Retro Rundown (May) – Ghost Recon et al
It’s hard to think of a better time to be a retro fan. With indie games getting a fair bit of attention, retro-looking games are in vogue, and with the advent of GOG.com and their magical ways of making-old-games-work-on-modern-computers-without-DRM-and-very-cheap, it’s extraordinarily easy to get your hands on some true classics without breaking the bank or your PC.
So, we thought we should take a look at some of the offerings on GOG and let you know our opinions. This week, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon comes under a video-based microscope, while hack-and-slasher Die by the Sword, classic adventure Dragonsphere, and mini-game puzzler Litil Divil get the text treatment. Something for everyone, we think. And one of them’s free!
With Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier out, we thought it was high time we had a look back at the series’ origins, both to see whether the original Ghost Recon was still worth a play and to chart how much the series has changed since then. And we decided to do it in video form, no less!
Die by the Sword ($5.99 USD)
1998 was, apparently, the year of the lunatic control schemes. Not only did 1998 see the infamous Jurassic Park: Trespasser unleashed on the world – a game which had you interact with the world through the use of an inhuman arm that was capable of lifting two-ton girders and rotating its wrist through 1080 degrees – we also had the rather less infamous Die by the Sword, which actually hit store shelves (with, I suspect, a tangible splat of disappointment) almost half a year prior.
Die by the Sword wants to be a glorious and bloody hack-and-slash action-adventure; it wants it so badly that you can taste the gore. As a warrior with an unbelievably psychotic voiceover, you venture into caves to rescue… someone… who has been kidnapped by kobolds. You do this by hacking and slashing at monsters. There’s some jumping and light puzzling, and – if you really like the combat, perhaps for reasons relating to severe head trauma – there are Arena and Tournament modes in which to practice your skills.
See, the combat wanted to do something different. It wanted to stand out from the crowd (although, off-hand, I can’t remember there being many other action-based hack-and-slashers that year). So, in a manner akin to what EA Sports would later do with Fight Night’s Total Punch Control, you can actually directly control your warrior’s sword arm with your mouse, keyboard, or joystick.
To add a bit of purpose to this control scheme, Die by the Sword had location-based damage and dismemberment. Hit an opponent’s leg hard enough, often enough, and it’ll go flying off, with the same applying to arms and heads. If it worked it would’ve been marvellous – a smart melee combat system that would let skilled players defend and attack naturally, swiftly and carefully targeting openings in their foes’ defences, leaving a trail of bloody limbs behind them? Admit it, that’d be fantastic.
But it wasn’t fantastic, because it didn’t work. The camera loved to give you unplayable cinematic angles in the middle of combat. The controls can best be described as awkward and clunky, with some extremely odd default selections and some rather unintuitive choices. And the combat? Well, the combat was slightly less precise than Wii Sports’ boxing mode, generally featuring you and your opponents flailing wildly at each other, with sudden and unnatural arm movements that resembled some sort of sword-wielding seizure as you somehow hacked at each other with your arms in impossible positions, while facing the wrong way. And probably crouching and crab-walking.
So no, it didn’t work. Unless you spend a huge amount of time getting used to the way it functions (and perhaps setting it up to work with gamepad that has two analogue sticks, which is apparently possible) it’s hard, unforgiving, and unrewarding, barring the first ten minutes when everything’s hilarious (like getting your leg hacked off, hearing your character shout “BOLLOCKS”, and then watching him glide around the arena on one leg). Interesting slice of history, though, not least because of its developer: Treyarch. Yes, that Treyarch.
Still! I quite like some of the voice acting, so that’s something.
Dragonsphere (Completely free)
And now for something completely different. And free.
I’m not going to harp on too much about Dragonsphere because – as mentioned above – it’s totally free, so you can try it for yourself. I’d better explain why you should, though.
Simply put, it’s a really, really good point-and-click adventure game that was woefully underrated when it hit, perhaps because it launched within a year of a number of rather more famous games. Gabriel Knight, Police Quest 4, and Sam and Max Hit the Road all hit the previous year, and The 7th Guest had also had a year to wow with its rendered environments and FMV, so perhaps 1994 wasn’t the best time for a relatively standard point-and-click game to try to muscle into the crowded market.
Which is a shame, because as “relatively standard” point-and-click adventures go, Dragonsphere was both impressive and deceptive. As King Callash of one fantasy land or another, you’re off to defeat the evil wizard Sanwe, soon to escape from his magical imprisonment. Not the best hook, is it? But, as mentioned above, this is a bit deceptive: the well-told plot has a few decent twists along the way.
Solid voice acting and sumptuous, colourful, carefully drawn graphics help mark this as a bit of an impressive title, while the decent interface and some neat puzzles (generally using fantasy logic that actually makes sense) mean that – even now – it’s an easy game to get into. It suffers a little from the problems that most adventures had back then, admittedly; movement is a bit slow, some objects seem to be all of three pixels wide, and there are one or two infuriatingly obtuse puzzles, but it still deserves to be respected alongside the more famous adventures of the day.
This might seem like a bit of a watery recommendation, but that’s mostly because it’s totally free so I don’t want to spoil any of its clever little surprises. Dragonsphere is a really decent adventure, and any point-and-click fan who hasn’t played it is doing themselves a disservice. And – again – it’s free. So go download it.
Litle Devil ($5.99 USD; currently on sale for $2.99 USD)
Mini-game compilations are nothing new, although they do get an awfully bad rap these days (just look at poor old Carnival Games on the Wii) but there’s one mini-game compilation from 1993 which has a soft spot in my heart. If you’ve read the title of this section then you’ll know I refer to Litil Divil, a game which somehow managed not to upset me with its appallingly misspelt title.
Litil Divil is a nonsensical cartoon adventure. As Mutt – the titular Litil Divil – you’ve been sent into the Labyrinth to bring back the Mystic Pizza of Plenty (and yes, I’d make a joke about Dominos delivery, but the manual beat me to it by 19 years). This translates to wandering a 3D maze collecting gold, avoiding traps, playing mini-games in side rooms, and looking for a way down to the next floor.
The mini-games themselves are varied and, for the most part, rather fun. You’ll need to navigate dark rooms, play tennis, smash skeletons, win at Simon, and (sigh) kill a rather large spider, amongst other bizarre challenges. In true WarioWare style, you first need to work out what you’re trying to do and what your controls do in each room. You also need to figure out if you’ve got the requisite items to beat that particular challenge – items found either in other areas or bought from the shop in exchange for that aforementioned gold.
The big problem with Litil Divil is the Labyrinth itself, which is A) a big maze, and B) full of traps that sap your precious, precious health. The compounding problem for both of these is C) the camera angle, which makes it a bit of a chore to navigate, and nigh-impossible to see the traps before you fall into them. Watching Mutt’s well-drawn sprite fall into a pit is funny the first time but infuriating the tenth, particularly if you’re retracing previous steps in a manner very reminiscent of those awful running-into-the-screen segments in Crash Bandicoot games.
Nonetheless, I like Litil Divil. The mini-games themselves are mostly smart and enjoyable, and they’re varied enough that it’s always fun to see what you’re going to be pitted against next. As of time of writing it’s 50% off on GOG, and I’d say it’s easily worth a punt even at it’s normal price. Just do yourself a favour and Google for some floor maps to mitigate the most annoying aspects of the game.