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C32 Comp 2004 Reviews - Full Journal

Game #1: Endgame (Z3), by Samuel T. Denton
Re-Played On: 12/04/2004 (9:55 AM to 10:15 AM)
Score For Comp: 8 -- Unofficial Score: 9.0

     I find it difficult to rank, much less review a game after time spent beta-testing it. I can't rank and review the original beta, because that isn't the contest version. On the other hand, I already know the various endings, the tricks, and the surprises. I can't see this release of "Endgame" as a first-time player would.

     Fortunately, even the first beta of "Endgame" was quite solid. I could tell from testing that the author was very enthusiastic about this game. It is set after the events of another IF game, although even with hints I couldn't quite deduce the source. I suspect that to those who can recognize it, this game will be even more rewarding.

     The premise is simple but clever. You have focused a year and all your wealth on the preparation of a spell that will summon a demon to do your bidding. What you get, however, isn't exactly what you expect. "Endgame" requires that you adapt to this change in plans, outwit the demon, and make it out alive.

     Unless you are psychic, this can't be done on the first play-through; maybe not even the second or the third. If this gimmick was simply one puzzle in a larger game, it would probably fail due to the frustration. Like IF Comp 04's "All Things Devours" (but shorter), this gimmick is the foundation of the game. It works -- not because the reason for retries can be explained (even if indirectly, such as time travel in "ATD"), but because it's clear that the game is a one-puzzle effort. You aren't required to wait long before the demon puts an end to you. Simply examine your surroundings and experiment a little. The next time through, you have already gained ground by knowing what will and won't work.

     As to the remainder of gameplay, I can't say much without spoiling it. I will say that Samuel has packed this mini-game (it even weighs in at 2k under the limit) with more to do and see than you might expect. Multiple endings can be found. Can you be strangled by the demon? Of course you can. But, can you die of smoke inhalation instead? If that's not so great, can you make it out alive? Here's a challenge: can you make it out alive in some way that doesn't require cracking the egg? Also, can you lose the dexterity to pick up the ring? Can you move the egg without picking it up? I have to credit the author for prompting me to several of those. I think he really enjoyed watching me work it all out via the transcripts. He may even have been laughing maniacally.

     The basics haven't changed since I played the first beta. I remember finding the game very difficult in my first play-through, but if I recall correctly, I solved for the main ending within an hour. The hard part was the bit of deductive reasoning needed in order to interact with the egg. It makes sense, but it's only indirectly clued. Subsequent play-throughs were easy then, even though Samuel tightened up the time limits. It's likely to be more difficult now for first-time players.

     I won't know how to rank it until I have finished with the other games. It's a great game, though, and it's probably going to earn a position near the top.

     Post-review wrap-up: Because of the way I have decided to judge the competition (using the scores as a ranking system), "Endgame" is the "8" in my list. It's well done, and it has a lot to offer. It's only marginally edged out by "Amusement Park" (because I can imagine it as what a successful C32 cartridge would be), and by "Downtown Train". For fun, it would probably have been a 9.0 based on my IF Comp '04 criteria.

Game #2: Zombies (Z3), by Chris Cenotti
Played On: 12/07/2004 (7:00 PM to 8:00 PM)
Score For Comp: 6 -- Unofficial Score: 5.0

     Yikes. Where do I begin? The premise is promising. Around Halloween, I saw the original "Night of the Living Dead" (for the first time). "Shawn of the Dead" is a more recent (and quite good) example of the genre. With that in mind, I was hoping "Zombies" would deliver on its "B-Horror" subtitle. Under-funded movies can't hide a weak story behind snazzy cinematography and special effects. B-Movie acting is often laughable (watch "Undefeatable" some time). What I expected of "Zombies" -- and more importantly, what it seemed to present itself as -- was a caricature of all that.

     A caricature would have been great. Even a competently-written homage to the genre would have been nice. "Zombies" succeeds at neither of those things, for several reasons. The writing was broken enough to detract from the experience. The second and third sentences of the introduction should have been four sentences (one, a run-on with "and" -- the other, spliced together with a comma). Other similar problems with sentence structure made the text choppy and uncomfortable. If the game was beta-tested (it offers no indication that it was), the author must have changed numerous last-minute things. If I can make sense of my hastily-scribbled notes, I'll include a bug report for the author's benefit.

     The problems with the game aren't exclusively technical. In a zombie-ridden warehouse, you encounter a grand total of one zombie. Apparently more exist, but they are never mentioned. Even if it isn't important to interact with them, it would have been a good idea to have (for instance) rooms leading out in unimplemented directions. Upon attempting to go that way, a simple "No way! Zombies are in there!" would have sufficed. In the interest of simulating a cheap movie, that could have pushed the point across. As it is, the lack of zombies (needed in order to reinforce the PC's desire to take action) just seems lazy. Perhaps nameless zombies could enter the area randomly, dispatched by the player as necessary.

     I almost won without peeking at the walkthrough. In fact, I solved all but the final move. This puzzle was almost redemption for the rest of the game, but the more I thought about it, the more my newfound optimism dwindled. In theory, it's pretty clever. In practice, it's another broken aspect of the game. Without giving a spoiler, it's hard to describe this. The puzzle has several problems, both in logic and in implementation. I thought the burning 55-gallon drum would play a part in it -- it seems likely, after all -- but surprisingly, it does not. If you dropped what you need in another room (even though you have no reason to do that), you can't go back to get it. My biggest frustration was in solving that last command. I couldn't do it. I kept dwelling on the burning drum. Even if I hadn't, I had no indication that a guess-the-verb was the answer.

     My theory about "Zombies" is that the author either imagined a game too large to fit the 32k limit, or he adapted a larger work-in-progress for the contest. Maybe he was struggling with the size limit? The compass directions are abbreviated to a single letter, even in the game text. The burning drum felt as though it had been only partially implemented. Since the game could have been 3.5k larger (it's the smallest of the competition), I could be wrong.

     On the plus side, the game was focused enough to keep me moving in the right direction. With some additional work, most of the problems could be fixed (even within the 32k limit). I liked the idea that Mac's advice followed me through the game, but I think this one-sided dialogue might have been trimmed in favor of bringing bytes to more sparse areas.

     Skip the next paragraph unless you want to read the bug report. After a time, I started tuning out the problems, in the effort to get through the game. For that reason, I probably missed more things than I noted.

     When Mac collapses in the chair, unconscious from blood loss, the PC begins considering him dead (also, unconscious is missing its second "c") -- even though he didn't die, according to the text. Where the pig brains are needed, "give" doesn't do the trick. After doing what does work (in regards to the brains), I still have it in my inventory. I can't hit the biohazard box with the chainsaw, yet I can "open" it with the chainsaw (weird verb-guessing). Why does that work, when it won't work against the zombie? Look for "a outer door" and change the "a" to "an". You can search the boss (or "x bulge") multiple times. Of the three distinct things in his pocket, two aren't implemented at all (toothpicks and change). The game says I took the change, but it isn't in my inventory. "Theres a small hallway." is a bad start to a sentence (at least put an apostrophe in "There's" -- ideally, re-word it). What you can use in each room just gives a blank line when used in the north part of the warehouse (think "fuse"). Not a bug, but it would be interesting if "eat brains" (when holding the pig brains) gave a custom response. I tried to unlock the outer door, and the game told me to be more specific. I typed the exact same command a second time ("unlock outer door") and it worked. The boss can't be referred to as "Mac" -- unless I'm mistaken, isn't that who he is? The room description just south of the office is a run-on sentence. In the janitor's closet, the nouns "wicks" and "lead" do not work. With the bag, an attempt to "get powder" results in "not portable" being shown directly after the custom message. Lastly, have somebody proofread the text. It just doesn't flow right in many cases (run-on sentences, etc).

     The author may have just rushed to get the game done in time. It has some potential, but I would recommend waiting for an updated version. If the bugs are fixed, the writing reviewed, and the plot given a boost (even if this means exceeding the original 32k goal), this could be a better game.

     Post-review wrap-up: It wasn't difficult to rank this one. It falls below four stronger games, but well above the sixth. For that, this is the "6" by the guidelines I set for ranking the games. If I had used my IF Comp `04 criteria for scoring, this would have been a 5.0.

Game #3: Amusement Park (Z5), by Algol
Re-Played On: 12/11/2004 (3:20 PM to 4:00 PM)
Score For Comp: 9 -- Unofficial Score: 8.5

     This is the second of the three games I beta-tested, and the one with which I spent the most time. Algol went a different direction than the other authors. His concept was to write a larger, longer game. To keep it within 32k, this meant seriously sacrificing detail in favor of more puzzles and more locations. "Amusement Park" works as a longer game, but the thinly-spread detail is a shame. (And no, I won't be rhyming the rest of the review.)

     As the player, you have found an old abandoned amusement park -- in a forest. As I said, the game lacks layered details. What's here, though, sets a certain creepy mood. The park "lies sleeping in the embrace of an ancient forest." The ticketing hut is "watching your every move with its blank window." Even the introductory blurb is fitting and spooky in this context.

     English is a second language to Algol, and in suggesting changes to the text, I tried to revise based on his intentions. Some flaws in the grammar and the writing persist, but it's doubtful any of it would have distracted me. When compared to "Zombies" -- or even Algol's own IF Comp '04 entry "Chronicle Play Torn" -- this text flows much better.

     Several parts of the game are likely to frustrate players. Perhaps the biggest source of confusion is the ending. To win, you leave the park by going south from the entrance. I can say that, because it's not really a spoiler. You can leave at any time. Ideally, you will have earned one hundred points. However, leaving is your decision. The game doesn't end once you see and do everything, nor does it clue you to this. You simply have to leave. Some puzzles are easy, but some require you to be thorough in examining what you see. The puzzle in the mansion is to find a way out -- but since this isn't evident, it might seem that the missing exit is a bug instead. Because some of the score comes in other ways, simply figuring out how to ride or go through the attraction at each location isn't enough.

     By now, I have already played through it several times. It takes about a minute to go from start to finish, and that's by memory. Algol has revised the parts where I became stuck during my first encounters with the game, but he added a little more that might elude new players. How easily will other players figure out how to raise the water lever for the canoe ride? Or find a way out of the mansion? Or discover what's needed to zoom down the slide the "fun" way? Ten points come from a move that can be done last as easily as first (the walkthrough begins with this move, although at least one alternate phrasing is supported). It's an action, though, that could easily be overlooked by some players.

     Despite this -- or maybe because of it -- I'm very partial to this game. It brings a classic adventure feel to the contest -- very little story, but plenty of puzzling game-play. If other judges really use the contest's premise as a basis for scoring these games, "Amusement Park" has to rank highly. As a hypothetical C32 cartridge, it offers plenty of (excuse the cliche) bang for your buck. Imagine buying that computer. Imagine buying one of the launch titles. This one could have been a hit. This one, difficult though it is, offers plenty for the pertinacious player.

     Post-review wrap-up: It really wasn't easy to rank the three games I beta tested. Of those I didn't, I was certain of the positions (one was my top game, the other two take clear places at the bottom). So, for second, third, and fourth place (scores of 9, 8, and 7, respectively), it was more or less a turkey shoot. If I hadn't decided to score by rankings, I might have been tempted to rate them all the same. But, since that isn't what I decided, I scored "Amusement Park" as my "9" -- primarily because it's a classic puzzle-fest somehow crammed into 32k. It seemed most fitting as a hypothetical seller on the hypothetical C32 computer. By my IF Comp '04 guidelines, I might have scored it at an 8.5 (placing it, oddly enough, below the other two I tested).

Game #4: Paparazzi (Z5), by EV
Played On: 12/12/2004 (8:30 PM to 9:00 PM)
Score For Comp: 5 -- Unofficial Score: 2.5

     I know the rules require that we give each game a full hour - longer, if we choose. Doesn't this mean, though, that we should spend an hour before giving up on a tougher or longer game? Is it fair to cut things short at half an hour, when you have solved the game and concluded that further effort would just be a repeat of the same?

     I'm more than disappointed by "Paparazzi". The premise seemed original, and I started the game expecting an original twist on the idea. I actually put off continuing my contest list until I could set aside some quiet time (I previously peeked at the intro without taking any turns). The game disappoints, yes. More than that, it surprises me by being less enjoyable than "Zombies." And, more even than that, it actually inspires some hostility in me against the author - no offense intended.

     In the first fifteen minutes, I made no progress at all. I couldn't figure out how to successfully interact with anything. It was only after carefully re-reading the introduction that I was inspired to try a few more things. This worked, leading to some sudden death, and ultimately brought me to the ending. Fun trivia: You can win the game with one point by taking two turns. You can win the game with the full three points by taking only four turns. Unfortunately, these are almost the only things that you can do in the game. Nothing else seems to be implemented, except for the two or three sudden deaths. You can get the boyfriends and the girlfriend to leave, although neither of these actions award points. For that matter, neither action is required to win the game, except by exposing an exit to the second location. The exit, however, exists invisibly from the beginning.

     All of this is a surprise, because the game makes use of all but a few bytes of its 32k size limit. Where did it all go? Is there another layer to this game that is completely hidden? How can the other entries cram so much activity into such a small space, when this one seems all but devoid of it? I'll go out on a limb and suggest that maybe the game wasn't beta-tested. If you repeat either of the actions that bring about your first two points, for example, your score keeps rising (well beyond the 3-point maximum).

     "Paparazzi" is broken in other ways, too; that's just the most obvious of them. I'll list the bugs later in this review, because the problems go beyond its technical failures. The Prince's girlfriend rides away on a bicycle; if the couple are that young, wouldn't she at least have her own chauffeur? Why is the boyfriends' car already parked at the bar, even before they ride away in it? Is it even the same car? It would seem to be, since that's where it goes when they leave the castle. My job is to take pictures, yet the camera equipment is completely unnecessary to the game. It can't even be used, unless I missed a guess-the-verb or something. What are the boyfriends doing at the castle, when the princesses are at the bar instead? To say that "Paparazzi" makes no sense understates the matter. It seems as though the author had a wonderfully unique idea for a game, but found himself with only two days to complete it.

     On second thought, I'm not even going to include a bug report. Fixing only those things wouldn't be enough to fix the game. After the author finishes what seems to be an incomplete first draft, a round of beta testing should uncover everything I found (plus any other problems introduced by the added content). I don't like to be so negative about a game. I try hard to find the positive side and enjoy every game I play - no matter how badly it's criticized by others. It says a lot, then, that "Paparazzi" would likely have ranked below "Ninja v1.30" and "PTBAD 3" if it had been an entry in the 2004 IF Comp.

     Because the C32 competition has only six entries, I already made up my mind to vote in a different way. Instead of ranking each game on a scale of 1 to 10 based on criteria similar to my IF Comp '04 reviews, I'm going to rank my favorite at 10, the next at 9, and so forth. If "Paparazzi" bottoms out the list, it will still garner a 5 from me. Based strictly on merit, that's two or three points too high.

     Post-review wrap-up: I want to encourage the author not to give up just based on the results of this contest. "Paparazzi" was clearly the game I enjoyed least, with more wasted potential than "Zombies". It feels like the skeleton of the intro of a game. It bottoms out my rankings with the "5" spot. Using my IF Comp '04 rating scale, it would probably have earned a 2.5 from me.

Game #5: Downtown Train (Z5), by Owen Lockett
Played On: 12/13/2004 (12:20 PM to 1:20 PM)
Score For Comp: 10 -- Unofficial Score: 9.5

     From an initial peek at the game, I was expecting something different and worthwhile in "Downtown Train". The introductory text was short and intriguing. This minimal setup was enough to spark my imagination, as I predicted what kind of game this might be.

     For once, I was right. I expected a game in which late-night encounters on a subway train would be more than they seem. I expected an interesting story involving an almost surreal, claustrophobic setting. "Downtown Train" delivers on the expectations set by its beginning text. It isn't perfect -- I'll talk about the problems later -- but it's still an incredible game to have found its way into a 32k contest. "Downtown Train" is forcing me to reevaluate my rankings. I beta-tested the next (last) game on my C32 list, and until playing Owen's entry, I was certain that the three I played in beta were going to comprise the top half of my rankings. In short, I now have "Downtown Train" in the top spot.

     Most of the game worked extremely well for me. I was impressed that "listen to music" (as my first move) worked with favorable results. I'm not a big fan of Rod Stewart, but I recognized the song. True story: my wife and I once saw him in some video clip on TV, and when I commented that I thought the guy was dead now, her quick response was "no, he's forever young." Anyway, the lyrics of "Downtown Train" have been weaved into the game -- not only for the setting, but for much of the action as well. When things happen just right, the result is amazing:

     ...groceries spill out (to the) floor.
     You watch... as they fall...

     "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
     ...on a downtown train

     Giving thought to the lyrics and some of the other responses, some very interesting and appropriate combinations are possible. If the song had persisted into the last scene, it would have packed an even bigger punch. I was disappointed that it didn't. I think it should have. This would have shaded the story with more meaning. As to the story itself, I can say very little without spoiling it.

     The game flows well for a while. I figured out what to do, and began trying the same thing with everyone. I made good progress without really knowing what I needed to do. I knew the goal, and I knew I was being prevented from it. I just didn't read enough significance into the other people's actions. It simply seemed a well-crafted set of behaviors for Owen's NPCs. A peek at the hint file (but not the walkthrough) showed me that this was the game's puzzle. Once I knew this, my frustration mounted for a while longer. I couldn't figure out how to solve it. I did, though, after starting the routine a few more times. I simply needed to note which people were distracted by which events, and then try a few variations of putting this all in order. I solved it without a peek at the solution. I'm glad to see (upon looking after I won) that more than one possible solution exists. I don't think the Dentist was first in my solution -- but I didn't write it down.

     The game is well-polished, but a few minor bugs remain. Skip the next paragraph, if you are inclined to avoid my bug report.

     Without specifying whose hand you wish to hold, it defaults to the frowning man. I found this out after trying to follow the gray-haired woman's advice. The line containing "...groceries spill out floor" seems to be missing "to the" between "out" and "floor". Inside the train, an attempt to "get out" of it claims that I'm not inside anything. "Listen to music" works. but so does "listen" to anything else. I tried to hold the dog's paw (no such noun), and then its "hand" (the game claims that it isn't an animate object). The game started with one turn already taken -- maybe that's intentional, but I couldn't see a reason for it. These nit-picks are the only technical problems I found in "Downtown Train".

     The only thing working against the game is the puzzle itself. I don't mean to say that it's poorly designed. That's not it. It's a great puzzle, and it isn't too difficult to solve. It reveals much of the story, and in a way that stays interesting. My problem was that I just didn't know that I was on the right track (excuse the pun). I was making progress, but things became repetitive and frustrating until I worked out a winning solution. I felt stuck in that loop, and it began to shadow the excellence of the story. Without the challenge, though, it would have been a mighty short game.

     I highly recommend "Downtown Train". I find nothing else by this author in a search of Baf's Guide, but this doesn't seem like the work of a first-time IF author. Owen Lockett is either an alias, or a great new talent. If the former, I really need to play his prior games. If the latter, I look forward to his next!

     Post-review wrap-up: I haven't played through "Downtown Train" again, since I finished and reviewed it yesterday. What surprises me most is that the game still sticks with me. Either its merits are growing in my mind, or it really was an excellent, unexpected entry for such a niche contest. This is the top game on my scale -- the "10" spot. If it had been an entry in IF Comp '04 (and a little larger to fit that competition), I would have given it a 9.5. It comes very close to being the "wow" game I hoped for, failing only when the puzzle began to interrupt the story.

Game #6: Turning Point (Z3), by Robert Rafgon
Re-Played On: 12/14/2004 (9:30 PM to 10:00 PM)
Score For Comp: 7 -- Unofficial Score: 9.0

     The last game in my C32.Z5 list is also the last game I beta-tested. Robert sent me a game with virtually no problems left to find! Sure, there were a few minor things, but my biggest influence was probably the "x me" response.

     At times, some of the sentences seemed unnecessarily long. This persists to some degree in the contest version, but it's just not something I can easily identify. It's like catching a glance at something in your peripheral vision. You know something isn't right, but when you turn to look, it's gone. Some of the text in "Turning Point" just feels wrong; but re-reading it once or twice more won't reveal any clear mistakes. I think it's a punctuation thing. I suggested a few spots after playing the beta, and Robert made revisions. I don't know. Since I can't seem to pinpoint the issue, I'll say no more about it.

     I'm fond of the game for its sci-fi setting. Unlike several of the IF Comp `04 entries, which were set on a doomed spaceship with a lone protagonist working for his own survival, "Turning Point" takes a different approach. Captain Athta's ship is busy with activity. The captain oversees it all from his perch above the engineering section, while the crew are hastily assigned some pretty amusing tasks. As his clone, you are set to task as well. After some kind of disturbance down below, you are instructed to investigate and deal with the situation.

     Somehow, Robert takes a background premise (galactic hostilities between two warring species) that could have been applied to a more serious game, turns it over, and sprinkles it with humor. The game is certainly fun. It offers two or three good puzzles (each one comprised of smaller steps), clever writing, and solid gameplay. What's more, it flows really well as a story and as a game. In my initial beta play-through, I don't remember getting hopelessly stuck at all. Each puzzle is difficult enough to be a challenge, not a roadblock. I found the puzzles to be clued very well (even moreso in the competition version), logical, and interesting.

     One of the best compliments I can pay to "Turning Point" is that it doesn't feel like a stripped-down game. It's short, yes -- but even after playing the competition version, it does well in hiding the fact that it had to squeeze into a 32k space. The text doesn't seem unnaturally terse (as in "Amusement Park"), and it doesn't restrict gameplay to just one or two rooms (as in "Endgame" and even "Downtown Train"). It's perfectly suited to the competition.

     It does have a "learn by dying" puzzle, which sort of struggles for justification when it's not the only puzzle in the game. It's probably possible to solve it the first time, just by using the clues at hand. I wasn't sharp enough to do it without a couple more attempts, but it never seemed frustrating or unfair. I was on a time (turn) limit without knowing it. What worked for me was to replay the first parts without wasting turns, then save at a point where I needed experimentation to make more progress. Fortunately, it isn't a short, strict limit (as in "Endgame"). That's good, but it also makes the need to retry feel more like a "redo" and less like a theme.

     Post-review wrap-up: As I said in the "Amusement Park" wrap-up, I found it difficult to rank the three games I tested. By my IF Comp '04 ratings, I might have awarded it a well-deserved 9.0. It really could have been higher then the "7" spot. It isn't a failing of the game in any way. I didn't "lower" it below the top three. I was determined to score the games based on a ranking order (so my scores might have real weight), and "Turning Point" was edged out by the others for no huge reason.

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