We’re back for another Sundry Sunday! Congratulations for making it another week into our technological hellscape! Your reward is another catchy tune and some information from the old days of arcades.
Gradius is a long-lived and storied series of shooters, full of interesting details and traditions, but my favorite part of it all is something not a lot of English-speaking fans may be familiar with.
The first arcade releases of Konami’s Twinbee and Gradius were produced using “bubble memory,” a type of storage that had to warm up, literally, to be read reliably.
It would work effectively if it had been running for at least a couple of minutes. So, to prevent anyone from playing the game too soon after the machine had been turned on in the morning, it would display a countdown on the screen. It would also emit a digitized voice, saying “Getting ready!” and then after a few seconds, it would play the MORNING MUSIC, while the computer warmed up, as in the video embedded above. I kind of think of it as the national anthem of arcadeland.
One of the quirks of Gradius‘s bubble storage is that it was read sequentially, from a starting point. Its stage layouts were stored in this memory. Dealing with this hardware quirk required the game, when the player lost a life, to return back to the last starting point they had passed. This was the source of one of the Gradius series’s major characteristics, having to return to a previous part of the level, which could then be read into memory going forward once again.
I forget where I heard this factoid, but I think I saw it in the supplemental material in the Gradius Arcade Collection, out on Steam and Switch, and no doubt other platforms. Hey, it’s Sunday, I’m not supposed to be stressing out about these details!
via @doc on Twitter. PikumaLondon tweeted out a thread (unrolled) explaining, in general, how the original PlayStation rendered graphics, and the source of its distinctive graphic artifacts, specifically texture warping, pixelated textures, and jittery polygons. The Nintendo 64 didn’t have these problems, but also couldn’t draw as many polygons each frame.
In the past for limited times Nintendo has authorized the setting up of Kirby Cafes, charming little representations of the affable pink blob’s world and its inhabitants. Two of them are currently open, in Tokyo and Hakata, Japan. These have really gone the extra mile to create an atmosphere of Kirbiness, from their menus to having large plush Waddle Dees to set into a chair opposite yours if you should come to one alone.
The embedded video is over an hour and a half of background music from these cafes. It appears to be a rip of a pair of official CDs. SiliconEra reports on some current dishes being served there as tie-ins to the new 3D Kirby game for Switch, Kirby and the Forgotten Land. The cafes have an official website and Twitter feed.
One of the humorous bits about Facebook’s (I refuse to call them Meta) Metaverse thing is that it’s dragging out all the dumb old corporate internet tie-ins, just like it did when the web became big, and again when they tried to make a go of Second Life. So the wheel turns again, as Ryan Gilliam tells us on Polygon, with “The Metaverse’s first Coke product,” Byte, which is reputed to be “pixel-flavored.” The only thing it’s missing is an NFT. All the news sites are talking about it, because all the news sites have space to fill and read press releases, drebnar. It comes with a QR code with “an AR game unlock.” The kids still care about those things, right?
Say what you will about Commodore BASIC 2.0, the built-in programming language and makeshift shell for the Commodore 64, written by Microsoft employees and descending from code written by Bill Gates himself, it’s certainly, um, basic. Nearly everything that takes advantage of that machine’s graphics or sound features involves POKEing values into memory at various locations, requiring a programmer to memorize a long list of important numbers.
Because it doesn’t interface with the system’s unique features to any great extent, it’s a very generic version of BASIC. But this means it can be ported to other systems without tremendous effort. Fancy-pants commands don’t have to be converted to another architecture’s norms, because there aren’t any! And lots of systems used the instruction set and general capabilities of the MOS 6502, upon which the Commodore 64 is based, so now we have versions of its BASIC that work on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Atari 800. They’re both based off of Project 64, an annotated disassembly of the C64’s BASIC and Kernal ROM code.
The NES port should be able to run on actual hardware, but you’ll need the Family Keyboard that was made to work with the Famicom’s own official BASIC to use it, which was only released in Japan.
By the way, the reason that I write BASIC in all-caps is, it’s an acronym! It stands for Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.
Owner of Game Wisdom with more than a decade of experience writing and talking about game design and the industry. I’m also the author of the “Game Design Deep Dive” series and “20 Essential Games to Study”
I’m an outspoken fan of interesting identification systems in roguelikes. You’re free to disagree with me, but I find that they add a layer of strategy to the use of items. In many games, when you randomly find a good item, it makes sense to immediately press it into service. Often there is no skill in its use; you use, wear or wield it, and from then on its powers are at your disposal. At its furtherest extreme it’s like the random number generator is playing you. There should be some decision-making involved to properly utilize the item once it’s found. Maybe items have limited durability that has to be managed? Maybe items change over time, so you must know when best to use them? Or, as with Rogue and Hack, maybe you don’t know what many items are at first, and must figure that out through some risky and costly manner.
Alphaman uses an identification system, but it works differently from Rogue’s. While there are items that can identify other items, for the most part you don’t identify things like that. There are two major classes of unknown items in Alphaman: berries and devices.
Berries are somewhat like Rogue’s potions. They’re one-use items that are generally consumed to activate. Alphaman has 35 kinds of randomized berries to discover on each play. While the game gives you insight into a few berries at the start of the game, most berries must be discovered by testing them. Like Rogue’s potions, there are good and bad berries, and like in Rogue, once you know the function of one variety of berry, you know it for all other berries of that type. Good-type berries might heal you, restore your fatigue, permanently increase your defense, or help you figure out how to use gadgets. Bad ones could poison you, cause you to grow useless extra limbs or blind you. And then there are the interesting cases, the berries that could be either bad or good, depending on its color. Most berry effects are temporary, although some, like the berry of blindness, last a significant number of turns.
An important thing to keep in mind about berries: known berries are marked with an asterisk, but their descriptions don’t change in-game. You must check your known items list to find out what a berry does. Flipping between the inventory and the discovered items list does get annoying after a while.
Alphaman’s innovation with berries is giving each a ripeness level. All berries have a color that tells you how ripe it is. The colors go through the spectrum, from red (least ripe) to purple (most ripe). Ripeness is kind of like the curse/bless system of NetHack, but all berries naturally become riper over time. More ripe berries are more powerful than less ripe ones.
You will probably have to consume some berries to identify them. If it’s a bad berry, you want to identify it by eating it unripe. If it’s a good berry, you want it to be ripe to maximize its effects. But some berries give bad effects when unripe and good effects when ripe. That’s especially the case for stat and experience effecting berries, which are very helpful when eaten when ripe. A few berries are also better off thrown at enemies than eaten yourself. Decisions, decisions.
Gadgets are also divided into two classes, small and large. There are 97 types of small device and 38 of large. Fortunately you don’t have to use-identify them! There is a command, F, to figure out how to use a device. You aren’t guaranteed to be successful, and if you fail your chance very badly you could break the device, or, if it’s a grenade-type item, cause it to go off in your hands.
Many kinds of gadgets are humorous, and some are useless, but a few apparently-extraneous ones have a secret function that can be discovered if you experiment with them. Like, a microwave oven can ripen berries, and toilet paper can be used as a weapon against dung beetles. Try using items, with the U key, to see what they do. A handful of items can also be “Unused,” with Shift-U: this is usually used to un-equip wearables, but that’s also how you get things out of a Backpack item.
Mutations and Fatigue
Two unique characteristics of Alphaman are the way it handles mutations, and its fatigue system.
Mutations are in other roguelike games, of course. They’re important elements of both ADOM and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. Alphaman uses them as an extra couple of perks your character receives upon creation. Unlike many other games, starting an Alphaman character is very quick: you get basic stats in a number of D&D-like categories, and are randomly assigned one Physical and one Mental mutation. You don’t gain more mutations as a character progresses. The ones they begin with are the only mutations they’ll have through the whole game.
Mutations are used the same way as items, with the U key, for “Use.” Most of them have a short delay before you can use them again. All of these mutations are beneficial, but you don’t get any say in what you get, other than by start-scumming, quitting and restarting many times until you get your favorites. Some mutations immediately increase one of those middling starting stats up to epic levels. Most mutations are very helpful if you know how to use them correctly, but figuring out the best way to use them might take a few games. I especially found the Quills mutation, which gives you an innate missile weapon you can use in a pinch and directly damages monsters who attack you in melee.
Fatigue is a very interesting addition to the roguelike formula, in my opinion. Every action you undertake carries with it a cost in energy, which comes out of your fatigue level. Fatigue is shown on screen by a status that runs from Well Rested down through Pooped, and eventually Exhausted. Your actions become less effective as your fatigue rises. If this sounds burdensome, it needn’t be. It doesn’t take very much to restore your fatigue level. All you generally need to do is rest a few turns, with the period key, to get your level back up from Pooped to Well Rested.
What fatigue does is impose a limit on doing many things in close succession. Fighting large numbers of enemies at once, even if they’re attacked one at a time, will tire you out a lot. If you’ve being chased by monsters and are a little faster than them, you can probably store enough of your stamina by running until you’re one space away, then resting a turn while they catch up. Carrying a lot of things, measured by your on-screen Encumbrance level, or having a low Constitution stat causes you to become fatigued more easily. But so long as you think to rest a few turns after fights you should be okay.
This section is spoilers, but they are the kind that, at this late date, I think will help a player decide whether they want to play this unusual and interesting game more than actually give anything away. Still, if you want to go in completely fresh, you’ll want to skip this section. (I gave a few very minor things away above, but that’s pretty light.)
To win at Alphaman generally requires:
Finding Elvis’s Hideout, and getting the Blue Suede Shoes from the real Elvis (who is friendly, but won’t give you the shoes until all the Impersonators are defeated). BTW, all of these places are considered “castles” by the game.
Finding the Munster’s castle, 1313 Mockingbird Lane, which contains a map to reveal the location of the Grinch’s stronghold. The stronghold can be found without the map, though you’ll have to search around for it.
Finding the Castle of Those Who Came In Second to find Buzz Aldrin’s Space Suit, which confers radiation resistance. The Grinch’s place is always in the middle of a radiation zone, which will rapidly sap your health while you’re within it. It is possible to acquire radiation resistance by other means, so this may be optional.
Finding Trump’s Casino for the ID card to get into the Grinch’s castle. You’ll easily know the casino—most of the monsters and items found inside it are “Trump” monsters and items, as in, Trump Ghouls, and the Trump Cheese Grater.
Finding the Castaway’s Fortress to obtain the Keptibora Serum from Gilligan, which provides 24 hours of resistance to the Grinch’s nerve toxin. The Castaway’s Fortress is always surrounded by water, so a means of travel to it must be sought.
In the roguelike way, each of these steps contains many unexpected perils, and it may take you multiple attempts at each, falling victim to each major obstacle at least once, before you discover the way through. If you have the time, energy, and patience to put up with that, then Alphaman will supply you with many hours enjoyment. The pleasure of this may begin to diminish for you as you die more and more often, however.
You first games are likely to be short, so not much lost, but the further you get, the more you lose when an unexpected danger kills your hapless character. (“It’s a rosebush, how hard could it be?”) One thing that might help you, that’s not a tremendous spoiler, is that the various castles you have to explore can mostly be done in any order.
At the very end of the game you’ll face the Grinch, and he has one last nasty surprise for you. I am torn, a bit, about whether to spoil this, but it is in a chapter of spoilers, and it may save you a loss at the very end of your journey. So I will reveal this: Your final task is not to kill the Grinch. Think about who he is, what he came from, look around his castle for significant items, and thing how you might be able to find a way to appeal to his better nature. That’s all.
1995 was towards the latter days of the age of shareware. It’s easy to forget, but there were different types of shareware. There was the first-hit’s-free type, the kind that gave out the first episode but where the publishers released the others by mail order or or commercially. That was the model that Wolfenstein 3D and Doom used, and was probably the most successful. Then there’s the kind that lets you play up to a certain point, but to go beyond that you had to pay for a registration code, that unlocked the rest of the game. This often got assigned the moniker of “trialware.” Then there’s what we might call “true” shareware, where the game, in full, was distributed, and while it might nag you to register it, there was no need to to keep playing. If players enjoyed it, they were on the honor system to send in their payment. One of these true shareware games was Alphaman.
Alphaman’s creator Jeffrey Olson tells me he only ever received about 30 paid registrations for his game. At $15 each, that comes up to $450, which given the number of hours he put into it doesn’t seem like proper recompense. Perhaps it’s because of the prevalence of free, sometimes even open source roguelikes like NetHack and Angband, which were already on releases that current-day players would see as reasonably complete. Jeffrey doesn’t harbor any hard feelings, he says, he was just happy to meet people who enjoyed his game.
In the years since its release, Jeffrey has been doing quite a lot with his life! He graduated with a doctorate in Physics from Cornell University. He made hardware that will travel to the planet Jupiter on the Europa Clipper:
“[…]cooling a JPL infrared spectrometer to detect what chemicals are present on Jupiter’s icy moons, and to the asteroid Psyche, cooling a gamma ray spectrometer that will detect what elements are present in the metallic asteroid. I wish I had put a gamma ray spectrometer in Alphaman.“
Jeffrey also also been married for 30 years, plays soccer every week, plays the trombone, and makes his own beer to share with friends. A high-school friend of his, Peter Jessop, helped test the game, and has done voice work for a wide range of big-name video games, among them Destiny 2 and Red Dead Redemption! It’s always nice when one of our team does good.
I asked Jeffrey if he had anything to say to people who have played and enjoyed Alphaman over the years, and who might play it in the future. He said, “Thanks for taking the time to play Alphaman. I hoped you enjoyed playing as much as I enjoyed creating it, and sorry about all the jokes from the 1990s that aged so poorly. I’ll always be embarrassed by references to Dan Quayle, Mary Decker, and the Kevorkian Machine….”
Thanks for your efforts, then and now, Jeffery. We’ll meet again in the Adventurer’s Lounge someday, after the last quest is done.
Steam is having a sale for a few days on roguelike and roguelite games, as well as “Souls-like” and “metroidvanias.” They published a page defining each of the terms, which I don’t entirely agree with, and by featuring all of them in a sale called Going Rogue they seem to be purposely conflating these terms, which annoys me a little, although there are plenty more concerning things going on in the world right now. (Especially metroidvania, which really has almost nothing to do with roguelikes.)
I give some better definitions down below, but in the meantime let’s have a look at some interesting items in their sale:
Rogue Legacy 2 (20% off at $19.99): The first Rogue Legacy was a surprisingly long time ago! It was an important exploratory action-adventure game with randomly generated areas. Player death was an intended part of the game: after a character dies, for the next game the player picks one of that character’s offspring, which has different, randomly-generated characteristics. They could also use money found on the last run to upgrade a town, to provide new characters services before they entered the dungeon. Rogue Legacy 2 looks like it continues the tradition.
Slay the Spire (60% off at $9.99): If you’re tired of buzzwords then you might be wary of a game that says it’s both a roguelike and a deck builder, but I think they’re two concepts that fit together pretty solidly-which recent years have proved well enough. This may have been the first of the type. It came out in January 2019 but is still rated Overwhelmingly Positive on Steam, and that’s worth something.
Peglin (10% off at $17.99): It’s one of the newest games in the sale, a combination of roguelite play and Peggle-like pachinko. In the future, all games will be defined by their likes, so we might as well get started now I suppose. The essence of roguelike games, I believe is in adapting to uncertainty, and a mode of pachinko certainly fits that bill.
Roguelikes got their name during the formation of the Usenet group rec.games.roguelike, for being like the classic terminal-based RPG Rogue. At that time it was obvious what the term meant: turn-based tactical combat roleplaying games with random dungeons and randomized items, usually with ASCII graphics by necessity since they were played in a terminal. In the time since then the importance of ASCII graphics has diminished a lot, but the other aspects are pretty good identifying characteristics. Since roguelikes of this form are still popular in some circles, it feels right to let them have it. Although I should note that one of the people who made Rogue has said that they consider a “roguelike” to be a game that can surprise its creator. (I could well be misremembering this, granted.) Since the Steam page mentions it, I figure I should at least link to the Berlin Interpretation’s definition of what it means to be a roguelike.
Roguelites may have gotten their name from me, back in the days @Play was on GameSetWatch. It’s been like 15 years, I don’t remember that well. I used the term to describe games like Spelunky and Binding of Isaac, which wrapped action gameplay around a roguelike core. Another good term for these is action roguelike. The page on Steam states that the ability to bring elements across games is a factor that could make something roguelite, but there are roguelike games with that aspect: NetHack‘s bones levels, for instance, and Shiren the Wanderer‘s between-play progressions.
Souls-like games take after Dark Souls, which has some superficial gameplay similarities with roguelikes (especially the difficulty and emphasis on playing smart) but really shouldn’t be lumped in with them carelessly.
Metroidvanias are exploratory platformers set in a large world. There’s usually some kind of item-based movement advancement that gates access to later areas. The term was probably coined by Jeremy Parish. They get their names from the 2D Metroid games and the exploratory versions of the 2D Castlevania games-which don’t include the original Castlevania, despite what Valve’s page says.
Revita is another action roguelike to come out of early access recently. And while it does feel like a greatest hits collection of action roguelike mechanics, the game’s principal twist does separate it from the pack but does so in a polarizing way.
The story of the game follows a young boy who keeps waking up in a mysterious tower that he is forced to climb. Standing in his way are various monsters and creatures that represent the stages of grief, hinting at some earth-shattering secrets going on. The basic gameplay involves running, jumping, shooting, and dodging enemy attacks on procedurally generated floors. While the game features set room layouts, what enemies can spawn is entirely random per area/biome.
As with any action roguelike, you’re going to find a number of items that can change how your character behaves and do damage. The first twist of the game is that your health is also your currency. Shops, shrines, treasure chests, and other things will require you to sacrifice your health. As you kill enemies, you’ll accumulate souls that can be transformed into more health or give you more of a health pool.
The sheer number of unlockables is extensive, and I haven’t seen a pool like this since The Binding of Isaac. The different varieties of items can lead to crazy runs, but your skill is still going to be the main factor. As you play through the game, progressive difficulty unlocks will increase the difficulty of runs and add in new modifiers to deal with. Where the game goes with this is somewhat original for the action roguelike genre.
A Difficult Story
For most games, the progressive difficulty is simply there for expert players who are done with the story and just want to keep pushing up the challenge. With Revita, the difficulty is part of the story. Once you get to difficulty level 5, the game will challenge you to perform a specific task to move the story along and unlock even more difficulties and levels to play. This is like The Binding of Isaac which had its share of secrets and additional content. However, you cannot even get anything that would be considered a real ending without raising up the difficulty.the progressive difficulty provides a lot of replay value for people who want the challenge
For those that do manage this task, they will find even more difficulty levels, secrets, and harder challenges to go after. At the time of writing this review, the developer has changed the conditionals for the first set of challenges, which is good due to their difficulty and RNG messing with it. However, if you find that unlock to be difficult, the game has far more in store, and while this does leave the game with plenty under the surface to find, I don’t know how many people are going to be motivated this way.
Pushing Through the Pain
Revita reminds me a little bit of Spelunky 2 and how there is more going on for expert players than there is for casual/core ones. While it does feel nice to know that there is a lot more to this game for someone like me, I do question if there’s enough to motivate someone to make the trek up the difficulty ladder.
The problem is that unlocking the many secrets to Revita is not just about getting good at the game, but also figuring out the conditions for its secrets and being able to execute it with randomly chosen items showing up each run. The base game, or level 0 of difficulty, is on the easy side compared to other games in the genre. If someone plays, beats the game and thinks that is it, they’re going to leave disappointed.
Even with the number of difficulty settings that you can unlock, and there are plenty, the base path through doesn’t feel like there is enough variance in the same ways as Hades or The Binding of Isaac. As with Hades, your starting weapon dictates a lot about how you’re going to be playing over the run. However, where Hades has the different god buffs, or The Binding of Isaac has items that radically change your build, Revita doesn’t have that many that would be considered that run-affecting. In total, there are five main biomes, and two variants of two of them that you will do per run. I’ve found that I was relying on the same basic strategies each run and that they were working.
From an expert standpoint, trying to get through challenges hitless can be frustrating as screen shaking, the camera zooms, and the bullet physics themselves can make it hard to gauge dodging. The bullet physics in the game varies from linear directions to those that have their own simulated physics to them. There were times due to the rng of how bullets behaved that there didn’t seem to be a safe way to dodge them.
One of the more annoying aspects of Revita’s progressive difficulty is that several levels introduce elements that increase the duration of the runs. By the time I was hitting level 10+, a single run would take about an hour, with the combination of the lack of variance, started to wear thin for me. I think I would have preferred fewer difficulty settings but make their differences more pronounced. Some, like increased bullet spawn and enemy speed were a big deal, but it took until shard 14 before I started to see more interesting ones that affected things.
Continuing the Cycle
Revita has a lot of charm to it, and the game makes use of a variety of action roguelike mechanics and systems. If you’re hoping for an example that radically changes the formula in the same way as Hades did, then this game doesn’t go that far. If you’re a veteran of the genre looking for another challenge to dive, or climb, into, then this is a solid entry for the year.
This was played with a press key provided by the developer.
Owner of Game Wisdom with more than a decade of experience writing and talking about game design and the industry. I’m also the author of the “Game Design Deep Dive” series and “20 Essential Games to Study”
One entire internet has been posting about Ocarina of Time remade in Unreal Engine with a 60fps frame rate. I am told that I should at least acknowledge this. I do so with Marc Deschamps’s mention on comicbook.com. It mentions the fact that Sora from Kingdom Hearts is playable.
The wonderful podcast Keep Nintendo Weird (Podchaser – YouTube), which spotlights a lot of awesome and unusual games made for Nintendo systems, recently covered a doozy: Space Station Silicon Valley! One of a pair of games made for the Nintendo 64 by DMA Design before they became known as Rockstar North, SSSV is a clever and charming action puzzle game where you’re a microchip that can take control of robot animals in a rogue space station.
It’s notable for its trademark humor, its inventive gameplay, and a weird bug that, as I discovered personally soon after its release, actually makes it impossible to finish! While the main story can be completed, one of the optional trophies hidden in the levels won’t collect when you come into contact with it, and it was a couple of generations before software patches could be distributed after a game went live, so there is just no way to 100% the game without hacking either it or your save file somehow. Oops!