gets a huge thumbs-up for me. If you can figure out Linux, you'll have no problem getting around in the command shell, and there are so many good games from back in the day that there's really no reason to ever buy software again, outside of graphics and larger real-time sandboxes. The downside, of course, is that installing DosBox doesn't get you anywhere. You have to have some old DOS games laying around too.

The whole 'abandonware' issue will probably never really be resolved, because most of the companies with a stake in the issue don't actually exist anymore. All I have to say on the matter is that purchasing software, when it's available, is definitely the moral high-ground. For everything else, there's Home of the Underdogs. Enter at your own risk.


DeSmuME isn't a game, it's a Nintendo DS emulator. So analysis of plot and storyline and what-have-you is kinda irrelevant. It's also kinda problematic from a use standpoint - while the emulator is free, it's useless without games to play, and the vast majority of games available for play are ripped roms of DS cartridges. Which are illegal, n' all*.

Doesn't really matter, though, as it's useless even with the roms, mostly. To try it out, I obtained a copy of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. It seems like every time I look at Game|Life, some sort of Phoenix Wright related news pops up, and I was curious as to how close the actual game was to that Flash-demo that they released for the newest one.

Admittedly, my machine is not the fastest on the market. It wasn't even the fastest on the market when I built it a few yews ago. It's an Athlon 2000+ XP with uhmm... 1.5 GB of RAM, and a 512MB nVidia AGP card. But it crawled on my machine. With nothing else open, it was playable, jumping between 14 and 20 FPS, and usually around the 14 mark. At first.

By the time I was halfway through the first chapter of the game, I couldn't get a framerate higher than 12 fps, was often as low as 8, and had to click the mouse a couple of times to make sure it registered with the simulated touch-screen. With a browser window open - not active, just open - I'm currently averaging 7 fps.

This game is already kinda slow - I'm a fast reader, and any kind of wait-time annoys me - but pauses that are probably dramatic on the original hardware are turned into excruciatingly long lulls in DeSmuME. Your mileage may vary; maybe it's a better experience on a dual-core processor. But as far as I'm concerned, this emulator is just not ready for regular use. I can't imagine how frustratingly lame any sort of action game would be.

Sound and graphics were mostly 100% - there was one spot where the graphics got glitchy, and occasionally the sound got slow - but the whole thing just trickled like molasses. DeSmuME is not yet ripe.

*Yes, I know they are legal in certain circumstances, but those circumstances almost never exist in reality, and have never (as far as I know) been tested in an actual court room anyways.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


I can't decide if I hate Cuyo, or love it. I mean, I'm positive I don't really want to play it, much, mostly because of level three. You'll see why in a second. But it's a weird combination of total rip-off and amazing variation that has me sort of questioning myself in a broad way, while having no interest in it in a specific way.

It's sorta like Tetris. Only it's different in tons of ways. Firstly, and more broadly than any other difference, is the fact that pieces are only two parts, rather than the four that make up every Tetris piece. Outside of that, the basics are the same. You want to combine like parts so that they are eliminated from the field of play.

Here's the thing: the types of pieces, the way they interact on the field of play, and the way they combine for elimination are all different with each level. The first level, for example, seems to be snot-inspired. You have to get six like pieces touching one another vertically or horizontally (no diagonals) to make them disappear. When they disappear, they explode, and you win the level not by making a set number disappear, but by exploding in the right places to destroy a pre-set collection of pieces.

Each level has these pre-set pieces. Blowing up blocks next to them makes them go away, and when they're all eliminated, you beat the level. That's the only constant. For example, in level four, pieces only connect to other pieces when they're diagonal to another piece of the same type, which is antithetical to all of the preceding levels, where diagonals don't count.

Level three is the devil, though. Mind you, there are probably a vast number of devils in this game. Level three makes me think these people are evil masterminds. So I can only assume that there are more evilly masterminded levels later on; level three is the first evil level. Why is it evil? The blocks change depending on what they land next to.

See, it's based on Apple Basic. Rather than shapes dropping from the sky, Apple Basic statements drop. 'To', or '""', or '42', (is that a Douglas Adams nod?), for example. Which is geektastic - my Basic programming took place under MS-DOS, but it's still cool. What's crazy is that as blocks drop down, and land next to other blocks, they change to make different statements in Basic. It's sort of easy for the first little bit, but after a while, remembering what's what is virtually impossible, when you're intoxicated and haven't coded in Basic for ten years.

It's absolutely brilliant. But a total pain in the ass. I'm pretty sure I don't like it, but I'm positive that I respect it. Just playing the handful of levels I played, this game has a lot of versatility and variability within a very restricted rule-set. It's awesome, as a demonstration of how minute changes in mechanics can have widespread effects as far as actual gameplay are concerned.

Graphically, it's not very great, and it has no sound. But if you like Tetris and Sudoku, this is neither. Hah! You thought I was going to say something else, didn't you? You were right, I must admit. While being neither, its gameplay is a weird mish-mash of both of those types of puzzle-games (sometimes, anyways), so yeah, you should probably toy with it for a bit if you're into them. Otherwise, it's most likely not Steer clear if you don't enjoy frustrating real-time puzzles that also ask for logic.


Wow. We've done 50 reviews! Critical Mass was a surprise - I couldn't stop playing it. It's basically a Galaga clone, and I've mentioned before that I don't really care for 'shmups. It's not even particularly pretty. But it's addictive as all-get-out.

You control a fighter, who's shooting at bugs. They come in waves, with a set type and pattern of movement for each level. It's pretty hard, as running into a bad-guy is instant death, and your fighter doesn't take a large number of hits from the projectiles that the enemies fire. By default, you can only move on the x-axis, and you're locked to the bottom of the screen. This is best turned off - it makes it a lot more likely that you'll crash into an enemy, but lessens the likelihood that you'll be stuck in a corner waiting for a bullet to hit you that you can't avoid. I like having my destiny in my own hands.

Even more excruciating is the fact that you only get one life. If you die, you have to start over from the beginning. Not a big deal, while you're still getting used to the game, but once you get to the point that you can pass a few levels consistently, it's quite disheartening to lose your spot.

Graphically, it looks like a hi-res Galaga-clone more than anything else. It's crisp and sharp, but you can see edges and the creature design - while very good - is simple and geometric-shape-looking. It's pleasing to the eye, but also a bit amateurish.

The sounds are no better and no worse than those of Chromium, which themselves didn't stand out as bad or good. The only place where Critical Mass differentiated itself bunches was a very small and simple place indeed: the levels have names. Names that are funny or punny or both.

I think that there were two reasons I kept coming back for more (and keep coming back for more, almost to my chagrin): those names are one of them. I just want to see what the levels I have yet to unlock are called. The other thing is that it's just so easy to get right back in the game. Unless you've earned a new spot on the high-score list, you just right-click and you're right back in the game. At level one.

As you get better at the levels, they become more fun, and less annoying, because the patterns' predictable nature means you can blow right through them with better scores and less time invested each go-round. I felt like a hamster hitting the pleasure-button in some bizarre experiment every time I right-clicked and started over.

That Jonathan Blow guy would probably hate this game, and call it unfair for using a Skinnerian reward schedule (I have a vague idea what that means, and even less of a clue as to how you pronounce 'Skinnerian'). He seems like a pretentious bastard, and I bet his game's no fun. Critical Mass is fun. It's simple, and it doesn't break ground, and I have no idea why I found it so much fun, but it is what it is with every particle of its being. Much like everything else that is made of particles, but with more fun.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I can't make Craft work. I can't find a website for it, either. The one that's hard-coded into the executable (so that I see it whenever it fails to run) doesn't seem to exist, and searching for 'Craft' in Google is a frustrating process. The word's too common. Different search-strings got me some reviews, but no actual website for the author, and no forum posts about problems.

The game-configure box opens up, but when I click 'Play' it just crashes and closes. No idea why. Actually, I was thinking that it was because I wasn't in the directory it was installed to (the docs specifically mention that you need to be) but I tried it from there, as near as I could tell, and it still didn't work. It also mentions that 'xhost' needs to be configured properly, but I think that only applies to multiplayer, and I disabled xhost and it still didn't work.

I'm labeling this one 'incomplete' not because it's not complete, but because it's non-functional.

Crack Attack

There was a game called Tetris Attack for the SNES. Crack Attack is an open-source version of that. I never played the original, so I don't have anything to compare it to.

You start with grid with a bunch of multi-colored blocks on it. They scroll upwards as new rows are added to the bottom. The point is to stay alive as long as possible (in multi-player mode) or to score as many points as possible (in single-player mode). You do this by eliminating blocks. Blocks are eliminated when they are in vertical or horizontal lines of at least three, of the same color.

You can only move blocks by swapping two at a time - if one of the blocks is empty, it moves the colored block into the empty space. It's not actually much like Tetris but it does basically revolve around the same sort of goals, so I guess the original name was apt enough. There's a bit more to the game - 'garbage' is generated when you do things like kill a bunch of blocks at once or make combos happen - but it's core mechanic is the simple one you know from games like Puzzle Bobble and Tetris and a gajillion others.

Is it fun? As a single-player game, it's fun enough if you're into this type of game. It's mechanics-based, rather than narrative- or content-based, so I found it boring. I hate you, Linux gaming! It's solidly implemented, and the core mechanic is strong, but I can only do the same thing over and over so much before I hate the fact that I'm alive. I imagine that as a multi-player game, this is somewhat negated by the presence of a live opponent.

Graphically, it's not the bee's knees, but it's crisp-looking, and everything is well defined and easy to differentiate. The transforming and disappearing animations are simple but nicely done. There's no cause for complaint, but you will not be shocked and awed. There's no sound.

Fans of the real-time puzzle genre will enjoy this, I suppose, but I find the core mechanic to be less fun than that of Puzzle Bobble. I would probably also enjoy Gnometris more than this, if Gnometris worked. Since it doesn't, Crack Attack is far better. Crack Attack works.

Circus Linux!

Ouch. I'm beginning to think that New Breed Software specifically has it in for me. Circus Linux is an adaptation of an old Atari game called Circus. Maybe Circus was cutting-edge in its day, and considered great fun. Circus Linux is not fun.

A clown is launched from one side of the screen; it bounces onto the field of play, and your job is to maneuver a see-saw with a clown already on it, down at the bottom of the screen, so that the other clown will land on the unoccupied end and launch the clown who's already on the see-saw into the air. At the top of the screen are balloons, which get popped (for points) whenever a clown hits them.

Basically, you're bouncing clowns around. It plays like Pong or Breakout. There are no levels - when you eliminate a row of balloons, another one takes its place - meaning that there's no reward for continuing to play the game. The first time you bounce a clown, you've done all there is to do.

Atari games were skill-based, rather than content-based, due to hardware limitations (you couldn't fit a lot of content in the memory they were working with). Rather than evolve the game to take advantage of the power of modern machines, the guys at New Breed simply slapped an early-90s level of graphical paint on top of the 30-year-old game.

Admittedly, this is not my kind of game, but even if you're into skill-based gaming, it's pretty crappy. Graphically, it looks like early 90s shareware. That's the best way I can describe it - I don't know if it's even in SVGA; it may just be 16 colors. That's probably mean, but honestly, it's not pretty. The animated backgrounds are kinda cute, but also kinda ugly.

Circus Linux! has a host of faults, but the most significant is this: there's no way to make it go to full-screen mode from within the game. That doesn't sound like a big deal, but the mouse is the only way to control the game well, and when it's running in a window, it's way too easy to end up getting the cursor out of the window of the game. When you do that, it ceases to control the game. You have to figure out where on your desktop the cursor is, and move it from there back to the window where the game is running. The game doesn't stop while you're doing this. So it's well nigh unplayable as installed.

You have to open a terminal window and launch the game from the command line with the '--fullscreen' switch to play the game properly. That's just dumb. Virtually every real-time game I've played for this blog either defaulted to full-screen, or allowed you to switch between modes from within the game. This is rank amateurism.

The figures are too small, however, to make playing in full-screen a lot of fun. This game probably uses the same aspect ratio of actors-to-playing-field that the original Atari game did. Meaning that if you play it from the same distance that you would play a game on your TV, it would be fine. But since you're up close to it, I found it impossible to keep the top of the game and the bottom of the game in focus at the same time, which was nerve-wracking. I didn't have the problem with Briquolo, for example, which is virtually the same game (mechanics wise).

The beginning of the song that plays during the title-screen is the best thing about the game; it's sort of a soulful SNES-sounding synth piece. Then it kicks into retarded circus music, making this game as painful sonically as it is visually and functionally.

Unless you have fond childhood memories of the game upon which this is based, steer clear. It is not fun, it is not pretty, it is not technically impressive, and it is not good. It may be nostalgic, but at this point, I don't know how many people are still playing games that used to play the old 2600. New Breed Software seems to specialize in doing simplistic, repetitive, skill-based games that suck. I can't wait for the next one I encounter!

(In all fairness, they're doing these games for free, and for all I know, they're Atari enthusiasts or something and they're making exactly the game they want to play - but no one in their right mind should want to play these games)

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Another of those genres I don't really play much, Chromium is a vertical-scrolling top-down shooter. As far as arcade genres go, this is one of the classics styles of play.

Chromium plays like they all do, basically. You control a ship, and you have to destroy objects by shooting them to earn points. They add a level of complexity by justifying your extra lives: the ship you're actually in is never shown; that ship has an escort of fighters which it controls, who are supposed to protect it.

This means that, unlike in other games (like, say, 1943) where you are rewarded for killing a higher percentage of the enemy with points, but not punished for missing them, you virtually have to kill every enemy on the screen. If they get by your active fighter, they destroy one of your inactive fighters (read: extra lives).

This makes suicide a viable option, among other things. If four dudes are about to get by you, you're better off hitting your self-destruct button. They'll die in the explosion, and you'll only lose one life; if you let them all by, you lose four. Noticing and responding to situations like that in the heat of a frenzied multi-coloured battle elevates the game to slightly more cerebral than your average shooter.

But only slightly. Mostly it just plays like a shooter. The mouse controls your ship; move the mouse to move the ship, left-click to shoot, and double-right-click to self-destruct. Movement is smooth and precise - I never thought I'd think the mouse superior to the joystick for shooters, but this is the second time I've found it so.

The one constant in the realm of shooters is the upgrades: improvements to your guns or armor and/or other little perks that change the game in some way. Here, Chromium disappoints a bit - there aren't a bunch of them. There are only two types: gun upgrades, and ship repairs. Each has three items.

The three gun upgrades are alright, but you never get a spread-shot or anything like that, just a blue gun and a green gun to augment your beginning machine gun, along with a double-fire for the machine gun, and they are temporary (they fire differently shaped 'bullets' in different patterns, so they're differentiate well, they're just not super-interesting). Picking up additional copies of a gun upgrade you've already picked up just adds to the amount of ammo, rather than adding an additional skill.

The ship repairs are equally limited, but with a fun twist. The first two are simple: one repairs your shields, and one repairs your ship itself. The third gives you a super-shield, which is useful but if you don't pick it up, you get an extra man. If you're like me, you end up suiciding as a tactic relatively regularly, and the extra dudes are more useful. If you're actually skilled at shooters, you may find the shield more useful. It's nice to have a meaningful choice in how one will play the game.

Graphically, it's up to par with the games it was inspired by. The graphics are clearly delineated and nicely colored but they have the sort of fuzziness you got with old-school arcade games. It adds a nice retro touch. The enemies are simple but well realized, and they have different types of fire, and shapes that suggest the way they move, all nicely rendered.

The sound is decent enough, but nothing really special. You can set the game to use an audio CD from a CD-ROM drive as the background music, or have it play WAV, MP3, or Ogg/Vorbis files from a playlist. The default background music is typical techno-metal type stuff; you know it from 3/4ths of the action-game soundtracks of the past ten years. It's solid but stereotypical. The bleeps n' bloops n' explosions are at the same level.

If you're into shooters, you owe it to yourself to check this out. It's sure to provide amusement and joyful frustration for a while, at least. If you don't like shooters, Chromium does nothing new with the genre and is highly unlikely to change your mind.


Cgoban* is some sort of computer-version of the ancient game called Go. I can only make it work in multi-player mode, though there seems to be some sort of support for bots that will play as one of the players. As near as I can tell, you have to set up an account for your bot on a Go server on the internet, and run a program that connects to that server under that account and plays with you.

All I can say for certain is that it doesn't work as a single-player game with AI right out of the box, and I can't find any instructions for making it work. At least, the instructions I found are for getting it to work under Windows, with the assistance of a few .exe programs custom-coded for the purpose, requiring tons of configuration and batch files, and possibly aren't even for Cgoban but instead are for GNU Go, which according to Synaptic is a command-line, text-only version of Go. The instructions mention Cgoban so I'm not really sure what the deal is.

I can also tell you this for certain: I'm not going to bother. This is just too much work, even if it would work, and certainly too much work for a solution that possibly wouldn't. I didn't look very hard, but I looked at the first twenty results in Google searches for a number of different search-strings and got nothing that would do it for sure. If I get linked to a quick how-to for making it work, fine. Until then, this game will remain un-reviewed.

*This is actually the website for the KGS servers. I think they're connected to Cgoban somehow, and they offer the client for download. Actually, I think they offer a newer version of the client - the one in the package manager is years old. I think. Lot of uncertainty in this one, eh?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Cannon Smash

Well, we've hit the 'c's. Starting with Cannon Smash, a table-tennis game (or ping-pong, if you prefer) that's like nothing I've ever played before.

I'm really bad at it, because I'm really bad at video games, and specifically really bad at video games that happen in real-time. But even if I didn't suck at gaming, I suspect I'd have issues with this one, because it's just different. Every tennis game I've ever played has been built around guesswork, and the game sorta taking over the actual action. I move around and hit the button, and hope I was in the right spot.

This one actually shows the right spot right there on the screen. Controls? Simple for movement. The devil for shot placement. Left-click = backhand; right-click = forehand. And there are two targety-looking circles that show where each will go. It's kinda hard to explain, without looking at it, but that's basically it. By moving the character around, you move those circles around, and that's how you make a shot.

Knowing where to place those circles is made easier by the fact that the trajectory of the ball is sort of instantly apparent. You see a grey line going from the opponent to you, and a red dot showing where the ball will be when you can hit it. So you move yourself until the red dot is in one of those circles, and hit the appropriate button when it shows up.

Which is full of issues, for me personally. You have the grey line, and then you have the actual ball, and then you have the red dot, and then you have the red circles, and quite frankly, I'm not very good at taking in all that visual data at once. I keep seeing the trajectory line, and jumping the gun, swinging before the actual ball gets there. This is probably entirely my fault.

But outside of that, it's also sort of insane what they ask you to do as far as targeting goes. The opponent's side of the table is divided into 22 sections. It's a grid, basically. And the way you decide where on the grid you're going to place your shot is by pressing a key. So there's 22 keys, and you hit the '1' key to throw it at the left-corner, or the 'q' key to put it a bit closer to you, still on the far left, and so on. There's 22 buttons. And because of the way a keyboard is set up, they're not in a perfect grid pattern or anything. If you move directly up or down, you're probably not going where you want to.

But that's all I can say about the game that's negative: Cannon Smash is actually pretty cool, once you get past the relatively complicated input system. Everything looks very Virtua Fighter-ish, really, with simplicized polygon characters and simple geometrically correct tables. It's not exactly a graphical tour-de-force, but it rocks as far as seeming like an arcadey old-school ping-pong game.

The sound is fine as well, but not really stand-outish. It doesn't really need to be, so it's sort of irrelevant; they meet the level of polish that is necessary to not suck, and there's really no way for them to go further than that. This is a game that exists for its gameplay mechanics, not for its acceptable graphics or its acceptable sound. And the mechanics are unique, consistent, and solid.

There's support for network-multiplayer, and there are a couple of different AI players that have different characteristics. It also features a training mode (which is annoying, but thorough) and a practice mode. In short, as far as features go, it's doin' alright. Not great, but good enough. The most important thing is banging the ball with the paddle, and that's well done. Everything else is gravy. I'd love to see a different system for shot placement, but I can't actually think of one that is as precise, and more user-friendly, so they may have done as well as they possibly could.

Think of this is a 'ping-pong simulator' rather than a table-tennis game, and you'll be right on the money. That the parts that aren't important still manage to be decent makes it a well-constructed game.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


bzflag is multi-player only, and I don't review those. This is a placeholder, in case I get an itch to play a multi-player game. If that happens, and I play this one, I'll go ahead and review it.

I've done like five or six entries today, and only one or two actual reviews. This has been a disappointing streak. Hopefully the next game will end it.


Ok, time for another confession: I'm American. Unlike many Americans of my generation, I did actually play soccer (rest-of-world football, whatever) for a few years in middle-school. But it hadn't reached even the depths of popularity it's at in the U.S. today, much less the frenzied level of obsession the rest of the world seems to have.

What the hell do I know about leagues n' whatnot? I'll tell you what: nothing at all. Which is sort of important, as Bygfoot is a football (soccer) league-management sim. I think these are all the rage in the rest of the world, and maybe with Americans younger than me, but I'm not them.

I can't even begin to comprehend this game, and it's probably very simplistic in its approach - it claims to be, at least. I don't remember what position I played, and I don't know positions there are, and I can't even remember the difference between red cards and yellow cards. I can follow a game on tv, sort of. Managing a wall of text on my computer?

Nup. Can't do that. So here's a review from some sort of soccer-related blog. Interestingly, he chose the same "I will not customize my blog at all" look that I did, so if you ignore the top banner, you can pretend you're reading the review here. I think he might even be an American - he chose to play within our league, anyways, and I can't think of any reason why anyone not from American would want to do that.


This isn't actually a game. I wouldn't really call it a toy, either. In its own words:
bugsx is a program which draws biomorphs based on parametric plots of Fourier sine and cosine series and let's you play with them using genetic algorithms.
Basically, you breed graphs. I'm not sure how you affect the breeding process. You have two options: 'initialize' and 'breed'. They both leave you with sixteen new 'bugs' formed from line-drawings.

They look neat. I

Bug Squish

Bug Squish reminds me of nothing so much as Orisinal gone horribly, horribly awry.

It's the same type of repetitive, reflex-based gaming - in this case, it's basically a light-gun game - but rather than being horribly cute, it's uhmm... well, it's about squishing bugs. Hence the name, I suppose.

The graphics are a bit yesteryear-ish but they're good enough to be mildly revolting, in a stylized way. You can identify the different types of bugs, and they make appropriately icky piles when they're on the screen. They're barely animated while alive, and totally static when squished, so it's sorta like clicking on sprites over and over again.

It saves the last score and the high score, which is nice, but doesn't allow you to put your name or initials in, or keep any real high score 'list'.

If you dig Orisinal games and B horror flicks, this is right up your alley, I suppose. As a fan of B-movies but not of repetitive pointless gameplay, I can't say I dug it all that much. An amusing diversion, but all it has to offer is the bug-squishing motif. Otherwise, Barrage has the same style gameplay with better graphics, more offensive options, and physics.

Brutal Chess

With a name like Brutal Chess, I was hoping for something along the lines of Battle Chess. While I didn't get that, I did get a much more attractive and 3D-capable version of the classic board game than GNU Chess offers.

I suspect the AI in GNU Chess is brighter, but I am only guessing. On all other fronts, Brutal Chess is superior. Graphically it's very pretty, and 3D, while GNU Chess was ugly in 2D, and hideous in 3D. It was also sluggish and processor-intensive in 3D; Brutal Chess handles like a dream.

The developers' SourceForge page has some screenshots that suggest that multiple tile-sets are planned - including some tile-sets that fulfill my Battle Chess wish - but there don't seem to be any included in the current package. Oddly, the version available via package is two releases out of date; the most current version was released in January of '07, and fixes a bug that allowed white pawns to move backwards, which is sort of game-breaking. Or at least game-altering.

There are pretty reflections, and smoother animations. Holding down the right mouse button allows you to rotate the board in any direction, which is neat.

Other than these graphical tweaks, there's not much else to say. It's chess, and it plays like chess. It allows for two-player locally, and there's talk on the dev's page of adding network-play support, but it's not in the current build. These guys are doing a great job.


A Breakout clone that actually works, Briquolo was just what the doctor ordered after a bunch of non-working/frustrating games. It works fine out of the box, looks quite pretty, and offers at least one really interesting new idea.

The purpose of the game is to destroy all the destructible blocks on the level's field of play. This is done by bouncing a ball off of it. It plays like Pong, basically, only you have to destroy blocks, not just keep the ball in play. There are a number of power-ups, which do things like increase (or decrease) the surface of the reflective piece, or alter the speed or size of the ball. There are three types of destructible objects: those which take one hit to destroy, those which take two, and explosives (which damage the objects around them when destroyed).

Briquolo can be played in the classic 2D top-down style, but defaults to a 3D isometric view. Best/weirdest of all, one of the power-up icons turns the game into first-person for a short period of time. It's not a very helpful thing - if there's a lot of stuff still no the board, it's 'bloody awful hindering' - but it's thoroughly awesome nonetheless. The transitions are dizzying and it's a lot of fun when it takes you by surprise because you weren't paying attention.

The game is playable with the mouse or the keyboard; to my surprise I found the mouse to be much more accessible. Either way, the controls are precise and responsive. Mechanically speaking, the game is spot-on. Plays like a dream!

Aesthetically, Briquolo is also up to snuff. The art is soothing to the eye, and the on-screen action is easy to take in; in short, it's an attractive game. There's no music, but the sound effects are apt and adequate. When the screen shakes as a bomb goes off accompanied by an explosion, there's a perfect relationship between the graphics and sound. It's not the prettiest or best-sounding game you've ever played, but it does use your 3D-card a teensy bit, and for an open-source version of a 30 year old arcade game (rounding up), it's perfectly acceptable.

Complaints? No score. And no 1-ups. Implementing a score system that offered extra lives at regular intervals would make playing through the game more interesting, and also make coming back to it more appealing. That's why they do that in arcade games. As it is, the lack of extra lives is no handicap, as you can select the level you wish to start in when you begin the game. Even relatively unskilled players can sample each n' every level. But since there's no scoring system, there's no impetus to not just sample each level and call it a day.

There are two sets of levels; 'Original' levels and 'New' levels. There really ought to be more 'New' levels - they show off some additions that have been made to the original source-material, like pinball bumpers, and fun rotation effects, that make the levels much more impressive both from an aesthetic and mechanistic point of view. This is not really a complaint, mind you, but a request for more: essentially it's a compliment.

Briquolo is a pleasant way to while away some spare time, and a virtually flawless Breakout clone. If you loved the old game (if you're a 'gamer of a certain age', anyway, and even remember it at all) it's certainly worth checking out. It won't change your life, but few arcade games do...

Bouncy the Hungry Rabbit

Bouncy the Hungry Rabbit is another one that doesn't work. This doesn't appear to be the developer's fault. There's a bug tracker listing that suggests downloading and compiling the game from the author's website will eliminate the problem, but there's also a person who's going to fix the package-version, apparently. If and when it's updated, I'll give it a run-through. It's a children's game, and I'm not very interested in those, but it does look very nice, from the screenshots.


I really, really tried to review Boson. I spent an entire day with it. Not playing it, mind you. I tried doing that, but couldn't figure it out. I spent an entire day alternating between playing it for a while and getting frustrated and annoyed, and looking for instructions on the internet.

Gaming in Linux had always tended to be a painful process; the only surefire way to make something work was to download it, extract, find a guide written by someone using the exact same distro as yourself, modify the code according to their instructions, and compile it. Ubuntu and other distros that offer the same sorts of package-managemnt promise to change all that. However, it ain't there yet.

Boson introduced a new level of frustration: I couldn't get the documentation to compile. No, I'm not kidding, and no, I'm not being metaphorical. The documentation needs to be compiled. But let me start from the beginning...

Upon opening the game, everything seemed to be going fine. It started, at least. I loaded a campaign - the first mission in the default campaign; if you want to play a campaign, you just play a number of missions in a row - and there my troubles began. Sometimes, clicking on a unit does nothing. Sometimes clicking on a unit selects the unit. I have no idea what causes it to be ineffectual, but it also affect dragging to select multiple units. Sometimes it just doesn't do anything.

None of the buttons are labeled, none of them have those handy little pop-up descriptions if you mouse-over them and - as installed in Ubuntu by the package manager - nowhere is there any documentation. That I could find. It may be there, but it's buried as hell, and not findable via searching.

Anyways, you can imagine my distress. I was finding it very difficult to play the game, since I couldn't do anything consistently or intentionally. I believe I eventually figured out which of the little icons meant 'move' and which meant 'attack', but with only four choices, that wasn't as challenging as it might have been. Cut to the 'HQ' building. As is typical in RTS games of this type, your headquarters allows you build and place other types of buildings. Alright.

Only the types of buildings it can produce are not labeled, and there is - as I mentioned - no manual, so the only way to determine what each building is is to build it. There are at least a dozen possible buildings, so this was time-consuming. I gave it up when, upon building a barracks, I couldn't figure out how to use the barracks to create troops. Fine, maybe it does something else, but it didn't seem to do anything, and I sure as hell wasn't going to keep building buildings that have no effable purpose.

So that was the frustration that made me determined to find some sort of documentation, no matter how obtuse or inadequate, that would let me get a handle on what exactly the game was doing. I had already checked the usual suspects - my hard drive, the website, the SourceForge page for the game - to no avail. Okay, then. I re-examined the website, and noted that the link which was called 'FAQ' and was dead (the only link on the page that was dead, and the only link to a different server) actually had 'handbook' in the directory tree it linked to.

This led me to believe that an instruction-book of sorts did actually exist, somewhere. Searches for 'Boson handbook' via Google got me nada, however. The closest I came were old forum postings complaining that an earlier link to the handbook had gone dead. Obviously, the internet was not going to help; there hadn't been any news updates since '06, so the developers had probably just not noticed that their handbook was no longer being hosted.

I did a more exhaustive search of my hard drive, now that I knew I was looking for a 'handbook' but still came up with nothing. So I downloaded the game's data files (you know, that had already been installed by Ubuntu, and that I shouldn't need?). The file containing the binaries was useless, but the actual game-data file contained a directory called 'Docs' - EUREKA!

So I extracted it, and navigated there, only to find that it contained a bunch of .wml files which didn't actually help me. The 'README' informed me that it utilized .wml files, and linked me to the website for the WML language or whatever (it's for dynamically creating HTML files, apparently). Opening up Synaptic, I searched for WML and found the software suite. After it installed, I was able to get the executable text-file 'make_html_files' to run. It ran.

Neat, there was an HTML file in the directory now. I opened it up... it was a manual!!!! I read through the introduction, so excited. I clicked on the first entry of the second section, entitled 'In the game' and... got a file-not found error. I tried running the script again. It actually mentioned each section of the handbook as it assembled it, but when it finished running, there were no HTML files; all it created was the initial one, and it was supposed to create one in each of the subdirectories. Possible more than one, but at least one, I'm sure.

So I gave up. When you can't even get the documentation to compile, you're just S.O.L. - someone else can review the game, if and when they fix the documentation. Or the game. As near as I can tell, the game is broken, but I can assert that the documentation is broken. It don't work. At least not on my machine. Best of luck to you - it looks like a Command n' Conquer clone, and the button that says 'full screen' doesn't actually make it full screen. That is all the reviewing I can give it.

Monday, February 11, 2008


I never played Bomberman so Bomberclone is new to me. It was fun, and promises to be more fun if you play it via the network with up to 16 other people. w00t! as the people who decide what the word of the year is would say.

Gameplay = simple. I'm tired of saying that. Not really, simple game mechanics are often the most fun, but really, I feel like a broken record. You use the arrow keys to move around, and you use the 'drop bomb' key to drop bombs. After a few seconds, they go off. The 'special' key will do different things, according which special power-up you've most recently picked up.

So you're in a maze (usually with quite limited freedom of movement at first) constructed of blocks that can be blown up, blocks that can't, and empty space. Blowing up blocks creates more empty space in which you can maneuver, and occasionally unlocks upgrades and power-ups. The point is to be the last man standing.

As mentioned earlier, the game offers network play for up to 16 people in a game, which seems like sheer insanity if the maps are as small as the ones I was playing in single-player, but they're probably not (note: I just ran through it with 15 AIs to see if it gave us anymore room; nup, it's insane (and awesome)). In single-player mode, you can tell it how many AIs you want to play against, and set different options for game-type, map, and tile-set.

While the graphics are relatively low-res, some of the tile-sets are hilarious (sheep!) and the maps show a lot of variation. It's old-school, but not clunky. Custom maps and tile-sets look to be easy to create, so you've got that whole infinite-replayability/customization thing going on.

The sounds are simple beeps n' booms, but they just add to the old-school flavor. With a bunch of players/AIs, they're a bit overwhelming at times, but that just adds to the chaotic fun.

Retro-arcade fun, mostly. Didn't notice anything broken, no clipping or stuttering, and a good time. The AI was a bit suicidal occasionally, but I kind of enjoyed that too. This gets a thumbs-up, although it probably offers limited amusement as a single-player game. If they really wanted to impress me, they'd add a campaign mode with storyline. :)


I'm not sure if I'm just really bad at Bloboats, or if it's really impossibly difficult. A quick glance around the internet reveals that a number of other people had serious difficulty with it, but there are a lot of lazy and/or incompetent people out there, so it's possible I'm just a member of that category.

This is another simple game - it's a side-scrolling platformer of sorts. You're the captain of a boat, and you have to get from the beginning of the level to the ship in need of rescue at the end of the level. You do this by accelerating, which causes your ship to want to flip up/backwards, so you have to 'steer' with the left and right keys to keep your ship moderately level.

There are obstacles (read: tentacle monsters!) and land-masses which must be jumped. The height of your jump is determined by how low you 'sank' in the water before rising out of it, which is hard to explain, easy to understand once you're doing it, but even harder to do effectively.

It's really hard to control the boat. And if you touch the tentacle monsters at all, you immediately explode into a gajillion pieces. For me, I found the controls simple to learn, but impossible to master, which made it less fun than the traditional 'simple to learn, but difficult to master' that most mechanics-based games strive for. I never really got past the 'trial-and-error' method of passing a level, where I just kept trying it until I lucked out as far as my position on a wave and managed to jump it right.

But the controls are consistent, and responsive, so it's possible I just suck at it. Graphically, it has a unique look. Sort of 'hi-res MS Paint', almost. It's child-like but attractive, and it performs well. It certainly doesn't look like a AAA retail title, but it's not supposed to.

Sound? Didn't work for me. Did some lookin' on the intarwebs and found other people with the same problem, but no solution. An amusingly nautical soundtrack would have made Bloboats more fun, but since I never really 'got it', I don't think it would have made it fun enough.

In all, if you're into odd physics-based boating games with tentacle monsters, I recommend trying it out. It's a relatively small download, and five minutes should be enough time for you to discover that you adore it, or can't stand it. I believe that most people will find it frustrating to play, and not a lot of fun, but I'm not sure enough of myself to give the game a 'don't bother'.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Billard GL

I find it hard to believe that Billard GL isn't a typo. I thought it was called 'billiards'? Oh well - maybe not in Germany, where its developers are from. This is a very pretty and very vacuous pool sim. The physics are probably mostly fine, although they seem a little wonky at times. Everything else is sub-par.

The UI is horrid (but simple!). You can change one aspect of your view by moving the mouse while the left-button is held, and another aspect by doing the same with the right button held. But in 'View' mode, they're totally unworkable and oddly unpredictable, and in 'Aim' mode, they're usable, if barely, but a complete pain in the ass.

As near as I can tell, you always hit the ball dead-center, so english was impossible to achieve; I tried angling the camera up and down to get top/bottom-spin, but couldn't see that it ever had any effect. So right from the get-up, you have an unworkable camera control system, and a clunky and simplified aiming system.

My complaints don't stop there! There's no network-play support, which isn't necessary but would have been nice. There's also no shot-calling mechanic so the rules are simplified as well, compared to what I play 'down the pub'. Playing single-player is only doable via 'Training' mode, so there's no AI opponent which, honestly, I can understand. Trying to implement one would probably be a hellacious task, and this is open-source hobbyist development.

As installed, there is no functional sound. The configuration menu mentions it, but according to the website it's just a 'dummy' option, as sound support hasn't been implemented yet.

There's just nothing this game does that Yahoo! Pool doesn't do better, outside of the graphics. For the record, while very simple, the graphics are pretty sharp both literally and figuratively. Billard GL is a functional game, but just barely, and it's not pleasant to play. I should mention that it does appear to be playable completely via the keyboard, but manipulating the camera via keyboard controls is even more painful than using the mouse.

Don't bother.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Beneath a Steel Sky

Yay! A game with a story! Beneath a Steel Sky is an adventure game, a blessedly not-so-prevalent genre in todays world whose only contribution to the realm of electronic gaming lies in the fact that they had to focus on story, because their gameplay was painfully unfun. Which is a broad generalization, and not exactly accurate in this case, but mostly true most of the time. Adventure game elements are found in most of the games that see release every year, but the bad parts have mostly vanished from the face of the earth.

This is really two reviews in one: firstly, there's the software. That's SCUMM-VM, a sort of emulator that allows you to run a collection of old-school games (mostly LucasArts games from the early 90s, which featured and engine called SCUMM, but also a few others). Then there's the game itself: a collection of datafiles being interpreted by the SCUMM-VM and thus being something we can interact with on our Linux (or Win32 or Apple or... ad infinitum) machine.

SCUMM-VM is mostly amazing. It works very well on this machine; I'd used it to play other games under Windows in the past, but this is my first experience with it in Linux. It was essentially the same experience; they even hard-coded using alt-enter to switch between windowed and full-screen modes, so that works under Linux. The fact that everything in the Linux world seems to have a different short-cut for toggling full-screen is a constant source of frustration to the person who came up on Windows.

When you install Beneath a Steel Sky it adds shortcuts for both the game, and for SCUMM-VM, to your 'Applications' menu - I recommend starting SCUMM-VM, as that allows you to configure some things, the most important of which is probably the graphics engine. SCUMM-VM supports several different anti-aliasing and multi-sampling graphics modes, that look much nicer than the default un-touched-up visuals you get with most of these games. It's a way to triage some of the pain that comes from playing a game from 15 years ago, if you didn't play them at the time. They weren't ugly - some were quite pretty - but they certainly weren't as slick looking as everything these days is. 640x480 was hi-res.

Configuration aside, the SCUMM-VM machine integrates seamlessly into the game itself. Outside of hitting 'F5' to get to the menu that allows you to save and load and turn sound n' sub-titles off, you're mostly working within Beneath a Steel Sky. The gameplay is simple; left click to look at something, right-click to interact with it, and if you want to use any of the items you've picked up on your travels, hover the mouse at the very top of the screen/window, and your inventory appears.

The story starts out uniquely: a helicopter full of riot-gear toting police lands in the middle of your savage-wastelands-post-apocalyptic-style tribe, and demands that you be handed over, in the middle of the tribe's chief/shaman guy having a vision of your impending doom n' whatnot. You leave with the cops, the cops blow up your tribe from the air, and take you to a city, where your 'copter crashes, allowing you to escape. Meanwhile, you had a flashback in there at some point where you saw another helicopter crash involving you, when you were five years old; said crash killed your mom, and led to you being taken in by that tribe.

Your goal? Escape the city! Return to the wilderness of The Gap (the region you're from, not the store). It turns out that the city is built way up into the air, you're on an upper level, and you need to get to the ground level to get the hell out. The plot has a tendency to thicken nicely in well-managed increments, so there's always something new to deal with and think about. Generally, the pacing is quite good, though the game isn't really that long.

Thank the blessed Mary, the puzzles are mostly sensible. I played a number of adventure games back in the day - back when they were still making them a lot, as opposed to the current slow trickle - and mostly, they blew. They existed to sell hint books. How do you defeat the yeti? A pie in the face, obviously. Etc. (that's actually almost too logical to count as a ludicrous adventure-game puzzle - see Old Man Murray's famous examination of Gabriel Knight III for a better example). Some of them were so obscenely funny and fun due to the writing and general aesthetics that you didn't really give a shit (see Grim Fandango), and some adventure games actually made enough sense that you weren't disgusted by them. This is one of the few, the proud, the latter.

I didn't have to consult GameFAQs until the last third of the game, and then - painfully - it was to discover that I needed to do something I'd already tried, only there was a small section of pixels where it would work, and I'd clicked the wrong section of the object in question. The only thing worse than a stupid puzzle is a puzzle that makes perfect sense, that you solved correctly in your head an hour ago, and then spent an hour wasting your time trying to find some imaginary other solution. But at least it's my fault; I don't blame the game (much).

Oddly, for a game that's beloved by tons and tons of people, I found that the aesthetics were a bit confused. The game's quite funny, and also features a dark vision of the future, but they don't seem to mesh well. You have funny bits, and you have dystopic bits, but never darkly humorous bits. At least, not much. It is genuinely funny, so it's still a pleasure, but it seems a bit confused.

The art-direction seems equally confused. Beneath a Steel Sky seems sort of like it wants to look like a post-apocalyptic Fallout-style future most of the time, but then you step on the wrong corridor, and there's nothing post-apocalyptic about it. It's a megapolis that stretches towards the heavens, featuring millions of people, high technology, futuristic forms of transportation, and so on. More like Bladerunner (technically that was post-apocalyptic too, but a very different vision) or something from one of William Gibson's books. Each scene looks fine, but very often the transitions between them are quite abrupt.

It's worth mentioning that the voice-acting is brilliant. I'm not even going to add 'for a game' - it's just hilariously well-done. People actually have realistic inflection, great comedic timing, and intriguing personalities. It's even better than the real thing!

While I've mentioned mostly flaws, don't let me convince you the game sucks. It doesn't. It's brilliant, it's funny, it's witty, and it's fun. Graphically, while I don't think it necessarily fully reflects a coherent vision, it's very well-done and it's a delight to discover. The story features twists and turns, surprises of all sorts, drama, and all the rest of the jazz you associate with good storytelling (a beginning and an ending! I hate it when they don't have those). The game is considered a classic by many fans of sci-fi and adventure gaming for very good reason, and I was delightfully surprised to get the chance to play it for this blog.

Beneath a Steel Sky is available via the Ubuntu packages because it was released into the wild as freeware by its developers. As such, unlike most of the games that SCUMM-VM works with, it's available for free from the SCUMM-VM website. Whatever platform you're reading this on, you can probably go right there, download the game and the engine, and have it up and running in less than ten minutes. Best of all? Beneath a Steel Sky isn't the only one! There's also Lure of the Temptress (from the same developers) and Flight of the Amazon Queen. I'm assuming I'll end up playing both of those for this blog.