Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Game 310: Le Maître Absolu (1989)

        
Le Maître Absolu
"The Absolute Master"
France
Ubisoft (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 9 December 2018
Date Ended: 9 December 2018
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 19
Ranking at Time of Posting: 68/314 (22%)

I don't often like to repeat myself, but I can't imagine improving on the way that I started my review of Le Maître des Âmes a year ago:
        
Like most French games of the era, including Ubisoft's prior two titles (Fer & Flamme et L'Anneau de Zengara), Le Maître des Âmes ("The Master of Souls") offers a sense of the bizarre that goes beyond the simple fact that it's in a foreign language. French RPGs of the 1980s feature weird combinations of plot elements from mythology, fantasy, and sci-fi, NPC dialogue that makes little sense even in its original language, vague quests, and odd in-game asides. It's as if their developers felt that RPGs were the next frontier for the Surrealist movement. Like the British ZX Spectrum games from the same era, they stand out for their originality in game elements and interfaces. In contrast to Germany, where RPG development was immediately influenced by The Bard's Tale and a few other U.S. titles, France built everything from scratch. More often than not, I hasten to add, the results were weird and unsatisfying rather than praiseworthy, but at least I never look at a French RPG and say "this again?!"
            
Such is true even when a game uses the same engine as its predecessor. Le Maître Absolu is a more colorful sci-fi follow-up to Le Maître des Âmes, and if anything it manages to out-outré the first game. Unfortunately, it maintains many of the same flaws, including a combat system that depends entirely on luck, all-but-invisible character development, and commands that don't seem to do anything.

The box actually subtitles the game Le Maître des Âmes II, but there's no thematic connection between the titles. The near-incomprehensible backstory sets the game in 2523, when a "Terran Alliance" ship discovers the Octopus III, a research vessel that had gone missing 57 years earlier while charting extraterrestrial activity. A squad from the Galactic Intervention Group (GIG) boards the station to investigate.
         
Part of the in-game backstory.
        
The player creates a party of four from six class types: captain, terminal (robot), genetic, special agent, android, and "cybern." The default team is android, terminal, cybern, and special agent, but I went with captain, terminal, genetic, and special agent for my first party. Each is created after rolling scores in vitality, strength, intelligence, wisdom, agility, and charisma on scales of 1 to 100. You get no chance to re-roll or even discard the character during character creation, so you're pretty much stuck with what you get unless you want to reboot the computer. Attributes increase (erratically) with experience, but I'm not sure they play much of a role in the first place.
        
Selecting the class after the attribute roll.
         
You then spend a randomly-rolled number of credits on weapons and armor, including both melee weapons and futuristic ranged weapons. As in the previous game, you can have only two items "active" at a single time, so there's no point in getting more than one weapon and one piece of armor. You want to save some money because many of the NPCs demand credits for advice.
          
Selecting equipment. I'm not sure what the bracelets do.
        
The game begins after you step through the airlock and onto the Octopus III. The characters are shown on the left side of the screen, and an immediate goal is to get weapons and armor equipped. There's a fifth slot for an NPC. The row of icons in the middle is the same as Le Maître des Âmes, just updated to be techy. The actions, from top to bottom, are party arrangement, look, listen (this one never seems to do anything), eat, sleep, use, open door, dialogue, attack, and disk options. The top of the screen shows a compass, an "up in the air" inventory slot, and a face that occasionally has reactions but I otherwise have no idea what it's about.
           
The game begins!
             
The controls, alas, are annoying. As you begin the game, it asks you whether you want keyboard or joystick control, but so-called "keyboard" control mostly consists of moving the cursor with the arrow keys and then hitting SPACE to activate it. There are no easy keys corresponding with the row of icons, for instance, which is mostly unforgivable. You do at least move with the keyboard--specifically the XCV cluster.

As in the first game, the party can be split, but there are no puzzles that require it. Its primary use is to keep the weaker characters (specifically, the terminal) out of combat.

The game consists of 13 small sections connected by elevators. Among the sections, you find enemies, NPCs, food, weapons and armor (though rarely anything much better than your starting equipment), and most importantly, security passes. You find about 8 passes throughout the game, and they're necessary for opening key areas.
            
The different sections of the game.
           
Enemies are unnamed. They're mostly bestial, with the suggestion that the research station was doing experiments on aliens and they escaped. There are giant toads, insect creatures, monstrous plants (looking like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors), lizardmen, and aliens that look a lot like orcs repurposed from Le Maître des Âmes II. When you enter combat, you just keep hitting "attack enemy" until someone dies. Enemies never drop anything; the primary reason to fight them is that they're standing in your way. Sometimes you can blow past them if you're fast, but rarely can you say, enter a room with an enemy, pick up the valuable item in the room, and get out.
            
"I'm just a mean green mother from outer space, and I'm bad."
          
There are 11 NPCs in the game, four of whom will join the party. You have to be careful because you need some of the NPCs (or their items) in particular places, but once they're replaced by other NPCs, they never appear again. The NPCs include:
           
  • Three "dialogue robots" who tell you things about the station.
            
The first hint that the "big bad" is a black stone.
         
  • A giant insect named Crapounick of the Pabo species. He was a prisoner on the station who fled in the confusion.
  • An unnamed researcher who just woke up from hibernation and doesn't know what's going on. He will join the party.
  • Leonihr, ambassador from the Titus Nebula, who took refuge on this ship when her shuttle crashed.
  • Tel, a telepathic blob from Gloubi.
           
Here he is, looking like a Spemin.
          
  • Imos, son of Xeron from System Ega. His system was absorbed by a black hole, and he has come seeking revenge. He will join the party, and he has a security pass necessary for the final door.
  • Hathy-Hen, a G.I.G. agent hiding from pirates. He has a shield that provides protection against the titular Absolute Master and he will join the party.
  • A maintenance robot who helps to repair the central computer.
          
Dialogue with each of the NPCs is through a series of questions: "Identify yourself"; "Who sent you?"; "What are you doing?"; "What do you know?"; and "Give some advice." Some NPCs demand credits for the advice.

Through these dialogues, it becomes clear that the Absolute Master is some kind of black crystal named Tinaus. Tinaus is somehow capable of generating black holes and thus swallowing worlds. It wanders through space until it finds a system to victimize. It has lately attached itself to the Octopus III and is slowly destroying it. This is represented by some fun graphics that show cracks and holes in the bulkheads of some sections, as well as a number of doors that simply open to space and kill the party instantly. You want to save a lot.
            
The master computer warns me that Tinaus is destroying the Octopus III.
The party accidentally spaces themselves by opening a door.
                  
Incidentally, full party death is accompanied by a neat visual:
          
I guess that's a black hole sucking up the Earth's crust. So maybe not so "neat."
           
And some dire text:
         
The last sightings were terrifying. Octopus seemed to draw around it a fog of whirling matter. Suddenly, in an infernal ballet, the Earth left its orbit to go towards this whirpool that had become the ship. It took no more than an hour for the globe to be digested, and less than a week for the solar system to disappear forever.
            
To win the game, you have to first assemble all the security passes to get to the various parts of the ship. One of the passes is held by a giant insect with a single eye that can't be defeated in regular combat; you have to find some poison (or defoliant) spray on the same level.

You have to get the maintenance robot to join the party and then access the central computer, which provides instructions on reaching Tinaus and tells the party to find an item called an Energy Absorber first. This item is in an armory on Level 2, protected by a giant insect who is one of the game's toughest foes.

You have to free Imos from the prison level to get his security pass, and get Hathy-Hen's shield. Once you've assembled the items, you find the right airlock on Level 3 and head out to face the dark crystal. As long as you have the Energy Absorber equipped, he dies quickly. If you don't have it, he doesn't take any damage at all.
             
Very few games bring you face-to-face with a giant space crystal.
          
The endgame screenshot shows the Octopus III returning to Earth:
           
       
You get this final text:
          
This black crystal was indeed the most strange and hostile spacial phenomenon that humanity had the chance to encounter. Traveling for millennia in the form of a common pebble, this titanic life suddenly awoke with a hunger colossal when it created around it a tornado of matter, aspiring galaxies, before returning to its dreams macabre.
            
A winning game takes less than an hour once you know what you're doing. After my first party was depleted exploring the base, I rolled a second party of tougher characters (I didn't need any robot to talk to other robots since I already knew the dialogue) and won it with them.

Miscellaneous notes:
          
  • There is no sound in the game.
  • It's tough to tell which items are interactable and which aren't. Every room has panels, telephones, sinks, and other decorations that look like you should be able to do something with them, but you can't.
       
None of this is interactable.

         
  • A lot of the rooms are dark and require a character with a flashlight to navigate.
  • Some of the characters come with special abilities, but I didn't really find any use for them.
           
The game doesn't GIMLET well. Character creation is very limited, and there's hardly any development. Combat involves mashing a button and hoping for the best. There are few equipment rewards after character creation, and the only "economy" is bribing people with your leftovers. It does best in the overall story and NPCs (3s), but even they're not very good. The final score comes to 19, quite a bit lower than the 30 I gave to Le Maître des Âmes, which was longer and more satisfying although still possessed of many of the same issues.
               
           
Le Maître Absolu has a couple of features that I've come to associate with French games, and Ubisoft's early titles specifically. First, it features a party that degrades throughout the adventure. Most RPG parties start weak and get stronger through character development, their hit points replenishing through healing potions and spells. With this game, and a few others like it, the characters are strongest at the beginning. Their pool of hit points is expected to to last the entire adventure and never really gets replenished. Food and sleep staunch the bleeding but don't really restore much.

Second, the plot seems cobbled together from various fictional sources. I don't know what they are and don't know for sure that this is the case, but it feels like a mélange of characters and themes rather than something created specifically for this game, much in the way that Ubisoft's L'Anneau de Zengara was based on a variety of Conan stories and the themes of Tera: La Cité des Crânes came from the novels of Michael Moorcock and other British sci-fi authors. Perhaps my readers will find something familiar in the plot and proper names described above. It certainly doesn't make much sense that a crystal capable of creating black holes is called "the absolute master."

This was the last (known) game from the minds of Eric Doireau and Christophe Le Scoarnec. (Other than the two Maitres, they worked on a 1988 erotic game called Teenage Queen.) Doireau may have become a sculptor; at least, there is a relatively well-known sculptor of that name and approximately the right age.

1989 was really the last year of the âge d'or of uniquely French RPGs, which started in 1985 with Mandragore and continued with titles like Fer & Flamme (1986), Les Templiers d'Orven (1986), Tera (1986), Inquisitor: Shade of Swords (1987), and the two Maitres. (I still have to check out 1986's Omega: Planete Invisible and Sapiens.) French developers made RPGs after this, of course, but they lose a lot of their outré characteristics in favor of a more conventional western RPG experience. Those will rate higher, but they'll never be quite as interesting as the batch we saw in the late 1980s.


43 comments:

  1. Respect for getting through another incomprehensible French RPG with your sanity intact. I just hope Cyborg Steven Seagal there didn't cause too much trouble. It is a little sad that future French entries will be a little more conventional though. I wonder if there's a French word for that type of melancholy?

    The antagonist being an evil space rock seems very Maniac Mansion to me, though it's possible Star Trek had some influence too. TNG's Skin of Evil probably aired during this game's development, and that was just a big oil spill who got all up in Tasha Yar's business. I dunno if the French were fans of older Doctor Who, but a big glowing evil rock would've been perfect for that show and its typical per-episode budget.

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    1. "TNG's Skin of Evil probably aired during this game's development"

      Another possible influence might be Datalore with the planet-eating Crystalline Entity.

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    2. I liked the Spemin reference... And kudos for making it through another non-English CRPG. Don't think I could make myself do this.

      Poor Xeron. After his people the Ega-ites destroyed the weaker civilization of the Cga-ites, they were in turn destroyed by the near almighty Vga-ite civilization.

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    3. As far as I can remember Doctor Who was broadcast at the time, I know I caught a glimpse of Genesis of the Dalek. Not sure about star trek TNG though (but I wasn't allowed much TV as a young'un so I can't say for sure).

      I don't recognize particular plot details but the general idea makes me think inspiration may have come from the Valerian series of comics, or maybe the tabletop RPG MEGA, which was popular at the time and easy to have access to (it was distributed as a magazine). Both share the idea of heroes being a part of a sort of "galactic troubleshooters" corp. also, GIG sounds like GIGN, a kind of French version of SWAT teams staffed by gendarmes, which was also very present in French popular culture at the time, for, uh, complicated French political reasons.

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    4. Good call there with Maniac Mansion. The party selection reminded me of it.

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  2. Video game museum only lists this game as Adventure. Perhaps with the "negative" character development we should note this as a caution.

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  3. After this and Crusaders of the Dark Savant it might be good idea to play something less obscure and more streamlined for a change. I recently completed the Steam release of Ys I & II Chronicles+, which is a drastically enhanced remake of first two games in the Ys series.

    The Ancient Land of Ys (which you completed in 2011) was an adaptation of the original PC-8801 version of the first game in series. While that conversion was developed by western team, Ys I & II Chronicles is an official remake created by the original developer, Nihon Falcom.

    It might be interesting to see how you feel about the remake and how it compares to the older version in your opinion.

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    1. It's still pretty much the same game with mostly the same story. Sure, it has vastly improved production values and translation, but those aren't particularly relevant on this blog, so it doesn't really warrant a replay.

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    2. I guess, Mr. Addict already have scheduled something good after that current string of the unknowns. A sure-shot, like one of the Gold Box games from the 1992, for example.

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    3. I've been letting randomization pick the 1992 games so far. I'm not sure I agree with Damocles's thesis, though, because Crusaders of the Dark Savant is a pretty well-known game that I was destined to like at least a little. If I HAD strategically placed games that wouldn't give me any trouble, CDS would have been one of the cornerstones. It's probably too early for another one.

      I'll just be happy when 1989 is over. This last batch is killing me. Two Color Computer games and THREE Mac games?! Kill me now.

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    4. Keep up the good work and hopefully find some comfort in knowing that most of your readers love what you are doing

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    5. I didn't mean to imply that seventh Wizardry is poorly-known game. If anything, Bane of the Cosmic Forge and Crusaders of the Dark Savant represent a point in the series where Wizardry was starting to get recognition in Europe, where the earlier titles had been relatively unknown as opposed to the more popular Bard's Tale and Ultima series.

      Rather, I meant that COTDS can be confusing in some of its quests and puzzles and while it is one of the classics in the genre, it is also infamous for requiring huge amount of investment in time. After completing something like that playing through Ys I & II Chronicles+ could be nice change of pace before tackling the next demanding CRPG. :)

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    6. "If I HAD strategically placed games that wouldn't give me any trouble, CDS would have been one of the cornerstones. It's probably too early for another one."

      I count 52 games left in 1992 (Realms of Akardia appears twice), and about 10 games that I know or at least recognize by name (implying they are somewhat well known and reasonably playable for an advanced player). So playing one every 5-6 games seems reasonable if you want to spread them out evenly.

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    7. I know for sure I'll enjoy The Dark Queen of Krynn, Ultima VII, The Lord of the Rings, vol. II, and Might and Magic IV (though I'm saving that one for last). I suspect, but don't know, that I'll enjoy Darklands, The Magic Candle III, Ishar, Amberstar, and Spelljammer. I figure I'll keep using the random method, but if more than 6 or so games go by without one of these titles, I may manually intervene.

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    8. Oh, I meant to add Realms of Arkania to that list, and thanks for the note about it appearing twice. I deleted the alias.

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    9. By the way, you list Legacy Realm of Terror as a 1992 game, while going by most sources (including manual and box scans on MoCAGH) it was released in 1993.

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    10. My notes says:
      "Europe: 1992. US: March 1993"

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    11. I checked this out. There are already reviews from Dec. 1992 in European magazines

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    12. Yeah, Mobygames has some images of UK-printed disks from 1992, I stand corrected. Wow, its graphics and UI are really advanced for 1992.

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    13. Yes, on those years some companies were starting to use pre-rendered sprites and textures on their games. It gives them quite a distinctive look

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  4. I have to say, I really enjoy the idea of an RPG where your characters start out in fighting shape and slowly get more and more beat up and worn out as the game goes along. It's not as heroic as the usual setup of a bunch of jabronis slowly leveling up into godslayers, but it puts me in mind of something more akin to Lord of the Rings: an urgent, miserable overland journey where the heroes are half-dead and starving by the time they reach the end of their quest.
    Obviously that's not what this is, but someone could make a really interesting RPG out of that mechanic. (Or maybe someone already has, for all I know.)

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    1. I haven't played it, but that sounds a little like Darkest Dungeon from a few years ago.

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    2. On a per-adventure basis, this is pretty accurate for Darkest Dungeon. You can (and are practically required to) maintain a large stable of adventurers to rotate, and can thus undo most of the damage, but a run where your guys come out in a condition equal to where they started is a very good one.

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    3. I agree!! One of the elements that has always affected my suspension of disbelief in games is the way sleeping/healing is handled. Some of these injuries would take really long to heal in real life...

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    4. There is one roguelike that's been made with the premise that you start strong, at the top of your abilities, and then you grow weaker over the game.

      http://www.randomstuff.org.uk/~geoffrey/roguelikes/aquesttoofar.html

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    5. While a PnP RPG and not a CRPG, Call of Cthulhu follows that model. The players are start of naive investigators and over time, end up driven insane or dead by the horrors they uncover. Systems are in place to manage the decent into insanity and all the effects on the player as they begin to crack.

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    6. I too like this idea. It not only makes the game more lifelike but it also discourages grinding. The whole idea of a person becoming more damage resistant as a result of constant abuse and injury strikes me as silly.
      I can see it work if a game lets you toughen up and improve your skills but then they degrade as your levels get higher. You'd "know more" but you certainly wouldn't be able to keep up with the young'uns for long.

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  5. this actualy makes me want to try this even with the low score

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  6. This seems like an entry in the fairly long list of games which are basically just adventure games awkwardly saddled with RPG game mechanics. I honestly kind of like the grimy look and the plot (albeit a fairly stock sci-fi thing) seems like a good framework to build either an adventure game or an RPG around. I feel like that's consistently the issue with a lot of French games of this era -- interesting ideas and aesthetics, half-assed game design. Captain Blood is a classic example.

    The structure of this plot reminds me of Jesus (yeah, really), a Japanese adventure game of the menu-driven look-and-think variety. Earth ship is investigating Halley's comet, SOS goes out, turns out that a gas sample from the comet contained a DNA-eating shape-shifting alien, the alien learns how to pilot the ship and mimic human voices, you have to stop it before it gets to Earth and takes over yadda yadda it's John Carpenter's The Thing in space. But the general "go into an abandoned ship/space station to investigate, find a civilization-ending threat, you're the only ones who can stop it" structure is a pretty solid one to build a sci-fi game on.

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  7. I find futuristic rpgs tend to always be a bit weak. They don´t fit the classical medieval style of various other world-sprawlers and dungeon crawlers. Things set in the future link more to the modernity we know and I´d argue the concept of playing a role and developing in real human life isn´t quite so clear. That our bodies grow from child to adult and we finish an education and then get a promotion here or there and maybe replace the broken phone or telly with another one isn´t exactly that big a character development and we further we can´t go around beating people up to raise our "sword" skill or any such thing. Similarly if one builds a world where there are cyborgs, nukes and whatnot, it´s like you already have everything and there just isn´t much left to be developed. Only my opinion of course.

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    1. I think Deus Ex: Human Revolution handled this one nicely.
      You start out (after the prologue) with all the augmentation a human body can possibly handle; you are basically turned into a full cyborg. But your brain cannot handle all that change at once, and many bits of equipment are not fully functional as a result. You have to experience this strange new body in a variety of (stressful) situation in order for your brain to make heads or tails of it – or you can speed up the process by acquiring Praxis kits, which nanotechnologically rewire your nervous system to make better use of your augmentations.

      In effect, you gain experience and money (which you mostly spend on praxis) and thus become more powerful – superhuman, just like in a fantasy RPG. But the idea behind it is that you grow into your full cyborg potential, which was already there to be harnessed in the first place. Leaving your humanity behind (which is the whole point the game's writers are making). I found this highly believable and motivating. I only wished it had more in-game consequences (e.g. in dialogues) how far you had already left mere humanity behind.

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    2. I don't see a principal difference between futuristic and fantasy RPGs (which aren't that medieval - especially as far as society is concerned). Technology is the equivalent of magic. Nukes and cyborgs? Just powerful magic and summoned spirits. Modern medicine? Healing spells. And so on...

      It's just that there are so many more fantasy RPGs that certain standards have been established and we know what to expect from most games.

      In tabletop RPGs I found futuristic settings harder to play. We have a basic grasp how a fantasy society works, but not so much for futuristic societies. E.g., how do you tip a beggar in a cashless society?

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    3. The big difference is that a future society is fundamentally closer to the modern one, in a sort of inversion of the not-really-medieval trappings common to fantasy. Those are cases of us including "anachronistic" elements because we don't really stop to think "was this a thing?"

      With a futuristic setting, we run into the opposite problem.

      The dynamics of a fireball spell are total blanks to us - we can just fill in whatever we want, and it works.

      A hand grenade? We have a lot of preconceptions about how those work, from TV and video games. When a grenade in-game works differently from what we expect (even if it is correct and our idea is not), it is jarring.

      We know how long it takes injuries to heal. In a fantasy setting, this isn't a big deal - just have a cleric zap it and you're good to go. In a future setting it feels off to have a guy slap on a bandage and be done with it - we instinctively know something's off there.

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    4. Call me a cynic but I'd say we're much closer to a medieval society than a futuristic one. ;)

      Hand grenades and bandages aren't exactly futuristic. Imagine nano-robots injected into the blood-stream, quickly repairing any damage to the body. Doesn't make much sense if you think a lot about it, but if suspension of disbelief didn't work for science fiction noone would read it.

      But I was mostly referring to the point "what's left to develop". Well, why would you develop cyborgs, modern weapons and medicine, if you can summon spirits, kill and heal, etc. by magic?

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    5. I don't have an opinion on the arguments here, but I'll just say that I prefer a fantasy setting for aesthetic reasons. I also spend less time worrying about plot holes with fantasy RPGs. Sci-fi RPGs have me wondering if society really needs robots, androids, AND cyborgs.

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  8. I've always associated the Amstrad CPC with ugly, chunky arcade ports, but this game looks damn good for the hardware it was running on.

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  9. Jimmy over at the Digital Antiquarian (linked above per the Addict himself) has recently touched on several French gaming companies if anyone is interested in reading them.

    www.filfre.net

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  10. "French developers made RPGs after this, of course, but they lose a lot of their outré characteristics in favor of a more conventional western RPG experience." - oh just you wait until you get to E.Y.E :D

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  11. On your master list, Ragnarok seems to be a 1992-released game (in Europe) instead of 1993. Mobygame's decision to list USA release dates on their main page strikes again.
    See https://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/ragnarok/release-info

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  12. Hello,

    I've recently started getting really into crpgs and I'm interested in playing some older ones. I've been reading random posts from your blog and I think it is fascinating! My question is this: do you have a page somewhere of all the games you've played with a GIMLET rating next to them? I personally really like your rating system and would like to try some of the higher ranked games, but I can't find a list of scores anywhere and I really can't click through every post to look at them. If you have it that's great... if not I might try and write a script that comes to your blog and scrapes the data. Thanks!

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    1. You can see the link to the master list in the sidebar at the top right (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/lv?key=0Ar06A8hYXxv3dEFVbWJzb1J5S3BqWjRDRng2TUxkUVE&usp=sharing).
      Also, if you just want to get into CRPGs, there's the last list in the sidebar of recommended ones

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    2. Thanks, shankao. It would have taken me a couple of days to get back here.

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    3. Good luck, Isaac, and let us know what you think of the higher-ranked games that you try.

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