Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Third Courier: Won! (with Final Rating)



The Third Courier
Manley & Associates, Synergistic Software (Developers); Accolade (Publisher)
Carol Manley (designer) and Ivan Manley (designer/director)
Released 1989 for DOS, 1990 for Amiga, Atari ST, Apple IIgs
Date Started: 16 August 2013
Date Ended: 17 August 2013
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 29
Ranking at Time of Posting: 48% (51/107)

The Third Courier turned out to be almost exactly like B.A.T.: a nearly pure adventure game masquerading as an adventure-RPG hybrid, in which all but a couple of combats were unnecessary and avoidable, attributes and traits didn't matter at all, the plot was extremely limited, and the developers bulked up the game with inexcusably large and tedious mazes. Just like B.A.T. (and, frankly, a lot of games I played in 1989), it had some intriguing elements that simply didn't come together in any kind of coherent fashion.

The plot turned out to have three major parts: the recovery of a computer chip from the Charlottenburg Palace, the recovery of a disk from the Soviet Embassy, and chasing down a mole who ultimately stole both of those items after I had recovered them.

My final map of West Berlin. Only about 10 of all the locations annotated here are necessary to the plot.
 
Mapping the streets of West Berlin took almost as much time as the rest of the game. As time passed, I received several clues pointing me to a place called the Ax Bax Bar, which may have been a real place (it shows up on a couple of non-Third Courier sites). A sausage vendor asked me to get forged papers for his girlfriend, and I bought them from the shoe maker. He told me about Ax Bax, as did a mysterious message on my answering machine.

No idea who "Jack" is.

When I bribed the bartender there, he told me to seek a guard at Charlottenburg Palace (definitely a real place) named Waldemar Verner. In the palace, I was presented with my first pointlessly enormous maze. Its two floors wound around forever, and I began to despair of ever finding anything valuable when I finally got a message that my FERAT (some kind of radiation detector) was beeping. In one of the displays, I found a hidden computer chip. I spent a couple of reloads trying to steal it but setting off the alarm before it occurred to me to bribe the palace guards. One of them (presumably Herr Verner, though the game didn't identify him as such) agreed to shut off the alarm, and I was able to escape with the chip.


For a while after this, I didn't know what to do next. But I discovered through exploration that I could take photographs of any of the NPCs I encountered--the butcher, a bookstore owner, street vendors--and automatically transmit them to CIA headquarters, receiving dossiers on them in return. One of them indicated that the butcher operated a black market and gave me the password. From him, I was able to buy a bullet-proof vest that greatly increased my survivability in combat.


A cryptic e-mail suggested that I check out the Tempelhof Building, which I had previously discovered. There was nothing there but a dark basement, so I had to return to Mission Support to get a flashlight. I saw that MS had a lot of new items for me, including a gas mask, a Visa card, a "super bug," a briefcase, and tannic acid. I never ended up using half this stuff, which I'll talk more about at the end.

Anyway, with the flashlight I was able to explore the basement and its subsequent entry into the aqueducts. The area was absurdly large, taking me more than two hours and plenty of reloads to map. Criminals attacked me constantly, exhausting my ammo and forcing me to pick up their dropped weapons so I could keep fighting (I got an Uzi out of it, so I guess I can't complain). Honestly, the size of the basement and aqueducts was ridiculous, even worse than the dumb maze in B.A.T., and there was no excuse for it except to bulk up the perceived time and difficulty of the game.

This view didn't change for hours.

(I did discover during this process that "sneaking" all the time produced fewer random encounters, but it did increase the frequency of encounters with police on the street.)

At long last, through several locked doors I had to open with picks or the Visa card, I emerged in the basement of the Soviet embassy in East Berlin. It was also unpardonably huge, and I had to keep killing poor embassy guards as I explored. Eventually, I found an office and recovered a computer disk from a locked safe.

You don't see the ol' hammer and sickle enough these days.

I wasn't about to return to West Berlin through those tunnels, but getting back was harder than I thought. The checkpoints kept finding my weapons and questioning me for hours, leaving me weaponless when I was finally released. At last I discovered that taking the U-Bahn would allow me to keep my weapons, though I had to keep presenting my passport to suspicious border guards. (I was surprised to see from Corey Cole's comment that there really was subway service between East and West Berlin in the 1980s.)

Living in Cold War Germany must have sucked.

Back in West Berlin, I was almost immediately approached by a vagrant who told me that the chip and disk had been stolen back and were on the black market again. Sure enough, they were gone from my inventory. I admit I was annoyed enough to reload, but there didn't seem to be any way to avoid this plot development.

Who are you, and how do you know this?

I spent some time screwing around, trying to get clues from places and people I'd already visited. I got some too-late clues that indicated the courier's girlfriend was the Soviet embassy secretary whose office I'd stolen the disk from. Eventually, the butcher told me that the "man I'm interested in" often has lunch at the Opern Cafe in East Berlin. I crossed back over, visited the restaurant, and heard someone saying "I don't know if I should trust Nigel" (the name of my CIA boss).


I staked out the restaurant and saw Nigel leaving in a cab. I was at last able to use the "follow that cab" option when hailing my own cab. Nigel led me to a safehouse where, in the game's only truly fixed combat, I had to kill a guard dog.


Entering the house, I found a dead body on the couch and Nigel arguing with another man (perhaps the disguised vagrant from before). Each tried to convince me that the other was the bad guy. The unnamed fellow said that there was no real theft of documents; the whole operation had been to draw out a mole. (Didn't Mission: Impossible use this same plot device seven years later?) Nigel's protests were much less convincing, consisting primarily of "I'm your boss!," so I shot him. The unnamed agent congratulated me and I got the winning screen above.

You can stop pointing. I already shot him.

I never did find out who the dead body on the couch was. I assume it was William Martin, the titular Third Courier. On a reload, I tried shooting the other guy instead of Nigel, and I got a "bad" ending:

I died right after this, but I'm not sure why. Couldn't I have still shot him while he was confessing?

I consulted a walkthrough and discovered that there were several alternate avenues to get to the same plot points. For instance, if I'd gotten the clues about the embassy secretary earlier, I could have broken into her apartment and bugged it, then listened to the recording to hear her talking with the courier about the disk being in the Soviet embassy. I could have purchased better vests and weapons from the butcher if I'd saved more money. If I'd managed to kill one of the assassins who attacked on the first day and searched his body, I'd have gotten the Ax Bax Bar clue much sooner.

There are a few other things to cover, but I'll handle it in the GIMLET below:

  • 4 points for the game world. I liked the Cold War theme, and the game did a reasonably good job (for the 1980s) recreating divided Berlin and some of its most famous landmarks. We're running out of time for Cold War themes to appear in any other CRPGs; even this game is almost too late, as the Berlin Wall would come down within a year of its release. The major negative about the game world is the ridiculous number of random restaurants, bars, office buildings, merchants, and hotels, none of which mean anything during the game. I was particularly disappointed that none of the hotels, each with numbered rooms and maze-like corridors, played any role in the game.

There's nothing to do here at Brandenburg Gate, but it's fun that they included it anyway.

  • 2 points for character creation and development. The game has an interesting creation process and rewards the player with experience points for both combat and puzzle-solving, but ultimately it's all a sham. Experience rewards for hitting the plot points vastly outweigh what you get for dealing with random thugs, and increasing in levels just seems to increase the difficulty of random encounters. I never saw any evidence that intelligence, knowledge, and intuition had any bearing on gameplay, and I'm not even sure about strength. I also didn't like how everyone called me "Moondancer" despite having me select a name at the outset. Was it too tough to program "Nice work, " & [CHARNAME] & ". You saved the world!"?
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. There are lots of NPCs in the game, and you must interact with them to solve puzzles and advance the plot, but basically all you're able to do is bribe them. "Chat" never produces anything useful, and there are no dialogue options.


  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The random street thugs are distinguishable only by weapon and mostly unmemorable. There are plenty of random encounters if you want to grind, but mostly no point to doing so. The quality of the puzzles is okay. I'm going to regard the ability to send photographs of each NPC to Langley and get some intelligence as falling into the "encounters" category, since it prepares you to deal with them later. It's a fun addition.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. There's no "magic," of course. Combat is three options: threaten, fight, and flee, and "fight" is the only real option most of the time. There are no tactics associated with combat, and I'm not even sure the attributes matter.

Isn't that just like an East German living under Soviet occupation? Brings a knife to a gunfight.

  • 3 points for equipment. There's a decent selection of handguns, rifles, and automatic weapons, but it's not entirely clear how they compare to each other in terms of damage. The armor is easier to evaluate because it has a protection factor in its name. Beyond that, the equipment is all for puzzle-solving, and I don't know why the game included so much of it that was purposeless. Things I never found a use for include the gas mask, the "bug killer" (for ensuring private conversations), the bug finder, the bomb sniffer, Amyl Nitrate, tannic acid, a briefcase, and the "super bug." I'm not saying none of these items had a use, but even the writer of the walkthrough I consulted post-game didn't have any clue about some of them.
  • 2 points for economy. You do need a lot of cash in this game, mostly for taxis and bribes, but also to buy certain equipment from the black market. Unfortunately, there's only one way to really make money, and that's to visit the CIA "Mission Support" office, where a new 1000 DM becomes available every day. Slain foes don't drop cash. The only other way to get it is to periodically withdraw 100 DM from your own personal bank account. Basically, you can easily get enough money with a little patience, so there's no challenge here.
  • 4 points for the quest. We don't see spy missions often in CRPGs. This one isn't terribly well done, and I didn't understand what was happening half the time, but it gets points for originality. I also like the good and bad endings, though this is less a role-playing choice than a player intelligence check.

You don't know me very well if you think that's going to work.

  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are passable. The only sound is painful bloopish music, which I turned off. (I guess the Amiga version had both sound effects and animated graphics.) The interface is reasonably intuitive, but the keyboard shortcuts didn't work very well in some places, and I was essentially forced to use the mouse. I also didn't like that keyboard-based navigation used NESW instead of the arrows or keypad.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It's somewhat nonlinear, at least in the way you explore the world. I like that there were a couple of ways to get the necessary clues. It's a minor game, but it seems to understand that it's a minor game, and it doesn't take too long to finish, nor is it too easy or too hard. I can't forgive the enormous, boring, and pointless mazes, though.

The final score of 29 is exactly the same rating I gave B.A.T., which doesn't surprise me. There's an admirable effort here, with some nice innovations, but it simply isn't enough of an RPG to deserve a high rating on my scale.


Just a few days ago, I was criticizing Computer Gaming World reviewer Dennis Owens for overly-rosy reviews, so I was happy to see that for this game, he broke the pattern. In the April 1990 issue (page 24), he criticizes the amount of time the player must spend wandering around, finding key locations, the limited combat options, and the relentless encounters with random street thugs. He praised some of its innovations, such as its spy/mystery theme, but ultimately found it wanting. Reviews aggregated by MobyGames are also mostly negative. Perhaps the best summary is from Zzap!:

If exploring Berlin, talking to drunks, and visiting every accessible establishment on every street in an effort to find the odd clue sounds like fun to you, well, I recommend this sleuthing RPG. Otherwise forget it.

Lisa Wroble, on the other hand, writing for the February 1990 Compute!, was unabashedly positive. Calling it "one of the most clever action/adventure games I've seen," she praises character creation, the graphics, and the robust puzzle-solving challenges.

The Third Courier is not the only Manley/Clardy collaboration on my list: in 1991, they produced Vengeance of Excalibur. But the Manleys were more known for side-scrolling action games and educational games with an appeal to children, such as Hometown U.S.A. (1988), Home Alone (1991), The Wizard of Oz (1993), Paperboy 2 (1993), and Dinopark Tycoon (1993). Clardy would continue to work on some RPGs throughout the 1990s (Warriors of Legend, Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance) but was also significantly diversifying his portfolio, with action, strategy, sports, and educational titles. In general, this game is a strange divergence for both developer and programmer, and I'd love to hear more about how it came about.

Think I can handle Keef the Thief this quickly? We've only got two more games in the 1980s.

58 comments:

  1. You're on a roll!

    From your description of this game, it seems to me that the best thing about it is it's different setting. I think games based in the real world much too often take place in the US.
    Don't get me wrong, I like the US as a setting very much and completely understand why it's used as often as it is. Nevertheless it's nice to see something different now and then.

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    1. I agree. This game even prompted me to learn a little bit about Berlin's geography, landmarks, and history, even though none of these things have particular relevance to the game.

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  2. I have to wonder: How many other spy games are on the master game list (or contemporary games for that matter)? Can't be very many. I know of Alpha Protocol, but can't think of any other right now.

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    1. This and B.A.T. (if you allow the designation to stretch that far) are the only two spy-related games I've ever played. I wish there were more RPGs set in contemporary contexts--or at least non-fantasy ones. Other than fantasy and sci-fi, we could have pirate RPGs, western RPGs, spy RPGs, police RPGs, and a host of others. But we hardly get any of them.

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    2. It isn't a full-fledged spy RPG (though it sets some precedents for "Alpha Protocol"), and it will presumably be several years before this blog arrives at 2000 in gaming, but "Deus Ex" has some of the characteristics of a spy game: infiltration, information-gathering via hacking, stealth mechanics, the unraveling of conspiracies....

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    3. That would also bring in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Kyle's Quest for Plam OS had some spy missions, but they weren't very good and were just skins on top of a very basic RPG system.

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    4. There are very little of them in RPGs but they thrive in Adventure games. I guess The Adventure Gamer would be chewing his way though all of them like a mouthful of week-old gum and sticky molasses by the mid 90s.

      The truth is, it is very difficult to implement them due to the open-nature and attribute/skill-based system of RPGs. It is very hard to explain why a competently trained agent couldn't pick a lock or defuse a terrorist bomb unless he goes out of the way to do some random side-quests and rack up a couple of levels so that he can distribute points into those skills.

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    5. So don't make him completely trained. Start him in training. Or have him just released from 15 years in captivity, with his skills rusty. There are a million ways to get around concerns like that.

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    6. Revolt of Don's Knights may qualify as a spy CRPG somewhat - it has a fantasy setting, but the mission of your character is to infiltrate enemy's castle to gather some intelligence. Its gameplay is mostly traditional blobber though.

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    7. @Chet - The "Rookie" theme is what Alpha Protocol did. DX:HR went with the "recently shoved with so many machines that will make you shit out bolts and nuts for weeks" theme.

      I'd love to see one about an old grizzled veteran coming back into business, though. Pretty sure it'd rock.

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    8. @Anon

      Right. Forgot about Deus Ex. On the other hand I have never seen it as an RPG even if it barely qualifies as such.

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  3. I haven't seen this mentioned before in the comments, but I noticed a new mapping program called Grid Cartographer from a thread on the RPGCodex. Might be of interest to the addict and others here.

    http://www.davidwaltersdevelopment.com/tools/gridcart/
    http://www.rpgcodex.net/forums/index.php?threads/grid-cartographer-new-tool-for-drawing-classic-rpg-maps.83711/

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    1. I'll be interested to hear from anyone who checks it out. My Excel solution works so well for me that I can't imagine switching to something else.

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    2. The people at the RPG Codex seemed enthusiastic at least. I have yet to try it myself.

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    3. It seems to work really well. I've tried a number of RPG mapping programs but most haven't been designed with tile based CRPGs in mind (they are for making maps for tabletop RPGs), but this one is worth checking out.

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  4. I do think you will handle Keef The Thief in... 3 postings or so.

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    1. That's good to hear. I was thinking about doing Rings of Medusa first just to give the universe a few more days to kill me before I had to play Keef.

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    2. Why do you hate it so much? It's far from being a masterpiece, but it's certainly not THAT bad.

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    3. Come on Chet, if you don't eat your broccoli you can't have any dessert.

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    4. Keef The Thief is horrible. Utter juvenile crap. I'd rather play the Girlfriend Construction Set.

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    5. I've written several times before how I feel about unrestrained goofiness. When I look at the very box art for Keef the Thief...

      https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/e/ee/Keef_the_Thief_Cover.jpg

      ...I get annoyed at the unbearable conceit that would make the publishers think that someone would look at it and actually want to play their game.

      I feel the same way about a lot of move posters, like this one...

      https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/10/Fun_with_D_%26_J.jpg

      ...that seem to say, a little too desperately, "Come and join us on our wacky adventures!!!" It just makes me want to punch the people in them.

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    6. Dunno, I don't remember it being that offensive. In fact, I don't remember anything of its plot and writing at all. But most of the mechanics were pretty solid and fun (with one unfortunate exception), which is more important in my book.

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    7. (That was the answer to Kenny's comment)

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    8. Was the "unfortunate exception" the trial-and-error trap-disarming system?

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    9. More like trial-and-death, yes )

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    10. So Keef's tone is like an annoying Jim Carey film? If that's the case I think I can understand your loathing.

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    11. I understand your annoyance but I enjoyed the game in spite of the tone. It's also historically significant as the first game by Naughty Dog (later on to be celebrated developer for the PS3, Rachet & Clank, Uncharted, The Last of Us etc).

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    12. I'm not sure how you can say it's historically significant and then name games the developers had nothing to do with. Ratchet & Clank is an Insomniac game, and the others were created by different people (after the sale of Naughty Dog to Sony). This is the problem with attributing games to a company, it's too easy to confuse the influences.

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    13. This is how I feel about almost every Sierra and Lucasarts adventure that Trickster has gone through so far, and no one else on that blog seems to get it. I think I'll just link them to your post in future.

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  5. I also didn't like how everyone called me "Moondancer" despite having me select a name at the outset. Was it too tough to program "Nice work, " & [CHARNAME] & ". You saved the world!"?

    It's realism! It's not a game, it's a simulation. Spies always use their code names!

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    Replies
    1. It depends on the language it is written in. If it was done in straight assembly then yes, that would be a lot of extra work. In BASIC it would be work, but doable I think. In anything newer it is trivial. However, I have no idea what they would have been using at this point in time.

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    2. The PC version of the Third Courier was written in Turbo-C...

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    3. Welp, then they have no excuse. C has printf, which makes it trivially easy to do something like that.

      Also I've actually used the Borland Turbo-C compiler, despite how old and outdated it is. Yay for Uni CS classes, when they realize that the compiler they planned wasn't installed in all the computer labs like the comp department had promised, so they had to see what was already on there...

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  6. Oh boy oh boy oh boy! You are nearly at the 1990s! Here comes the golden age!.....

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  7. Come 2011, you get to play as the 6th Courier (in a totally unrelated game)!

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  8. Wow! You made it all the way to level 3. That does seem awfully pointless.

    Good luck with Keef. I don't think I'm going to play it after all. Navigating the game is confusing, and talking to people costs money for some reason. I just can't get into the game.

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    1. You're not alone. Like I said, it's a steaming pile of bull-crap which you can't even use as fertilizer.

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    2. "Talking to people costs money for some reason" - it makes sense in-setting, since everyone is a greedy bastard. And I'd say it's a tad more realistic than in most games, where every NPC is ready to stand and chat with a perfect stranger all day long - at least this way they have a reason to do so.

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    3. I don't even know what the leveling was about. My attributes increased incrementally regardless of the levels. I think the levels were just a prestige thing.

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    4. @VK: I'm fine with people charging money for information, but to even talk to a merchant about what they have for sale... why? It also happens with little warning, a small number off to the right indicates how much it costs. This isn't explained in the game, and I didn't catch on until all my gold was gone. It encourages people to save, buy info, and reload. I don't see the point of that.

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    5. "but to even talk to a merchant about what they have for sale" - I think that was meant as a joke. And the mechanic is actually explained in the manual, don't forget that we're still in the era, when you were supposed to read those ;)
      As for save-scumming, I think we had this discussion not too long ago to repeat it here ))

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    6. Yeah, I'm over-exaggerating. I remember having a demo version, but not the manual and nothing was explained. I might play it sometime in the future with the manual in hand, but firing it up recently to see how far I could get on my own didn't really sell the game for me. I don't even mind juvenile humor, but can't get past poorly design mechanics.

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  9. If you want to play a good game set (partly) in Berlin in the good ol' Cold War days, try the No One Lives Forever games. They're not CRPGs, though, but First Person Shooters.

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    1. NOLF 2 actually has RPG credentials (XP and skill levelling at least - so about as much as Deus Ex).

      And Berlin is not so much recognizable as Berlin IIRC (i.e., don't expect to see famous landmarks from Berlin in the game).

      Also, I suspect that the addict will find NOLF a little bit too goofy for his taste (I found the NOLF 2 to be a bit too goofy, NOLF 1 is just really funny).

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  10. One of the probably funnier elements of the Cold War was this:

    I was living near the triangle where East Germany, West Germany and Czechoslovakia met. Of course, you had border patrols. But: on the "Western side", you had

    - german border patrol (standard)
    - german federal police (police guarding the german-german border)
    - american forces patrol (patrolling the german-czech border)

    on the eastern side you had:
    - east german border patrol
    - czech border patrol
    - soviet border patrol

    All basically guarding the same border and stumbling over each other more or less on a daily basis.

    While it was not without danger then, from today's perspective it sounds rather grotesque and funny.

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  11. Dinopark Tycoon and Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance are great games and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply incorrect.

    The eighties saw the biggest jump in technological advancement for gaming, in my opinion. I wish I was old enough to have experienced the gradual transition firsthand, but alas, I was born too late to really "get" it.

    I do remember my first 3.5" floppy drive though.

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    1. Haven't played the other one, but I agree about Birthright. However I'd say that they were overly ambitious with it and they couldn't (or didn't have the time) to give it the polish it deserved.

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    2. "The eighties saw the biggest jump in technological advancement for gaming, in my opinion."

      That's actually very debatable.

      The eighties had lots of refinements of course and the tech made the jump from early home computer to the PC clone and from simple 2D games consoles (Atari VCS) to refined 2D games consoles (Super NES, Sega Genesis/Megadrive). Resolution & colors increased but it was more or less the same, only more refined.

      In my eyes, though, the second half of the nineties saw the biggest change with nearly everything shifting to 3D. This of course saw included many failed attempts but also gave us Super Mario 3D, Tombraider and countless other games that really increased immersion (like the stealthy Thief games, for example).

      The next jump could be the "virtual 3D revival" with a good consumer version of the Oculus Rift that is scheduled for next year, if I'm not mistaken.

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    3. Putting Dinopark Tycoon aside (not being an RPG and all that), Birthright would have been sick if it were made with today's technology. It would be like playing Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy Tactics AT THE SAME TIME!

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    4. I think I shoved magnets in my Dad's 3.5" floppy drive. To be fair, he did have a magnet shaped like a floppy disk stuck to the bookshelf beside the computer, and yeahhhhh. (It may have been the 5 1/4", he had both on that computer).

      I also put magnets in the VCR. Apparently I liked putting magnets in things that shouldn't have magnets in them as a kid.

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  12. I totally support you if Keef ends up busting your winning streak.

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    1. Unlikely. Even I finished Keef.

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    2. If a game is going to bust my winning streak, it's going to be a game I respect, like Wizardry IV, not something called Keef the Thief.

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  13. Well, at least the box art looks cool! :)

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  14. God, I remember this game. I played it on the Amiga when I was about 10 years old. I am german and at that time, I couldn't speak english at all. Whenever I played RPG's or adventures, I used dictionaries for the basic commands. So I knew words like talk, sneak, buy/sell and so on... I remember really wanting to like this game. It looked extremely interesting, the street names were german for god's sake! But I also remember that the random encounters annoyed me too much. The places were too similar and I didn't know what to do. Last week, for whatever reason, the game entered my mind and I wondered what it was called, now I know! And I know now, that I won't look for it again, so thank you!

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    1. Glad to assist you. I'm always impressed when I hear that non-English speakers still managed to power though English games. It makes me feel worse about not finishing Le Maitre des Ames and Tera.

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    2. Well, I didn't finish The Third Courier either, so there's no reason to feel bad.
      And thank you for replying to my comments on some ancient threads. Only VERY few blog hosts do this, That makes us readers feel special ;-).

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    3. I really like when I get comments on old posts. They're far more likely to actually be ABOUT the game or theme in the post.

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