Xenonauts – Linux, Mac OS X 10.10, and Windows 10 Game First Impressions

Xenonauts Title Screen

Xenonauts Title Screen

It was in the summer time, likely 1996. My best friend was an only child and seemed to have a great knack for talking his mother into buying him computer games from the bargain bin section of whatever store they happened to be shopping in. During this particular week, he and his mom were shopping at Tuesday Morning and he was able to purchase a game neither one of us had ever heard of, but the box cover sure looked interesting. It was a game for MS-DOS and because of its outrageous memory allocation requirements, he couldn’t figure out how to get it to work with his family’s computer system. Since both of his parents worked full-time, he came over a lot during the summer, and one day he brought the game with him to my house to see if I could get it to work on my system. After building a special custom boot disk to boot into a favorable DOS environment to run the game, we both experienced our first contact with the game called X-COM: UFO Defense.

Select Your Main Base

Select Your Main Base

X-COM: UFO Defense is a strategy game, developed by Mythos Games and released in 1994 by MicroProse, that combines real-time strategy with turn-based tactics. The player is tasked with creating and managing the global defense force protecting Earth from hostile invasion by extra-terrestrials. The player must spend their budget wisely purchasing aircraft to intercept and shoot down UFOs. They must hire soldiers to go on missions to eliminate the threat of downed alien spacecraft and to retrieve valuable alien technology. And they are also responsible for hiring and managing scientists to research new technologies to create weapons comparable to the ones the aliens carry.

Intercepting UFOs

Intercepting UFOs

Xenonauts, a game developed and published by Goldhawk Interactive in 2014, seems to have been created to recapture the same vein of nostalgia I had from when I used to play X-COM: UFO Defense with my best friend in the mid-1990s. The game developers state that the game is not meant to be a clone of X-COM, and it is not, but the spirit of that original game is certainly alive and present here. Gamers who played X-COM: UFO Defense will feel at home when selecting their beginning base site, managing their initial base, sending planes out to intercept UFOs and sending out a team of soldiers to investigate a UFO crash landing site.

Close Encounter Shot to the Face

A Close Encounter Shot to the Face

When playing through Xenonauts for the first time, I noticed it seemed to appear very spartan for the year it was released. No cutscenes or rich animations were employed, and I have been unable to find an actual tutorial on how to play the game as far as I can tell. With X-COM: UFO Defense a player had to rely on the manual. Without the manual it was easy to lose very quickly. Maybe Xenonauts was designed to cater to the more mature PC gamer who is used to reading a thick manual to get the most of their strategy game’s mechanics. There are tool-tips that pop up the first time a player accesses any new screen, however, so the player doesn’t have to fly completely blind. I realize having had played X-COM: UFO Defense as a child, I am not much of a newcomer to the genre, but without reading a manual or following a tutorial, I was able to intercept two UFOs and successfully complete my first mission to retrieve alien artifacts from my first downed UFO. There is also a Xenopedia that serves as an in game online help resource while playing.

UFO Secured

UFO Secured

Upon further research, it appears Xenonauts was actually the product of a Kickstarter campaign that was able to raise the sum of $154,715 from 4,668 backers according to Wikipedia. This is an impressive amount, but far from the budget of a AAA studio. With this information to place things in perspective, what the developers of Xenonauts were able to accomplish with this game is impressive. The musical score is complex, easy to listen to, and fits the atmosphere of the game. The sound effects are rich and fit within their contexts as well. While the animations and graphics are simple, no extra imagination is required on the part of the player to discern what they are looking at on the screen at any given moment.

Research Alien Technology

Research Alien Technology

Goldhawk Interactive allowed partial access to the Xenonauts source code which resulted in the creation of Xenonauts: Community Edition, a mod for the Xenonauts game. Those with a retail copy of Xenonauts can apply the community edition mod to expand and enhance their Xenonauts game experience. I’ll try to add another article covering the community edition mod at some later point.

I had a lot of fun briefly playing Xenonauts today, moseying down memory lane. The GOG summer sale just started today. Those that visit GOG.com before June 6th can download a free copy of Xenonauts to play themselves. This is a good game. I’d recommend getting a free copy before the promotion runs out.

Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders – FM Towns Game First Impressions

Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders Title Screen

Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders Title Screen

Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders is a graphical adventure game initially released in 1988 for MS-DOS and later released to the FM Towns system in 1990. Developed and published by Lucasfilm Games, it is the second game after Maniac Mansion to use the SCUMM engine developed by Lucasfilm for use in most of their adventure games during the late 1980s and throughout the end of the 1990s. This makes Zak McKracken an interesting adventure title. While it has many of the elements and style of future adventure game classics such as Full Throttle and the Monkey Island series, it’s also a little rough around the edges and lends itself to brute force trial and error gameplay on the part of the player, a feature of most adventure games of its time.

Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders was one of those games that fans of LucasArts adventures had in their collection generally solely because it was a LucasArts adventure game. The LucasArts catalog would be provided in any retail boxed copy of LucasArts games such as The Dig or Maniac Mansion II: Day of the Tentacle. Flipping through the catalog, knowing how much fun it was to play the other titles, gamers would see an ad for Zak McKracken and couldn’t resist given that it was, “From the makers of The Secret to Monkey Island!”. That’s how I wound up playing this game as a child.

While the word that sums up my memories of The Secret of Monkey Island was, “Amazing,” the word that sums up my recollections of Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders was, “Fun.” I remembered it wasn’t as colorful, having been developed in EGA 16 color mode, but it had that Lucasfilm/LucasArts feel to it that made it charming and the aliens were funny. I saw the game on sale on GOG.com a while ago. I had to get it to complete my collection of these graphical adventure games from this era.

I don't want to work here, please fire me already and get this game over with.

I don’t want to work here, please fire me already and get this game over with.

I have been on a Linux kick recently given that my Windows computer has been occupied with running my business software that hogs all of its system resources. Closing all of my business applications to run a game and then opening them back up again when I’m done playing is cumbersome. Plus, I have always been a fan of the underdog operating system since I first used Caldera OpenLinux in 2001 when I installed it on one of the first computers I built. I’d like to spread the word of which games work and how well they work so other would be Linux gamers can be informed.

The SCUMM engine lent itself to being easily ported across multiple system architectures back when Lucasfilm was releasing their games on Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, IBM PC, FM Towns, and other systems. Today an application called ScummVM, which can be found at www.scummvm.org, offers a virtual machine environment to play these games across multiple modern platforms: Windows 10, macOS, Linux, and many others. ScrummVM is used by GOG.com as the basis for running Lucasfilm/LucasArts adventure games downloaded from their site.

The ScummVM Menu for Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders

The ScummVM Menu for Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders

Running the installation script from GOG.com for Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders was as easy as running a game setup program on Windows. Make sure you run the installation script without root permissions though or it will lock you out of being able to access your game once installed. A convenient link was added to my games menu that I was able to click on to run the game. ScummVM popped up and offered me two versions of Zak McKracken to play.

I blindly chose the first option and started the game. This was not the Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders I remembered. The colors were way richer. Zak looked much different, and the title theme music was incredible! It was like discovering a whole new game I had never played before. Were my memories of the past so faded? How did this happen?

It's the Two-Headed Squirrel!

It’s the Two-Headed Squirrel!

In Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders, the player assumes the role of Zak, a tabloid news reporter who hates his job and would rather be writing novels. The game begins with Zak whining to his boss that he’ll never get a Pulitzer prize writing “sleazy” tabloid articles when he is assigned to go to Seattle to investigate rumors of a two-headed squirrel attacking park goers in Washington State. Meanwhile, the aliens in a secret room are using a machine sending pulses through the global telephone network that are slowly making the population of Earth stupider so they can take over the world. Gameplay begins after the initial cutscene with Zak McKracken complaining to his boss. The player is then in control of Zak McKracken in his apartment preparing for his plane trip from San Francisco to Seattle.

Once again, the game looked far different from what I remembered. Not only were the graphics crisper and more vivid in color, but the expressions on Zak’s face and that of his boss were different from what I recalled. When I played the MS-DOS version I remembered it playing out like more of a sitcom, whereas this new Zak seemed way too serious and incredibly obnoxious to me. I seriously wanted to see him get fired by his boss, “Oh, you don’t want to write my ‘stupid’ tabloid articles? Fine, get out!” It was at this point that I noted something was certainly not right.

The aliens and their stupid machine. It has an effect on them too.

The aliens and their stupid machine. It has an effect on them too.

The two options of Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders offered via the ScrummVM from the GOG.com download are for two different ports of the game. The second option was the MS-DOS version that came out in 1988 that I fondly remembered, while the first option was the FM Towns remake with 256-color redrawn graphics along with new and improved sound. It is amazing how a change in the graphics and sound of a game will influence my opinion of a game.

One would generally expect that better graphics and sound would lead to better gameplay. While the intro theme is indeed better and objects are easier to see and interact with in the FM Towns version, there are so many aesthetic design mistakes that make Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders fall from being a classic to simply bearable retro graphic adventure. After playing it for ten minutes, the first thing you will want to do is kill the sound. Anywhere you go while in San Francisco, which is where you will be for the first 30 minutes of the game if you haven’t played it before, you’ll hear obnoxious white-noise traffic sounds with a random police siren mixed in constantly at the same volume whether you are out on the street or in your own apartment. Be careful if you pick up the phone in your apartment. Make sure you have any phone number you wish to call ready to dial, and don’t dial it incorrectly. Leaving the phone off of the receiver makes the most irritating beeping noise until you figure out how to pick up the receiver and get it hung up again. Getting to the airport to fly out to Seattle is a welcome, quiet change until you hear the airplane noises from being in the airplane.

I wonder how much clean water this plane has.

I wonder how much clean water this plane has.

While spending time in the airplane was actually the most fun I had while playing in preparation for this first impressions article, it takes way too long to fly from place to place. To pass the time I would go to the plane’s lavatory and turn on the sink, press the flight attendant’s call button, and open the overhead carry-on compartments while in flight. I never noticed the little annoying details when I played Zak McKracken as a kid. Maybe games today do a better job of quickly getting to the important gameplay.

Playing through the first portion of Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders is like reading through the beginning of a novel that is slow to ramp up. People tell you its a good story if you stick with it. There are a few humorous spots that keep you somewhat engaged, the aliens seem like they would be plucky adversaries, and there is the potential love interest named Melissa that haunts Zak’s dreams. All of these things lead up to a potentially good adventure if the player can keep the desire to see it through. With so many other graphical adventure games to play, and with this one’s sounds and artwork being so abrasive, it might be awhile before I come back and complete this one.

Owlboy – Linux, Mac OS X 10.13, Windows 10 Game First Impressions

Owlboy Title Screen

Owlboy Title Screen

Owlboy is a puzzle, platformer, two-dimensional free movement shooter released in 2016 for the Steam platform. It was developed and published by D-Pad Studio. With a rich though linear storyline like you might find in a JRPG, Owlboy blends many genres and integrates game mechanics from many types of games.

Owlboy follows the adventures of a mute owl by the name of Otis. Given Otis’ disability, he is bullied by his peers and has a hard time living up to the standards of the town leaders. Overcoming disability and standing up to bullying may turn out to be a theme throughout the game.

The game begins with the player flying around the village of Vellie getting to know the villagers and serving as a look out for pirates. The villagers inform Otis of a troublemaker who has been plaguing the town. Eventually the player explores to the point where the bully owls frighten and intimidate Otis. The local tinkerer named Geddy comes to Otis’ defense and they team up to explore together. At that point Geddy becomes part of the player’s party and Otis can pick up Geddy to fly him around.

Pew Pew, Take that Troublemaker!

Pew Pew, Take that Troublemaker!

Otis flies around using the W, A, S, D keys. Geddy has a pea shooter than can be used to shoot at enemies and objects. It is particularly effective when shooting anything that is wooden. The player uses the mouse to aim and the left mouse button to fire. Most of the game controls are well labeled on screen whenever they may be used to interact with the environment.

After all of the villagers have been greeted and another owl has been saved from bullying, Otis and Geddy encounter the town troublemaker and chase him down to a cave where the real game begins. The first area is fairly simple to navigate and serves as a tutorial to help the player learn all of the game mechanics and get used to the style of puzzle solving that will be expected later.

Spin to Break Rock, Not Wood

Spin to Break Rock, Not Wood

Geddy can be picked up and flown around and is useful for firing on enemies. His pea shooter kills most enemies I have encountered thus far and annihilates dry old tree trunks. When not carrying Geddy, Otis can use a spin attack that can only stun enemies, but can also be used to break rocks which are impervious to the Geddy’s pea shooter. It is in this area that the player learns the strengths and weaknesses of each character’s abilities. Similar to Super Mario Bros. 2, health is boosted and restored in Owlboy by pulling produce out of the ground and eating it. Whenever I have encountered something growing out of the ground, I have found it best to go ahead and eat it to get a larger health bar.

The First Boss

The First Boss

The first boss wasn’t as easy as I tend to expect a boss to be immediately following a tutorial. There was a good deal of trial and error as I worked to determine which character needed to fire in what way in order to cause the boss damage. I don’t recall seeing any health bar for the boss to indicate how much damage was being dealt, nor was there any particular difference that I could detect in the flashes that came from shooting the boss with Geddy’s pea shooter and using Otis’ spin attack.

It eventually became clear however that the first boss had armor in the front that could not be penetrated. It that had to be kicked off using Otis’ spin attack from behind. Then once the armor was off, Otis’ had to be carrying Geddy in order to shoot the boss with the pea shooter. Once I figured out the pattern, defeating the boss wasn’t at all hard, but definitely provided evidence for an interesting game going forward.

Throwing Geddy into a stone wall. This is fun.

Throwing Geddy into a stone wall. This is fun.

Upon defeating the boss, the player gains an artifact that allows them to press a button to transport Geddy to Otis’ location from wherever he happens to be. This is an extremely helpful mechanic as I was worried about losing him throughout most of the game leading up to the first boss. In many games any companion received must usually be handled with care. In Owlboy it appears you can slam Geddy against any wall or throw him off cliffs with great comedic slapstick relief and he will come back with no issue. Geddy looks fragile, but he can take a real beating.

Once Otis and Geddy get back to town after chasing the troublemaker and defeating the boss, they find the village riddled with pirates. The pirates seize an artifact that will help them attack the capital of Advent and they leave to do so. Otis’ mentor Asio leaves with the village professor to warn those at the capital while Otis and Geddy are tasked with going to the ancient Owl Temple to discover if there is a way to defeat the pirate fleet with the old owl technology.

Sky Pirates!

Sky Pirates!

Owlboy’s graphic style is reminiscent of 32-bit platformers released in the mid to late 1990s. The parallax looks phenomenal. The sound is what I would expect and suites the story. In many ways Owlboy is a typical puzzle platformer that delivers everything I would expect in a predictable manner. But just when I guess where I think it is going, it has so far surprised me with a little twist here or extra unexpected depth there. This also seems to be a good title for adolescents. The content so far seems safe while the challenge provided is worthy and not too easy. The game is rated E10+ by the ESRB, so I’ll leave that to parents to decide. I certainly have enjoyed playing Owlboy thus far, and look forward to continuing the adventures of Otis and Geddy again soon.

Passpartout: The Starving Artist – Windows 10, Linux, and Mac OS X 10.12 Game First Impressions

Passpartout: The Starving Artist Title Screen

Passpartout: The Starving Artist Title Screen

Passpartout: The Starving Artist is an artistic painter simulator with money management elements developed and published by Flamebait Games. It was released in 2017 for the Steam platform and runs on Windows, Linux, and macOS.

In Passpartout: The Starving Artist the player plays the part of an artistic painter. The player paints on an easel in a manner that appears similar to the Microsoft Paint user interface. Starting with one brush, the player must paint something worthy enough to sell to her critics in order to pay her bills. As the title “The Starving Artist” seems to suggest, as the game mounts in challenge it may be harder to sell paintings and pay the rent. This might make this the world’s first arcade painting simulation. When beginning a new game, a screen greets the player with the words Act I. I assume this means that there are multiple acts and settings to play through to the game’s completion.

Painting the Bunny

Painting the Bunny

I began my time playing Passpartout: The Starving Artist drawing my old favorite, a simple bunny. I titled my work and placed it out for the attention of the waiting public. Surprising to me, it sold rather quickly for 127 dollars. I figured I must be a natural painter born with the innate talent to produce masterpieces, so I began my next work. Once a player is satisfied with their painting, there is a button to take a screenshot of it in Steam and another button to tweet it out on Twitter for those who are so inclined.

Incredibly in my time playing, Passpartout: The Starving Artist helped me get in touch with my stream of consciousness as I let my whims guide the brush to produce meaningful colors and shapes to the canvas. Despite the necessary cheesiness of the art produced using the primitive artistic tools provided to the player by the game’s user interface, I found the game to be extremely relaxing as I was able to lose myself in the production of art from deep within my being. The game music puts you in the right mood to feel loose and creative. This game started out feeling good for my soul.

My Ego, it is Bruised

My Ego, it is Bruised

Then came the critics. Passpartout: The Starving Artist is a very realistic artist simulator in one sense. Non-player characters will walk by your works of art on display and critique, nitpicking every little thing they can. You cannot please most anyone mostly all of the time. Anyone who is not actively buying a painting is continually berating you for your misuse of color, lack of detail, grossness of style, or for selling out to the man or producing art for quick cash. The criticism also appears to be subjective. I painted a painting with every color available to me in it, and I was told that all of the colors were bad by one critic. At first it’s cute and clever, but over time it really began to grate on me. Although, this game might provide inoculation toward haters commenting online if I want to branch out and start uploading YouTube gameplay videos.

Title Your Masterpiece, Then Hopefully it will Sell

Title your masterpiece, then hopefully it will sell.

Another clever distraction for while you are painting are the news flashes that popup on the screen parodying the ridiculousness of real-life click bait encountered while browsing online. These add some humor and levity to Passpartout: The Starving Artist, but still detract the player from the relaxing focus at hand – putting art on the easel. I don’t think I have ever had so many emotions form in a short period of time from playing such a simple game. In my first hour playing I felt relaxed and free to express myself in my art, then frustration with the criticism of my work, then triumph when I would unlock a Steam achievement, then mild humor when I would read an odd news flash, and in between all these emotions boredom when I felt I had, at least in that moment, exhausted all the game had to offer.

I'm channeling my inner Bob Ross

I’m channeling my inner Bob Ross. Happy little trees.

As I stated earlier, Passpartout: The Starving Artist provides the player with only one type of brush to begin play with. As the player sells paintings and progresses they may unlock other brush types. Perhaps I don’t have the most artistic mind after all, but I frequently would reach moments in the game within the first hour of gameplay where I wondered if I had just seen everything the game had to offer. Shortly after having such a thought, I would unlock an achievement or unlock a new brush, but such things were not quite enough to keep the thoughts of the game’s minimalist nature at bay.

While there were elements to Passpartout: The Starving Artist that I really enjoyed in the time I played it, I wonder if I could get similar results by putting on some soothing music on my stereo, fire up Microsoft Paint, and get busy producing works of art with the full set of brushes unlocked without all the noisy, nosy critics. While the game itself is currently $9.99 on Steam, the original sound track is priced at $4.99. It might be more of a deal to have the soundtrack and supply your own paint program. Passpartout: The Starving Artist is a fun enough game, I think I would buy it in a heavily discounted Steam sale knowing what I know about it now.

Aviary Attorney – Windows 10 and Mac OS X 10.11 Game First Impressions

Aviary Attorney Title Screen

Aviary Attorney Title Screen

Aviary Attorney was developed and published by Sketchy Logic and released in 2015. When I was reading up on this game to determine if I wanted to play it, I read a review by PC Gamer that billed Aviary Attorney as a visual novel. As I played it I did receive a choose your own adventure vibe, but as the game’s title indicates, this is a light legal sim set in 1840’s France.

The player takes the role of Monsieur JayJay Falcon. At the beginning of Aviary Attorney, Monsieur Falcon is greeted by his apprentice Monsieur Sparrowson who reads Falcon his daily mail. The letter they received is from Seigneur Purrtoir Demiaou requesting legal services on behalf of his daughter, Dame Caterline, who had been charged with the murder of Monsieur Grenwee at a dinner party they all had attended the night prior.

Black Jack Mini-game with Sparrowson

Black Jack mini-game with Sparrowson

Many role-playing games have a mechanic by which the backstory is told at the beginning of the game and then the player is greeted with a dialog asking them whether they would like to accept the quest presented to them. I have never understood this mechanic since selecting the negative option indicates the player would rather not play the game, and choosing the affirmative option is really the only logical way in which the game progresses. Aviary Attorney employs this same mechanic. Sparrowson asks Falcon if he will take on Dame Caterline’s case. A dialog greets the player. The player may choose “Of course!” or “Nope.” I chose “Nope.” to see what would happen.

Monsieur Sparrowson chided me briefly for not taking the lucrative case, but when I stuck to my guns through another presented dialog he offered instead to play a game of cards with me. Apparently I had unlocked a mini-game of Black Jack that I played briefly with Sparrowson playing as the computer player. Once I had confirmed that I understood the rules of the card game, Sparrowson made a wager with me. If he won, I would have to take Dame Caterline’s case. If I won, I could choose from a list of three mildly devastating scenarios to happen to Sparrowson. I made the wager and then handily lost the next round of play. It appears that once the wager is made the card game is rigged such that the player will always lose and be forced to then take Dame Caterline’s case – a clever use of this traditional role-playing game mechanic.

City Map Screen

City Map Screen

Each case taken on by the player in Aviary Attorney is broken up into a number of days. In the first case there are three days prior to the beginning of the trial. Each day, the player is greeted with a map of the city along with a series of known locations relevant to the case. Locations with a watch face next to them indicate a location that will take a full day to visit. Locations without a watch face may be visited prior to a location with a watch face without time passing to a new day.

I spent my first day visiting the Conciergerie Prison to meet with my client Dame Caterline and get all the information I could for the case. From there I received two additional leads, to the studio of the photographer who was invited to take photographs at the party in which Monsieur Grenwee met his untimely demise, and to the scene of the crime at Baron Rorgueil’s manor where the party took place. Both locations showed a watch face beside them on the map which seemed perfect since I had two days prior to Caterline’s trial.

A Dialog Menu

A Dialog Menu

I decided first to visit the photographer, Monsieur Robittio de Robinio, to discuss the photograph he had made on the night of the crime. Upon arriving at his studio, I found a note on his door indicating he had left for the day. I knocked on the door anyway, but there was no answer. Falcon and Sparrowson had a bantering dialog back in forth in which they were debating what to do. If they left, a day would be wasted in which the player would not be able to return. Provided in the dialog was the illegal option of breaking into the photographer’s studio and snooping around. I chose that option to see what would happen, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Aviary Attorney is a fantastic repository of clever quick witted humor and terrible puns. Sparrowson is the primary source of such comedy, but all of the players are well drawn and play their parts marvelously. This game is comedic through and through, I laughed frequently had couldn’t stop smiling throughout the initial time I have played it.

Investigation Mode - Searching for Evidence

Investigation Mode – Searching for Evidence

When the player visits a location, they are able to search through the environment looking for clues and evidence relevant to their case. These items are then compiled and written down into an evidence folder that may be used later in the court room. On the final day before the trial, I examined the grounds of Baron Rogeuil’s manor and talked to him and his housekeeper. It was discovered that his housekeeper was a kleptomaniac and had been stealing the Baron’s silverware. This led the dinner guests to have to eat without utensils on the night of the murder. These details helped me later at trial to inform the jury why Dame Caterline had blood on her hands and mouth when she had eaten a rare steak at the dinner party.

The player may choose which statements from the witness to cross examine.

The player may choose which statements from the witness to cross examine.

When the trial day had arrived, not only did my character Monsieur Falcon feel overwhelmingly unprepared, but I did as well. Aviary Attorney had already by this point in the first case remarkably immersed me in the world presented. The trial began in which using the evidence I had gathered the previous two days I daftly struck down the accusations presented by Rupert Rabbington, the prosecutor. After a witness has given their testimony on the stand, the player may question them based on that testimony. It is up to the player to decide how to proceed, and there is a great deal of dialog that won’t go anywhere. The jury will get frustrated with the defense if their time is wasted, so attempting to match the evidence to the testimony and questions asked will achieve the greatest results. Each time a biting piece of evidence is presented by Falcon that refutes the claims of the prosecution there is a pause and then the evidence is delivered with beaming rays shooting from Falcon across the screen. It was a comical and satisfying moment each time I did it.

Ate a Bloody Rare Steak! (Plot thickens.)

Ate a Bloody Rare Steak! (Plot thickens.)

Now that I have won my first case and Dame Caterline has been pronounced not guilty by the jury in her case, I am excited about playing the remaining cases in Aviary Attorney to see if I can complete the game. Aviary Attorney seems to be a good game to play after a long day. It will make you laugh and doesn’t require too much thinking. However, there is a decent bit of potential intellectual challenge when entering the court room to keep the player engaged. The background music chosen for the game is on point with the 1840’s setting, along with the drawn animations and artwork and the fonts used for dialog. Aviary Attorney is thus far a stellar game; I’m happy to have it in my collection.

Alphabear: Hardcover Edition – Windows 10 and Mac OS X 10.12 Game First Impressions

Alphabear: Hardcover Edition Title Screen

Alphabear: Hardcover Edition Title Screen

Alphabear is a single-player word puzzle game first released for mobile devices on the iOS and Android platforms in 2015. In 2017, the game was released for the Windows 10 and Mac OS X 10.12 operating systems as Alphabear: Hardcover Edition as a download for the Steam platform. The game was developed and is published by Spry Fox LLC.

Within a typical level, the player is tasked with making words from the letters provided in the blocks on the screen. The more letters are used, the more space is freed up on the board which is then consumed by the player’s bears on the screen. Each letter begins with a score count and with a green color. Each turn a letter is not used its color changes from green to yellow to red and its total score count decreases. A deep red letter will become unusable on the next turn and transform into a stone. Stones impede the players ability to grow their bears and should therefore be avoided.

Alphabear: Hardcover Edition puzzle gameplay

Alphabear: Hardcover Edition puzzle gameplay

The objective of the game is to maximize points by maximizing the size of the words the player creates and the size of the bears within the playing field. Most levels have a point goal the player must reach in order to progress. Occasional levels introduce a time limit within which the player must complete the level.

Skinny Bear Leveled Up!

Skinny Bear Leveled Up!

At the end of each level, the player’s score is tallied up and a new player bear is unlocked or a bear already existing within the player’s inventory levels up in ability. This introduces somewhat of an role-playing game element to Alphabear: Hardcover Edition. Prior to entering a new puzzle stage, the player may enter her bear inventory and choose up to three bears on her roster to participate in the next puzzle based on their various abilities. As a bear is gained or levels up, the player is greeted with a screen where their bear is in a selfie containing a cute little tweet randomly generated using the words the player made during the last stage. The player may actually tweet or save these selfies before they progress to the next round if they so choose.

Level End Scoreboard

Level End Scoreboard

At first blush, Alphabear: Hardcover Edition seems to be just another word puzzle game. I saw it was being offered on Steam’s free weekend, so I downloaded it to write a quick first impressions article. The game install file is only 196 megabytes in size; downloading and installing it on Steam takes virtually no time at all. Not paying attention to the clock, I played it long enough that I almost ran out of space on my game recording device. Alphabear is fun and addicting.

Bear Inventory

Bear Inventory

As with other word puzzle games, it is often the case that the player begins trying to coin words that are new to them in order to get out of a tight spot where they don’t know what word they can legally play next. Alphabear: Hardcover Edition offers a dictionary that defines every word that is played. I found this to be particularly helpful when I was just clicking around and stumbled upon a word I didn’t know. This game would be extremely helpful to those who are hoping to get better at Scrabble and actually know the words they are playing. It also appears it might help a child with an elementary vocabulary to learn more words and better spelling for fun outside of their classroom.

As I said, this title is free for the weekend, and only around five dollars retail. I had fun with it and thought it was worthwhile. It may be one of the better edutainment titles I have played. Check it out and see what you think.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – Windows 8 and Mac OS X 10.8 Game First Impressions

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Title Screen

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Title Screen

When I think of the XCOM series, I think of turn-based strategy and covert government agency management. I have fond memories of playing the first game in the series, XCOM: UFO Defense, with a close friend a few years after it came out in 1994. He found it in a bargain bin at a Tuesday Morning and talked his mom into getting it for him, much to our delight. The gameplay elements introduced in this first game were recreated in Firaxis Games’ reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown released in 2012. In both of these games, the player recruits a squad of elite special forces soldiers to train and send on missions to defend against the extra-terrestrial menaces facing the planet while determining how government funding should be spent to best protect Earth’s security interests. The premise underlying these games provides intense potential for fantastic storylines across genres. And given the cult following of not only the original game, but also for shows like The X-Files, game developers worked to release other XCOM titles spanning other genres of gameplay.

Just casually walking up these stairs at a reduced speed talking to my superior officer on the telephone while all mayhem is breaking loose around me.

Just casually walking up these stairs at a reduced speed talking to my superior officer on the telephone while all mayhem is breaking loose around me.

When I first installed and played The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, published in 2013 by 2K Games and developed by 2K Marin, I thought it would be based on XCOM: Enemy Unknown from the previous year. Interestingly, development on The Bureau: XCOM Declassified began in 2010 and these games seem in most ways unrelated outside of them both having the player defend earth from extra-terrestrial aggressors. The initial events of the game occur in 1962 during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. I haven’t played the game far enough to know if the developers made it tie-in with the story of other XCOM games in the series.

Press Spacebar to Enter Battle Focus Mode.

Press Spacebar to Enter Battle Focus Mode.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is primarily a third-person shooter with tactical elements. As the player receives new recruits throughout the game, they can press the spacebar to command those recruits to move to points of strategic cover and target specific enemy locations. The interface to this is similar in some ways to Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six but happens from within the mission. Time slows down when entering what is called “Battle Focus Mode,” but does not stop entirely and the player is vulnerable while they are making decisions.

Ducked behind a barrier for cover on a two-dimensional plane.

Ducked behind a barrier for cover on a two-dimensional plane.

In general, the core gaming mechanics require that the player seek cover behind objects while being shot at, and when the time is right, use the right mouse button to aim and fire at enemies. Aiming makes you vulnerable, so it is prudent to time your shots when the enemy is firing the least and is the most vulnerable themselves. The controls used to take cover seemed a little awkward to me. Left-shift while facing a wall or other such structure is supposed to enable the player to crouch behind it. Left-shift while moving forward is also supposed to make the player run. Once in such a defensive position, the player may then use A or D on the keyboard to move left or right respectively across the defensive surface. This maps a number of two-dimensional planes onto a clearly three-dimensional world that is at best confusing. I have yet to tell if I’m just not comfortable with the controls yet, or if there is actually a disconnect in some cases with how the game’s engine handles ducking behind a surface versus running around in the larger three-dimensional environment.

Right-Click to Aim and Shoot Aliens in the Face

Right-Click to Aim and Shoot Aliens in the Face

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a very linear game divided into levels with cutscenes throughout to advance the storyline. The storyline is fairly typical for its genre, though rich enough thus far. It reminds me a bit of Resistance: Fall of Man. It plays much like the typical console third-person shooter, but without any save-point frustration that I have noticed thus far. The player may press F5 at any time to get a graphical overlay with the direction they game intends for them to go to progress, and any in-game objects that can be interacted with glow a bright golden yellow.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is unfortunately only single-player. I think it would be incredible to have an arena in which players may strategically command their squad while simultaneously participating in a classic deathmatch. Perhaps someone could eventually release a mod for the game to accomplish this.

If you are a fan of The X-Files, XCOM, Men in Black kind of stories, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified would be relevant to your interests. Outside of having an interesting story, I could think of a multitude of other games I would rather be playing. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a good game for what it is, polished and enjoyable. But it doesn’t quite stack up as a game that would keep me coming back again and again, like the more traditional games in the XCOM series whose namesake The Bureau: XCOM Declassified shares.

Carmageddon TDR 2000 – Windows 98 Game First Impressions

Carmageddon TDR 2000 Load Screen

Carmageddon TDR 2000 Load Screen

Carmageddon TDR 2000 is the third game in the Carmageddon series released in 2000. It was developed by Torus Games and originally published by Xicat Interactive for the Microsoft Windows 98 and 2000 operating systems on PC. The TDR in the title stands for “Total Destruction Racing,” for those who were wondering.

When I was a kid, I’d be sitting in the back seat when my parents took me along to the grocery store in the family car. More often than not when driving through the parking lot, a pedestrian would walk right out in front of my dad’s car without ever looking up to see if any vehicles were coming. Whenever this happened, my dad liked to jokingly say, “There’s fifty points!” as they crossed in front of his car’s grill. This is the kind of sense of humor the Carmageddon series is geared to.

I can drive a Steam Machine while playing on my Steam Machine.

I can drive a Steam Machine while playing on my Steam Machine.

If you are unfamiliar with the Carmageddon series, the original game’s tag line is The Racing Game for the Chemically Imbalanced with a pedestrian carrying a briefcase being run over by a fast-moving red sports car. Like most racing games, the player races against other contestants around a track for a certain number of laps, reaching check points along the way. If the player is able to reach the next check point in time, they are awarded more time as they make their way to the finish line. Where the Carmageddon series differs is that the player is awarded bonus points for each pedestrian they are able to run over.

These guys are about to get steamrolled.

These guys are about to get steamrolled.

In Carmageddon TDR 2000, railroading pedestrians rewards the player with satisfying crunch and squish sounds encouraging the player to produce more carnage. Performing fancy tricks also awards points to the player. These bonus points can be spent purchasing new vehicles or upgrading an existing vehicle’s engine power, armor, or weapons. Unlike real-life, many of the pedestrians really seem to have a death wish. In many cases the race track is clearly marked with innocent bystanders carelessly walking right into harms way, even when they are walking around the remains of their already previously unlucky comrades.

I didn't know this doubled as a airplane. Vroom!

I didn’t know this doubled as a airplane. Vroom!

I forgot how much I have missed playing with Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars as a kid and pretending I was in the cars doing the incredible tricks and causing massive crashes. I had fun doing all of this in Carmageddon TDR 2000. The tracks I have played so far have not been linear like in other racing titles to the point of being rather impressive. The game seems much more open-world than most games ever got in the year 2000. There is plenty of room to drive around and explore provided the player doesn’t run out of time. I just figured out where the checkpoints were and made sure I drove through them in sequence whenever I needed to add time to the clock. The rest of the time I was trying to drive up and over anything I could, enjoying the full extent of fun the sandbox I found myself in could provide. The first track provides a loop the loop to speed through and a ramp to jump over a series of RVs and trailers.

It's sometimes too easy to get stuck doing crazy fun stuff.

It’s sometimes too easy to get stuck doing crazy fun stuff.

There are a number of interesting cars available to choose from even at the beginning of the game before any of the later cars are unlocked. I noticed one called the Steam Machine. Given that I am an avid PC gamer, I had to drive it. It was massive fun steamrolling everything in my path. With great freedom of movement comes great responsibility though. I found it trivial in many cases to pin myself in a place where I could not maneuver free. When aborting a race, a player keeps the points they accumulated up to the point they aborted, so it’s not much of a loss to start the race over when stuck. If you run the race straight along the track, you shouldn’t have this problem, but if you’re like me and enjoy pushing the limits of the game, it will likely become a fairly frequent occurrence.

Is that a car that's just a moving wooden wheel? I want to wreck it!

Is that a car that’s just a moving wooden wheel? I want to wreck it!

The multiplayer functionality in Carmageddon TDR 2000 requires DirectPlay to work. When I attempted to install DirectPlay in Windows 10, the process locked up and wouldn’t let me proceed. A quick check of the Steam forums indicates there are people who were able to get it to work, but their solutions may not work in all cases. Microsoft’s official current stance from what I can tell is that DirectPlay is deprecated and therefore completely unsupported for Windows 10.

Got 'em!

Got ’em!

Carmageddon TDR 2000 is available for download on both Steam and GOG.com for a fair price on each. This game is raw arcade vehicular mayhem and racing, and devoid of any meaningful plot or story-line. The Grand Theft Auto series probably fills this niche for gamers better these days, but I had a great amount of fun launching my steam machine around for the small time I have played. I do plan to revisit this one and see where the rest of the game takes me.

Cat Girl Without Salad – Windows 10 Game First Impressions

Cat Girl Without Salad Title Screen

Cat Girl Without Salad Title Screen

Revenge of the Mutant Camels meets Power Puff Girls in Cat Girl Without Salad developed by WayForward Technologies and released in 2016 as a Humble Bundle Original for the Windows 10 operating system platform. The game was originally an April Fools joke announced in 2013 billed as a game spanning all genres in one title. While my experiences with it thus far have revealed it to be primarily a horizontal side-scrolling shooter, Cat Girl Without Salad parodies familiar game elements from other video games integrated throughout its gameplay.

How to Play

How to Play

The protagonist hero of Cat Girl Without Salad is named Kebako. She is a robotic, ditsy cartoon girl bounty hunter with cat ears flying through space to fight enemies and take down bad guys. She is equipped with a default pea shooter that literally shoots peas. Throughout the game, the player will find what look like game cartridges that upgrade Kebako’s weapons in various ways. Each weapon upgrade is unique, creative, and sometimes annoying.

Starting Pea Shooter

Starting Pea Shooter

There is a platformer gun that shoots a cartoon platformer sprite who jumps on the enemies to kill them. The sports gun shoots golf balls at the enemies based on the direction of the player’s swing. A puzzle gun turns the side-scrolling shooter environment into a scrolling game of Bust-a-Move. An RPG gun opens up a fight menu similar to those encountered in Final Fantasy games where the player can choose to attack or use magic against approaching enemies.

Using the RPG Gun

Using the RPG Gun

I also encountered a dance gun that mimicks the Dance Dance Revolution games made by Konami. Instructions for how to play Cat Girl Without Salad are simple and provided to the player at the beginning of a new game. Guns can be fired using any of the four direction arrow keys on the keyboard. When using the dance gun, if the player times their shots appropriately with the “dance” arrows scrolling across the screen, they can achieve a combo score for each time they time their shot correctly.

Dance, Dance Gun

Dance, Dance Gun

Ice cream sundaes, pizza, cheeseburgers, and any other junk foods may be collected to restore health, but not salads. Suffice it to say, Cat Girl Without Salad is a crazy game. The game characters seem to act like characters from animated television shows aired on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon to preteen girls. This somehow seems to actually add to its charm. The blasts of bubblegum pink and strobing pastels excite rather than frustrate. Whereas many such cartoons tend to grate on my nerves, the audio in Cat Girl Without Salad is thus far enjoyable. The development team seems to have really known what they were doing and enjoyed doing it.

Am I playing Bust-a-Move or R-Type?

Am I playing Bust-a-Move or R-Type?

For appearing to be geared toward younger girls, whether in fact or as a joke, Cat Girl Without Salad is a legitimately challenging game. It is far from the hardest side-scrolling shooter I have played, but it’s certainly not easy either. The game feels fair, challenging, and the controls are solid. While the weapon types are clever and creative, they are not immediately useful without adequate practice. Expect to play even the first level over again to learn how to get it right.

As I said, Cat Girl Without Salad is a Humble Bundle Original. This means it was made as an exclusive title for those who subscribe to the Humble Bundle Monthly service. When subscribed, it may be downloaded DRM-free to the subscriber’s local machine and launched from a simple executable. If Humble Bundle were to ever no longer be a thing, I could imagine this game would become a rare but coveted title, perhaps like Chex Quest is now.

Let the reader note that after I wrote this article, I saw that Humble Bundle will be removing this game from its Humble Bundle Monthly offering on February 2, 2018. If you’re a Humble Bundle Monthly subscriber, you’ll need to get it before then to play it as part of that packaged deal. Hopefully it will still be available to be purchased in some way after February 2, 2018.

The First Boss

The First Boss

The more I play Cat Girl Without Salad, the more I really like it. It is an addictive side-scrolling shooter that takes the genre to places that are completely different from where its ever been while keeping the core elements familiar, but fresh. If you sign up for a Humble Bundle Monthly subscription, make sure you check out Cat Girl Without Salad.

Psychonauts – Windows XP, Linux, and Mac OS X 10.6 Game First Impressions

Psychonauts Box Art

Psychonauts Box Art

Psychonauts is a 3D-platformer action adventure game developed and published by Double Fine Productions. The original boxed version for the PC was published by Majesco Entertainment. First released in 2005, its story was written and directed by game design legend Tim Shafer.

The player begins Psychonauts playing as Raz, an adolescent who runs away from his parents to attend the secret Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp in order to learn how to use his psychic powers to become a Psychonaut. Since he is there without parental permission, he is only allowed to train at the camp until his parents arrive to either pick him up to take him home or grant permission for him to continue his training there. While Raz is eager to complete his training more quickly than his parents are able to arrive, most of his fellow camp residents are apathetic to the goals of the camp coaches and just want to go home. When Raz begins to demonstrate his abilities, some attempt to impede his progress.

Getting ready to attend "Basic Braining"

Getting ready to attend “Basic Braining”

Those familiar with Tim Shafer’s other games such as Full Throttle and Grim Fandango will note the same signature charm in the story, dialog, and artistic nature of Psychonauts. However, unlike those previous games, Psychonauts is a true action 3D-platformer, not a relaxing point-and-click adventure game. This makes sense given that a version of the game was also released for the XBox and Playstation 2 game consoles.

A piece of mental baggage.

A piece of mental baggage.

The first forty minutes of the game consists of cut-scenes introducing Raz and the characters at the camp and a tutorial on how to successfully implement the mechanics of the game across an obstacle course known as “Basic Braining.” The controls are a little awkward to get used to for a PC gamer utilizing the mouse and keyboard. I have played many more PC titles in the same genre that felt like they had much better controls. That being said, the effort to learn the awkward controls felt worthwhile in order to progress further into a rich, compelling game.

Swinging on poles was challenging until I learned you're supposed to press the direction arrow at the same time you jump

Swinging on poles was challenging until I learned you’re supposed to press the direction arrow you want to move in at the same time you jump.

Once through the tutorial, it is apparent that Psychonauts is a vast game with a great deal of depth to it. The player may press the “Esc” key to access the game’s journal. The journal keeps track of the quests the player has been sent on, any key game information the player needs, player stats, and games may be saved and loaded from the journal as well.The game may be saved at any time the player accesses the journal; there are no pesky save points.

Then there are these tightropes. A little tricky.

Then there are these tightropes. A little tricky.

Every few moments at the beginning of playing Psychonauts there is something new being introduced. I sometimes hate writing first impressions articles on games like Psychonauts because I feel like I haven’t spent enough time playing yet to adequately describe the essence of the game as a whole, but only a sliver of the tip of the iceberg. The character acting and animation are phenomenal. The game does a good job introducing the player to a large, bizarre story world a little bit at a time to keep it all fresh, interesting, and fun.

But the trapeze was the most challenging of all.

But the trapeze was the most challenging of all.

Psychonauts includes a little something for everyone it seems. Collecting various items throughout the game allows the player to level up their character’s abilities. There are pieces of mental baggage to find and sort through. I felt all sorts of good when I received my first merit badge and could score more as the game progresses. Psychonauts is a challenging 3D platformer, and provides an intense, deep story for adventure gamers as well. This seems to be a classic in every sense in my gameplay so far. I’m eager to continue playing through Psychonauts to really see how good it is.