Sunday, April 26, 2015

More Computer Adventure Game Console Ports - NES and SMS

Home consoles of the third generation, such as the NES ans SMS, were sufficiently popular that computer game makers wanted to get a piece of that action.  While a very successful computer game may sell 100,000 copies across several incompatible computer platforms, a successful cartridge-based game could easily sell five times that number.  That would more than make up for the increase in cost of manufacturing cartridges versus writing to floppy disks.

The adventure game genre was extremely important in the 1980s, one of the prestige computer game genres along with role playing games, flight simulators and turn based wargames.  Most of the adventure games of the 1980s were text-based and used keyboards for input.  This is not well-suited to consoles of the third generation, which generally lacked keyboards.  Some games were beginning to use mice, a peripheral that would only come to consoles in the fourth generation.  Third generation consoles used D-pads and joysticks for the most part.  

Maniac Mansion

 The gold standard for adventure game ports for the third generation undoubtedly was the NES version of Maniac Mansion.  LucasArts developed Maniac Mansion for NES in close conjunction with Realtime Associates and it was published by Jaleco.  Despite the heavy censoring hand of Nintendo of America, the published cartridge does justice to the original Commodore 64 game and works very well as a NES game.  Play the prototype version and you can bypass almost all the censorship.  LucasArts did a great job stuffing the entire game into a 256KB cartridge.  This was by far the best showing LucasArts made for the NES.  Its other games' simply failed to meet the high standard of this port. 

The C64 used a joystick to move the cursor, it was the PC port that added mouse support.  Compared to the original, the NES input was not a real step down.  The low resolution PC port has a rather coarse mouse granularity which makes it a bit less than a perfect input device.  Graphically the game falls in between the low (160x200) and high (320x200) resolution computer versions.  The characters are very recognizable, the backgrounds are generally distinct and the objects can be made out, if a bit small.  Sound wise, the original had little music but what it did have was well done on the NES's 2A03 APU.  LucasArts made the good move of giving each character a portable CD player they could use to turn on or off the character's individual theme songs. They did a great job with these pieces.  It also wisely cut down on the number of verbs to eliminate Fix, What is and Unlock.  

Most importantly, Maniac Mansion had a battery backed save system, even if it only supported one save game at a time.  The C64 and Apple II versions of Maniac Mansion also supported one save, but that was per disk.  

Maniac Mansion was also ported to the Famicom by Jaleco before LucasArts released its version.  The Japanese version looks completely different from the US/European version.  Unfortunately, the Japanese version uses a ludicrously long 83-character password system with the 46 core Japanese hiragana characters and English letters A-T.  The screen does not scroll in this version, just like the Apple II version.  More space is taken up by the various menus, leaving the backgrounds and sprites smaller and less detailed than the US/European version.  The main theme was retained, but there is new background music in the game.  In isolation, it is not a bad port, but it pales in comparison to the LucasArts-led effort.

Shadowgate, Deja Vu, and Uninvited

Also of note, the NES ports of the ICOM Simulations MacVenture games, Shadowgate, Deja Vu, and Uninvited also had battery backed saves.  These games were originally published for the B&W Apple Macintosh computers.  The Macintosh popularized the graphical user interface and multiple "windows", and native-Macintosh games generally used the high resolution to use implement the game using multiple windows.  The ICOM games, using the MacVenture engine, are no exception.  When ported to other computers, these windows were generally retained.  The windows had the benefit of being repositioned anywhere on the screen.  Some of the windows, like the inventory window, could be resized.  

The NES versions of these games were ported by the Japanese company Kemco/Seika.  K/S was never a top-tier NES developer and these games may be the best representatives of its cartridge output on the NES. These games used a small main graphics window and little animation, making those graphics easy to redraw for the NES.    They consolidated the command window and the description window so that the descriptions would appear when you do something, otherwise you would see the commands, exits and the functions to save.  

Instead of using an icon-based inventory, K/S used a text-based inventory.  The windows in the NES games cannot be resized, making an alternative necessary.  Otherwise, inventory objects would quickly overlap each other.  However, K/S could have used a simple scrollable inventory window like the DOS and C64 versions.  By using text, K/S did not have to draw the graphics for those items.  While it makes inventory management a bit simpler, it can be time consuming to go through multiple pages of item listings.  

While the PC versions are generally silent, the NES versions have music throughout.  The music in these ports is generally appropriate but somewhat simplistic.   There was also some censoring going on, as the descriptions of when you die are sometimes less graphic in the NES versions compared to the Mac originals

King's Quest V

King's Quest V was released in 1990 for MS-DOS.  It came in a 256 color version or a converted 16 color version and used 320x200 resolution graphics.  It also supported Adlib FM Synthesis and Roland MT-32 LA Synthesis.  The 256 color floppy version takes 8.64MB of hard drive space and the 16 color version 5.05MB.  It also is intended to work with a mouse on a PC with 640KB of RAM and a 16-bit 80286 running at 10MHz or better.

Sierra thought it was a good idea to port this popular PC game to the NES.  The port was done by the Hungarian company Novotrade, more famous for its Ecco the Dolphin series.  The game was distributed by Konami.  The NES KQ5 cartridge had only 512KB of ROM and an extra 8KB of RAM.  It is no joke to say that porting this game to the NES would prove very challenging.  The NES had an 8-bit 6502-based CPU running at 1.79MHz, 2KB of RAM and 5 PSG-style audio channels.  Graphically, the NES PPU could support a 256x240 resolution (no more than 224 lines were generally used) with no more than 25 colors on display from an effective palette of 54 colors.  The NES uses a 8x8 tile-based graphical display with sprites.  There were substantial limitations on the colors used for the background tiles and sprites.

The PC graphics adapters generally had no limitations on what colors could be used at what locations on the screen.  As bitmapped displays, they did not need to breakup images into tiles.  When Sierra was making KQ5, it turned to artists to make real art with paint and canvas which Sierra scanned and converted to 320x200x256 color images.  Its previous games had relied to no small extent on computer-drawn line art.  Sierra's use of hand-drawn images is one reason why the PC version of KQ5 still looks good today.  At the time it was a revelation.  

The NES shows KQ5's graphics in a 224x208 resolution, leaving borders on all four sides of the screen. Even though these are visible on a TV screen, it is generally not a distraction.  However, what is distracting is the background graphics.  Since the NES uses tile-based graphics, tiles are frequently reused to save space in the ROM.  In KQ5's case, this reuse is often noticeable because the tiles just do not seem to match up as you would expect them to match up.  The result is rather ugly looking and can make images hard to make out without staring at them.  Also, there is a substantial lack of color in the backgrounds with simple red, blue, green, yellow and brown predominating.  Some of the talking head portraits, like King Graham's, are very ugly.  All-in-all, this makes for an ugly game compared to the 256 color or even the 16 color PC versions.  

Much of the music from the PC version is included, and while the music is recognizable, the style is not well-suited to the NES APU.  A lot of ambient background animation and sound effects are lost, giving the world of Serenia a rather empty, lifeless feel.  

The saving system uses a combination of temporary saves and passwords.  The temporary saving feature works similar to the saving on home computers.  You enter a name for your save game and can reload it if you die.  You can also load a game from the menu.  It can hold up to twenty file saves at a time.

Permanent saving is done with a 15 character password, consisting of letters, numbers, space and -.  As far as NES passwords go, there are far, far worse password systems.  However, the need for passwords would have been averted if Sierra or Konami had ponied up the extra quarter per cartridge for a save battery.  The hardware is all there in the cartridge to store the saves permanently except for the battery.  

This port did tone down some of the difficulty and unfairness of the PC original.  You cannot walk into the river that runs by the Pie Shop, Inn or Town.  The maze-like desert area has been made smaller.  It also cut out some of the more unnecessary elements like being able to enter Crispin's house after the game starts.  However, most of the text dialogue is intact and unchanged.  

The worst part about this port is the truly awful way they implemented the icon interface.  In the PC version, everything is controlled by the mouse icons.  If you want to change the icon, you either right click to select the icon or you move the cursor to the top of the screen and select the icon you want.  The NES version did have the bright idea of using the D-pad to control Graham directly due to the less-than-idea method of using the D-Pad to control a cursor, but that is where the inspiration ended.  

The NES version's controls work like this.  Select makes the icon button appear, start pauses the same, B will allow you to use cycle through the Look, Talk and Action icon, and A will allow you to carry out an action from the icon bar.  The icon bar will allow you to replace D-pad movement with cursor movement via the Quick Travel icon.  This is very confusing from a PC player's perspective.  It leads to a constant struggle to figure out how to select an item from your inventory and how to get rid of the icon bar.  

There is only one cursor, an arrow.  Why Novotrade could not have implemented a look, talk, action and item cursor is beyond me.  Had they have done so, the menu system could have been simplified.  Why couldn't select be used to make the icon bar disappear?  I agree that B to cycle through/cancel and A to confirm is appropriate, but the implementation needed more work.  Ultimately, it is the controls that drive the final nail into this port's coffin.

King's Quest - Quest for the Crown

If you think that the King's Quest series could not have been further sullied on consoles, think again.  Prior to Sierra's dalliance with Nintendo, it teamed up with Parker Bros. to release the original King's Quest for the Sega Master System.  This port was done by Microsmiths,  whose only real claim to fame was the golf simulator Mean 18.  
King's Quest - Quest for the Crown for the Sega Master System comes on a 128KB cartridge.  Despite having less than half the space of a floppy disk, Microsmiths was able to cram just about everything from the PC version into the SMS version.  Saving and restoring a game is done via a 31-character password with A-Z and 1-6 being used.  If you encounter one of the many cheap deaths, you have to input this monstrosity.  Sega did have a 128KB cartridge with battery backed save RAM, but Sierra and Parker Bros. did not want to pay the premium.  
There are new dangers in this version.  If you go to close to the hole with the dagger, you will fall in and die.  Falling off the tree with the golden egg is always fatal.  When you enter the woodcutter's house, you appear on the screen just above a deadly hole.  Some puzzles are handled differently.  You should push the rock in the usual PC way.  You can deal with the witch even if she is at home when you enter her house.  The stairs up the mountain and in the leprechaun's cave are far more deadly than the beanstalk.  Oftentimes you will start on a screen near a fatal area.  Monster pathfinding, however, is comically poor thanks in part to all the obstacles on the screen.  115 points seems to be the maximum for this version vs. 158 points for the computer versions.
Because there is no keyboard, which this game originally used, you have a menu which is opened by pressing Button 1.  This menu will show a selection of verbs in one column and nouns in another column..  Pairing the two and pressing Button 1 again will lead to an action.  The menu will only give potentially valid options based on the room and the items in your inventory.  This eliminates much of the "guess what the designer wanted you to type" aspect of adventure games with text parsers.  Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on how wedded you are to text parsers, but King's Quest's parser was always rather terse.  The 2 button brings up another menu that lets you duck, swim, climb, look about and jump as well as allowing you to view your inventory, pause the game, see your password and set the movement speed to fast or slow.  
Graphically, things are pretty nondescript.  The backgrounds use the same tiles over and over, so there are screens that look nearly identical.  This can make figuring out where you are confusing.  There is also sometimes an issue about your character overlapping solid boundaries.  It can also be tough to discern exactly where your character is walking.  The graphics are not bad, but they lack the charm of the blocky sprites and line-drawn backgrounds of the PC version.  Sound-wise there is little more sound than in the PC hard disk-installable version.

Larry and the Long Look For A Luscious Lover

I do not discuss homebrew releases often on this blog, but it is not because I am always indifferent to them. In 2014, a homebrew developer called Khan Games (Khan is not a direct reference the Mongol title but short for the programmer, Kevin Hanley, so its pronounced K-Han with a long "a") released a port of the original Sierra AGI version of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Longue Lizards for the NES.  They renamed the game to Larry and the Long Look for a Luscious Lover probably because the name Leisure Suit Larry is trademarked and Khan did not want to attract too much attention.  Like King's Quest above, the developer had to deal with the fact that the NES is controlled by a gamepad, not a keyboard (and the Famicom Keyboard does not count here).  I only played the demo but I washed a full playthrough on Youtube, so I can give impressions on what I have played and seen.

Larry is controlled by the D-pad and moves quite quickly across the screen.  The save/restore/restart menu is brought up by the select button, the inventory selection screen with the start button.  Button B uses the selected inventory item and Button A is a context sensitive button.  Button A is used to open doors, talk to people, take items, etc.  It is a very simple scheme but it does pare down the game to its bare essence.

As far as the port goes, some of the dialogue has been adjusted and areas like the alleyways, which only cause death, are not in the game.  As you can see in the attached screenshot, the graphics are plainer than the AGI version and there are fewer animated characters on the screen.  You can still die, for example, by walking into the street or having sex with the prostitute without protection.  The bar has been renamed from Lefty's to Tusky's.  In the casino, Blackjack has been changed to Roulette.

The game comes on a generous 512KB cartridge.  The cartridge has a 512KB of flash memory and 16KB of that is used to store a saved game.  Only one save game is supported, compared to twelve saves per directory for the PC version. The mapper 2 hardware this game uses is very common outside the flash saving.

The graphics have been taken from the AGI version, but the detail has been reduced.  There is much more in terms of music, but the Larry Theme is not present.  The music would not be out of place in a game like Bubble Bath Babes or Peek-a-boo Poker.  The closeups of the various girls you meet are also not present.  One last thing I must mention is that inside the box is a mail-in order form for Khan's port of E.T. on a NES cartridge.  The mail in order form is the only way to buy his E.T., so many collectors were unhappy that they had to open their sealed Larry box to buy the new game.  Just buy two!

1 comment:

  1. Great reviews!
    I know is not the theme of your blog, but old, but good, unknown games (be for consoles or computers) it always has been a favourite of mine!