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Old 21-05-2018, 05:39 PM   #1
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Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: Hungary
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Cool Tracker's Trudging Through Tough Terrain

Here I go, rattling the skeletons in the Abandonia closet - inspired by twillight and yoga, who are still regular posters in this dustbowl of the web, I'd like to share with you some thoughts on the DOS games I have a go at. Crack open a cold one and lay back as tonight Tracker's Trudging Through Tough Terrain is on the silver screen: playing difficult games I'm not particularly good at (basically, any game).

This week's offering is It Came From The Desert by Cinemaware.

I got this baby during either a humble bundle or a GOG offering for Steam, and as usual, let it sit in my Ye Olde Box of Unclaimed Serial Keys until recently. The Cinemaware bundle contains all of their games for Amiga and PC, so it's a worthwile package, after all. Emulation is automatic and seamless, though, controls in the Amiga version are a bit weird. Following Commodore tradition, the game expects a Competition Pro joystick (or similar), and menu controls are available by pressing a direction + fire button. It took me hours to figure out that, for example, one particular setting was fire button + up OR down.

But I'm not here to tell you about the Amiga. I'm here to tell a story. I'm here to procastinate my studies and potentially ruin my life. I'm here to talk It Came From the Desert.

It's no wonder the company is CINEMAware: the game opens like a movie. In Amiga it's a narrated effort with digitised narration. In DOS, you get an EGA animation. You put on the shoes of an Indiana-esque machismo-mechanismo, a PhD-laureate fluent in geology and barfighting alike. The controls are piece of a cake. One wonders why there is no cheesy Android reboot of the flick: you only need four directions + space in DOS. Piece of cake.

In many respects this one is more like a Western reincarnation of the visual novel. Arguably, there are some smut or mild eroge tidbits for the male teenager of the late 80s, and apart from the top-down action in the vein of Commando, it's pretty much animated characters on static backgrounds, and text dialogue.

But that is all fine and dandy, my friends. We are here to celebrate the joys of a well-planned user interface. As if Apple Computer's Macintosh studies transcended into Cinemaware's designers, everything feels up-to-date and (more-or-less) logical. Select the option, press action. No LucasArts 9-verb menu, no Sierra text input. Pure menu-driven workflow.

There's no submenus for journals or missions. You're on your own. If you don't keep track of what people said, it's your loss: the game does not provide automatic transcripts. Which is part of the magic here really. The game has a life of its own (in 16-bit architecture computing limitations). Events are happening at multiple places, and taking one option makes you lose at least four others. There must have been some gigantic event graph on a wall when someone wrote the story. Usually at least two very important events are happening at the same time. Small things. Do I answer the door, or do I pick up the phone? Do I take out the girl next door, or do I work?

You can miss important clues this way, and gain new ones you never would have guessed on your own. Of course, playing more than once means you eventually explore and memorise what each choice does. This is part of the appeal in this game: what begins as a hectic torment of actions becomes a sandbox town of your own. When you start it's Monkey Island but by the third time it's Populous.

Missing clues can be fatal - not necessarily lethal, though. Time is one crucial stress element: akin to Grand Theft Auto, the clock ticks away at a compression of 1 minute a second. An hour is merely sixty seconds in this game. When you make a mistake, you inevitably lose time. The world is a dangerous place, especially this virtual corner. A small step in the wrong direction will put you in the hospital, where you are held for 24 hours, unless you can escape. The escape part is also a top-down effort, with stealth. It is very difficult, so get used to it, or get better.

As I'm tapping away on the cursor and space, the double-lives of townsfolk take shape. It's like your run-of-the-mill detective show. X-Files. Twin Peaks. Nothing is what it seems to be at first glance. There are a million ways to approach this, virtually speaking. You can focus on co-operating with local authorities, or go Rambo on their buttocks. There are merits to team players as there are to lone wolves, and you should learn to watch your back, if the life of Agent Mulder is a case study to go by.

Speaking of David Duchovny, you can, arguably, go X-Files, and get down to the very bottom of the truth. You could be Aquarius: burnout cop with nothing to lose, one man against all. You could go Californication even: hedonist carelessness, leaving it all behind.

This is the characteristic of this game: true flexibility. It lets you make mistakes. It lets you learn. No blinking arrows to show you the direction, no blinking objects to show what to pick up. No inventory. No "binary search": clicking 'use object on static item' in every mathematical combination. It's just choices. This is a perfect way to capture the essence of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, and for me, it elevates the game above story-driven RPGs too. No need for repetitive actions to progress the events like in Diablo. It's strategy, but not like Warcraft. You need not to be a deity-like conductor, a metal hand in the sky. You're part of the action. You feel the consequences on your own skin. You're immersed.

So what else is there to play if you liked this? Like I said above, it reminds me of visual novels, of which there are aplenty, for better or worse. I think VA-11 HALL-A is the most likely candidate for western audiences. It's retro, but in a good way. It's romantic and smut, but in a contained, safe-for-work way. It's intriguing, and it's engaging, but in a little underwhelming way. VA-11 HALL-A is the other end of the spectrum, I guess. You're nothing remotely comparable to a deity. If anything, you're not even in control of your story arc. But that's a story for another day.

For the grenade juggling, gun slinging aspects, I'd say it's Hotline Miami. Top-down action, in a claustrophobic, violent world. It's the other end of the spectrum, as you're not running around in cornfields, you're in small apartments. Variety is a delight, as the old adage says.

The time constraint of 1 minute in-game equalling 1 second in real life can be familiar from the Grand Theft Auto franchise. The story-line, the tone, the japes, and the character development is on par with Legend Entertainment's classics, like Eric the Unready or Spellcasting 101.

There are so many good resemblances it should suffice for a testament of quality. Other titles by Cinemaware are also worth to try: Wings is a story-driven combat simulator, and Defender of the Crown is the strategy-adventure of choice for anyone in the late 1980s. It's kind of like Sid Meier's Pirates! but set during the War of the Roses, not in the Caribbean.

This much is all I can leave you with without unnecessarily spoiling the fun. I genuinely believe suprises are part of the appeal of any artistic endeavour and try not to give away who the culprit is, if I can help it. Don the leather hat and holster the revolver, old sport: a small, spagetthi-western town needs a hero.

Reverend Preacherbot: Wretched sinner unit! The path to Robot Heaven lies here, in the Good Book 3.0.
Bender: Hey. Do I preach at you when you're lying stoned in the gutter? No!
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