Sunday, 4 October 2015

ReMEMBeR: Power Play February 1992

ReMEMBeR : Retro Magazine Examination, Musings, Belittling & Ranting

Magazine: Power Play
Cover Date: February 1992
Country of Origin: Germany

Welcome back to another instalment of ReMEMBeR.  This month we are venturing outside of the English speaking world, for a look at one of the most legendary German language game magazines of all time, Power Play.  Started in 1987 as the games section of home computing magazine Happy Computer and in 1990 spun off as its own publication, Power Play was for a long while the sales leader in multi-platform game magazines in Germany.  Finally shuddered in 2000 (the multiformat of the magazine had become untenable due to the diversity of the marketplace so they shifted to PC only gaming, but weren't able to handle the competition from rival magazine PC Games, founded by ex-Power Play staffers, which was the established market leader in that segment) it had been a real powerhouse, with excellent standards in its writing, massive tip sections and news coverage from around the world.

To set the stage, in early 1992 (this magazine would have appeared sometime in January of that year), the SNES had not officially been launched yet in Europe, the PC was just starting to become a real contender for home gaming, with hardware prices dropping and most players were still using 16 bit standalone computers like the Amiga and Atari ST, as well as many C64 holdovers.  Add to this that the German government was still "indexing" games (this was a practice by which citizens or groups could request a media product, be it movie, game, book or music, be placed on a list of restricted media.  If the work in question was found by a panel to "endanger youth" it would still be available for sale but advertising and/or promoting it in public would be illegal.  This meant it was a crime to advertise, review or display the product, thus making it essentially unmarketable.  This applied mainly to violent games and was almost unheard of in regards to sexual content.  So it wasn't all bad.)

So let's check out the headlines!

No real news this month, as this would have been right after the Christmas holiday, the only news bits are a few blurbs, including the fact that Wing Commander 2 had broken the 100k sell through milestone in the US and few preview releases coming down the pipeline.  

Sensible Software is talking up their forthcoming Sensible Soccer, the company's second go at the sport after the amazing (and if you haven't played it, shame on you!) Microprose Soccer for the C64 (the ports are terrible and should be avoided at all costs... trust me!)
There is much talk about comparing this game, due to the shape of its sprites to another Sensi game, Mega-lo-Mania and getting into the console market.  An add-on data disk for Mega-lo-Mania is also mentioned that would never appear sadly and Cannon Fodder is also in the works but not talked about in depth.

RPGs were really hitting their stride in the early 90s, with systems finally able to handle massive game worlds, complex interactions and ever more immersive graphics (yeah kids, 320x240 VGA was once considered immersive... yes, it's ok to laugh, kids... snot-nosed-punks!)

Microprose discusses their first real go at the RPG genre, Darklands, which boasts a medieval setting, taking a more realistic approach to the genre and eschewing classic fantasy tropes.  The graphics were smooth and crisp and as the designer, Arnold Hendrick, says in the interview: "We can't simulate all the interactions between a gamemaster and players, but... (you will find) hundreds of different menus with different graphics."  And a swamp of almost unmanageable menus they did deliver... sad actually, a more intuitive system would have made this a hit, as opposed to the cult classic it became.  And of course the massive requirement of 16 MB of HD space at the time was a lot to ask for.

German developer, Attic, is getting in on the action with The Dark Eye (Das Schwarze Auge) license and what will become the Northland Trilogy of games.  The mix of first person dungeon/city crawl and isometric combat is clearly inspired by the gold box games being developed over at SSI for the AD&D license, but the series adds some impressive visual upgrades and the extremely detailed (some might say overly detailed) character building system from TDE.  A game classic that got little notoriety outside of the German speaking world (it was released in the USA as Realms of Arkania.)  The preview talks about the MS-DOS version, while Amiga, Atari ST and C64 versions are also in development (ultimately only the Amiga port would appear).

And speaking of SSI's AD&D license, they kept mining everything they could from the ageing Gold Box engine developed originally by Westwood Studios back in 1988.  Buck Rogers 2 was previewed, with a side note about how the first Buck Rogers game in the series was going to be ported to the Genesis/Megadrive, an interesting choice for bringing western style RPGs to consoles (as opposed to the better known D&D options).  The announced port of BR2 for the Amiga never made it to stores sadly, even though it was reviewed by a few Amiga magazines.  It wasn't a big loss as it felt much like just another tacked on scenery disk, rather than a new game that could keep up with the current pack.

Revolution Software gets a nice spread for its new Virtual Theater engine, a point and click adventure game script system to compete against Sierra and Lucasfilm Games.  The first game scheduled for the system, and the one shown in the screen shots, is Lure of the Temptress, a fun fantasy game that would be overshadowed later on by Revolution's better known Beneath a Steel Sky.  Both games are available for free from here and here.  Revolution would go on to make a big name for themselves in the point and click arena with the Broken Sword franchise.

Showing that point and click adventures would continue to be massively important to players in the game market for a few more years, we also get a quick blurb about a Swiss developed Never Ending Story game, which would never see the light of day, but does explain why their The Neverending Story II: The Arcade Game, had that moniker.

There is also a preview of a new Knightmare game, based on an English TV show, that combined bossy friends, fantasy worlds and 3D graphics (the first game licensed off the show came out for 8-bit systems in 1987).  Seriously, this show would have blown my mind as a little kid.  This makes Double Dare look seriously crappy and backward back in 1987.  The computer game will be a one step at a time, 90 degree turning first person affair, similar to Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder, but looks really nifty. 

Special Features:
Arcade at Home is an article about the Mega Arcade Console.  It's a Jamma standard adaptor so that you can plug in any Jamma board that uses joystick controls.  The joystick ports are NeoGeo standard but the manufacturer offers a service that will adapt other controllers (like the Genesis Arcade Power Stick) to work with it.  A fascinating bit of kit I had never heard of before, and it is still sold today.  The original price of 700 DM in 1992 would have been about $500 back then, and the current version of the unit is selling for 450€, so about $500 at the time of writing this.  So much for inflation, right?

The magazine boasts 74 reviews (many are quick bursts for ports and the like) so here are some highlights:

The Wizardry series goes into its 7th outing, and, for the first time, as a PC exclusive (despite the review stating that an Amiga port was on its way).  The venerable series, which started way back in 1981, would get one more release in the regular series before being shuddered and only occasionally resurrected as a license for console titles and an Online variant.  This entry boasts a massive map, improved AI and over 600 items.  A true marvel, especially since it was still delivered on floppies.  Hardcore RPGers should still take a look at this game today.

Megatraveller 2 is the second attempt to convert the Traveller pen and paper system to computers.  Like its predecessor though it comes across as a bit rushed and rough around the edges.  Glitches, flaky interface and all around weak design prevent this from capturing the magic of the original game.  A missed opportunity.

Heimdall tries to combine amazing graphics with action and rpg elements.  A game a bit ahead of its time (point and click mechanics would become the toast of the industry with the release of Diablo a few years later), but at this point it is simply a slow and plodding experience with too much emphasis on animation and not enough on thought-out gameplay.

Conan the Cinmerion is another action RPG that shows off what a fancy-shmancy VGA card can do.   The reviewers loved it, but apparently did not mention the save bug that could wipe out your save or just not allow you to store hours upon hours of progress... oops... patches were a tough thing to do in the days before the interwebs.

Moonstone gets derided as a shallow action RPG that tries to make up for it with a lot of blood.  While I loved this game back in the day and had a lot of fun with it, as a full price title, it really was a bit weak in the game design department... but damn that blood looked nice!
 Riders of Rohan was yet another attempt to bring Tolkien's classic to the digital realm.  Mixing real time strategy (in a pre-Dune II way) and mixing in occasional arcade segments, and rendering it all with hand drawn 2D images that jumped straight off of a 5th grader's MS Paint doodle floppy disk, this game fails in every conceivable way.  It's sad since this comes after Mike Singleton's War in Middle Earth, which had been quite good and almost got close to cracking the code of doing strategy war gaming in that setting.

Sticking with Hobbits, Interplay's Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (a roleplaying trilogy that never made it past part two) gets an Amiga port... and is just as dull and boring and poorly designed there as it was on DOS machines... only now a bit slower).

Finally getting away from roleplaying games (seriously, we all didn't just live in a turn based world full of on screen stats in the 90s kids) we get to that other age old PC stereotype of yesteryear: Simulators!

Geoff Crammond released the first of his Grand Prix games.  After creating great 3D game engines for groundbreaking titles like The Sentinel and Stunt Car Racer, this is where he started his 12 year obsession with F1 racing sims.  A great racer that changed gamer expectations for realism and detail in gaming forever and would indirectly inspire titles like Forza and Gran Turismo.  Nowadays the first entry does come off as a bit jerky and dated, but still a wonderful milestone.Also it's telling that the first version released is for the Amiga, as opposed to MS-Dos.  The relatively weak Amiga hardware (especially when dealing with vector graphics) was still so commercially viable that this version was the more economically valuable one at the time (or at least when they started development).

Birds of Prey gave us 40 different planes to dogfight against.  Sadly this great concept is mired by a lack of a campaign mode, and that the matches were pretty pointless for the most part.  I actually remember a buddy buying this and our first bout was between a WWI double decker and an F-15.  The F-15 kept flying past my slow, plodding wood crate, its missiles couldn't lock onto me because I wasn't putting off enough heat, and my machine guns would only land a round or two if I was lucky in the two frames I got to see of the jet as it whizzed by.  A pointless exercise that was the result of a three year long development hell.

Special Forces, the spiritual successor to Airborne Ranger, gets a rave review, mixing military tactics with real time action gameplay.  The review recommends you grab the game fast, before it gets put on the German government's index of restricted games.  (which I'm sure it was)

Knights of the Sky gets ported to the Amiga, giving us the second great WWI flying game the system would be blessed with (there would also be a port of Red Baron, but it would be so slow that no one could actually enjoy it sadly).  Great simulation, extremely well programmed (aka fast moving) 3D visuals and a ton of atmosphere make this a must have for dogfighters, especially with its multiplayer over a modem or null-modem cable.

Space games were also still a big deal back in the day (we even used to have a thing called a "space program", kids... ask your parents):

Nova 9, the successor to Stellar 7, shows off what Dynamix could do with 3D.  Again you drive a tank around alien worlds blowing-up critters and meanies.  The reviewer says that vector graphics had almost become superfluous after the release of Wing Commander (which used bitmaps for greater detail).  Of course, we all know that textured vectors would change that equation completely a few years later (hello PSX!) but at this point, flat polys were still all the rage.  Sadly the game is almost unplayable on slower systems, so anything shy of a 386 is a pre-req.  Sorry people running at 12 Mhz.

The (other) venerable Team 17 series, Alien Breed, sees its debut this issue.  Launched for the Amiga, by a group of ex-demo sceners, the game "borrowed" liberally from the Aline movies and gave us an unbelievably hard but engrossing top down action game that really knocked it out of the park in no small part due to the two player mode.  It was like a really great arcade game but at home.

Speaking of arcades... Arcade ports were also an important pillar of the game business back in 1992 (remember this is the pre-Street Fighter II era when arcade games had plots and weren't just about 30 second battles to the death).

Smash T.V. gets ported to the Atari ST and Commodore 64.  While technically impressive (lots of stuff is moving on the screen, especially for C64 standards) the game is criticized for being a bit repetitive and missing a certain urgency that the arcade cabinet inspired.  Still fun if you want a remake of Robotron 2084 though.

Teenage Mutant Hero/Ninja Turtles The Arcade Game also gets the home computer port treatment.  The review looks at both the MS-DOS and C64 ports.  The criticisms here stem largely from the original design (no power ups, special moves or big innovations in comparison with other titles in the genre, which is probably accentuated by the lack of four player modes in the home versions, with the DOS port only having two player simultaneous play and the C64 being limited to just one turtle on screen at a time).  Beyond that though, the ports capture the look and feel of the arcade game and offer enough variety in enemies to keep it interesting throughout.  I went back and watched some video of the different ports and I think he was being very kind to the MS-Dos port (that scrolling is half a screen at a time... ) and the C64 version is surprisingly good given that the system was celebrating its 10th anniversary in 1992.

Sega's boxing game Final Blow gets a port on the Amiga and... well the game wasn't that good to begin with in the arcades, with its side view which is wholly ineffectual for boxing (Punch-Out is still the gold standard here), so not much could be added in a straight port sadly.

Pit Fighter brings digitized brawling to the C64... and it's just as dull as in the arcades. 

And last but not least, point and click adventures!  Nothing quite beats the frustration of staring at a static screen for hours in perplexed befuddlement, wondering what the heck the developer had smoked (or how badly they had caved to marketing's urge to sell more hint books) as you can't figure out a particular puzzle.

Les Manley gets a second outing.  This wanna-be Leisure Suit Larry clone from Accolade had given us a mildly entertaining game with his search for the King, but this time around it all feels a bit too "been-there-done-that".  The addition of digitized actors in some scenes doesn't help the situation sadly and despite some good writing, it doesn't justify its existence beyond being an also ran or stop gap until better games show up.

That concludes the most important home computer "food groups" of the time, so let's look at the other side of the gaming industry.  Consoles have their own review section in the back half of the mag.  Some of the highlights include:

Quackshot for the Megadrive is a fun jump and run with puzzle elements and upgradeable weapons that brings the feel of the Duck Tales cartoon to life without using that particular license.  A great game, especially for the younger set.

The Megadrive also got a few new ports from the Amiga.  The Immortal from legendary game designer Will Harvey (Zany Golf) is a fun action-RPG,  Shadow of the Beast which loses the awesome sound and some color depth but gains a much easier difficulty level fails to impress,
Speedball 2  is a tough but fun game, with a password system and slightly dimmer graphics than on the Amiga and Robocod gets even smoother scrolling than on the Amiga but the lack of features shows how console jump and runs are considerably more sophisticated than their computer brethren making for a short lived bit of fun.
Atari releases a port of Ms. Pac-Man for the 16 bit console, adding a ton of new mazes, two two-player modes (co-op and adversarial), making this the best release of the Pac-Man concept yet.  Still somewhat simple compared to games of the time.

SNES import games are still a big deal, as the SNES wouldn't be launched until June of 1992 in Europe (a year and a half after Japan).  Castlevania 4 gets a good review, but not glowing.  The lack of new game elements in comparison with the original game and the somewhat too colorful graphics (which according to the reviewer prevent any real sense of a horror atmosphere from developing) hold the title back a bit, but he still recommends the purchase.  Interestingly, and telling about the computer gaming centric nature of the German market at the time, a side box explains the history of Castlevania to the readers and also mentions how Castlevania 3, released in Dec. 1989 in Japan and Sept. 1990 in the US, still wasn't out in Europe yet (and wouldn't be until Dec. 1992)

Final Fantasy 2/IV/'I got not clue', gets a review as a US import title.  This is the Japanese IV game, and the first SNES title in the series.  The game is lauded as beautiful, even outshining Sega's Shining in the Darkness (see what I did there?), but still not fully taking advantage of 16 bit graphic potential.  The content of the game is so good that nothing else really matters, though.

Square wasn't done yet, because we also get Final Fantasy Legend 2 and Final Fantassy The Adventure on Gameboy.  Both games get top marks and while the game mechanics are a bit paired down they still hold up.  Legend 2 would lead to the development of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (an intro to RPGs title for the SNES using the same mechanics as the Legend series and released originally as a North American exclusive with later releases in Japan as Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest and in Europe as Mystic Quest Legend) and The Adventure would spin-off into the Mana series.

This is the early 90s so Turtle mania knew no end, so in addition to the home computer ports of the arcade game, the Gameboy gets Turtles 2 which gets a great rating for its awesome graphics.

And while we're on handhelds, the technically impressive STUN Runner gets a port on the Lynx (only held back by being a bit thin as far as the game concept is concerned), Sonic comes to Gamegear (in a port of the Master System game) and a very polished but extremely difficult port of Double Dragon 2 hits the Gameboy. 

The ads in the magazine kick off with a one page for the new Sound Blaster 2.0.  Seeing the four floppy disks and cable in this add (to say nothing of that board chock full of circuitry) really is a flash from the past. With the then current exchange rate of 1.50 to 1, the card is retailing for about $200 US.

Populous 2 gets a wonderful two page spread.  The tag line "The gods are here and soon all hell will break loose" is awesome.  I played this game for days on end on the Amiga and the null modem multiplayer just added to its longevity.

Microprose proves that you can truly make your software, no matter how good it actually is, look drab and boring, with three single page ads for their upcoming releases.
Lucasfilm pushes Monkey Island 2 with a fun little tagline "No one laughs when this pirate plays with dolls."

While Interplay goes for a more low key but still impressive tagline of "The voyage continues" for Star Trek 25th Anniversary edition.  Considering the dirth of Star Trek games we had at that point (the only passable ones being the Sega arcade game from the early 80s and Star Trek the Rebel Universe), the simple announcing of this game was enough to get us all in a tizzy. 

TMNT 2 the Arcade game gets an appropriately large ad, covering the computer ports .

Epic, the long delayed space sim that was to be Ocean's answer to Wing Commander and help move it away from arcade ports and movie licenses (and didn't really work on either level, even though I still thought it was a lot of fun) gets a full page ad.

And, of course, because its Europe, we get cigarette ads!

In Conclusion:
Early 1992 was an interesting time on the European and especially German market.  Unlike the rest of the world, consoles had not really made a comeback yet.  PC and Amiga games were the order of the day, even though it was clear that the Amiga was on its way out and with it was the more action oriented game library it carried.  Complex PC games were taking over the market and would eventually make the adoption of consoles in homes an easier choice as the younger set was going to find it hard to get into giant RPGs and strategy titles.  A golden age of adult gaming fair was coming to the PC (within the next year and a half we would see titles such as Dune II, Settlers and Wolfenstein 3D), but Germany would (officially) miss out on almost all of the action fair on the PC due to restrictive advertising regulations for violent games (a later print run of an issue of PowerPlay would actually be destroyed by court order due to running an ad for Phantasmagoria) making consoles the only place to still enjoy action games.

The burgeoning war between Sega and Nintendo hadn't yet reached these shores, with the SNES still almost a year away from launching, but the fact that the number one selling game magazine in Europe's largest economy was printing full page reviews of gray imported titles, proved that there was a hunger for this new type of gaming.  There is even an ad in this issue for its fourth special spin-off magazine called Video Games (which would actually become a monthly magazine dedicated to consoles shortly thereafter).

Consoles wouldn't really be a meaningful part of the market until the 32/64 bit era hit, but there was no denying that the days of keyboard integrated computers was waning and a replacement for gamers with a lower budget for hardware was inevitable.

1 comment:

  1. The writer sure has an alacrity for such topics as evidenced by his brilliant and committed style of writing. The pictures and outlook are both wonderful.