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LONG BLOG

MSXdev'18 -- almost all entries

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The MSXdev'18 competition to develop new games for the MSX computers finished on February 14th, 2019. Or rather, that was the deadline for the entries. The actual results will be out on April 11th, 2019, but I wrote this blog independent of the results (more detailed jury report here).

In total, there were twelve entries for the MSX Classic category (ROM modules without ROM mappers for unvarnished MSX1 systems) and three in MSX Freestyle (use of any extra hardware was permitted).

As I can't upload images for some reason, this'll be a text-only blog but with links to gameplay videos by other people. But, you can also see screenshots of all the games on the page I linked above.

In general, I try to view these games as if their design is modern but making allowances for the technical limitations. This means hard difficulty is fine, but punishing difficulty (no continues, no passwords, ...) is not. In such cases, I typically didn't play through the entire game either.

Let's look at the Classic series first.

1. Burn Us

Burn Us (Carambalan Studios) is a platformer puzzler. The goal in every level is to get a lighter, a can of gasoline and make your way back to the altar where you set yourself on fire. Getting strangled to death by a constrictor isn't a winning move, so the player needs to throw daggers either at the snakes or as stopgaps to broken ladders, bombs to break the walls and towels to dry themselves after a burst water pipe so that they can use the bomb or win the level.

The graphics are good enough and the track playing most of the time is very catchy. 

My main concern is that the game throws the player to the deep end very quickly. Only the first level is "easy"; already the second level requires the player to be very careful with the bombs at their disposal, as there is not one to spare.

The game gives the player only a limited number of lives, no continues and no password system. I feel this makes the difficulty "not fun". As it is, I played through only the first four levels.

While making the player unable to jump while they're carrying a dagger on a bomb is an acceptable mechanic, having both bound to the same fire button is ill-advised. This resulted in me failing levels multiple times because of this.

(Gameplay video on Ready and Play Channel)

2. Buddhagillie

By all means, I'm ill-equipped to evaluate the subject matter in Buddhagillie (GW's-Workshop). As far as I understand, the player plays as Siddhartha through a number of realms and finally becoming Buddha. Upon completing the journey through the realms, the player reincarnates into a new universe and starts again from the Hell realm.

Like many games by GW's-Workshop, Buddhagillie also expects the player to have read the manual. The controls feel much easier than those of Draconic Throne, and this is definitely a good thing. Having to tap the fire button multiple times for special charge attacks is not difficult to learn to use properly.

Reading the manual is also recommended for understanding the game's content just a bit more.

In a sense, this isn't "only" a straightforward "shmup", and not only because the player character wields a blade rather than a gun. Not all levels can be solved just by killing everything.

While I'm generally not a big fan of the music in games by GW's-Workshop, this is far better than the absence of music. The game suffers of some sprite flicker, although I can see steps have been taken to mitigate that by using characters for enemies in certain phases rather than sprites.

Gameplay video: First loop playthrough on the dev's channel.

3. Virus LQP-79

Virus LPQ-79 (Pentacour) is actually a port of an Arduboy game with the same name by Team A.R.G.

It is very reminiscent of Zombies Ate My Neighbors, and the game freely admits it. This is a single-player game where the player has to find the three human survivors in each level and then scram for the exit. The full map doesn't fit on the screen at once, and the scrolling is done in 8-pixel increments typical to the MSX1.

While the game has a good number of levels, it could've used some more variety. There are two enemy types: faster zombies that go down with one bullet, and slower zombies that take two hits to die. There are different weapons for the player to use, but they can have only one at a time.

The music is more atmospheric than something to get blood pumping faster; not unlike the music in the tactical missions in UFO: Enemy Unknown (Mythos Games/Microprose, 1994).

The game gets bonus points for having both continues and not killing the player from the first hit. Although, getting stuck with the zombies and dying before being able to shoot my way out is a bit annoying... even if it fits the idea of swarming zombies.

Gameplay video on Vintage is the New Old's channel.

4. C.C.R. Anexo 1, El Algoritmo

C.C.R. Anexo 1, El Algoritmo (joesg) is a choose-your-adventure -type of game, but as far as I played it, nearly every wrong decision means Game Over and returning to the title screen. That isn't very fun. The game is originally in Spanish, but there is also an English translation.

The game begins with the player chased by men in black and ready to leap from the top of a towering building, and the actual gameplay starts in a flashback. Having the game first show the present and then directly go into a flashback, and then looping back to the present before carrying on from what was the original situation is an interesting approach.

There is effort put into this: there's a custom font used for the text and the scenes also have stylized graphics. It's just a shame that the repeated restarts and slow text crawl make the game so hard for me to enjoy without using save states. Although, I gave up pretty early into the game, so it might get better later on.

Unlike Any Treasure Day, this game has also music.

5. Linez

In Linez (Wim Dewijngaert) the player has to draw non-crossing lines to join same-coloured nodes together. So, it's a numberlink puzzle. Plenty of levels here, but alas, the puzzles take longer to enter into the game than to solve them. Yet, this is the game that does have the password feature.

Other than how easy the puzzles are, I have an issue with how the lines are drawn: to advance the line to a tile the player has to first move the cursor over that tile and then press fire. This could've been streamlined by doing away with having to press the fire button once for every tile.

There's also the matter of how levels are detected to be finished, which is not fully accurate. In a few levels it's possible to route the lines through every tile without connecting all colours, and in such case the game considers the level cleared. On the plus side, I haven't found levels where a valid solution is not recognized (I've heard of a mobile Sudoku game with a puzzle that had more than one valid solution but recognized only one of them).

In the end, the game design in Linez is better than many other games on offer, but the content design may have fallen a bit short.

There isn't much in the way of music but a few beats when starting a new level and so, and not during the puzzles themselves.

Gameplay video on Ready and Play Channel.

7. Any Treasure Day

Any Treasure Day is a text adventure game by Timmy. The problem is I'm not sure if I'm missing something here. I've "finished" the game, but it would gameplay-wise make sense to have more to it than this one ending. The milk, for instance -- I haven't found any use for it beyond trying to drink it.

The game is rather easy, as the total number of puzzles is at most three, and that's me being generous with the definition of a puzzle. It is also very short. Youtube also reveals that this appears to be a port of a ZX Spectrum game by the same name.

There is no graphics or sound in this game, but then, it does what it intends to cleanly. It just could've and should've been far more ambitious. I give the game a (small) bonus point for not letting the player drop the lit lamp after going through the dark cave and possibly getting stuck as a result.

8. GRAVITICA

A shmup where you cannot shoot? Well, Gravitica (Yusuke Miyauchi) is one. Kinda. The ship must avoid hitting anything, and with the screen-wiping lasers about, the only way to do this is to apply an invulnerability field... which also attracts all the flying bullets to fly towards the ship.

There are also bosses to fight, and the trick to defeating them is to fling their own bullets at them.

The concept sounds to me like an original one, which is definitely a bonus. While there are no sound effects outside of the player's ship being destroyed, especially the boss music is good.

The game has smooth scrolling, but in some places the VDP limitations are a bit too apparent. That said, it's a fun game in bite-sized pieces. 

9. XRacing

Last year's winner Santi Ontañón is back, this time with a top-down racing game XRacing. No multiplayer and only a career mode to play.

The game's implementation is impressive. Smooth scrolling on MSX1 is very rare because of the video chip, and here the tracks scroll both vertically and horizontally in two-pixel increments -- but not both at the same time.

The game's feature list is impressive -- parts of the car can get damaged and the player can buy better cars for different speed classes. The negative, however, is that the damage system is practically irrelevant in four-lap races and the cars are strictly upgrades.

Another cause for complaints is the difficulty. While the final version for the contest has toned down the difficulty a fair bit from the first release, it still requires the player to win each of the three seasons and never place last, otherwise it's instant game over and back to the title screen. No continues, no lives, no passwords.

A later update to the game adds an option to continue from the start of the season.

Gameplay video on the dev's YT channel.

10. PWND3

PWND3 (Metal Soft) is the third "snakelike" game in a series. In this the player has to eat all the flowers to finish a level. This is more of a puzzle game, as the level layout (and flower placement) is static. The snake also behaves more like a light cycle in how the snake's tail isn't dragged behind.

No music, very few sound effects and very basic graphics. But on the plus side, the game lets the player choose the game speed and starting level.

11. Quartet

A very well executed game by Ilkke and bitsofbas with a simple idea. The player has to assemble faces one piece at a time as the game speed keeps increasing. The game requires just the four directional keys and pressing that direction will send the piece to that the face being assembled in that direction. Send it to a blocked area and you lose a life.

The first time I saw a screenshot of the game, I thought this was an MSX2 game. I was wrong. That goes to show the value of having a proper artist.

While the concept to me looked like an original one, it's actually a very widely ported idea.

Like Any Treasure Day, this is limited in scope but doing what it needs to do well. Plus as a graphical action game it's more ambitious than Any Treasure Day. I understand it didn't tell 50 and 60 Hz systems apart until version 1.2, so the European MSX systems would have the game play slower and hence be easier and run the game it was intended.

12. Goal!

An unreleased game from 1990 by G.G.G. Soft, written in BASIC. While this is about football, it's closer to a management sim. The player takes control of a football club with the goal of winning the championship. This is achieved by allocating a number of points between defense and attack for each match and giving input on which sides of the goal to shoot / dive in an attempted save. The teams can also buy more points to allocate by player trades.

I'm not very sure how much skill matters. The chance of scoring or failing to defend should be 2/3. (The game actually comes with the source code, so I checked this from there.) The random events, such as the goalkeeper falling ill, change the number of points and money available. Again, these are purely random.

Visually, the game is mostly text, with the "penalty" shot scenes using typical BASIC graphics (slow floodfill, some unfortunate colour clash).

No saves either that I could tell, so expect to use save states or play for a long time.

MSX Freestyle

I've skipped over one entry, Dream Puzzle (MAPAX), which has no qualms of using extra hardware for better graphics and sound. That game is a sliding puzzle with striking artwork and music, both of which use additional hardware. What I said about Quartet applies here as well: simple idea, but the implementation is very polished.

1. Shoulder Blade OVERDRIVE

The second entry by GW's Workshop in this year's competition, but in another class. I would call this one of my favourite games of the competition for various reasons.

SBO is an on-rails shooter, but it is not a conventional one. The player controls only the aiming reticule and the dodge maneuvers; an AI handles the rest of the movement. In particular I'm impressed by how this was explained in the story: the AI isn't allowed to kill humans, it has to be humans that do it. The AI can move the mecha without issues, though.

The player moves the aiming reticule on two horizontal rows: the upper row is for aiming at the flying enemies, and if the reticule is on the lower row, it's aiming for ground-based enemies. Moving the reticule sideways is, of course, given; it's just the vertical aiming that is limited.

Dodging is handled by double-tapping a direction. This'll use up thrust power, which will automatically regenerate like the shield will when the player isn't shooting.

If I had to point out a problem, I'd say these are the one-hit-deaths of certain enemy shots, combined with the lack of extra lives. But even those can be lived with. I like the game's genre, I like the music and graphics, I like the touches of "modern" game design like the rechargeable shields, and especially that the game has continues, unlike so many other games in the contest.

First loop playthrough by the game's dev.

2. Barbarian the Duel

This is a game very similar to Palace Software's famous Barbarian. If the manual didn't say all the assets were created from scratch, I would've called this a port, but without the "campaign" the original game had.

I'm not a big fan of this game; fighting games aren't to my liking and the presence of only a single duel against a CPU or another player isn't very interesting in my opinion. Like in the original, characters can still be decapitated and the green creature will kick the head off in an arc to the side of the screen.

The conclusion...

For obvious reasons, I'll leave my own Bumper Ship Racing out of the final considerations.

There are games I wouldn't mind seeing some kind of award or prize. I'd say XRacing is the technically most complex and possibly the most competent, but no continues from the start of the season feels too harsh. Buddhagillie has maybe a bit too much sprite flicker, but it plays well and its gameplay loop is also solid. Quartet isn't complex, but what it has is very polished. The mechanics of Burn Us are solid enough, but the difficulty curve is bad. Virus LPQ-79 definitely feels technically competent, but the game doesn't have much variety to it. Gravitica's problem would be the same one-hit death with no continues, which is an unfortunately frequent trait.

And of the Freestyle series, Shoulder Blade OVERDRIVE shows that a game can still use a limited hardware set (plain MSX2 with no extra hardware) and still be more fun than games that can utilize better sound or graphics chips.

 

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About Flegmaone of us since 11:34 PM on 01.17.2015

Very much unprofessional writer, don't take anything I write without a truckload of salt.

On a hopefully long-term break from saying anything.