It’s Sunday! You’ve crossed the finish line (which is not a Finnish line) of another week. You deserve a short and funny video something for your dogged persistence against entropy.
In making these posts, I’m aided by there being a nearly 20-year history of weird and fun video game related things on the internet. According to the excellent Homestar Runner Wiki, Strong Bad Email 94 originally went up on January 12, 2004, over 18 years ago. It immediately became iconic and soaked its way into the soul of the web. If you ever see someone on the internet say hat their HEAD A SPLODE, this is where that came from.
They even made playable versions of the games in the animation, although they don’t work without Flash (Ruffle may work, but its compatibility isn’t 100% yet): Rhino Feeder, Secret Collect, Strongbadzone, and the Thy Dungeonman trilogy, one, two and three.
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”
We mostly try to stick with games here, but just about everyone in the Windows ecosystem uses ZIP archive files. They’ve long become a de facto standard, with tools for working with them in Windows supplied by Microsoft as early as the Windows 95 Powertoys Plus! Pack. Nowadays, support for them is built right into Windows Explorer, and you can even open them like folders, which felt like some kind of magic when that feature debuted.
The ZIP format was once one of several competing compression and archiving formats, with others being LHA/LZH, ARC, ARJ, CAB, and of course on the Unix/Linux side of things Tar, Gzip and GZ. Other than the Unix types, those others are mostly dead now. There are some relative newcomers, RAR and 7Z, but most people just stick with ZIP without even caring to know of the format’s origins.
ZIP was the format produced by the shareware PKZip compression tools, named for its co-creator Phil Katz. Katz created it in response to a lawsuit from the company behind the (now obscure) SEA format. Rather than fight it, he and Gary Conway designed their own format and made tools to work with it. Then as now, the world loves an underdog, and many people flocked to the format. In 1989 they released the format to the public domain.
Phil Katz’s later life was ruined by alcoholism, which the above video from the Dave’s Garage YouTube channel is about. A sad end to someone who popularized a piece of technology that still sees use millions of times a day.
ZIP is so ubiquitous now that lots of people use it without even realizing. DOCX, ODF, EPUB, and JAR are all secret ZIP files under the hood.
Katz’s company PKWare remains to this day, although they’re now focused on data security, and as you can see from their website they now look exactly like the kind of faceless monolith that all tech companies eventually mutate into. They still steward the format, and in that tonedeaf way of corporations, now hold a forbidding number of patents, and claim, “The free license grant offered in prior APPNOTE publications has been discontinued.” Presumably people just use the last public domain version, since once something is in the public domain, it’s there forever, thank frog.
(EDIT: xot on Twitter mentions that Windows ZIP support first appeared in the Win95 Plus! Pack, correction made above.)
“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter
Rich Stanton at PC Gamer reveals how a hacker has not only circumvented John Deere’s controls that prevent farmers from repairing equipment they ostensibly own, but have gotten Doom to run on them. It’s also a good rundown on John Deere’s exclusionary practices and the attempts they’ve made at defending them.
The Verge has a longer article by Derek Hill about Zelda fan project The Ship of Harkinian, which while based off of Ocarina of Time was constructed off of a clean-room, open-source reimplementation, and isn’t distributed in a form that can be run, but must be compiled using resources from a supplied rom file for the game.
At The Escapist, making the best of its second life after recovering from its old Gamergate phase, Jesse Lab laments that “I Wish We Had More JRPGs Like Live-A-Live Than Xenoblade Chronicles 3.” I can appreciate that opinion, as a one-celled lifeform with a rudimentary brain I have difficulty with weird invented combat mechanics, and every time I’ve tried to make sense of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s weird systems my functional limitations become apparent.
It has now been forty years since the release of the game of E.T: The Extra Terrestrial on the Atari VCS/2600, so it must be time to rehash once again whether it killed the nascent video game industry or not. This time it’s a video post at IGN without an obvious credit, which takes the provocative (but accurate!) take that while E.T. is flawed due to being pushed out the door by Atari before Howard Scott Warshaw had sufficient time to polish it, it has many good qualities and shows real vision. My take: Atari games were glutting the market, but it seems unlikely that they could have also killed American arcades, which were also being glutted with machines released by fly-by-night companies, and probably in the end it was capitalism that killed the beast.
Do you remember NFL Blitz? Hell yeah! Midway’s smashmouth take on football akin to what they did for NBA Jam! It was awesome, it… wait… isn’t pro football undergoing some kind of reckoning about how many of its players die young due to damage received during their careers? Polygon’s Owen S. Good reports both that 1up is working on an NFL Blitz revival cabinet, and also that in recognition of football’s changing attitudes it’s modifying the original game in some ways to reduce the violence, such as by disabling the “late hits” that was part of the original releases.
At Rock Paper Shotgun, Alice O’Connor brings forth news of Backpack Hero, a game we’ve been aware of for a while, which sort of combines roguelite randomized situations with spatial inventory shuffling. It also uses the term “roguelikelike,” which we appreciate.
Let’s start by getting you up to speed. It’s one of the most well-known video games in the whole world at this point, but people who’ve lived under rocks might not know about Tetris, the block falling puzzle game created in Russia and popularized first by Spectrum Holobyte, then by Nintendo. Favorite game of both diehard Japanese arcade players and Steve Wozniak.
While the increasing speed and rising pile are what directly end games, a lot of the difficulty of Tetris comes from the pieces that are generated by the software. Famously, it’s known that completely random Tetris is doomed to failure, that it’s been mathematically proven that there exist sequences of blocks that are unsolvable, but aside from that nearly all sequences are survivable.
One thing that can help a player survive is the sequence of the blocks that are generated by the game, which is really getting into the weeds. A consistently varied collection of pieces helps out a lot. Early versions of Tetris just picked any block, and sequences of the same piece could easily happen. Recent years have seen an effort by the official stewards of the game, The Tetris Company, to standardize it, and one of their edicts is to use a “bag” system, where the game tries to ensure that all pieces will appear over a short period of time, to try to keep the game fair while still acceptably random-seeming.
At the other end of the field, Hatetris is a fan-made form of Tetris that seeks to increase difficulty by picking the least-survivable block, the one least able to fit in with the rest of the bit. (It’s not the only such version, another is Bastet.) Casual players usually find it impossible more than one or two lines.
Yet recently there has been surprising progress in surviving this worst-universe version Tetris. Getting the World Record in HATETRIS explains the work done to maximize scores in this version; the current record is 86 lines. Helping their work is that the Hatetris isn’t random at all, but actually completely deterministic. The piece that must stack the bin the highest is always chosen, so it can be predicted and, to some extent, accounted for.
And with an ocean of computing power out there now, sloshing about over everything, it was probably only a matter of time that someone would look into optimizing adverse Tetris. What, I ask you with growing concern, is next?
Friend of the blog Matthew Green had a bout of ill health recently, but seems to have weathered the biological storm, and is back and ready to roll once more. So it seems a good opportunity to plug his gaming blog Press The Buttons, and his podcast Power Button.
Press The Button has been around so long that it was a thing while @Play’s former home GameSetWatch was still updating, and even got linked from there once or twice. And Reset Button just uploaded their 345th episode! Were here are hoping they keep the lights on there for a long while yet.
‘@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing column which discusses the history, present, and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.
Last time we re-introduced Angband. This time, we go more into what it’s like to play its current versions. Our aim here is, as with one of the the Omega articles, to get you to a point where you can play enough of the game to tell if you’ll enjoy it more long-term. Angband is nowhere near as obscure as Omega is, but despite its influence on gaming, it’s still well off the radar of most players. My hope is that this article will serve as an introductory blip at the edge of the screen.
When you begin a game of modern Angband on Windows, you might be slighty overwhelmed. The screen fills up with terminals! This “multi-headed” approach seeks to keep more useful game information available at once. There are keystrokes that make that other information available on the main screen, so at first everything but the main game window can be ignored. As you get into the dungeon, you’ll find the other windows more useful.
If you’ve come back to Angband after a long absence, you might be dismayed by this appearance. All of these windows can be individually closed by clicking the close-window button in the corner. If you want them back, go under the Window menu and select Reset Layout.
All of the windows are fully configurable; to decide what each does, you can go under Term Options in the Window menu, but this stuff is for players who want to customize everything.
If you were used to, or prefer, the old ASCII display, it can be activated by going under Options | Graphics | None. There are other tile options there, and you can also choose tile scaling under “Tile Multiplier,” although explaining too much about that is getting into the weeds.
Changing the graphics settings will cause the game to try to set them back up as you had them on later plays, which you might not appreciate if you were trying to get the game back to how it was before you played around with the settings! If you really want to return to the old system, then close all the other windows and set the graphics to None, and then close the other windows. To get it back use the Reset Layout option, although you should know that you must actually be in a game to do it, it won’t work from the title screen.
Piecing By Parts Your Pretend Person
Starting a new game in Angband puts you into character creation. You can spend a lot of time picking a race and class, spending points or rerolling stats, all in order to have all that effort wiped away by a drunk mercenary in town before you even enter the dungeon. My advice is, just pick something fun and get started, because your first game will probably end pretty quickly. Classes that the developers judge doesn’t play well with your chosen race will be printed in a darker color, so just try to steer away from those. When the game asks if you want to do stats with point buy or with a roller, I suggest you go with point buy and stick with the defaults. Customizing these things is more for players who already know the game well and know the consequences of high (and low) stats.
There are two major “types” of character in Angband: those who fight in melee and with missiles, and those who cast spells. All characters but Warriors can do at least a bit of both. Magic users can do some hand-to-hand fighting when needed, but conversely Warriors won’t be able to use magic at all.
If you’re used to Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, It should be said that, unlike as in that game, your class determines some essential and unchangeable aspects of your character. These are listed for you when you press, by default, Shift-S. Each character that can use magic only avail themselves of one type. In previous versions that was either Arcane Magic, which you might think of as magic magic, and Divine Magic, or what the game calls “Prayers.” Each was the domain of either wizards and allied classes, or priests and their relatives. Recent versions have also added Nature Magic, for Druids, and Necromancy, for Necromancers. In the game, this means you can buy and find spellbooks that your character cannot use.
When you actually begin playing, you’ll be dumped into a Town that, for some reason, has sprung up above this deadly deadly dungeon. You might not expect this on your first game, but the Town Level has is own dangers: at Level 1, you can be easily killed by its more disorderly residents, and in fact you will probably find the first level of the dungeon to be safer. The monsters in Town disappear when you go downstairs, so you could lose all your assailants at once by just dipping downstairs then back up again.
You start out with some gold for buying basic supplies. If you’re playing modern Angband, by default the game will start you out with okay equipment with which you can jump right into the first level of the dungeon.
Following this paragraph is a chart of the most-used keys. You can use the ? key, then ‘a’, to get a list of all the keypresses. Angband is extremely adjustable and all of these keys can be changed, and in fact there is a “roguelike” keyset that uses more traditional keys. You can switch to the roguelike set by going into game options (by pressing the equal key, ‘=’), pressing ‘a’ to go into User Interface options, then ‘a’ again. There are a ton of things you can change in these menus, including defining all the other keys. This chart assumes that they are unmodified:
Stabby-Stabby vs. Whoosy-Sparkly
When getting started, it’s useful to keep in mind the difference between fighting and magic-using characters. There are nine classes in modern Angband. The first on the list, Warrior, is the only class with no magic at all, other than the magic devices and artifacts they may find. The next four in the list are the “pure” spellcasters, and the last four are the hybrid classes, with fighting and magic.
To attack with a melee weapon, well, this is a classic-style roguelike. Just make sure it’s equipped using the ‘w’ key, which stands both for (W)ear and (W)ield, then walk into a monster you want to attack. To use missile weapons it’s a little more complicated. Equip the right kind of launcher (a bow if you have arrows, a crossbow if you have bolts) then use the ‘f’ key, for Fire, to launch it. You can rapidly switch between weapons you’re carrying with the x key. In previous versions you would have both a primary and a secondary weapon and ‘x’ would switch between them, and you might still end up playing a variant that does things that way. In Angband though the x key just switches weapons. Missiles automatically go into a special section of your inventory called the quiver.
Using magic is a completely different process. For your main spells, you buy a magic book in the Temple in town. Each book contains a number of spells, of various difficulty levels. To see what’s in a book, you [b]rowse it, with the ‘b’ key; to learn a spell out of a book, you [g]ain it, with the ‘g’ key. Depending on your level you’ll have a different chance of learning or casting it, and you can only know so many spells. To cast a known spell, use the ‘m’ key, for [m]agic. Unlike as in NetHack, even when you know a spell from a book, you still need a copy of the book to cast it! Casting a spell both has a chance to fail and costs spell points, but at least spell points regenerate over time, unlike in Omega.
Exploring the Pits
Recent versions of Angband begin you with everything you need to jump right into the dungeon if you so choose. While you may want to use your starting funds to buy a few healing potions or Scrolls of Phase Door to use in emergencies, many players choose to begin by diving right in. The first few levels are pretty boring; the quality of stuff you find increases rapidly over the first few levels, although some care should be taken with the tougher monsters. It is an exciting way to play.
So you’re in the dungeon, what now? You need a light source; the game defaults to giving you a few torches, one of them equipped, which don’t provide great light but it’s something. You light a torch just by equipping it; using it other than that is unnecessary. You might consider upgrading to a lantern later; those are reusable by refueling them with oil. A prominent early artifact, the Phial of Galadrial, if you can find it, provides light that never runs out.
On top of depleting light, you also need to eat periodically; this can be done by either eating food (you start with a little) or reading a scroll of “Remove Hunger.” The scroll is more effective, but only gets you up to 50% fullness, and is vulnerable to fire attacks.
Aside from such basic outfitting, what you’re mainly here for is to kill monsters, lots of monsters. Once you’re in the dungeon it won’t be long before you find them. Some monsters shouldn’t be engaged with, at least in melee. This is often the case for molds and jellies, which sometimes have things they can do to you or your equipment. If a stat gets drained, it’ll be restored when you gain an experience level, so try to hold on that long. If your equipment gets damaged, there’s not much you can do other than switch to something else.
Your inventory in Angband is your life. Not literally, but very much so figuratively. Nearly all situations can be escaped if you carry the right items with you. Particularly useful is things of “Teleport Other,” that let you send a monster away from you, as in the current version of the game (4.2.4) no monster resists this.
It’s a balance, writing an introduction like this; a lot of the experiencing of playing a new game is in discovering things for yourself. There’s a lot of things I feel like I shouldn’t spoil, and it’s not like I’m an expert on playing Angband myself, but I think it’ll help to tell you that the basic play loop is: explore down into the dungeon until either your resources run low, things get too toasty for your, or your inventory fills up, then read a Scroll of Word of Recall to return to town and dispose of/utilize your acquisitions in a safer setting and replenish your supplies in the stores. Shops in the town always contain a lot of certain basic items, especially those Recall scrolls. Word of Recall always takes some turns to activate, so you can’t rely on it to get you out of immediate danger. Also, scrolls are not fireproof, and having multiples can really help you out should something happen to one of them.
As if they somehow know the details of your efforts, shops stock better and better items depending on the deepest level of the dungeon you’ve been to. It’s a good idea to keep checking in with the shops whenever you return to Town. Money serves no game purpose other than to spend in Town shops, so you might as well use it.
You’ll find the usual basic types of roguelike magic items: potions, scrolls, rings, and amulets. It’s worth keeping in mind the limits of each type of item. Magic and scrolls can’t be used while you’re confused; scrolls additionally can’t be used while you’re blind; potions are heavier but can be drunk whenever you have a spare turn. So if you’re confused a Scroll of Phase Door can’t help you, unless you cure the confusion by drinking a healing potion first.
There are three kinds of “charged” items: wands, staves, and rods. Confusingly, using default keys, wands are used with the ‘a’ key (Apply), staves with the ‘u’ key (Use), and rods with the z key (Zap). Each tends to have their own uses. Wands and staves have limited number of charges, times they can be used; some magic can recharge them, but also risks destroying the item. Rods are the odd item out; instead of limited charges, they have a timeout between times they can be used.
On top of this, some items you find in the dungeon can also be used, with Shift-A. Particularly keep this in mind if you find dragon scale armor, as their breath weapons can be quite powerful! The strongest items in the game, called artifacts, tend to have these kinds of abilities. Artifacts are the items that have names, usually in quotation marks.
Many of the strong items have functions that must be identified. Old versions of Angband used an identification system not unlike that of Rogue and Hack, but more recent iterations have overhauled this entirely. Now, equipment items bear runes that you identify independently. While it may take several identifications to find out all of an item’s runes, once you know a rune you’ll recognize it on other items for the rest of the game. Known runes can be seen with the Inspect command, Shift-I. If there are any unknown runes, there will be a couple of question marks after the item’s name: (??). Runes can be identified with one of the spells, or by reading a Scroll of Identify Rune, but if something in play causes a rune’s effect to function, like if it’s a rune of Resist Fire and you get hit by a fire attack, the game will immediately identify the rune for you.
Another thing that got overhauled in recent versions is the game’s curses. No longer are there the traditional “sticky” curses, which prevent you from equipping the item until the curse is removed. Now, you can freely remove a cursed item if you like.
Your character has an inventory limit, and can only carry a maximum of 23 items on them. Multiple items of the same type “stack together,” occupying a single inventory space, but item stacks are limited to 40 items before further items will spill over into another space. There are some weird nuances to this: arrows in your quiver, even of different types, appear to take up one stack unless you have more than 40. The game also keeps track of the weight of items you’re carrying. There is no limit to how much weight you can bear, but depending on your Strength you’ll get slowed by carrying excess weight.
Don’t forget to keep checking the contents of the shops in town. They change periodically while you’re exploring the dungeon, and tend to improve in what they carry the deeper you’ve been (although with commensurately higher prices). Money is good for nothing else in the game than buying things from these shops, so go ahead and spend it. In addition to identification, charged items you sell to shops get recharged, so if you have the money you can then buy it back with its improved capacity.
You’ll notice that some items tend to get printed with dark gray text. These items tend to have some negative effect for your character, or are possibly useless. Magic using characters will see a lot of the heavier armor is printed in gray, to indicate that they will suffer from reduced Mana when wearing it. However, wearing armor might be worth it for the protection it offers. It is a tradeoff kind of thing, don’t you see.
Speed deserves special mention. Your character’s speed is rated using a score that’s displayed in the sidebar. In general, every ten points of speed above 0 is an extra turn relative to the average monster, and every ten points below is an extra turn they get relative to you. This measure breaks down beyond +/-20, but it’s difficult to get that far.
When you fight monsters, you’ll notice the window that is by default in the lower-right fills in with information about them. This window is your view into Angband’s vaunted “monster memory.” As you play, not just your current game but many games, the game keeps records of all the statistics of the monsters you fight that your characters have deduced. This information is saved to a file as you play and isn’t reset when you start over.
At first experience levels come quickly. Angband lets you progress through the dungeon at your own pace. When you enter a level, most of the time, you’ll get a message indicating the game’s opinion of how dangerous the monsters are on it relative to how deep that level is. This message is called the level feeling. Much of the time you’ll see messages like the level seems safe or tame, but once in a while you’ll get a more dangerous-seeming message. In particular look out for the message “Omens of death haunt this place,” that’s the worst possible message and means bad news lurks about. There is also a second message, called the object feeling, that gives a sense of the quality of treasure on the level, but it only shows up after you’ve been on the level for a bit.
Your character has the ability to ‘t’unnel (Shift-T) through walls with the right implement. There’s sometimes money embedded in walls, which can be detected with Detect Treasure magic or just spotted in a corridor wall. Weapons generally are used to do this, although most weapons really suck at it. There exist in the game special weapons, shovels and picks, that are made specifically for digging. They’re awful at combat, but good for striking the earth, although it still takes a long time to do it in terms of turns. Current-day Angband automatically uses your best digging item when you try to tunnel, so you don’t have to bother changing your equipped weapon.
Angband has changed a lot since then. Like Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, its developers have worked on it, removed some other elements, added others, and what was left has sometimes been modified greatly. Current-day Angband is not really the same game as the old version, so it’s worth throwing out any old assumptions. Of special note, I’ve seen players mention the game seems to be easier than it used to be.
Some of the specific things that have changed:
The magic system has been reworked, to need fewer books. Angband magic requires you keep a spell’s book in your inventory to cast it, so this opens up inventory slots for other items.
People who played Moria will remember how you had to go through a rigamarole of haggling with merchants whenever buying or selling something. It may have been interesting once in a while, but it really could wear on your patience over the course of a long game. Thank the Valar it is no more.
As stated earlier, the magic equipment system has been changed. Instead of identifying wearable items individually, you effectively identify them in parts now. Each item bears a number of runes that determine what its properties are, and you identify those individually. Once you’ve identified all the runes, you know the item.
Curses are runes too now, there are many types of them, and items can have more than one. The traditional roguelike “sticky” curses, that prevented you from taking items off, are gone. Instead, many curses are subtle and not obvious in what they’re doing until the curse rune has been identified, and other items offer tradeoffs between good properties with curses. Some curses may even be of situational use. The removal of sticky curses (of which I’ll have more to say some time) removes most of the danger, but also much of the frustration, of using the equipment you find lying around.
There are still individual magic items, potions, scrolls, wands, staves, and rods, that must be identified individually. Now you can give up an example of each item to a shop that deals in it and in exchange it’ll be identified for you. Because of this, the old Scrolls of Identify and *Identify* are gone, although there are now scrolls that identify a rune.
To do away with the loop of lugging items back to town to sell, most of which are otherwise useless to you, now shops don’t buy items from players. If the item is useless, you can just leave it in the dungeon, as there is no monetary benefit to having it. To make up for the loss of funds, money found in the dungeon tends to be greater in value. (But see below, on “birth options.”)
What was once known as “preserve mode,” in which artifacts you never find on a level before you leave it are put back into the item generation pool and can be found at a later time, is now the default.
Some previous features have been changed to “birth options.” These are options that can only be changed at the start of the game, by entering Options (again, by pressing the Equal key, “=”) during character creation. One of these birth options reverts shops to once again buying items from players, in exchange for finding less cash in the dungeon. “Preserve mode” can be disabled, which improves level feelings to compensate. And an option in older versions called “Ironman mode,” which prevented you from returning to dungeon depths you’ve been to before, always forcing you to explore deeper and deeper, has become a pair of birth options. And there’s even a birth option now that will cause Angband’s levels to persist once you leave them. There’s other interesting birth options too, including one that replaces all the built-in artifacts with randomized alternatives!
There’s much more to say about Angband, especially about its history, and perhaps its greatest legacy: it has a vast number of variants. People modifying the source code have made more than 100 alternate versions of Angband over the years! This seems to be in large part thanks to the efforts of previous maintainer Ben Harrison, who cleaned up the code greatly, making it relatively simple, by roguelike standards, to make meaningful changes. But let’s save those matters for next time.
Data East Pinball, later Sega Pinball, currently Stern Pinball, is the oldest pinball manufacturer still in business. I remember in the early 90s they had a tough time against the real powerhouse of that era, Bally/Williams, but they did release some fondly remembered games, including Jurassic Park, the table that has a T-Rex eat a pinball.
Nowadays Williams is owned by “Light and Wonder,” formerly Scientific Games, a company that seems only interested in gambling devices, which in its multivariate insidious forms are the antithesis of video gaming. Still, Stern continues rolling along. Pinball now looks in pretty good shape with several companies in the sector, making unique games that incorporate video monitors. I still prefer the late 80s/early 90s machines myself, of which Jurassic Park is an example.
The people at VPcabs in the video above found, back in 2019, what may have been the last new, unopened, Jurassic Park pinball machine in existence, and, willfully ending an era, opened it up for us on camera. It was mostly as it would have been opening one up back in 1993. The AA batteries were dead but not leaking, and playfield rubber wasn’t in the best shape but not decrepit either.
Among the finds inside the crate is a poster promoting the release of the movie, reading at the bottom: “Opens June 11th.”
It’s a big searchable database of a lot of interviews the people who have made Legend of Zelda games! You can browse by selections of quotes, by game, by publication, by interview topic, or by job rule. It’s a pretty plain site to look at, but there’s a lot of gold to find there if you’re at all curious about this long-running and immensely popular series.
One useful feature the site offers is pre-made images of some quotes (sadly, not all) suitable for including in Twitter posts! Here’s a few:
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”
Arcade Mermaid is our classic arcade weirdness and obscurity column! Once a month we aim to bring you an interesting and odd arcade game to wonder at.
You are reading the words of a Castlevania fanatic. Your standard fan who came into the series with the Igavanias will tell you its pinnacles are Symphony of the Night or, if they’re really trying to impress, Rondo of Blood. Truthfully, both of those are fine games. But I am of the opinion that the best the series has ever been was the first and third Famicom/NES games, and that series creator Hitoshi Akamatsu got a raw deal. The first game particularly is an especially brilliant gem among the jewels of the early Famicom’s library. Every moment of it shows care and attention to detail.
Just a few examples. While many people curse the stream of Medusa Heads that harry Simon Belmont at several places in the game, the game is actually quite sparing with their use, easing up with them at certain telling moments. One particular place this happens is climbing the staircases in the second stage of Block 3: while you’re on the staircases there, interestingly, the Medusa Heads don’t attack.
Also, the Fish Men in the first and fourth blocks, on the first loop, are kind enough never to jump from beneath the player’s location. And while on the second and later loops through the game they will happily emerge right beneath your feet and bump you into the water, there is a tell even for this: except for a brief section where there are no candles, Fish Men only emerge from the water directly beneath candle locations. (I gained a small amount of internet notoriety when an online friend pointed out where I had observed this fact in a Metafilter thread.)
I could go on, and will for a few more sentences, even though this kind of stuff makes for boring writing. The subweapons are very precisely designed, each filling a specific role in the game. All of the game’s platforms are supported by background elements, and when the player climbs stairs to a new area, background pillars in the upper area mostly line up with those from the lower area. You can see the crumbling spire that’s the site of the Dracula fight far in the background in block 3, half of the game before you get to climb up there yourself, and it’s such an iconic piece of level design that almost every Castlevania game that follows includes it. Much of its brilliance is recounted by Jeremy Parish in his book on the NES Castlevania games. (An earlier version of the Castlevania material can be seen linked here on the Internet Archive, but please consider his book if you are able to buy it.)
All of this is just preamble though, to the true subject of this post: the port for Nintendo’s Unisystem arcade hardware, Vs. Castlevania.
Castlevania is renowned as a tough game. While it only has six “blocks,” broken down into 19 stages, the game ramps up in difficulty pretty quickly through that thin territory. I’ve played through it all dozens of times. I’ve completed the game on one life before, but I still find the last level challenging. Even so, I’ve rolled both the score counter and stage counter. I’m good at Castlevania, not speedrunner-level, but, no offense intended to those who are, I have other things that I have to do. I cannot devote huge blocks of time to mastering individual games like I could as a teenager.
If you enjoy the original Castlevania, you might want to have a look at the Vs. variant, which is available via the Arcade Archives series for current consoles. Especially if you count yourself a master at it, this version will probably put you in your place.
In terms of hardware, the Unisystem is very close to a NES, and Vs. Castlevania doesn’t use any tricks that its home version doesn’t. Here is video of me playing through the first level:
People familiar with the original will notice that the game looks slightly different. The colors are different, which is something that was frequently the case of the arcade versions of NES software. It’s likely that the Unisystem’s hardware is responsible for this: as a protection against bootlegging, which was rife in the arcade industry, each Unisystem arcade board had, in addition to the ROMs with the code for each game, a specific, custom PPU chip with the palette for that game embedded within it. People who copied the ROM chips into EPROMs in order to run a game without buying it from Nintendo would have something that could technically run, but the palette would be for the original game, not the copied one, and make the colors look funny. While I don’t know if this is true for Vs. Castlevania, it might explain the difference if the whole game had to use a single palette set.
Two major differences between Vs. Castlevania and its home version are immediately evident. One, in the first level enemies do four bars of damage on each hit to protagonist Simon Belmont. The first couple of levels of NES Castlevania are mostly just a warmup. Enemies in both blocks only do two bars of damage, meaning even without health powerups Simon can take seven hits without dying. The increased damage is the same as on the game’s second loop, after finishing the whole thing and starting from the beginning. The arcade sensibility, to keep players putting in money in order to learn the game and see its later stages, means it doesn’t have time to let the player acclimate themselves to its heated waters. The fire is lit; the soup is boiling.
Even worse though is that, for each of the first three blocks of the game, the player only has 170 seconds to finish. It’s quite a shock if you’re used to the original, where time is practically never an issue! Even if you’ve mastered the levels on the NES, you’ll find, if you don’t constantly work towards reaching the door of each stage, you will easily run out of time. Expect the warning alarm to be ringing through the boss fights until you get used to the constant progress the game demands.
I don’t know what it is about the later blocks, but they have much more generous time limits, along the lines of the NES version. For these levels, the challenge goes back to surviving enemy attacks. Starting with Block 3, the game increases the damage done by enemies to levels never seen in the NES game even at its hardest: six bars, enough to kill Simon in just three hits. This makes Dracula at the end of the game quite a challenge.
If you manage to loop the game, you get to see something quite amazing. Desperate to end the player’s credit now, the game increases the damage done by enemies to eight bars, killing Simon Belmont in just two hits. More than that, the game pulls off the stops with nuisance enemies. You even have to face bats in the outside area before entering the castle! Take a look at this:
The extra nuisance enemies are an especially interesting addition, since NES Castlevania never uses so many, even on the second loop and beyond. It’s exactly the kind of ludicrous challenge that people who have mastered the original game should seek out!
Castlevania is not the only Vs. game with substantial differences from the arcade version. Vs. Excitebike has many niceties over the home version, including some clever bonus stages. Vs. Balloon Fight in the arcade is a vertically-scrolling game, that played with two players gives each its own monitor. There’s lots mot to say about these games, but I’ve got to save some material for later.