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Critical Path - IBM PC / Macintosh (1993)

by Dracula on a bike

Cover

Critical Path (PC)

Critical Path (PC)

Critical Path is a game that initially was an impressive demonstration of new technology, but had few redeeming qualities after the novelty wore off. Around 1993 it became common for new PCs to have CD-ROM drives, and "multimedia" was a major buzzword in the computer industry, leading to a new generation of FMV games. Most of these had the same problem that their LaserDisc-based arcade predecessors suffered from: lack of interactivity. In this regard, Critical Path is one of the worst offenders.

Like Dragon's Lair, Critical Path's entire gameplay is essentially a linear sequence of quick-time events (only 21 of them, at that). The premise is that the (nameless) player character is trapped in a "control room" in an iron foundry complex on a remote island, and must help the main character, Kat, travel from her crashed helicopter to the roof where his helicopter landed. Meanwhile the evil General Minh, who shot down the helicopter, is in another control room playing a deadly game with you. Unlike the similarly-premised game Lifeline from 10 years later, the developers did not attempt voice recognition, instead opting for mouse controls. The story accounts for this by having Kat's audio receiver get damaged early on. It tries to add a little depth by not directly telling you what the correct actions are, but instead makes you figure them out from hints hidden in the user interface. The UI may seem overwhelming at first; it has many buttons and switches (some of which do nothing), a numeric keypad, and a notebook you can read. Usually the solutions are fairly easy, but doing this adventure-game-style puzzle solving is awkward while you're distracted by the non-stop video playback. Due to an apparent design flaw, you can explore the UI while at the continue screen, even though it doesn't make sense in-story because the UI is supposed to be diegetic.

Compared to arcade LaserDisc games such as Dragon's Lair and Time Gal, which had fairly high production values, Critical Path's video footage has not aged nearly as well. The visuals consist of pre-rendered 3DCG backgrounds with footage of actors chroma-keyed onto them, all of which was then reduced to 240x180 resolution and encoded in Cinepak, at a bitrate intended for single-speed CD-ROM drives. The results are blocky enough to be indecipherable at times, and occupy less than a fourth of the screen.

However, at least it has some redeeming value from the humor potential of its script and its actors' performances, which resemble a campy B-movie. It's not clear whether the campiness was intentional or not, but whatever the case, it's often funny for the wrong reasons. You begin with nine lives; in other words, Kat has nine lives... This isn't the only such pun; at one point, you guide Kat across a rickety walkway (a "catwalk", naturally), during which she says that the heat is impairing her vision, so "you'll be Kat's eyes"; and in the ending cutscene, she proclaims triumphantly that "this Kat has ten lives!" The General's minions are identical-looking thugs in orange jumpsuits and masks who seem incapable of any speech beyond growling noises, and there's a fight scene where Kat punches one of them right in the crotch. At one point, Kat is on a conveyor belt leading into a pool of molten metal, and she yells an over-the-top "OH MY GODDDD!!!" when she sees the pool. Later, you must electrocute a giggling madman who's about to shoot Kat, which is depicted by him transforming into an obviously-3DCG skeleton, prompting Kat to comment: "Shocking. You really ought to quit smoking."

But the biggest source of camp value is General Minh (played by someone who was also listed in the credits as "executive producer"), who is a more over-the-top caricature than most Bond villains. On a torture chamber wall, there's graffiti of him holding a severed head in each hand. His notebook is full of cryptic messages like "The TunneL Gate opens to laY BarE the Rolling light Of a DYing worlD and BlamBlamBlamBlamBlam! The BlooD OranGes Jump and Spit cOlor as I Fire the machiNe Gun." Sometimes when you press a switch, he reverts your action and sends you a message in the control panel status line, such as "lEt heR gEt a lIttLe hOtTeR" when you try to stop the conveyor belt. Most of all, though, is a scene where he interrupts Kat's video feed and gives a typical villain speech, concluding with "Assuming, of course, she survives! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!"

Apart from these issues, the game has another big problem: it is extremely difficult to run the Windows version of the game. The installer often crashes with an unhelpful error message "Overflow", and the game program often refuses to run, giving an error saying that you must first install it (even when all its files are at their correct locations). It seems to be runnable only on some Windows versions and not others; out of those I tried it with, it could only run on 32-bit Vista, and not on 3.11 and 98. Even then, it requires Windows 95 compatibility mode, 16bpp video mode, and QuickTime 2.1.2 (32-bit version) installed, because newer QuickTime versions don't support the ancient Media Control Interface API. This QuickTime version is no longer available from Apple, but you can find it by searching the web for "QTEASY32.EXE".

In summary, Critical Path isn't unplayable like the worst FMV games are, but has minimal gameplay and tremendously outdated presentation values, leaving camp value as its only interesting feature. The development studio, Mechadeus, went on to develop the more puzzle-oriented (and more famous) FMV game The Daedalus Encounter a few years later.

Critical Path (PC)

Critical Path (PC)

Critical Path (PC)

Critical Path (PC)

Critical Path (PC)


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Vanslug: X Mission - IBM PC (1995)

by Apachacha

Cover

Vanslug

Vanslug

We've already covered Vanslug in our expansive Korean games section, where the number of problems was beyond the scope of description. The scrolling is choppy, there's a lack of checkpoints, shooting diagonally doesn't work properly against flying enemies, the jumping physics are hilariously broken, and on, and on, and on. Something so broken really deserves another examination.

For starters, on the first screen of the first level the first item you can pick up is a health decrease - it actually makes you weaker! The game is tough without this self-induced handicap though, so you might as well head to the options and immediately bump up the available lives and ammo counter. After this you should also probably avoid any exploration or item acquisition, since several crates contain the health-downgrade item, or otherwise useless junk you never get a chance to use (supposedly there's an in-game menu where you can use these, but the manual doesn't explain how to access it). Oh, and the game's early levels have arrows pointing in the exact opposite direction of the exit - so stay on the path, or rather off the path, as it were.

There's only a single 1-up in the game that actually functions, since touching the other icons which look identical won't actually do anything. Collision detection glitch, or cruel programmer humour? Also, each time you collect an item the main character says something inane, including complimenting the player on being Strong Gay! Presumably this is Engrish and was meant to say "strong guy." Presumably.

The levels are long, awful long, and your ammo stock is extremely limited. In a perverse example of warped designer logic, reaching the boss causes your health to replenish, but your ammo does not, staying at a reduced level even on to the next stage. The bosses are ugly, dull and lazily implemented. The third and fourth bosses are actually just texture swaps of each other! Not only do they attack in the same way, but damaging them is just as cryptic in either fight Ė only their torso can take damage, and only slightly before their own attack. Hilariously, pieces of these bosses were used in the backgrounds for later levels.

Before Vanslug the developer, Soft Action, only made shooters, meaning they didn't have to worry about things like level design too much. As a result, 90% of this game involves travelling along an extremely linear path fighting seemingly random enemies. The final level is the worst. It consists of four floors, each obscenely long (did I mention the levels are too long?), and so similar in design it's possible to accidentally work your way back to the beginning of the stage and then run out of bullets.

There's an experience meter, but it doesn't actually function, at all. Oddly enough, it appears to have worked in the screenshots shown in the manual, which might have improved the game had it not mysteriously ceased working between manual creation and eventual release. See? This is why you need testers and, you know, actual programming ability when making a game.

Vanslug

Vanslug

Vanslug


Fear Factor Unleashed - Game Boy Advance (2004)

by Nick Zverloff

Cover

Fear Factor Unleashed (GBA)

Fear Factor Unleashed (GBA)

Fear Factor Unleashed in an unfocussed mess of mini games based on the once popular game show Fear Factor. For anyone unfamiliar with the show, Fear Factor has people doing nearly impossible stunts that play to their various fears (such as drowning, claustrophobia, or heights) to win money. Thereís always at least one gross out round that involves contestants doing something ridiculous like swimming in squid guts or eating live insects.

Unfortunately, Fear Factor translated into a terrible game. Itís a minigame collection based on some of the stunts seen on the show. The games themselves have horrendous controls and all end instantly if you do not constantly attend to the ďfear gaugeĒ at the bottom of the screen with the shoulder buttons. When you start a file, you get to make your own character: you choose whether itís a male or female, skin color, hair color, and costume color. None of these have any sort of effect on gameplay. After that, you get to tweak your characterís statistics, which really doesnít mean very much except which minigames are going to have slightly worse controls than others. After youíre done creating your character, the game will chooses ďyour worst fearĒ for you via a roulette wheel - which basically means which minigames your character is going to suck at the most, to the point of them being close to unwinnable.

Once on the main menu you can choose to practice minigames or go into the main game mode. The main game emulates the feel of the game show almost religiously, which is not necessarily a good thing. Your character usually goes last, so you have to wait through all of the AI controlled players trying to complete a challenge. This is tedious, though fortunately you can skip these. When itís finally your turn, youíre given the opportunity to not do the challenge and quit, if youíre too afraid. This may work in real life, but in Fear Factor Unleashed (a videogame), itís just stupid. Who is going to be afraid of eating videogame bugs? Why would anyone be afraid of videogame heights? Sometimes the computer will chicken out, making things a little easier if youíre playing to win.

While Fear Factor Unleashed is a horrible game that wastes your time in every conceivable way, it does have one (almost) redeeming feature. One of the minigames has your character tied to train tracks and trying to escape before a train runs them over. If your chosen character is a girl, you can laugh maniacally and twirl your (possibly imaginary) mustache like some kind of deranged Victorian villain! Mwahahaha!

Fear Factor Unleashed was going to be a downsized version of much larger PS2, X-Box, and PC game, but Hip Games, the company behind it, went out of business in 2006, before it could be finished. A beta version was completed, but it was never released.

Fear Factor Unleashed (GBA)

Fear Factor Unleashed (GBA)

Fear Factor Unleashed (GBA)

Fear Factor Unleashed (GBA)


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Driller Tanks / Itasan Drills - MSX / ZX Spectrum (1983)

by Nick Zverloff and John Szczepaniak

ZX Spectrum Cover

Driller Tanks (MSX)

Driller Tanks (MSX)

Driller Tanks is one of Hudsonís earlier titles, and while the developer would go on to create some of historyís best-loved classics, like all fledgling companies they too had their share of duds - at least until they got their technique just right. Driller Tanks follows the concept of being trapped in a maze with enemies, much like Eric and the Floaters (aka: Bomberman), and which later became Hudsonís trademark. But while it has some sound ideas, the execution isnít quite right. There are two versions of the game, for the MSX and ZX Spectrum microcomputers. Both are almost identical and use the same maze.

You play as a burrowing tank that goes underground to defend what appears to be the Taj Mahal against pink, fire-breathing Mammuts, which are trying to reach the surface. Inside the maze are also the insect-like Skorks, which while not as dangerous as the Mammuts, still cause you trouble. You defeat monsters by freezing them with your cannon and then touching them with your drill tip. To start with the maze is filled with soil, which slows movement; once drilled away, movement is much quicker. This goes the same for enemies - Mammuts have a sluggish pace through the soil, but once in an empty tunnel will gun right for you at terrifying speed. Skorks meanwhile fill in the tunnels as they move. The game is a loose blend between Pacman and DigDug, though not as good as either.

Even with a sound concept, Driller Tanks has a lot of problems. For starters movement for both versions is via the keyboard, which is unresponsive and frustrating, though with a peripheral, such as a Kempston Joystick, or if emulating, this isnít too bad. The other major problem is that the best tactic is always to ignore the maze completely. Since burrowing through soil slows you down, itís far easier to clear a horizontal path in the starting tunnel, and then just wait for Mammuts to come to you. You can try chasing them down, but your freeze cannon canít pass through soil, meaning you need to head towards an enemy, double back on yourself then quickly turn around to attack them should they venture into the open. Itís definitely much easier to stay put and wait for their arrival, but this obviously becomes monotonous.

This changes for every 4th level though, whereupon the maze disappears and enemies have free roam of the environment. Also, if the Mammuts reach the Taj Mahal, itís instantly Game Over. It doesnít matter how many lives you had, the game just ends. The whole point of the game is to prevent this, and it does add some real tension to proceedings, especially level 4 where thereís nothing to stop them heading right for it - but even so, it feels really cheap when youíve played three perfect levels and have plenty of lives, only to get Game Over just because one slipped the net.

Reviews at the time, at least for the ZX Spectrum release, were negative to lukewarm. Sinclair User described it as being part of a ďfeeble fourĒ group of releases, scoring it a 3/10. Personal Computer Games felt it had potential but said it needed more variety, scoring it 4/10. One Crash reviewer said it was fun but not for long, the overall score being 62%. Which are reasonable assessments; itís certainly fun in short bursts, but the novelty soon wears off.

There are worse maze games from that time (Chack Ďní Pop is an awful, unplayable mess, for example), but the reason for inducting Driller Tanks into our Kusoge Hall of Infamy over any others, is that Hudsonsoft learned from their early games and infinitely improved themselves and the concept. While it was Eric and the Floaters that ultimately went on to find success, as various Bomberman installments, you canít help but feel that maybe a little bit of Driller Tanks binary DNA helped along the way. Maybe.

Further reading available on World of Spectrum; the game is also known as Itasundorious on the ZX Spectrum.

Driller Tanks (MSX)

Driller Tanks (ZX Spectrum)

Driller Tanks (ZX Spectrum)


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