Secret of Monkey Island: Assignment Monkey Beach

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1990’s Secret of Monkey Island. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

It’s time to finish up the first Monkey Island once and for all! With a navigational-minded voodoo head in his grasp (don’t ask), Guybrush enters the ear of the giant monkey head and descends into hell. Or an approximation of it.

I tensed up during this part, because it was obviously another one of those dreaded maze areas that developers love to put into these games, but honestly it wasn’t too bad. The head keeps turning in the direction Guybrush should go, like a gruesome GPS. I know how that works.

Soon enough, Guybrush infiltrates LeChuck’s pirate ship and starts working on a rescue plan for Elaine. Which apparently involves obtaining a voodoo root that can be made into ghost-dissolving root beer. JUST GO WITH IT.

A three-headed monkey offers Guybrush some much-needed validation during the midst of all of this.

The good news is that Guybrush eventually obtains the magical root beer. The bad news? LeChuck’s ship is gone and he’s off to marry Elaine to advance his nefarious purposes. Honestly, I’m a little fuzzy on this plot point. Really, what does LeChuck need from her? More money and power? He’s already doing pretty well for himself.

Guybrush rushes back to Melee Island(tm) to stop the wedding, but in a neat twist, Elaine’s already affected her own rescue. Which involves dressing up two monkeys in a wedding dress as a fake bride. I kind of want to marry her too, now.

Guybrush and LeChuck finally have it out, and for a good long while, LeChuck has the upper hand as he batters Guybrush all over the island. It’s as if the developers realized that the Monkey Island bit had grown a little boring and dull and decided to cram in as much slapstick and fourth wall-breaking jokes as possible. There are instant replay cams and Stan getting knocked into the bay and LeChuck pumping quarters into a grog machine to get Guybrush to come out. It’s honestly really funny stuff.

Eventually Guybrush wins, thanks to a convenient root beer bottle.

LeChuck explodes in a series of romantic fireworks, and Elaine and Guybrush enjoy a moment of victory — and perhaps connection? — together.

OH DUDE WE FORGOT HERMAN

And that’s 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island! I had really forgotten how clever and hilarious this adventure game is, and it still holds up incredibly well today. I definitely recommend the original graphics over the remake, by the way.

So what makes this game so good? I have to give a huge amount of credit to the writers here. I’ve seen and played parodies that go for the lowest common denominator and the easiest jokes, but Monkey Island is far more witty than that. The jokes are bizarre and in many occasions include the player. The “Not the Red Button!” fight and the reveal of the deadly parrot are two of the best sequences in the game, but those are among many, many such terrific moments. And it’s not too, too difficult to complete, which speaks well for it.

All in all, it got me excited to play the follow-up, which some series fans purport is even better than the first!

DDO: Elves are toast

With the long Blood Tide chain complete, I figured that I could mop up the remainder of the House D quests without much difficulty. And then all of the lords of Stormreach laughed, because there were more than I had expected — and the first one, Stormcleave Outpost, was a “very long” mission.

For this one, I enlisted my kids to be morale support while I battled my way through a giant’s stornhold. Mostly this came in the form of “Oh Dad, you’re going to die here! You’re dead for sure!” and then some mild disappointment when I did not, in fact, die.

SSG/Turbine takes a different approach with its giants than most fantasy MMOs. Actually, have you noticed that most fantasy MMOs don’t really do giants? I mean, they’ll do giant bosses, but not giants as a race. The size makes it prohibitive, especially if you’re dealing with architecture. SSG’s approach for both DDO and LOTRO is to make giants de facto cavemen who create settlements out of giant blocks of stone. It’s ugly in LOTRO and it’s ugly in DDO, but I’d rather deal with a giant than a beholder any day.

This mission was quite long, but I left it at normal difficulty and had no problem breezing through it at level 12. Sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable to trade XP and loot gain for the feeling that you’re some super-powered Gnomish nightmare here to bring justice to the evils of the world.

Next up was The Bounty Hunter, which had me assault a cave full of bandits. Nothing too exciting save for a hidden passage and the above room, which had me sprinting and leaping from platform to platform while traps kept activating behind me.

Also, I got a crossbow with this on it:

THIS IS THE GREATEST DAY OF MY LIFE.

Then I got drop-kicked into Stromvauld’s Mine, and my newfound cockiness got a strong reality check. Up front, it wasn’t that difficult of a mission — just long, not difficult. Had to dive down into a steamy mine to locate some engineers, kill a few dozen Drow, the usual. And because feather falling is the most awesome thing in this game, I even had a good time floating my way down mine shafts.

It was all well and good until I got to the end and rescued the head engineer — and the quest didn’t finish. I looked at the unfinished objective: locate the missing engineers. Well, I got the one I saw… and then I realized my mistake. These weren’t necessarily *alive* engineers. Nope! It turns out that all of the corpses I’d been passing, the ones tucked into the scenery, were the main objective. I had to be clicking them all along.

So for the next half-hour, I retraced my steps at least twice combing this entire instance for 10 corpses. And let me tell you, the way that the rust-brown visuals are set up in this mine, it’s incredibly easy for your eyes to skip over non-glowing corpses. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see a corpse as when I found the last one. “Yay!” I said to a sleeping house. “The last corpse is mine!”

This is why I have no social life.

LOTRO: Overthinking the daily lives of enemy mobs

When you’re re-running very familiar content — as is happening right now with what is probably my 10th full run through Moria — gaming goes on auto-pilot while your mind goes to weird places. Such as contemplating the daily lives of enemy characters.

I mean, creature and outright monstrous mobs can be assumed to lack an interesting life. It makes sense that they’re wandering around, all surly-like, looking for a hapless adventurer to tackle. But as I’m fighting the Merrevail, the bat-people of this realm, I have to acknowledge that they are a sapient species. They’re at least more than halfway human, so they have to have names, a daily routine, social lives, relationships, really poor fashion, and allegiances. I wish one would stop fighting me long enough to share some of these details. Do they go home after a day of getting slaughtered? Can they fly?

Really feel bad for these Waterworks Orcs, seeing as how they’ve been completely infected by a fungus that spreads over and through their bodies like tumors. Even if they are trying to kill me, my heart goes out for their day-to-day lives. This is all they have: fungus skin, poorly built bunkbeds, no roof over their heads, and random strangers barging into their bedrooms whilst screaming and brandishing axes and knives. That’s no way to live.

I really wasn’t joking about being on auto-pilot. When we get into post-Mirkwood content, we’ll be in regions that I’ve only gone through perhaps twice before. But Moria? Moria I could do in my sleep. There are few surprises left here, and while questing in this region doesn’t grate, it also isn’t a visual or narrative treat.

I do wish that we had more quests in the single forested “garden” area, as we’re out of there all too soon. Our kin keeps joking about not having seen the sunlight for days now, and there’s a collective rush to try to get through Moria quickly to see the other side.

I think I’m making a good clip, with at least four zones done so far, after which I was sitting at level 55. Probably my biggest disappointment with Moria so far is that I haven’t really picked up any new unique cosmetic skins. My memory was hazy as to whether or not Mines of Moria added a bunch of skins, but thus far I’m just seeing a lot of repeats and minor color or design variations.

Battle Bards Episode 141: Riders of Icarus

The Battle Bards take to the sky to investigate the somewhat obscure Riders of Icarus and see if the lofty visuals can be matched by the music — or if this soundtrack has been grounded for good! “Surprisingly rich” and “theatrical” are review terms that the Battle Bards are willing to license out to the studio to put on the soundtrack cover.

Episode 141 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Character Creation” and “Attauis”)
  • “Main Theme”
  • “Character Selection”
  • “The Beginning”
  • “First Elite”
  • “Fort Baellus”
  • “Artisan Square”
  • “Floor 34 Boss Theme”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Caroline, Katriana, Zoward, Paragon Lost, and Maggie May
  • Jukebox picks: “Crimson Caribbean” from Blackwake, “Field Tutorial Zone” from Mabinogi, and “The Castle” from Dead Cells
  • Outro (feat. “Sea of Hakanas”)

Try-It Tuesday: Night in the Woods

In my quest to feed my voracious hunger for “walking simulators” with strong narratives, I did a pile of research and turned up a small list of games that I had yet to play. As you may surmise, Night in the Woods was one of these, and so I sprang for it earlier this month and made my way through the game over the course of a week.

Well, half of the game at least. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

It should be said that this is a weird game right from the onset, one that keeps you a little unbalanced. One of the ways that it accomplishes this is in the use of anthropomorphic characters along with actual, regular animals. Nobody addresses how there’s a world full of mice-men and dog-men and cat-men and crocodile-men co-existing, so I am guessing that these are supposed to be representing actual people, just gussied up differently for artistic purposes.

The story follows Mae, a 20-year-old cat-girl who is coming back to her Midwestern town after abruptly dropping out of college. The game follows Mae as she tries to get back into her old life while dealing with relationships that have moved on, parents who are upset at her decision, and a real world that demands people work and deal with bills. Mae doesn’t want to deal with the realities, she just wants to keep having fun, acting like a kid, and generally not growing up.

The player controls Mae over the course of several days as she wanders around her small town, gradually getting to know (and re-know) various characters and finding out that everything here has gotten a little bit worse than it was before. Or at least, worse than she remembered. Her old band accepts her back in, but Mae has to figure out where she stands with each of the members.

As I hinted earlier, I eventually gave up on Night in the Woods about halfway through. While there were moments of terrific dialogue and clever vignettes, this game doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s a game about a character spinning her wheels, and that gets so, so old after a bit. The only interesting thing that happens for a larger plot early on is that Mae finds a chopped-off arm in the street, but that isn’t brought up again over the next three hours. Then I just closed the game and deleted it.

There are a lot of elements here that, combined, make for a game that I grew to dislike greatly. For starters, I thought that the distinctive art style was honestly rather creepy. The big eyed animals didn’t emote much with their faces, leaving me to stare at those orbs and feel like I was playing a horror title.

Then there’s Mae, who I wanted to smack with a rolled-up newspaper. She’s an inconsiderate jerk who is casually cruel to a lot of people around her and obviously has issues with being responsible and taking charge of her life. I couldn’t connect with her or come to like her apart from sometimes funny stream-of-conscious dialogue.

As I said, there’s the agonizingly slow pace of the game and the lack of an overt plot. But the straw that broke me were these dream segments plugged in between each day to draw out the game. They serve no purpose other than to be occasionally frustrating platforming, and unless something is advancing the plot, I don’t see a need for it.

Anyway, whether or not Night in the Woods got great in its back half is immaterial, because it lost me in the first part. Developers and writers can’t trust that their audience will stick around forever — you gotta make something happen, and the sooner that does, the better.

World of Warcraft’s level squish is not the solution

You would think that after 14 or 15 years of operation, World of Warcraft would understand itself and be comfortable in its own skin. But Blizzard seems like it has never arrived at this point and is constantly trying to make severe design changes in its core mechanics. It was probably one of my biggest beefs with the game, that you could never quite trust features and systems not to be yanked out from under you and completely redone at any moment.

Last week in a developer Q&A, Blizzard admitted that it just realized how not fun having 120 levels was with so little along the way in terms of character progression and power gain to show. Cue a collective “You’re only NOW realizing this?” from the incredulous community, which has been saying such things for 40 levels now. With the abolition of talent trees (and points), WoW simply stopped adding any new toys or options to character growth once you hit a certain point. Sure, you might be gaining more levels, but you’ll never get any new talents or skills. And with Battle for Azeroth’s bizarre leveling formula, you actually get weaker the higher up you go in relation with level-scaled beasties.

So Blizzard’s solution for this is its solution for any other feature that’s spiraling out of scope and control, and that’s to “squish” it. Too many talent tree options? Squish it into a smaller talent tree. Now squish it into even more limited talent frames. Damage numbers getting too high? Squish them stat points back down! Too many skills? Squish ’em into a fewer amount! So why not do this with 120 levels, squish ’em to 60 or so?

Well, because it solves absolutely nothing other than making the developers feel like they’re doing something to address the problem. First of all, you’re just going to end up adding more levels in the future, so eventually you’ll arrive back at the point you are now. This will, at best, just kick the can down the road.

Second, what players want is for levels and progression to be meaningful without making us wait forever between them. The original talent trees worked because players had that point every level to invest. Even if it was just a minor stat increase, it was a measure of player agency and choice, an important element that Blizzard seems to have forgotten. Yanking away every level except the ones where you get a rare talent point or a skill or a large stat chunk isn’t going to add anything of value to the game, it’s just a smokescreen.

Third, players want to see their characters progress, and I’m not just talking about statistically. It has been several expansions since we saw a new talent tier, nevermind additional skills. The character you have around level 60 or so is pretty much the same character and build you’re going to have for the rest of your game.

With the Legion expansion, the artifact weapon got people excited because it felt like a talent tree again, with steady progression and investment and choice. Then that was yanked away, a lesser version handed to us, and no assurances that that item wouldn’t be gone by the end of Battle for Azeroth. No wonder why everyone stopped caring about Azerite anything.

World of Warcraft needs to do a lot better than slap a band-aid on the leveling system by squishing it. It needs to examine useful and non-game breaking ways to give players choices and additional steps of character development in the mid- and late-game. Squishing is something little kids do to bugs, not what grown men and women should do to a premier MMORPG.

6 reasons why video game crafting pushes me away

I’m not going to get up here on my shaky soapbox and claim that I’ve been a lifelong crafter in online games. That’s simply not the truth. I’ve existed somewhere in the vicinity of it with a fairly amiable tolerance for its presence. If people liked to craft and got something out of it, great. If it helped the in-game economy, even better. And if I could profit off of it by hoovering up gathering mats to sell to desperate crafters, that was just ducky.

Probably my most extensive bouts of MMO crafting came as I powered up Engineering in World of Warcraft back in the Burning Crusade era and pretty much my entire run with Fallen Earth. In almost every MMO before or since — and now with survival crafting games — I always vow to get into crafting when it launches and then fall away pretty quick.

So why does video game crafting push me away? The more I think about it, the more I’m annoyed that this system that’s all about creation and personal effort is designed to be as unfriendly as possible. Here are six reasons that I don’t feel any attraction to crafting, even in games that push it on me as a core feature:

1. It’s a money and time sink. Most games simply ask too much of a player to invest both time and in-game currency into leveling up these systems, and I usually have a much better use for both of those limited resources elsewhere. If you’re looking to make money, often engaging in crafting is a long game where the promise of profits is a ways off.

2. It’s not that engaging. Some MMOs have made a lot of effort to gamify and otherwise make their crafting systems interesting, but for the most part it’s a list of ingredients that are dumped into a recipe, some time is involved, and out pops a thing. It’s about as visually exciting as reading an IBM computer manual from 1979.

3. Most of the junk you craft isn’t useful for anything. Lots of crafted stuff doesn’t have any personal use, and with the market often flooded with low- and mid-tier supplies, it’s not like you’re going to hawk it off to others very easy. So crafters just hang in there for specializations and top-tier products, and I have no patience for that.

4. You can often get far better gear by questing and dungeon diving. So why am I spending all of this time and money and effort to make lesser versions of things? And if the gear was good, why wouldn’t I simply take the money, buy it from another player, and save myself the time and effort?

5. I get fatigued from more complex recipe requirements. I’m all on board for the first couple tiers of crafted things, but when we get to the realm of making things to make things to make things to finally make the real thing that you want to make, I’ve flipped the table and walked away. Some people thrill on spreadsheets and keeping track of all of that, but not me.

6. It’s an annoying hurdle for creators. Sometimes you just want to build without having to spend hours of gathering and crafting first. I love putting together housing plots, but in MMOs where you either need to buy decor off of the cash shop or spend gobs of time making it, I have this significant barrier between me and the activity that I genuinely want to do. Crafting is often just used as gating for content and activities, and that sincerely peeves me.

Just my take, but if I have to see another survival crafting MMO this month that challenges me to be an industrial McGuyver, I might upchuck.