Thursday, November 4, 2010

Alien Fires: WTF -- and Beyond!

I don't have the graphics editing skills to make this $&*# up.

Normally, I like to save Barton for the end of a game, but I had to take a break from actually trying to play Alien Fires to see what he thought about this completely WTF game. I am gratified to see the word "bizarre" in the first sentence. He mentions the free-form dialog but also a number of features that I don't have, probably because they weren't included in the DOS port: a cool soundtrack, and a beating-heart effect that tells you when you're about to die. I wonder what year we have to get into before the DOS/PC version isn't the worst version of every game.

He goes on to say, "Alien Fires is an extremely difficult game...I certainly wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but I've never played another game that had the same otherworldly ambiance." See, Barton has a way with words. He says "otherworldly ambiance." I say, "WTF?"

It's going to be a long six hours.

Since yesterday, I managed to find the pocket watch--the huge pocket watch--sought by our rabbit-horse friend, Mangle Tangle.

I'm late, I'm late...for a very important hernia operation.

In return for the watch, I got an "octo knife." It was nice to finally have a weapon because I kept running into Octo agents in the hallways and getting killed. Let's talk about combat for a second. Barton calls it a "furious affair." He's right. Once you engage in it, you have to keep mashing the "attack" key (in my case, the spacebar), hoping to score more hits than your opponent within the roughly 2.3 seconds that combat lasts. I have yet to win.

Never bring an octo knife to a sword/pulse rifle fight.

While I was happy to get the knife, it introduced a new problem: Mangle Tangle the rabbit-horse decided he didn't like me. I might have accidentally hit the space bar (attack) while standing in front of him. Whatever the cause, he kept showing up, blocking the hallways, and killing me. I was unable to use his own knife against him to any effect.

Feel free not to.

When you get killed the Time Lords resurrect you and send you on back to the beginning. There's some more WTF stuff going on in that screen shot. Do they have my soul in a test tube or something? Unfortunately, this doesn't make Mangle Tangle any less hostile, and I kept dying over and over. If there's a way to turn a character un-hostile after he attacks you, or skirt around him, I haven't found it. Ultimately, I had to re-start with a new character.

The next time around, I realized that I'd been neglecting the "examine" key, which tells you a little about the people in front of you.

That clears up the whole "droid" thing.

I also found another clue about the evil Octo corporation from a hand on a ship that the company had confiscated.

After retrieving Mangle Tangle's pocket watch for the second time and getting his knife again, I found the elevator to the second level, where Alien Fires made a reasonably funny joke:

"The jerk gets off at Level 2 and the elevator continues on."

Ominously, the game congratulated me for this achievement and warned me that the rest of the game wouldn't be as easy as Level 1. Oh, goodie.

I'm glad I'm not supposed to be undercover.

You might note that there isn't a single screenshot that doesn't have some glaring grammar or syntax problem. I know I make my share, too, but when I see them, I do recognize them as errors. No one on Jagware's staff could do that, apparently.

Aside from the grating text, the main problem at this point is that I just can't stop dying. Even with my knife, I've yet to win a single battle. I'm not even sure I've scored a hit.

Barton, I see you lurking over there in my "Followers" list. Given that I don't get to experience the sound effects, music, and atmosphere that you described in your book, is it worth continuing with this one? I ask because I haven't really enjoyed a game--really experienced that classic "addict" sensation where you want to stay up until 03:00 to play, and you even sneak in an hour or two at work, if the afternoon is quiet--since Starflight, and part of me wants to keep pushing through these interesting-but-dated titles until I get to something I know will satisfy this jones, like Phantasie III or Pool of Radiance.

No hurry. I probably have three more hours at least to satisfy my rules.


  1. I think you're onto a loser with this one! 6 hours sounds like a long time for some of these games.

    Personally I'm keen to see what you have to say about other, more interesting games - some well known, some not so well known. I feel like you've given this one enough of your time but appreciate you want to stick to your original rules.

  2. some games are not worth playing no matter what you think :)

  3. I think you need at least six hours to prime the pump. No new game seems really fun at the outset; you're spending most of your time trying to figure out the interface. It takes an investment of at least four hours before you know if you're really going to like it. I would have quit Rogue after a couple of hours if I didn't force myself to keep at it.

    My problem with "Alien Fires" is it doesn't even try to take itself seriously. I like games that are humorous in parts, but not games that constantly break the fourth wall by goofing around with names like "Speedy Gonzalez" and "Dr. Fever." It utterly spoils the immersion.

  4. Also, it scores negative for MAKING you feel old because it referenced WKRP in Cincinnati... Heck, I was only single digits of age when that show was on, so the Dr. Fever reference went right over my head. :S

    Hm, if you've lost every single combat, it sounds like there's some key you're missing, maybe literally. I mean, yeah, the game could suck THAT BAD...

    I played a CRPG on the TRS-80 Color Computer that was impossible because you continually lost health and there was no visible means to regain it at all in the game without buying a healing potion which cost so much money you had to keep fighting monsters... until you ran out. And the game always started you back over with nothing.

    I eventually learned from the original author, long after I had quit in disgust, that there was some elven priestess in a town that would heal you for free. That's nice, but why couldn't she be in THE FIRST TOWN?! I can barely survive in the starting region, why would I go exploring?!

    Anyway, I'd give it the six then chuck it in the bin.

  5. "He mentions the free-form dialog but also a number of features that I don't have, probably because they weren't included in the DOS port: a cool soundtrack, and a beating-heart effect that tells you when you're about to die. I wonder what year we have to get into before the DOS/PC version isn't the worst version of every game."

    Back in the 1980s, I knew someone who had an IBM PC. I was always told that it was the state-of-the-art computer of the time. I didn't say this, but I wasn't much impressed by the CGA/EGA graphics and the uneven beeps for sound effects. As a pure gaming device, the Commodore 64 was superior. In fact, many 8-bit computers of the era were better as far as playing games went.

    To me, Ultima IV is not the same without the beautiful soundtrack being played through the C64's SID chip.

    As for Alien Fires, I never played it but I love the otherworldly look of the graphics you've posted here.

  6. "I wonder what year we have to get into before the DOS/PC version isn't the worst version of every game."

    Short answer: When VGA became *the* PC graphics standard and its popularity helped the PC to overtake the 68000-based Amiga and ST platforms.

    This was around 1990/1991.

    Yes, games that put the EGA standard to good use weren't necessarily ugly but EGA had a limited palette and not every PC owner had a good soundcard at the time. And what about joysticks?
    In other words: If you had a C64 or an Amiga you had a "full package" with everything you need for games. If you had a PC you would need the best graphics card supported(!) by games and a sound card (usually with less games support) to have a platform that could *barely* compete with a separate C64 (and especially later machines like the Amiga or ST). And the C64 would probably still cost less than the graphics and sound card...

    So it was clear that the PC and its components had to come down in price to reach gamers that buy a platform for playing games and not predominantly for work and playing a game every once and while on their more or less powerful rig.

    When VGA was stunningly supported by games companies like Origin (Ultima 6 and the Wing Commander series) and cheap but powerful VGA chips became available (the ET4000 from Tseng Labs) the tables turned and the Commodore and Atari platforms began to suffer. As is well known their newer machines that tried to battle the PC platform never really recovered lost ground and the only company to survive the 16 and 32 bit system wars against the PC was Apple - perhaps because they were not really establishing their Macintosh platform for games.

    In terms of CRPGs, however, I think that Ultima 6 (1990) and the first Eye of the Beholder (1991) were the turning points. These games really made VGAs 256 colors look good and a resolution of 320x200 was still commonplace.

    With sound cards it's a similar story and time frame: It wasn't until the hardware got good enough (SoundBlaster card with a digital channel to play back samples) and widely distributed to garner enough support from the game studios/publishers.
    We are talking also 1990 here.

    So you needed two things: Games that put the hardware to good use and enough sales to prove that the costly development was worth it.
    Apparently the aforementioned RPGs were very successful and thus the road was paved...

  7. Great explanation. Thanks, Calibrator. A CRPG Addict ought to know this stuff.

  8. It looks like the DOS port for this game is unforgivably bad. I had the chance to briefly interview the author, but he dropped off the radar before answering the actual interview questions.

    At any rate, this was probably an example of my playing a game at just the right time. I had an Amiga and very few CRPGs to play on it, and somehow ended up with this one. I loved the not-so-subtle nods to Doctor Who and the soundtrack (I was actually trying to find that when I stumbled upon your blog post instead).

    Would I play this today? I don't know. I still admire the aesthetics, particularly later in the game when you find a gum ball machine and other oddities. Sadly, the gameplay itself is obtuse.

    1. I have to confess that I'd rather given up after three years. But your timing is oddly good, since I recently abandoned my idiotic DOS/PC-only rule and am open to trying other versions. I play this game long enough to even rate it, so perhaps I'll give it another try with the Amiga emulator. Thanks for stopping by!


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