Retrospective: Civilization II (or, why democracy is a pain in the ass)

On the brink of my fall exams, all my thoughts have to do with copyright and corporate law. This makes me pine for the days of my youth, when I would spend long days playing Civilization II, the second title in Sid Meier’s long-running turn-based world power strategy game. There are few things less painful than watching a horde of 22nd century Mongols hit every major city on your home continent with nuclear weapons, and this thought gives me some small solace as far as my exams are concerned.

I owned the PC original, not the Playstation port.  But this was the best cover image I could find, and they basically look the same anyway.

I owned the PC original, not the Playstation port. But this was the best cover image I could find, and they basically look the same anyway.

Everyone is all about Civilization V right now (and the upcoming Civilization VI.) V is a great edition to the series, but Civ II will always be my favorite title if only for nostalgia reasons. Unlike the hours I spent at my friend’s house playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and fighting over who had to play as Tails, my time with Civ II was not wasted, because the game taught me many valuable lessons. The first lesson I learned was that if you’re the king of an ancient city, you’d better build city walls, otherwise barbarians will plunder and capture it.

The more interesting lessons came later in the game, when you are able to unlock new forms of government through technologies. The world of Civilization II has six forms of government, four of which had various benefits (despotism and monarchy are lousy choices that you have to use early-game and should ditch as soon as possible: they cause your cities to have low production and lots of corruption.) The remaining four forms are the republic, democracy, fundamentalism, and communism.

Being a good American, I thought I’d go for democracy. After all, I love freedom, and nothing says freedom like the power to make a basically meaningless choice between two equally crap candidates from two god-awful political parties. So that’s what I tried out. As it happens, Civ II democracy does have a lot of benefits: you can allocate 100% of your tax revenue to science, which you can’t do with any other form of government, and your citizens’ output is extremely high, meaning more money in the state’s coffers. So why wouldn’t you choose democracy as your form of government?

Because it makes it damn near impossible to wage war. Each of your citizens in a city (represented per every 10,000, then 30,000, then 60,000 people in each city and up accordingly) will become discontent the number of military units you ship away from their home cities, so large-scale deployments are more or less out of the question. And even if they weren’t, the legislature is all too ready to stand in the way of your hawkish initiatives, the bastards.

Well, maybe they're right, because this is usually what your Civ II war will end up looking like: decimated populations, military units disrupting production in enemy cities, and tons of pollution from nuclear weapon use.

Well, maybe they’re right, because this is usually what your Civ II war will end up looking like: decimated populations, military units disrupting production in enemy cities, and tons of pollution from nuclear weapon use.

This was the most interesting aspect of Civ II to me. You can certainly play as a democracy and win the game by dumping 100% of your revenue into science. I never really bothered with this method, though, because to me it was a lot more fun to adopt a communist government instead: you still got pretty good production and high scientific research out of your cities, but without any discontented citizens (if they complain, send them off to Gulag!) or that pesky Senate to get in your way (if any of your Politburo colleagues presents a challenge to you, have him killed and make it look like an assassination, or hold a series of show trials followed by executions.) So you can churn out infantry and armored units and wage war to your heart’s content, or at least as far as your budget allows. You could do more or less the same with a fundamentalist government, though your scientific research took a serious hit.

This is a pretty good way to deal with those damned Mongols who always seem to want to conquer the whole world.

This is a pretty good way to deal with those damned Mongols who always seem to want to conquer the whole world.

To be clear, Civ II doesn’t require you to conquer the world to win the game. An easier, albeit more time-sensitive, victory method is to develop a space program through research dollars and reach Alpha Centauri before any other power. Fulfilling the space race condition does require you to build defenses against nuclear attacks, but you can pretty much put a stop to all aggression against your state short of sneak attacks by beating every other world power to the Great Wall and United Nations wonders, which force your enemies to offer peace terms in negotiations. If you’re going this route, you’re pretty much required to adopt democracy for its massive research and production benefits.

From talking to friends who also played Civ II, though, the communist/fundamentalist brute force method seems like the most common one. Why? The same state practices that I hate in real life and that could and almost have led the real world to disaster and the near-extinction of humanity I happily pursue in my game of Civ, and apparently lots of other normal, non-atrocity-committing people do the same. Is that just because Civ is only a game, or does that mean I’d pursue the same policies if I were a world leader myself?

The Civilization series puts god-like power in your hands as the ruler of a people and eventually of a world power. I think it’s only natural to want to see what it’s like to utterly wreck the planet for humanity and conquer everything by razing and occupying cities and stabbing your friends and allies in the back. But I also think Sid Meier and co. tapped into something dark in the human soul with these games, the part that might find some actual enjoyment in this sort of destruction and misery. After all, guys like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao existed, and many horrible tyrants before them, and they were all humans just like you and me, not devils out of a fairy tale. And such people still exist today in the form of brutal dictators and murderous terrorists. Who knows what any one of us might do when given absolute power?

In case there's any doubt, however, no, these guys are not my role models.

In case there’s any doubt, however, no, these guys are not my role models.

Sorry, this one was depressing. It must be because of the exams on my mind – I can’t get into a good mood right now. I’ll start writing again after I’m done with them, and hopefully about some lighter topics.

Retrospective: SimCopter

So I’m writing about SimCopter, a 1996 sort-of kind-of flight simulator that allowed you to fly around 3D models of your SimCity 2000 creations. Yes, you could fly around your own cities! As a kid who played the shit out of SimCity 2000, this was really exciting to me.

Simcopter_box_cover

The box promised excitement and danger and all that stuff, but I didn’t need to be sold on the game: I got it almost as soon as it came out. And it was fun. But how has it held up?

Well...

Well…

SimCopter did deliver on its primary promise: it lets you fly around the custom cities you build in SimCity 2000. And it does feature missions with disasters of the sort you might have run into in SimCity itself: you had fires to put out, riots to quell (with your loudspeaker), traffic jams to clear (again, with your loudspeaker, though it was never clear to me how yelling at traffic through a loudspeaker helped anything.) You could also take rescue missions, airlifting injured Sim citizens to the roof of a nearby hospital (if your city had no hospitals, that was your own damn fault.)

Despite all that, SimCopter has not aged well. This game was among the first generation of 3D games out there – back in the mid-90s, when having a 3D character model consisting of ten polygons counted as a great achievement. Even by those standards, though, SimCopter looks pretty miserable. The buildings are essentially giant shoeboxes, and the people are absolute monstrosities. It says a lot about the graphical advances of the period from 1995 to 2000 that Maxis went from this to The Sims at the end of that decade.

Yes, those are people.  The pixel blurs on the right are dogs.

Yes, those are people. The pixel blurs on the right are dogs.

It’s not fair to dump on a game just because it wasn’t ahead of its time, though, and SimCopter was a lot of fun in 1996, terrible graphics aside. For all I know, the designers couldn’t do much in that area because they had to put all their resources towards the whole customization deal that was the main selling point of SimCopter.

One nice thing about SimCopter was all the easter eggs it contained. You could totally ignore your moral and ethical duties as a rescue pilot and throw people out of your helicopter while you hovered hundreds of feet over your city. This game also lets you fly over to an air force base (assuming your SimCity 2000 city file had built one) and get into an Apache, which could shoot missiles with which you could destroy your entire city. And if your city had a nuclear power plant, you could have a lot of fun.

Or you could play the game normally, but where's the fun in that?

Or you could play the game normally, but where’s the fun in that?

So, is it worth it to bother digging up SimCopter? Unless you have a copy of SimCity 2000 installed, I’d say no, absolutely not. I certainly can’t recommend it to people who are purely into simulation games of the usual SimCity type, because this game, unlike those, is a pretty mindless action title, sharing only the franchise name. And as far as mindless action games go, both this title and Streets of SimCity (which I never owned but from what I have seen is pretty much the same idea, only with cars instead of helicopters) were outclassed in almost every way by urban sandbox games like GTA III, so the only remaining appeal to these games is their customizability (?) The point is, these games are garbage, but they’re good garbage. And that makes all the difference.

Retrospective: Grand Theft Auto

No, probably not the Grand Theft Auto you’re thinking of. Today’s GTA games feature massive, realistic 3D urban environments and all kinds of missions and tasks. Today’s GTA is amazing, even despite the mostly well-deserved complaints about more recent titles in the series.

Forget all that. Right now we’re talking about the GTA of yesterday – specifically, of the late 90s, when Rockstar put out the original Grand Theft Auto and its sequel (which are, for the most part, essentially the same game.)

GTA2 has a great cover, but the publisher's logo (lower right) kind of kills the atmosphere, doesn't it?

GTA2 has a great cover, but the publisher’s logo (lower right) kind of kills the atmosphere, doesn’t it?

GTA and GTA2, released in 1997 and 1999 respectively, were not 3D – although 3D games were being developed at the time, the technology didn’t yet exist to depict large, decent-looking 3D environments in an action context. Thus, they were 2D top-down games. The idea behind both is pretty much the same as it has been ever since – drive around, shoot people, cause mayhem. You can also take missions, much as you do in GTA III and beyond, although there aren’t really any storylines connected to the missions as there are in the 3D games. So most of your time will probably consist of driving around town and smashing into things.

One of the unsatisfying things about GTA and GTA2 is that some of the missions are pretty fucking stupid.  Some of the missions in later GTA games are stupid too, though.

One of the unsatisfying things about GTA and GTA2 is that some of the missions are pretty fucking stupid. Some of the missions in later GTA games are stupid too, though.

Speaking of smashing into things, there was a pretty serious problem with GTA and GTA2 that, in my mind, more or less wrecked them gameplay-wise. Much like GTA III and on, these first two titles encourage the player to steal the fastest cars and jet around the city without regard for traffic laws or human life (in fact, some of the games’ timed missions demand that you do this.) However, this style of play only works if you can see what’s coming towards you. In a 3D game, this isn’t a problem. In a 2D top-down game, it most definitely is. Unless you have the city map memorized, chances are you will spend a lot of your driving time crashing into buildings and getting stuck in frustratingly tight spots.

PHFLHPHLPHLPHLPFLHLHPLHP is the best way to describe the gameplay in GTA and GTA2

PHFLHPHLPHLPHLPFLHLHPLHP is the best way to describe the gameplay in GTA and GTA2

Add to this the fact that efficient routes are nearly impossible to map out unless, again, you’ve got the city layout memorized, and your 2D GTA experience becomes aggravating to the point that you may just want to quit playing. GTA and GTA2 are cases where the quality of the games really are affected by their technological capabilities, sad to say. It’s clear that Rockstar only truly realized their vision with GTA III.

Wow, that was a pretentious fucking paragraph! I have to watch myself.

Still, that doesn’t mean these games are worthless or anything. They were a lot of fun in the late 90s, perhaps because they more or less invented the all-around crime simulator genre. Sending the police on a wild chase across the city was one of the best parts of the game, even despite the good chance that you’d smash into buildings and run into dead ends because of the top-down view.

The city at night

The city at night

So it’s kind of hard to say whether these games are still worth playing. You can certainly have fun with them, but if you’ve played any other GTA game from GTA III to V, you’ll probably just be pining to play those instead. Still, it’s worth checking out the origins of the series. Unfortunately, Steam seems to have stopped selling them, and although Rockstar had a page where you could download them for free, they’ve deactivated that service. I can’t imagine why – it’s not like they’re wanting for money. If that page ever is active again, though, you may as well download GTA and GTA2 – they’re well worth playing for free.

Retrospective: Grandia II

The Dreamcast had a sadly short life, doomed as it was to be SEGA’s last shot effort at staying in the console-making game. Unlike its disastrous predecessor Saturn, however, the Dreamcast is still more or less beloved among a lot of gamers now in their 20s. Maybe it’s because everyone knew it was SEGA’s last shot, or because some of its games were actually pretty good.

Grandia II was one of these. Released in 2000, Grandia II was in many ways a typical JRPG – lots of battles, boss fights, traveling, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and all in the context of an epic quest to save the world. Your hero is Ryudo, a young mercenary who runs around the countryside looking for work with his pet (?) talking falcon (???) Skye (no, the game never explains this. Especially confusing because Skye is the only talking/intelligent animal in the game; the rest don’t say a word. Also, in the English dub Skye sounds like George Takei.) Ryudo is kind of a dick, and although Skye tries to keep him in line it doesn’t always work.

One of Ryudo's many quips

One of Ryudo’s many quips

The gist of Grandia II is that you, as Ryudo, have to take a job from the church that controls your country to seal an ancient evil together with a nun who is the key to sealing that evil, because of a reason I can’t remember. You travel to see the pope while meeting people who have serious problems you have to fix, after which a few of them will join your party as permanent members. ……..

Right, so in terms of setting, plot and basic character layout, it’s a generic JRPG. Painfully generic, and as stale as a week-old baguette. The hero is a jaded sarcastic guy, the main female lead is a nice girl who wants to help everybody. There’s also a kid, a warrior furry lion sort-of guy and a robot girl. And if you’ve played even a few JRPGs of this kind, you’ll see the plot twists coming several hours before they hit. Hell, you might be able to figure out everything that’s going on, all the way to the very end of the game, after finishing just about a third of it. Really, that’s not right at all.

FINE Elena we'll fucking save the townspeople already

FINE Elena we’ll fucking save the townspeople already

Despite that, Grandia II is a good game if only for its gameplay, and namely for its battle system. It’s a mix of turn-based and real-time battle. Each of your members has his or her turn along with each of the enemies. However, the order of everyone’s turns is determined by their speed stats and whether your party was able to catch the enemy off guard or was ambushed by the enemy. Each turn, represented by the character’s face, moves along the initiative bar to the blue COM threshold, where you can input a command for that character. Once they hit the ACT line, that character will carry out their inputted action. Both you and your enemies’ actions can be cancelled, however, if they’re attacked before carrying said action out. Getting canceled flings the affected actor’s icon way to the left (i.e. the beginning) of the initiative bar again.

Your characters also get a whole crapload of moves and spells to learn, some of which do various amounts of area damage. A few moves are great for canceling imminent enemy attacks.

Grandia II's battle system is its best asset.

Grandia II’s battle system is its best asset.

This system might sound complicated, but it’s really easy to pick up and a lot of fun once you’ve gotten the hang of it. Battles in Grandia II are a lot more than simple point-and-click or run-around-the-field-swinging-your-sword deals as they are in many other JRPGs, and that adds a lot of value to the game.

Another nice addition to Grandia II is this bit that comes up maybe six or eight times throughout the game where you get to sit in on a dinner conservation with your party. It’s not especially substantive or anything, but it adds some flavor to the game, and the characters’ interactions can be amusing sometimes. In fact, most of Grandia II‘s dialogue is pretty well-written, even in the context of its stale plot.

Is he being sarcastic?  Who can tell.

Is he being sarcastic? Who can tell.

Grandia II is a nice JRPG that’s well worth playing if you live in 2000 and own a Dreamcast. And though it hasn’t aged all that well, really, even today it’s fun. I played it a couple of times as a kid, and returning to the game, I can still enjoy it.

Sadly, it’s kind of hard to track down today in its original form – copies of the Dreamcast version are on sale for $150 on Amazon (it’s the same with Skies of Arcadia, actually – what is it with Dreamcast RPGs being expensive as hell now?) The PS2 version might be cheaper, though I’ve never played it – it could also be a horribly broken port for all I know. And the PC (!) version is probably damn near impossible to play on a Windows 7/8 machine. Still, if you can track this game down for a decent price, it’s well worth a play. I don’t know if it’s necessarily $150 worth of it, but it’s certainly worth something.

Retrospective: SimCity 2000 (or why the world’s energy problems will be solved by 2050)

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When you are a child, the world is full of endless possibilities (it’s also full of asshole bullies and unfair rules, but never mind that.) And no game better embodied that world of possibilities than did SimCity 2000. Released in 1993, SimCity 2000 was the isometric 3D sequel to the original top-down SimCity and was the company’s biggest hit until The Sims came along in 1999. The idea was basic – you were the major of a blank patch of land (and water, if you so wished) and your job was to build a city, complete with power, water, services and entertainment for your new residents, who would flock to your city as soon as you zoned land for residential, commercial or industrial use.

SimCity 2000 seemed to predict a sunny future where we’d all eventually benefit from advances in technology, where political and police corruption were nonexistent and where a low student/teacher ratio meant a school automatically turned out A students who went on to fulfilling courses of study and careers.

Of course, there were still disasters.

For example

For example

Disasters that you could start yourself from the disaster menu, and also from the magical debug menu that allowed you to generate mega-disasters like volcanoes and nuclear meltdowns as well as enough free cheat code money to rebuild right away.

If you wanted to take your game seriously, however, you were in for some planning. SimCity 2000 isn’t the most complicated game in the world, but it’s up there on the list, and to make your citizens happy you’ll have to track and alleviate high crime and heavy traffic, build enough fire departments and hospitals to keep people safe and walking around, provide schools, universities and libraries to educate your citizens and keep them from not getting stupid. Critical decisions such as whether to allow the construction of a military base mean balancing between the value of the military’s help in fighting disasters against higher crime and pollution where the base was built. City ordinances can also affect your city, with their own benefits and drawbacks.

Fortunately, you have a panel of advisers ready and willing to help you with your decisions. Unfortunately, they aren’t much help. Most of them just want full funding in their particular areas and will complain if you drop it.

Pretty sure this one isn't real

Pretty sure this one isn’t real

One of the most interesting aspects of SimCity 2000 was its predictions of future technology. You had the option of starting your game in 1900, 1950, 2000 and 2050, but 1900 was the default (and the “real way” to play, as far as I’m concerned) perhaps in part because you got to see and take advantage of new technologies as they developed historically. Upon the building of the first airplanes, you get to build an airport. Your first nuclear plant is available in the 50s. But, of course, SimCity 2000 was only developed in 1993, so there are some technologies that are mere predictions – the most exciting of which is the fusion power plant, made available in 2050. SimCity‘s fusion plant can power about half of the entire map, is completely safe and, despite being the most expensive plant in the game, is also the most cost-effective. We should all hope Will Wright’s prediction is correct.

If you've played SimCity 2000, you'll know just how much waste this screenshot depicts

If you’ve played SimCity 2000, you’ll know just how much waste this screenshot depicts

SimCity 2000 also saw the advent of the arcology, a bizarre self-contained city of the future. The idea for the arcology didn’t come from SimCity, in fact – early design ideas were proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects, and real-life arcology-esque projects are planned for construction in the United Arab Emirates and Japan. Arcologies in SimCity 2000 are expensive and massively boost crime and potentially pollution, depending on the type you build, but they also give a major boost to your population – and to your tax base.

Despite these predicted advances in technology, though, your city’s local newspaper will always be completely stupid and nonsensical. It uses article templates with randomly generated words in certain spots, kind of like Mad Libs. Even so, SimCity‘s newspaper is still less of a joke than the Washington Times.

Yes, every story in the paper looks like this.

Yes, every story in the paper looks like this.

So, yeah. SimCity 2000 is a real classic. All my love for this game might stem from the fact that I played the hell out of it as a kid, but even without the nostalgia goggles on, it’s a legitimately great game. Not that I really need to convince everyone of that, since it sold about ten billion copies anyway and everyone seems to love it or at least pay it respect.

Sadly, though, the SimCity story doesn’t have a happy ending. SimCity 2000 was followed by SimCity 3000 in 1999 (sort of a graphical update of 2000 with not much else going for it, though it’s still good) and SimCity 4 in 2003, which was also good and legitimately felt pretty different from its 1993 ancestor. The series’ latest entry, however, was a disgrace. 2013’s SimCity looked amazing, but it was released full of bugs. Many fans were shocked at the fact that they were required to be connected to the internet to play the game in singleplayer mode. To add insult to injury, the SimCity servers fucked themselves upon launch and for a while nobody was able to play the game they’d just bought for 50 or 60 dollars. To add even more insult to injury, Maxis and EA apologized for all this by announcing the coming release of The Sims 4, which they promised wouldn’t be all glitchy and force to you be online constantly. A shitty SimCity game for a good Sims game. What a trade, huh? Some people might like it, but really, this drives me crazy. Not like I have much time left to play open-ended sandbox games anyway.

Perhaps not coincidentally, EA won The Consumerist‘s Worst Company in America award that same year. EA basically responded by saying “We have enough money to buy and sell you ten times over, so fuck yourself.” Which I suppose is fair.

Retrospective: Knuckles Chaotix

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As a former child growing up in the 90s, I remember when Mario and Sonic were the go-to guys for video game-related fun and time-wasting. They still are, I suppose – but in the early 90s, they were a whole lot more prominent, complete with massive ad campaigns and a running war over the world’s game console market.

As it turned out, neither Nintendo nor SEGA won that war, because Sony pretty much screwed both of them with the Playstation. But while Nintendo managed to hang on with the Nintendo 64 and carve out a niche for themselves as a purveyor of excellent first-party titles, SEGA spun completely out of control and crashed into the NASCAR bleachers, killing and maiming hundreds of spectators. The Saturn debacle could be taught at business schools as a case study in marketing ineptitude, but SEGA’s earlier hardware add-ons to the popular Genesis console were almost as misguided.

The SEGA CD system was the first of these disasters, a 1993 CD attachment that sold poorly and should have tipped SEGA off to the fact that nobody was interested in new consoles that attached to consoles they already owned. But SEGA hadn’t learned their lesson, because Christmas 1994 brought the SEGA 32X, yet another add-on to the Genesis that could run 32-bit games. As far as I can remember, none of us at school really knew it existed – and we were exactly the same little shits that SEGA was directly targeting with their ad campaigns.

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Okay, enough of the video game console wars history stuff. The 32X, despite the general shittiness of its concept, did have at least a couple of interesting games on it, as I learned when visiting the house of a friend from school (who was also the only person I knew in the world who owned a 32X. Seriously, next to nobody bought it.) One of these was Knuckles Chaotix, a game spun off of the wildly popular Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Knuckles was supposedly an echidna, which as far as I can tell is a sort of Australian anteater thing, and he was Sonic’s rival in Sonic & Knuckles, which was and still is an amazing platformer. In Chaotix, Knuckles joins up with a new team of animal-people to do whatever the hell it is you’re trying to do in this game (I don’t quite remember, but “stop Dr. Robotnik” probably covers it.)

Yes, it says "WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD."  Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

Yes, it says “WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD.” Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

It really is too bad that nobody played it, because Knuckles Chaotix is an interesting game. It might not be a good game, exactly – but it’s certainly not a bad one, and if you have a friend to play it with, it can be pretty fun.

Having a friend around is vital, actually, because Chaotix is really a two-player game. In some ways, it resembles other Sonic Genesis titles: it’s a platformer with lots of curves and loops and straight areas that let you build up speed, and Dr. Robotnik is the bad guy you’re fighting. However, Chaotix distinguishes itself from every other game in the series by featuring 1) a mandatory policy of two characters on screen at all times 2) who are tethered together by a magical sparkly rope that never breaks. This bond allows each character to “slingshot” each other across a level, quickly building up insane amounts of speed and allowing wild leaps that would never be possible to make with a single character. Characters could also pick up and throw each other up onto higher ledges (or pick each other up for no reason and run around – not especially productive, but a great way to piss off your friend.)

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

Knuckles Chaotix is interesting for the way it forces teamwork and cooperation between its players. It’s also interesting for how it takes control away from the player when choosing a new level to play (picked randomly by the computer) and a new partner to play with. Each player has seven characters to choose from, including Knuckles himself, his friends (who each have special abilities) and two really shitty, slow characters called Bomb and Heavy that seem to have been inserted into the game solely to piss players off. Unfortunately, you might have to play as these guys, because in order to switch up your team mid-stride one character has to play a game akin to that ripoff carnival grabber game that features a seemingly random collection of possible new partners. You’ll need decent reflexes to grab the character you want.

The strange character select screen

The strange character select screen

So this is definitely an interesting game (how many times have I said that this review? Way too many times.) But Knuckles Chaotix does have some issues that put its overall quality into question. Firstly, the layout of the game’s stages can be confusing – it’s often not clear which direction you have to travel to reach the end of the stage. Sonic CD also had this problem, but Chaotix takes it to the extreme. This can obviously produce a lot of frustration.

Secondly, Chaotix pretty much sucks if it’s played alone. It can be played alone, but, as I learned when playing it a bit recently on an emulator, it’s quite aggravating and unintuitive to control two characters at the same time, even though it is possible through the carrying and slingshot methods. Besides, from what little I can remember about playing this game with a friend almost 20 years ago, most of the fun of Chaotix comes from screwing over your partner and laughing at the general weirdness of the game’s features and mechanics.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork.  Also note the negative ring count.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork. Also note the negative ring count.

So is Knuckles Chaotix worth playing? The question is pretty much moot because, as far as I can tell, the game was never re-released after the almost immediate failure of the 32X. One might have expected SEGA to slap Chaotix onto a compilation to give it a new lease on life, as they did with the equally forgotten Sonic CD, but for whatever reason they never have. If you want to play this thing, you’ll either have to go the emulator route and find a way to set up a two-player thing around your computer or buy a 32X (and a Genesis, if you don’t own one already) and a copy of the game on eBay. Knuckles Chaotix is a strange and fascinating title, but I can’t honestly say it’s worth tracking down a 20 year-old Genesis add-on for. If, however, you are a Sonic fan with lots of disposable income and you know someone else who actually gives a shit about playing this, I say go for it.

Anyway, that was entirely too many words I just wrote about this game. I blame it on the half-pot of coffee I drank. I’m going to lie down now.

Retrospective: SimTower

When I was young and not having to worry about my diet or bills or loans or getting a job or taking horrifically terrible exams, I played a lot of computer games, and at the time the Sim series of games was massively popular. Sort of like how it is now, only The Sims blessedly did not exist (even after 15 years I don’t understand the appeal of The Sims. A smaller, duller version of my own already boring life? Amazing! The only fun thing about The Sims is building a death trap house and watching its eight luckless inhabitants slowly go insane and/or die.)

(Don’t look at me like that. Everyone who’s ever owned The Sims has done that at least once.)

No, back in the 90s, the Sim series was known for SimCity, and namely for the far improved sequel SimCity 2000 that confusingly came out in 1993. But the Sim series didn’t stop at cities: you could also build your own farm, ant colony or really terrible-looking helicopter. One of the more successful of these spinoff titles was SimTower, a game that Maxis published in the West on behalf of weirdo Japanese game designer Yoot Saito in 1994.

Finally, the chance to recreate the shitty office building you work in

Finally, the chance to recreate the shitty office building you work in!

SimTower, on its face, is simple. It’s a 2D building management game. The general formula you’ll follow goes like so: build a lobby, build offices/hotel rooms/condos and rent/sell them to your tenants, build restaurants and shops for your tenants and outside visitors both to enjoy.

You’ll quickly learn, however, that building management is a frustrating job. Office workers and condo tenants placed too close to restaurants will complain about the noise. All your tenants will complain about travel time, especially if they have to navigate a circuitous route down stairs and elevators to get where they’re going (and it will be impossible not to build these kinds of paths if your building is greater than 15 stories tall.) Your businesses will be happy and pay you rent as long as they’re in the black, but if they’re doing poorly, they’ll lose money for you and become a drain on your funds. Condos are a great way to make a one-time profit for a quick cash influx, but they’re also difficult to maintain and take up a lot of space. Offices and hotel rooms are at least guaranteed income as long as they are occupied, but if the general happiness of the tenants falls enough, you’ll have to push the rents and rates down to keep them in your building. Forget the tower: at its core, SimTower is a happiness management simulator.

If someone is red, it means they're pissed off, possibly because they're having to wait three hours to ride an elevator.  You will see a lot of red people as you play SimTower.

If someone is red, it means they’re pissed off, possibly because they’re having to wait three hours to ride an elevator. You will see a lot of red people as you play SimTower.

All of the above might make SimTower seem like a chore to play, but it’s not. It’s strangely satisfying to watch new tenants snap up the offices and other properties you place in your tower as it rises to the skies. The game features a tiered rewards system that unlocks new properties and services for you to use as your tower’s population increases. And, like every good Sim game, SimTower features random scenarios: the arrival of a VIP who will cast judgment upon your tower at the end of his visit, outbreaks of fire, and even terrorist bomb threats.

It also has day/night cycles!  Well, it's not that impressive considering the relative primitiveness of the graphics, but still.

It also has day/night cycles! Well, it’s not that impressive considering the relative primitiveness of the graphics, but still.

Although I doubt very much that it even came close to the success of SimCity, SimTower sold well enough to inspire a sequel, Yoot Tower. Yoot Tower came out in 1998 and added some new features while keeping the same old visual style and general concept of its predecessor. While it might have done well in its home country, though, Yoot Tower seems to have been a flop in the US. Maybe it looked and played too similar to SimTower to be accepted as a truly new title. Or maybe it was the fact that the economy of Yoot Tower is completely fucked, with certain building options being guaranteed money-losers no matter what. I still like the game, probably just out of nostalgia for the original, but Yoot Tower feels like a broken remake of SimTower. Thankfully, Yoot Saito would move on to make Seaman and Odama and other bizarre titles that had nothing to do with buildings.

Don't even bother with the ramen shop.  It sucks.  Must have gotten bad reviews online.

Don’t even bother with the ramen shop. It sucks. Must have gotten bad reviews online.

Despite the fact that SimTower is now 20 years old, the game is still fun and holds up pretty well. Best of all, both SimTower and its sequel seem to qualify as abandonware now, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find them online and play them through a virtual machine (though I believe both can actually run on Windows 7/8, which is amazing.) At any rate, SimTower isn’t on Steam, which is really a shame: it would make for a great download for five dollars or so. Especially considering the fact that, unlike SimCity and The Sims, the SimTower concept hasn’t truly been improved upon from the 1994 original. Unless I’ve missed something, which is entirely possible.

Retrospective: Chip’s Challenge

Even the most vocal Microsoft critics have to admit that the Windows Entertainment Pack games of the early 90s were really good. Later on, when Microsoft made an executive decision to be more shitty, it dropped all its interesting games and stuck with solitaire, hearts and multiplayer network board games that are widely available on sites like Yahoo Games for free. But back in the Windows 3.1/95 era, the Best of Windows Entertainment Pack (stored in the BOWEP folder, so that’s what we’ll call it) was the most fun way to waste time better used writing your report or sending “electronic mail.” Even better, all the games were free and came pre-installed on your system. As a young boy at the time, before the Internet was a thing most people had or even knew about, I had the added bonus of being fascinated by the novelty of these games.

We’ve already covered one game from BOWEP. SkiFree was great in its simplicity and made for the perfect timewaster. But there was another great game in the folder, one that could easily take hours of your life instead of mere minutes. That game was Chip’s Challenge.

Notice how this game is completely amazing in every way possible.

Notice how this game is completely amazing in every way possible.

Chip’s Challenge tells the story of Chip, a nerd, who is invited into some kind of secret club by Melinda, a girl. To join, however, Chip has to run through a hundreds of levels long obstacle course of death filled with crushing blocks, monsters, bees and fire. Just why the hell Chip wants to get into this club so badly that he is willing to risk his life is a mystery, but this box art suggests that the motivation is love at first sight:

theireyesmet

I didn’t pick up on this because I never had the box. The only reason I ever played this game was that it came with my family’s 386. Lucky thing, though, because Chip’s Challenge was, and still is, a lot of fun. It’s just a really long puzzle game. The goal in each level is to collect all the chips and get Chip to the exit. Fire will kill Chip unless he’s wearing the right boots, and other obstacles will kill him no matter what. But it doesn’t matter, because Chip always comes back to life. Yes, he is going to get into this god damn club even if he has to die one million times.

cc1

One nice feature of Chip’s Challenge is its password system. Each level has a password that you can use to get right to that level, so quitting the game is never an issue. Good thing, because some of these levels are pretty hard to get the solution to. Of course, once we got Internet connections around 1994/5 and found lists of the passwords online, we went straight to the last level, because the game didn’t care and neither did we.

Still, the fun in playing Chip’s Challenge is actually playing it. BOWEP is near impossible to run on a Windows 8 or 7 machine, but a copy that works on DOSBox may be found here. If you’ve got a few hours to waste, try it out.

Retrospective: The 7th Guest

Have you ever replayed a game that you remember loving as a kid but that, in retrospect, wasn’t really that good?

For me, that game was The 7th Guest. To be fair, it isn’t a bad game at all. In fact, it’s pretty fun at points and has a creepy and sometimes goofy atmosphere that somehow works. It was also on the cutting edge in terms of graphics when it was released in 1993. Unlike its more mellow puzzle-adventure game cousin Myst, however, The 7th Guest hasn’t aged well at all.

2spooky

2spooky

The story of The 7th Guest is confusing at best. From what I could tell, a crazy murderer named Henry Stauf had a dream of a doll and then made that doll and sold it and eventually became an extremely successful dollmaker. Then he expanded into sliding block puzzle games. Then he went even more crazy and shut himself in a creepy horror movie mansion he also dreamed about (and then designed and built, I guess?) Finally, he invited six seemingly random guests to a dinner party at said creepy mansion full of his dolls and sliding block puzzles, promising them stuff that each wanted desperately if they attended. All of this is explained in the opening cutscene, but it still doesn’t make much sense.

Speaking of cutscenes, boy are there some fucking cutscenes. They’re really grainy and badly recorded and their sound is nearly impossible to make out. Then again, this was 1993, and FMV games were still pretty new, so maybe The 7th Guest can be given a break. The contents of the cutscenes, though, aren’t excusable, because they often make even less sense than the opening video and feature extremely bad acting. But hey, I couldn’t do any better myself, and I can’t imagine Trilobyte had a huge budget for acting talent, so whatever.

Stauf's guests, minus one.

Stauf’s guests, minus one.

So, the story. It’s kind of a mess. It’s not really clear why Stauf is doing what he’s doing, except that he’s crazy and possibly sold his soul to the Devil (Stauf = Faust?) His six guests are all assholes in their own special ways, which makes them pretty much unsympathetic victims to Stauf’s death trap of a house. I won’t spoil anything except to say that it’s weird as hell this game was given to me, because as stated above I played this when I was seven and there are some sexual references in it. Really weird, goofy references that are played for laughs more than anything else, but still. There are also loads of skulls and spiders, and Stauf’s voice makes fun of you sometimes if you can’t figure out his puzzles. By the way, Stauf isn’t anywhere to be seen in person at his own party. Not a very good party host, is he.

Stauf as the subject of one of his own puzzles.  Yeah, this guy seems pretty stable.

Stauf as the subject of one of his own puzzles. Yeah, this guy seems pretty stable.

And yeah, there are puzzles in this game. In fact, The 7th Guest can be fairly described as a puzzle game, because they’re about 98 percent of the whole experience: certain puzzles must be solved before some doors in the mansion can be unlocked and the story can progress. Some of the puzzles were pretty difficult to complete when I was a kid, but most of them are really just straightforward trial-and-error deals that aren’t too hard to work out. And of course, most of the puzzles have some kind of creepy skull/blood/spider theme to them. Oh Stauf, you wacky guy.

A few of the puzzles were especially frustrating (for example the Reversi blood cell game you played against the computer. That one sucked.) Also, some of the results of the completed puzzles were, well, puzzling.

I won't spoil the answer to this canned goods word puzzle, but it's pretty stupid.

I won’t spoil the answer to this canned goods word puzzle, but it’s pretty stupid.

One problem with The 7th Guest is that Trilobyte, the developer, clearly didn’t have enough interesting puzzle ideas in its stock to fill a whole game. Some of the puzzles were fun and interesting to work out, some were all right and a few were kind of dumb. Puzzle themes are also sometimes repeated, which can be annoying.

1 of 3 chess puzzles in the game.  Stauf was running out of ideas for puzzles at this point.

1 of 3 chess puzzles in the game. Stauf was running out of ideas for puzzles at this point.

Despite its problems, The 7th Guest was a fresh experience in the early 90s. It also stood up well against its competition and sold a lot of copies, which makes sense when you consider the typical quality of FMV games (shit.) This success spurred Trilobyte on to make a sequel, The 11th Hour, which like most other people I’ve never played. I hear it’s pretty bad, though. It was also a commercial flop. The success of the original probably couldn’t have been repeated anyway. By 1995, people were getting a lot more used to playing good games on their PCs, and I imagine Trilobyte’s stuff looked pretty poor with all its pockmarks by comparison.

What with the resurgence of gaming nostalgia, however, The 7th Guest recently returned from the grave. It’s been on Steam for a few months. Getting The 7th Guest on Steam is probably the only way to play the game today without using a virtual machine program to run Windows 95 and buying a probably expensive as hell original copy of the game, so it’s the best way to play it by far. Just keep in mind that The 7th Guest is 20 years old when you’re playing it. I’d recommend waiting for a Steam sale – a few dollars is well worth the cost of experiencing an essential part of PC game history.