One of the most surprising hits of 2022 so far is the game Vampire Survivors, a game that is reminiscent of the hit arcade game Crimsonland. In this episode of my series known as “Dissecting Design” I wanted to look at how this game managed to succeed with a well thought out, and easy to learn, gameplay loop.
@Play is a continuation of a column on roguelikes that I did back on GameSetWatch. At the moment it is monthly, so please look out for it! GameSetWatch no longer exists on the living web, but it can still be found in the Wayback Machine. (Many of its best articles are also preserved in the book Exploring Roguelike Games, published by CRC Press.)
Yeah, I’ve been ekeing a living out of these wastes for years, even since The Bomb ended life as we knew it. Life back then was simple. You might have had a soul-crushing office job, but you didn’t have to face off against vampiric warthogs or psychic blue jays. Just on the way here I was set upon by a stalk of asparagus with a chip on its shoulder and deadly radiation coming out of its leafy head. I had to run up close to it and whack it to death to make it stop zapping me. At least, I think it was dead. It wasn’t moving no more, but the same thing’s the case with normal asparagus. Maybe it’s just resting.
I’m on a mission here from out of state to find the source of a deadly nerve toxin with the power to destroy the rest of life on Earth. First I have to find my informant, Elvis Presley. Yes, that Elvis. The world’s always been a weird place, the nuclear war just made it a whole bunch weirder. But before I can find him, I’ve got to get to his castle. No, not Graceland, the one here in New York. I don’t got time to fill you in on how much you been lied to.
Look over there, it’s a gazelle! Looks harmless, doesn’t it? You see that laser gun on its back? DUCK YOU FOOL, get down behind this rock! Okay, here’s what we do. You run over there to distract it, and I’ll get up close and poke it to death with my pitchfork. We’ve only got once chance at this, we either take down this antisocial ungulate or the whole world, such as it is, is toast. It might suck, but at least we’ve got all these cans of Spam littering the ground to survive off of. You don’t like Spam you say? What do you think this is, a convenience store?
Nuclear weapons have destroyed civilization. You’re a mutated human living in a valley in central New York. This looks like the end.
But maybe it’s not. The world is in bad shape, but life continues, in its way. But maybe not for much longer. An outside group has sent you in as its agent to investigate rumors of some entity that’s obtained a deadly and virulent nerve toxin that could wipe out what remains of life on the planet. You don’t have much information on this being or its location at the outset of your quest. Only that it’s some creature known only as the Grinch….
Alphaman is a console-based roguelike computer game released for DOS in 1995. This means it doesn’t qualify as an early roguelike, but it’s still pretty old.
1995 was the year of Windows 95, and at last the beginning of Microsoft’s push to eliminate MS-DOS. DOS wasn’t dead yet though, which was fortuitous for Alphaman, since it’s a DOS console program and can run in Windows 95’s DOS compatibility layer. Nowadays if one doesn’t have access to a PC from that era, they’ll probably have to run it on the emulation platform DOSbox.
It’s been a while since I’ve done an @Play, it might be worth it to go over some really basic basics of both it and classic roguelikes generally.
The smiley-face is you. Letters of the alphabet are monsters, most of which are trying to kill you. Walk into a monster to hit it with your currently equipped weapon.
The large green punctuation symbols (not the periods) represent foliage; you usually want to go around these things, but sometimes you might be able to break through.
Other colored punctuation and symbols are usually items you can collect. When you walk on an item, you automatically collect it. This might burden you a lot, if you are carrying many heavy items. When you’re burdened (check the Encumberance status), you tire more easily and get hungry faster.
The red border is the edge of the current section of the world map. Walking into it will give you a brief glimpse of the world around you, then you’ll appear in the next screen over.
You might find a purple symbol in the wilderness. These are lairs. You can go down, into the lair, with the < (Lesser-Than) key. (Note: This is the opposite from other games! In most classic roguelike games, > goes down and < goes up.)
You might find a large blue rectangle with an opening in one side. These are ruins or castles. Walk into the opening to enter and explore. These usually extend both up and down. You can find nice items and tough monsters there. To win the game, you will have to find and explore several castles.
If you press the Question Mark key, you’ll be shown this very helpful screen telling what the various keys do. A capital letter means to hold down Shift while pressing it. Especially note these keys:
- u: Use an item, including wearing armor and wielding weapons
- U: “Unuse” an item, taking armor off and cease wielding a weapon. This also gets items out of a backpack.
- d: Drop an item (use this to become less encumbered)
- f: Try to figure out a device
- e: Eat food (Cans of Spam and Beef-A-Roni, mostly). Also press ‘e’ to eat berries.
- . (period): Rest (to remove fatigue)
- s: Search, checking the eight squares around you for hidden passages, useful in ruins and castles
- p: Use your physical mutation
- m: Use your mental mutation (the u key can also use these)
- t: Throw an item. Use this with darts, shuriken and other missile weapons. You’ll be asked to pick a spot to throw at.
- Z: Sleep. When the sun goes down you must find a quiet place and sleep through the night. Inside a cleared level of a structure or lair is good for this.
- F1-F7: Changes the display to show more information. F2 brings up your inventory, F3 lists items you have identified, F4 shows a summary of your condition, F5 shows the overworld map, and F7 shows a list of symbols relevant to your current location.
As you play, you’ll eventually find better weapons and armor. For armor, Unuse the one you’re currently wearing with Shift-U (items in use are marked with an asterisk in the item list), then use the new one by pressing U. The effectiveness of your current armor is represented by your “Armor Class” in your stats. Armor Class affects how easily monsters can hit you with physical attacks. The game will seem a fair bit easier if you’re wearing good armor.
Alphaman uses the old D&D paradigm for Armor Class, in which lower numbers are better! It starts at 10 and goes down. Negative numbers are especially good! Leather and Hide Armor are weak, Ring and Chain Mail are better, Plate Mail is very good. How are you supposed to know that if you haven’t played a lot of D&D, or aren’t a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism? It’s just one of those little things that all RPG players must absorb, eventually. Some of it you have to figure out as you go. It’s part of the game.
Note, in Alphaman, protective equipment tends to wear out with use. Eventually as you take blows, you’ll be told that your armor is damaged, and then, destroyed. It would be good to have backup armor to put on when that happens.
Up, Down, and Around
As mentioned, Alphaman is set in the future, after a nuclear war that ended civilization, instead of the usual D&D-inspired fantasy scenario. This puts it in the ballpark of D&D’s neglected sister game Gamma World, and its ancestor Metamorphosis Alpha. Instead of magic spells there’s advanced technology and weird mutations, and replacing the monsters from myth and folklore there are deranged versions of animals and plants. Because the setting is on Earth, just in the future, it is less anachronistic to include places, devices and even people from our planet’s history. Alphaman really carries this aspect to extremes with its many pop culture references, as we’ll see later.
The most popular roguelikes from the time had a “vertical” structure. They were made of a series of single-screen dungeon levels extending deeper and deeper into the earth. Rogue, Hack, NetHack and Larn all do this. ADOM was also like this in its original form, before it got an overworld. Moria and Angband have vertical dungeons, but each dungeon level took up multiple screens, and those games flip between them when the player gets near one of the edges of the viewable area.
Alphaman has vertical dungeon areas, that extend conceptually either down into the ground, or up into above-ground buildings, or both. But it also has an “overworld”: a wide above-ground region that sprawls out many screens north, south, east, and west. There is both an overworld screen that reveals the large-scale lay of the land, and individual screens contained within it, each representing one square of the overworld. At the start you’re shown the overworld and your location within it, but you’re immediately taken down into your current screen. When your character moves to an edge of that screen, the overworld map and your location are again shown for a moment, then it’s replaced by the map of the new screen your character has entered.
In most roguelikes it is standard practice, in vertical dungeons, that the game stops counting the actions of creatures off of your current level. If you’re adjacent to a monster on the previous level it might be given a chance to follow you, but otherwise it cools its heels while you’re away, assuming you’re not playing one of those games where dungeon levels you leave behind aren’t forgotten about completely.
Alphaman works like that when you’re in a location that plays by vertical dungeon rules, but on the overworld, monsters on screens that you leave are not forgotten about. They continue to receive turns, even while they’re out of sight of your character, and can follow you across a substantial portion of the overworld map. It is very likely, as you flee, that the new screens you enter will contain monsters of their own who will happily join in the chase, until you’re leading a whole cloud of angry letters across the leafy landscape of post-apocalyptic New York.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Apocalypse
As you might have picked up from the introduction, Alphaman has a lot more pop culture references than the typical roguelike. NetHack, a game that some consider to be excessively burdened by jokes, is reserved compared to Alphaman. In addition to ultimately fighting the Grinch:
- Your first major destination is a castle of Elvis Impersonators where you must find the real one,
- You may visit castles belonging to the Castaways of Gilligan’s Island and the Munsters, and could even end up exploring a Trump casino,
- A lot of miscellaneous monsters may be found throughout the game, like the inhabitants of the castles, as well as: Mr. Potato Head, a “Bush,” who if defeated summons a “Quayle” (this game was published long before the era of Bush 45), an “Algore” that plants grow around, King Kong and Godzilla, “the Blob,” and others.
- A wide variety of wacky devices and objects, some of which are useless, including (just a few) a Chia Pet, a Cheese Grater, and a mask of former Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, which blinds you but scares off monsters.
As the Bush/Quayle and Tip O’Neill jokes suggest, the humor of Alphaman is of a distinctly 90’s flavor, and so as time passes the jokes age further and further out of currency. Some people reading this may not even have been alive during the reign of the first George Bush. On the other hand, slaughtering your way through a castle-like Trump Casino carries a special vicarious thrill that people from the 90s probably wouldn’t feel nearly so deeply as today. An important item to collect there is Trump’s “Presidential ID Card.” Did Jeffrey Olson know something then that we didn’t…?
We have so much to tell you about Alphaman, and its creator Jeffrey Olson, that we’re saving more of it for next month. See you then!
The site with the last remaining original mirror of Alphaman is ftp.funet.fi. Alphaman there is alpman11.zip. It can also be found on Abandonia. Alphaman was not the kind of game to get a physical release, and the end screen requests that you distribute it far and wide, so there are no legal issues there.
To play Alphaman now, you’ll need a means of running MS-DOS. You could spin up a virtual machine that runs DOS, but most people will just want to use DOSbox. DOSbox requires a little configuration, but can be used in many different platforms, including Windows, Mac and Linux.
Here is The Alphaman FAQ, on Usenet (1995) via Google Groups, which, amazingly, Google hasn’t shut down yet.
PREPARE TO GET LOST, IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE
Tunic is one of those games that I feel is not going to be talked about enough given its quality and unique selling points. On the surface, it looks like yet another isometric action-adventure game, of course in the same style as Zelda. But digging deeper, we have a game that tries to break years of gamer behavior with its most powerful mechanic simply being its manual.
A Confused Fox
Our story finds a fox waking up on the shore of a mysterious land. Unarmed and with enemies around, it’s up to you to explore and figure out what is happening here. I love the aesthetics and art style of Tunic, and the game has some amazing establishing shots and backgrounds.
As per other action-adventure games, progress is about finding McGuffins that are the key to quests and new items that will allow you to either access more of the world or uncover things in areas you’ve already visited. Some people have compared this to Dark Souls in terms of combat, mainly by the fact that you have to manage stamina when swinging, blocking, or dodging.
Where Tunic goes with all this is what’s going to either keep you playing or cause you to quit in frustration.
A Mystery Manual
We’ve all grown accustomed to not reading manuals and developers not making them to begin with in the last decade. In Tunic, the manual is your tutorial, secret guide, and your progression. Throughout the world of Tunic, you will find pages of the manual that reveal everything from maps, to where you need to go, to even mechanics that you wouldn’t know otherwise.
Here’s the kicker, most of the text in the manual is written in the game’s runic language. To learn more about the world, your objectives, or even what things do, you’re going to have to figure out things from the pictures or attempt to translate the language yourself. The manual from a design standpoint is well done and reminds me heavily of the monster manual/spell book that came with Ni No Kuni (and why I got the special edition of that game).
I joked about this onstream, but Tunic is really the Zachtronics’ version of a Zelda game — it is complex, has lots of elements under the surface, and you must read the manual to make any sense out of things. The game features multiple secrets, different endings, a wealth of content for players who want to dig into it. The developers have taken a big gamble on the use of the manual, and I’m not sure if it pays off as well it should.
Collaborative Solo Affair
Tunic reminds me of the game Abyss Odyssey whose main marketing point was that the game was supposed to be played with the community to make progress. However, banking your mechanics on the size of your community, especially for a singleplayer-focused game, is a tall order. I can tell you right away that there is no way I’m going to be translating the game’s language on my own anytime soon.
If you’re trying to play this game blind without help, I cannot imagine you’re going to figure out everything on your own. Someone on my stream commented that one of the clues in the manual is literally a “Lost” reference, that as someone who never watched the show, completely went over my head.
The question remains: Is Tunic perfectly playable without needing the community or outside help? And I feel that the answer is no. I can imagine a lot of people getting frustrated and confused due to the lack of in-game direction and end up quitting before they dive into the manual itself. I also think it would have been better to integrate the manual into the game experience more, such as being able to write notes on it or being able to have it on screen as a map or reference. It is possible with brute force and just trying everything to make some headway in the game, but that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. And I can safely say that brute force will not work if you’re trying to go for the game’s true ending.
The beauty and nightmare of the game is that literally everything that you’ll need to play Tunic is in the manual, but you’re the one who has to make sense out of it all.
The more I played Tunic the more the esoteric nature of the game began to annoy me. After playing this and Elden Ring, Elden Ring is like a children’s show in terms of understanding it. The problem that Tunic has is that it presents another world, another set of rules, and another language, without really giving the player the barest understanding of it at all. The game wants you to rely on action-adventure conventions and logic until it doesn’t; that the rules of the world are like X until they’re not.
Looking up some of the many solutions to the advanced puzzles, and I can honestly say that I would never be able to figure them out without a spoiler guide.
Instead of feeling that the game was being clever, it just felt confusing for the sake of it. This is the kind of game for someone who grew up playing adventure games in the 90s or loves the deep dives into the ARGs of a Daniel Mullins game. Tunic commits the puzzle design sin of requiring way too much outside knowledge to solve its puzzles, or even know what a puzzle in the game is.
The camera can also cause problems with many things purposely hidden behind walls or at angles that you can’t see. During one fight, the camera kept spinning while locked on to the boss to the point that it started to make me dizzy. Boss fights became more frustrating as the game went on due to the camera issues and how fast they could move compared to my character.
Ultimately, I respect Tunic for what it does, and there is a lot of passion put into it. However, enjoying this game requires you to be both an action game fan, and a puzzle expert, and I think the game leans too far in some respect to the latter while still requiring a lot of the former. I would suggest if you are interested in playing Tunic for the puzzle-solving to turn on the assist modes to make that easier.
If you enjoyed this story, consider joining the Game-Wisdom Discord channel. It’s open to everyone.
Via 8bitnews.io, Vince Weaver has created a 10-level proof-of-concept of a port of Lemmings to the Apple II family of microcomputers. This would have blown a lot of minds back in 80s elementary school!
The framerate is pretty low, which isn’t uncommon for 8-bit ports of Lemmings, compare it to the Commodore 64 version. Most versions of Lemmings use some kind of hi-res mode on the hardware, and behind the scenes create levels out of large blocks of premade graphics like in a paint program.
Via cortex over on Metafilter, venerable blog waxy.org celebrated its 20th anniversary, and its maintainer Andy Baio marked the occasion with a collection of favorite posts from the past ten years. A few of these were game related:
Playfic (2012 post) is both an online Inform 7 compiler and runner, and a place to store the games you create with it. Inform 7 is a language for interactive fiction that compiles down to the old Infocom Z-machine. Inform 7 source code reads like written English, and is pretty awesome, although my own experiments with it demonstrate easily that, while it looks like you’re just writing text, its syntax is actually pretty exacting. Still, with a good reference in hand like the Recipe Book, you can make some pretty great things with it.
72 Hours of GamerGate (2014 post) dredges up a lot of painful memories of one of the worst moments for gaming culture. (So far?) It weaponized meme and chan culture and, in hindsight, it can be seen as a trial run for Trump’s internet-based presidential campaign, and we all know how that turned out. Andy Baio did some mathematical analysis of many of the accounts that were spreading #GamerGate and #NotYourShield hashtags and noticed that many of them were recently created.
Playing With My Son (2014 post) talked about Andy’s experiences introducing his then four-year-old son Eliot to video games, in chronological order according to the games’ release dates, starting with a Pac-Man Plug-n-Play TV unit and moving forward by generations until eventually, at the age of 8, he became possibly the youngest player ever to complete Hell in Spelunky. After that, he asked his father if he could get Nuclear Throne. That kid’s gonna go far.
Never Trust A Corporation (2015 post) remembers a time when Google seemed like it might redeem the idea of the Silicon Valley tech corporation. I still remember that ancient age, as it seems few now do. Google’s early strengths were not just the quality of its search results, but that it didn’t compromise them for money; nearly every other major search engine of the game, forgotten names Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, and AltaVista, accepted money from people to rank their sites higher in the results. There was even a thread of thought at the time that this improved results, because it showed sites cared about their content.
It was a Google night-and-day different from the company, now “Alphabet,” of today, that seems to care little for their original mission of organizing and presenting the world’s information. In contrast, there’s the Internet Archive, a non-profit that is now the standard-bearer of the Old Web, but also hosts thousands of old movies, videos, books, and even software titles, and usable in-browser through a special version of the emulator MESS. I worry frequently that something my some day happen to the Internet Archive, the world changes rapidly, and cyberspace, as we should all know by now, is ephemeral. Use it while it lasts, folks.
And then there’s Unraveling the Mystery of Visit Eroda (2019 post), investigating an ARG involving an ad campaign for an island that doesn’t exist, ultimate to promote Harry Styles album Adore You.
(Game pictured: Orcish Fury)
Cogmind creator Josh Ge is streaming, in batches, projects from this year’s 7DRL challenge over on Twitch! It’ll probably take him some number of days to do it. Hours vary, so check in throughout the day to catch him!
7DRL is a yearly gamejam where participants try to complete construction of a roguelike game within a week. Every year a number of unique and ingenuous games come out of it, some of them later getting built into full releases. Josh’s stream is a good place to find interesting projects to play and watch.
The indie showcase videos highlight the many developer-submitted games and demos I play on my youtube channel. If you would like to submit a game for a future piece, please get in touch.
- 0:00 Tenderfoot Tactics
- 2:21 Volta-X
- 5:05 Power of Ten
- 7:21 Train your Minibot
- 8:57 Roundguard
- 10:29 Scampr
I don’t intend to make it a habit to post two Sundry posts in a day, but it’s Easter after all, so the subject of this one has an expiration date. This video is from a couple of years ago, when the meme that Isabelle somehow knew Doomguy was still fresh, and Nintendo was still balancing how often eggs would generate in the week before Bunny Day. There is some slight language in text, but we’re all adults here, right?
You may have already seen this, depending on who and what you are. The video has over two million views after all, but it’s important to remember the classics.
It’s Sunday! You made it through another week. Your reward is this wonderful bit of ephemera from San Francisco Rush. With the death of Midway and Atari Games, arcade aesthetics have largely been ceded to Japanese studios which, nothing against them, but sometimes it feels like we’ve lost something fundamental.
What’s Your Name, the high-score name entry music from San Francisco Rush, is a favorite example of this. In the twenty-six years since the game was released to arcades, I find it shocking that this catchy little ditty isn’t remembered by more people. It makes me happy just to hear it. “Starts with a C… starts with a G… starts with a Z… nothing nasty now!”
Sundry Sunday is a little feature I’m doing to post something silly and fun, related to the world of gaming, once a week. I hope you’re ready for some weird….
Polygon’s Nicole Carpenter: 22 Games To Look Forward To In 2022. They are: The Garden Path, Venba, Citizen Sleeper, Call Me Cera, Dordogne, Serial Cleaners, Frank And Drake, Chinatown Detective Agency, Spirit Swap: Lowfi Beats To Match-3 To, Mothmen 1966, A Shiba Story, Validate: Struggling Singles In Your Area, Super Space Club, She Dreams Elsewhere, Hindsight, Norco, Terra Nil, Card Shark, Bear And Breakfast, Afterlove EP, Silt, and Thirsty Suitors. Descriptions and videos are in the article!
Looking back over their history, and forward to that Metaverse thing Zuckerberg things is something new and ground breaking, is Lessons From 19 Years in the Metaverse. That’s from an Atlantic newsletter. You might be interested in New World Notes, a long-running blog covering Second Life. They linked to an old Daily Show with Jon Stewart piece “covering” Second Life.
Besides writing and talking about game design, I also do a lot of interviews with developers and people all across the industry. For this interview, I spoke with Michael Brown who is the CEO of Vicarious PR about what indie marketing means today. If you’re an indie dev who is working on a game and would like to talk to me about it, you can reach me on social media or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org