Ascendancy

Some games are released and gain an instant cult following, yet do not find a larger audience with the larger PC gamer market.  Sometimes they are too quirky.  Sometimes the game’s instructions are confusing, and require a great deal of experimentation to learn and understand.  Sometimes the genre is experiencing market oversaturation, and no matter how good the game is, people are too tired of playing that kind of game.  Whatever the reason, great games have been released that did not find more than a toehold in the gamerverse, and disappeared into the mists of gaming history.  Ascendancy, released by The Logic Factory in 1995, was one such game.

Ascendancy - PC Games - Classic - Gameplay screenshot

Cover art for the 1995 PC game, Ascendancy.

Ascendancy was a turn-based strategy game set in a sci-fi universe, and gave the player several species options to choose from – 21 in all.  (Interestingly, Humans were not included as one of those races. )  Each species had its strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages.   For instance, some races were better negotiators, some better scientists, some better weapon makers, some better at defending their turf, and some better at invasion.  How soon you met these other species depended on how dense of star cluster you chose at the beginning of the game.  The denser the cluster, the more planets existed, and more star lanes connecting them.  Those star lanes were the key to victory, as could be controlled by a particular alien race, and that control could vary as systems were conquered.  For even more variety, the computer randomized your opponents, which meant never knowing exactly what you faced; the game was different every time you played it.

Ascendancy - PC Games - Classic - Gameplay screenshot

Title screen for the 1995 PC game, Ascendancy.

An interesting feature of Ascendancy was the Tech Tree, which was a three-dimensional representation of the scientific advances that were available to the alien race.  As each discovery was made, new paths – branches – were opened for development.  The Logic Factory outdid itself with the names of the techno-advancements, with such titles as Tonklin Diary (which allows for Tonklin Frequency Analyzers) or Spacetime Surfing (which allows for Star Lane Drives) or Gravity Control (which allows for Quantum Singularity Launchers) or Momentum Deconservation (which allows for Concussion Shields), and so on.  Of course, you could jumpstart your research by locating and searching through alien ruins on the planets your fleet visited for lost technology, which was yet another random variable that made Ascendancy both ever-changing and immanently replayable.

Ascendancy - PC Games - Classic - Gameplay screenshot

Ascendancy was a wonderful game with a huge flaw: the AI.  Although casual gamers enjoyed the game’s challenge, more advanced gamers found the AI to be weak and easily mastered.  The Logic Factory responded by issuing a patch which greatly enhanced the game’s AI, but in 1995 few people were on the Internet, so the patch never found widespread release.   For those itching to play the original Ascendancy with the Antagonizer patch, here it is: ANTAGONIZER and README.

Ascendancy - PC Games - Classic - Gameplay screenshot

Planetary screen in Ascendancy

As could be expected in any multi-civilization strategy game, Ascendancy included a robust diplomacy element.  As new species discovered your existence, their attitudes and responses were influenced by how you reacted to them.  Peace treaties, hostilities, technology exchanges, invitations to join in current conflicts were examples of some of the outcomes resulting from an exchange of diplomatic pleasantries.  As in real life, species who considered you weak would make broader demands and reject overtures; species who considered you strong worked on making you their best friend.

Ascendancy - PC Games - Classic - Gameplay screenshot

Successful research screen in Ascendancy

Ascendancy was a quirky game, but it found a receptive audience due to its stellar gameplay.  It earned a 93% score and an Editor’s Choice award from PC Gamer, and received some high praise from the grognard’s grognard, William R. Trotter (which has an interesting story and legend surrounding the review and his subsequent strategy guide work on the same game).  Ascendancy also won a Codie Award for Best Strategy Software in 1996, in a field that included Allied General and Command & Conquer.  (Mind you, they gave the Best Adventure/Roleplaying Game award to Oregon Trail II that same year.)

Ascendancy - PC Games - Classic - Gameplay screenshot

Searching the ruins in Ascendancy

Time has passed and the prospect of a sequel remain dim.  However, a new version built for the iPhone (and iPad) has been released, and has received some solid reviews from those who game on those platforms.  But for the retrogamer, the original Ascendancy remains supreme in turn-based space strategy exploration and conquest, and well worth investing a little time playing once again!

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXm6DL3D4Ws[/youtube]

Lode Runner

Way back in time, when I was gaming the night away on my Apple II clone (a Circle II), all things Zork ruled my gaming existence.  But when I needed a respite from adventuring in the Great Underground Empire, Lode Runner was the game that took its place.

Lord Runner - Apple - Box

Lode Runner was an arcade hit published by Broderbund Software in 1983.  The game’s backstory was that a vast fortune in gold bullion was heisted by the Bungeling Empire, and it’s your job to recover it.  Some of the gold sat around waiting for you to pick it up, and some was carried by various agents of the Empire –  which required a slightly more creative approach.  Essentially the only way to get their gold was to bury them alive, and wait for the gold to pop out once they were crushed to death.  Your Lode Runner was able to blast the dirt to either side of him (and more than one square, if needed), which would eventually automatically refill.  The trick was to make certain that an Agent would fall into it, and be unable to get out in time before the hole refilled.  Blast too soon and the hole would refill long before the Agent arrived; blast too late and the Agent would either climb out of the hole and expunge your Lode Runner from virtual existence or the hole would not open at all.  Timing your blasts, and knowing when to kill your Agents off, was the point of the game.

Lode Runner - Gameplay Screenshot

Lode Runner for Apple II screen

Yes, it was simple. What 1980’s game wasn’t?  But it was fun.  And clearly many, many gamers thought so, too, as Lode Runner was released on multiple platforms, including: Apple II (1983), Atari 400/800/XL/XE (1983), Commodore 64 (1983), MSX (1983), PC Booter (1983), VIC-20 (1983), Macintosh (1984), Nintendo Famicom (1984), ZX Spectrum (1984), PC-88 (1986), Nintendo Entertainment System (1987), Amstrad CPC (1989), and the Atari ST (1989)…among others!  That’s a lot of systems, a large audience, and a reason why Lode Runner remains a classic gaming memory.

Lode Runner - Sierra - Box

Lode Runner: The Legend Returns cover.

Like any classic game, Lode Runner had its share of updates and sequels, again a sign of a game that has a classic appeal.  The list is impressive:

  • Load Runner’s Rescue (Commodore 64, 1985)
  • Hyper Lode Runner (GameBoy, 1990)
  • Battle Lode Runner (TurboGrafx, 1993)
  • Lode Runner: The Legend Returns (DOS/Macintosh/Windows, 1994)
  • Lode Runner Online: The Mad Monk Returns (Windows/Macintosh, 1995)
  • Lode Runner 2 (Windows/Macintosh, 1998)
  • Lode Runner 3-D (Nintendo 64, 1999)
  • Battle Lode Runner (Wii, 2007)
  • Lode Runner (Xbox 360, 2009)

Lode Runner has been considered a classic for some time. It made #80 on Computer Gaming World’s 150 Best Games of All Time list, and was mentioned in 2003 as one of the best games of all time by Gamespot in their The Greatest Games of All Time series.  The creator of Tetris, the classic puzzle game that all puzzle games are compared to, was quoted in a 2008 interview with Edge Magazine that he considered Lode Runner to his favorite puzzle game for many years.  There was even a 1986 Lode Runner board game created by Donal Carlston (the creator of the still-popular board game, Personal Preference)!

Lode Runner - Online - Box

Lode Runner Online: The Mad Monk Returns cover

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jnRWMvxb7o[/youtube]

Back in 1983, a big bowl of salt ‘n’ vinegar potato chips, a jug of chocolate milk, and an afternoon of wiping out agents of the Bungeling Empire was a recipe for good times.  Now that I’m older (married with children, no less!), there’s no more chocolate milk nor salt ‘n’ vinegar potato chips, and my afternoon gaming has now been replaced with late evening gaming. But Lode Runner will always hold a special place in my gamer heart, and if you’ve never played it, find one of the updated versions and have great time!

The Last Express

The Last Express
I do know that the precious reader of Gnome’s Lair has been quite aware of my interest (or is that fascination?) with The Last Express. I have after all been constantly mentioning the thing both via Twitter and Facebook, and have also grabbed a digital copy via gog.com, which I promptly installed. But should I review it? I really don’t think so. More than a few excellent reviews and retrospectives for this truly unique, groundbreaking, gorgeous and amazing adventure game are readily available and are way better written than anything I could hope to come up with. That’s why I have chosen to do something I’ve never really done on this blog; namely write a series of posts more or less detailing my experiences through the game.
Here I go now…
Being a traditionalist, I didn’t immediately start playing after downloading and installing the game. Oh no. I read through the manual, watched the mostly spoiler free making-of video and even had a glance at the digital version of the Quick Reference Guide. The manual was unsurprisingly the best part, what with it trying to explain the intricacies of the game’s non-standard interface and features, while wisely providing minimal only information on the plot and some interesting insights to the Orient Express -the setting of The Last Express– itself.
The Last Express
The game itself starts off with an impressive if short intro movie that managed to immediately set the tone and introduce me to the amazing visuals on offer, though intriguingly failed to also introduce me to my apparently Irish avatar and his motives. This lack of knowledge has so far proved an excellent idea, as I slowly get to uncover who I’m guiding (most probably to his doom), discovering his shady -hopefully revolutionary, what with Mr. Robert Cath being Irish a few years before Ireland’s war for independence- past and finding out what it is I’m supposed to be doing. As for the newspaper clipping discovered in my pocket, the same clipping that let me know I was a wanted man, was too vague to enlighten me, but intriguing enough to get me hooked.
The Last Express
The game’s interface, on the other hand, is rather intuitive and more or less straight forward, despite the rather odd way the inventory works. Also, the fact that The Last Express is played in real time and comes complete with an incredibly handy rewind time feature, allows for complete freedom of exploration, true in-game choice and a relaxed pace. There simply is no anxiety for dead ends, which I thought -and still think- is necessary to enjoy such an investigation heavy adventure.
The first few hours are, after all, far from action-packed. As Robert Cath I fought a guy, sneaked around, eavesdropped and enjoyed the excellent French, Serbian, English, African and Russian accents, disposed of a body, got a feel for the train, helped an ageing aristocrat make it through the night, met some surprising characters and even hid in a toilet while waiting for a policeman to leave the train. I particularly enjoyed reading through a 1914 newspaper, that ominously foreshadowed the Great War.
The Last Express
Importantly I also found out that I’d better get the passenger list, some papers and a certain suitcase from the off-limits luggage compartment. Following characters and trying to either chat them up or spy on them proved quite a bit revealing too, whereas climbing in and out of my cabin’s window has not been particularly enlightening though incredibly fun, but, I’ll admit, hardly as elating as breathing the atmosphere of the turbulent and politically tense times before the First World War.
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9G3Cbw1Y9UQ[/youtube]
A Russian anarchist arguing with a young lady of a Czarist affiliation, a German capitalist that wants to purchase gold, Serbian patriots that had something to do with my deceased (and inelegantly disposed) comrade and some sort of colonial royalty make for an incredible assortment of characters, that turn the confined space of the train into a vibrant setting as lively as you’d imagine it. Oh yes, I might have not progressed as much as I’d hoped, but I’m definitely enjoying myself.