Dagger of Amon Ra: Act 4, Museum of the Dead

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s The Dagger of Amon Ra. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

As the murders are piling up in the museum, at no point have any of the characters here gone, “Gee, maybe we should leave? Call in more cops? Barricade ourselves into a closet and refuse to come out for any reason?” Instead they all go about their various businesses, some obviously ducking the law, while the murderer(s) keep knocking folks off one by one.

Yvette is somewhat displeased that Ernie has been mastadon-ka-bobbed, but Laura isn’t buying it. She knows a player when she sees one, and in a funny bit, she calls Yvette out on it. Way to go, girl.

Steve, the dull-witted and creepy-voiced love interest of Laura, shows up out of the blue and raises all sorts of suspicion about his integrity when he (a) has no idea that murders are happening all around him, (b) subjects himself to a scar examination by one lady, and (c) gives Yvette a “comfort massage” to ease her pain over Ernie’s death. “You mind not moaning so loud?” is perhaps the phrase from this game that will haunt me until the day I die.

The museum’s security officer isn’t much help either. He flies off the handle at everything, threatens to shoot everyone, and keeps using the two German words that all players in the 1990s learned from Wolfenstein 3D.

Oh hey! Yvette got murdered! And then… stood up inside of a portrait gallery, posed somewhat seductively (?), and then hastily plastered over by the killer. Man, this killer goes to great lengths to cover himself up. I mean, how awkward would that be if you walked in on a guy propping up a corpse with one hand and slathering plaster all over it with the other? That’s not something you’re going to attribute to “it is what it is!”

Yes, this is a completely normal question and reaction to this situation. This lady needs professional help, and I’m not talking about the snake-bitten elderly lady up there.

Really, if you hate snakes, this is probably not the game for you, because Laura then has to come in and wrangle a cobra back into its cage. Man, remember the 80s, when we thought cobras were the coolest snake on the planet? What ever happened to that? I would join any dojo with the name Cobra Kai and hire Stallone to do Cobra 2 if I had the chance!

Yeah, Laura isn’t the best at handling snakes, by the way. At least she gets a dumb pun to comfort her into the afterlife.

With the countess dead, that makes the total kill count in the game six so far. It is kind of ridiculous at this point, but that’s the kind of adventure game this is, so we just roll with it. I do think that the most silly part of it is how much evidence Laura keeps removing from all of the crime scenes. Her purse seems to hold no end to random junk that may (will) prove necessary in the future. Of course, if I were her, I’d be using the weight of that purse to punch a hole in a window and jump out to freedom.

Dagger of Amon Ra: Act 3, On the cutting edge

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s The Dagger of Amon Ra. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Now that there’s been both a high profile robbery AND a gruesome murder, it’s probably time to clear out the museum and call in the whole police department, right? Nope! Instead, everyone gets locked in with the murderer(s), the one detective on site just wanders around, and Lara Bow is given free reign to explore every nook and cranny of this giant crime scene. Makes sense.

One thing I loved about these older adventure games is that they slip in a lot of little observational jokes and slapstick to amuse players spending hours pixel hunting and puzzle solving. Lara Bow’s humor is hit or miss, I find, but at least it’s there.

As a character, Lara is incredibly nosy, always the first onto the scene of any given murder, a nonstop kleptomaniac, and as we see above, perfectly okay wrecking up the joint if it suits her. Sure, go ahead and swing that dinosaur bone right into some brittle glass. You’ve had a long day, girl.

While it was pretty hard to die in the first two acts, Lara’s demise comes fast and furious from here on out. This museum is a giant death trap, and those deaths come in a lot of bizarre ways. Lara falls off staircases in the dark, or — as you see here — gets bitten to death by bats if she doesn’t have a lit lantern with her. That sort of thing always happens to me at home.

Act 3’s major themes are “nonstop death” and “nonstop canoodling with the French lady.” It’s almost a running gag how many times you can walk in on Yvette and someone else getting amorous, and her partners are so many that I’m pretty sure she’s started some sort of STD epidemic right in this museum.

Obligatory “We’re all in the Sierra catalog” joke here. I didn’t mind. King Edward is in another vat.

Favorite Lara death of this chapter? She pickles herself by hanging out in a room with tons of fumes for too long.

As I said, the deaths of the secondary cast start coming rapidly. There’s Dr. Carrington, Dr. Carter, and now Ziggy, who gets the distinction of being stabbed in the back by a pterodactyl AND beheaded by what Lara discovers is a paper cutter. I don’t really get the method here of the killer, who seems to delight in creating these bizarre death scenes and then sometimes moving the corpses afterwards to new locations.

Meanwhile, Lara gets tommy gunned to death thanks to a booby-trapped mousetrap. So… double trap? That head of security guy must really, really hate mice.

Then there’s death by desk porcupine, a murder which is so ridiculous — especially with the critter’s face there — that it completely fails to be scary or foreboding in the least.

I haven’t really documented this, but there is a whole lot of plot going on in this chapter, mostly between various characters who have alliances, plots, romances, and vendettas. Seriously, it’s almost too much to keep track of, although the old countess’ art forgery scheme seems to come out of nowhere as she’s lugging paintings around the place.

Ever the professional reporter, Lara identifies a dagger. Even better, it’s the titular Dagger of Amon Ra, just hanging out in a vat of warthogs for some reason.

And the Oscar for Most Gruesome Death That No Doubt Traumatized Kids goes to… Lara getting eaten alive by flesh-eating bugs that spring out of a steamer trunk full of skeleton. Of course, if you feed the bugs rancid meat instead, they start marching the meat around the museum like they’re on parade. I laughed when they randomly showed up in a future scene.

Before the act concludes, Ernie joins the murder club, drowned and then slung over a mastadon’s tusks. What amuses me is that you occasionally see the surviving party goers just milling about these rooms, not really bothered in the slightest by the bodies.

But you know who is bothered? Lara — and she’s going to get to the bottom of all this!

Dagger of Amon Ra: Act 2, Suspects on Parade

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s The Dagger of Amon Ra. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Now that fledgling journalist Lara Bow has the most important tool in her reporter’s arsenal — a pretty dress — she can attend the museum fundraiser and try to get to the bottom of the burglary of the famous Egyptian dagger.

This being a murder mystery of sorts, it’s important to get to know our cast of suspects, which is why the bulk of Act 2 has Lara hanging out at the party eavesdropping on everyone to see what vital clues they might drop. It also has the effect of making her stand out like the nosiest of all Southern Belles…

See? Even the game knows it and calls Lara out on it. Of course, since there’s no other way to advance the plot, Lara has to keep sneaking up behind people and listening in to conversations. Fourteen of them, to be precise.

So who do we have at the party? There’s the arrogant Dr. Carter who found the dagger, Dr. Carrington who is the new museum president, the French sexpot Yvette, Detective O’Riley from the police station, Dr. Smith who keeps calling down curses for the absconding of the dagger from Egypt to anyone who will hear him, stool pigeon Ziggy, Egyptian accountant Najeer, the stuffy Countess, and death-obsessed Dr. Myklos. Oh, and there’s a Nazi guard named Wolf and some dude named Steve who is a total stalker and shows up at the party in work boots.

Over the 14 conversations, you do learn a lot of backstory and personality traits for each of the characters, even though it is a massive exposition dump. At least it is occasionally amusing and bizarre. Deep Conversation on a Dinosaur is going to be the name of my alt-rock band.

File this under “things that you often hear during polite and civilized discussions.”

Stalker Steve shows up and whisks Lara outside of the museum for a little walk. He comes on way, way too strong, and his voice actor sounds a lot like Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. So I’m going to call this guy as the muderer, because who wears work boots to a formal event, poor or not? And stupid poor Lara ends up kissing him anyway, even though they just met. Her head is going to be in his trophy room by the end of the week, mark my words.

Eventually the game frees me from the nonstop talk talk talk to let Lara do some investigating. She actually finds what looks like the real stolen dagger in the gift shop, although Wolf goosesteps in there to usher her out before she can do anything about it.

I like how cartoonish these two dinos look, especially as they have to stare at each other for all eternity. Meanwhile, Lara steals a bone because… why not? Free bone.

Over in the Egyptian wing, Lara spots a bit of blood in front of a sarcophagus. When she opens it, the game hams things up with dramatic music, the above shot of Lara freaking the heck out, and then…

Snooty Dr. Carter, stabbed in the heart and someone’s to blame because he gave love a bad name. If I was playing this game as a kid, this scene would have totally freaked me out. As it is right now, I’m just impressed that the guy can maintain such a pose and a face after death. He commits to the part!

So now the question is… whodunnit and where’s that dagger?

Dagger of Amon Ra: Act 1, A Nose for News

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s The Dagger of Amon Ra. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Among the pantheon of Sierra’s adventure game series, Lara Bow is much less recognizable than King’s Quest and Space Quest. She only appeared in two titles, 1989’s The Colonel’s Bequest and 1992’s The Dagger of Amon Ra, before disappearing forever. Yet Lara Bow remains an interesting engima in Sierra’s catalog, a series that primarily focused on character-based murder mysteries with a female protagonist (thanks in large part to creator Roberta Williams).

I’ve heard that Amon Ra is an underrated classic, and so I snapped it up on GOG a while back when it went on sale. Let’s see what Ms. Bow is up to in this title and how we might help her make her way as a journalist in the big city.

What’s truly bizarre about the start of this game is that if you click “play new game,” then you’ll miss the very informative introduction. Instead, you have to deliberately choose “introduction” from the menu to get the setting and backstory.

Anyway, the tale begins on a passenger ship in the 1920s as a shadowy figure skulks inside of a cabin and then strangles its occupant to death. That accomplished, the body is tucked inside a steamer trunk and the ship disembarks in New York City.

One of the first things that I noticed about this game is that it has an absolutely striking art deco style with its layout. Certain scenes are framed like comic book panels with inserts and talking heads and pretty bad voice acting (more on that later).

Outside on the gangplank, an Egyptian guy is having an argument with the museum curator over the latter taking the Dagger of Amon Ra out of its native country. Snooty rejoinders abound and an ominous feeling is felt.

Meanwhile in New Orleans, aspiring journalist Lara Bow leaves her father to take a train to NYC for a job that he got for her at the Tribune. Lara’s voice is trying so hard to be that Southern drawl that we all know well, yet the actress lays it on too thick and she often comes across sounding like a parody than a person. This is a problem that much of the game’s voice acting has, and I won’t belabor that. Anyway, Lara is promptly mugged the second she steps off the train — like, that very second — and is made fun of for being really short (even though she isn’t):

Lara’s first assignment at the paper is to investigate a burglary that happened at the museum, as the Dagger was apparently stolen. Right away the game establishes how this is a very unfriendly time for professional women, as Lara is discriminated against left and right and can’t even pee in her own building. Seriously. It’s established that there’s only a men’s bathroom on the news floor. So this game is really sexist but it’s in a historical sense so it’s hard to tell if you’re supposed to be offended or if it’s parody or if it’s just part of the setting. I’m rolling with it.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because Lara dies:

Oh yeah, this is a Sierra adventure game, and that means one thing: random acts of death lurk EVERYWHERE. In this instance, Lara is killed crossing the street if she doesn’t look both ways. And I found that I had to do this every dang time I crossed certain streets. It’s not being realistic, it’s just being punitive.

The main goal of the first act of the game is to get ready for an evening reception at the museum. Since Lara had all her stuff stolen (which she is quite chipper about, by the way), this makes her primary mission to get a dress to wear. And that means solving a whole bunch of chain-reaction needs from various NPCs. Stereotypically Irish cop is hungry? I have to annoy a bum to get his newspaper to get a coupon to cross the street and not die and get a free sandwich. That sort of thing.

Yay, I got hit by the car again! I’m convinced that this city is out to kill Lara Bow by any means possible.

One slightly interesting twist on the adventure game format is that occasionally this title will let you select dialogue options to see how they play out. It’s nothing super-significant but it is kind of fun to roleplay these situations.

While we can at least explain the sexism that runs through this game, the racism present is harder to pass off. Everyone is so strongly stereotypical that it’s very hard to know if the writers were being offensive or tongue-in-cheek, as with this Chinese guy that operates (of course) a dry cleaning service. Also, he’s extremely promiscuous and mentions something along those lines every other second despite being about 79 years old.

And sometimes this game is just flat-out impossible to interpret. Lara finally gets a dress (thanks to a long-abandoned dry cleaning ticket buried under trash in the cab above), but when she finds the sole women’s bathroom in this entire city, it’s occupied by what seems to be a flapper on drugs who won’t stop making really inappropriate remarks while Lara is undressing. I am starting to suspect that she took off the doors to those toilet stalls back there and just sits in this bathroom all the time.

At least Lara gets dudded up for the museum event and is ready to crack this story wide open!

One amusing bit of design is this screen when you go to quit the game. Oh Lara, I can’t quit you!

Retro Gaming: Majesty the Fantasy Kingdom Sim

Ever since it was released in 2000, I’ve played and replayed Majesty the Fantasy Kingdom Sim fully through about once a year. It’s one of the quirkier gaming traditions in my life, although I’m sure many of us have a game or two like that.

In short, and without overstating it, Majesty (the original) is my favorite RTS game of all time. It’s certainly one of the most unique RTS games ever made, taking away direct control over units from the player in favor of gradually shaping a fantasy kingdom and nudging the free-spirited citizens to do your will.

When I came back to play it this year, I did it with one big question in my mind: Does it still hold up in 2019? Is it still fun to play? I mean, it’s not a perfect game. The actual terrain and landscape is kind of dull and without any mountains, valleys, islands, lakes, or other distinguishing features. Building placement is far more spread out than I’d like. And since we’re dealing with an era of sprites, the animation isn’t as fluid as we’ve grown accustomed to.

Despite all these factors, when I played through it this past month, I had an absolute blast all over again. I’m convinced that Majesty was a brilliantly designed game that’s vastly underrated for what it offers. It’s basically like an MMO world where you are the quest-giver and designer, watching all of those computer players mill about, go on adventures, buy armor, level up, grab treasure, and act according to class roles. The sprites are large and colorful, the sound design is flat-out amazing (the music and the charming sound bites never get old to my ears), the option to follow up to two different characters around on their journeys is fascinating, and the strategy in what buildings you make and upgrade offers a lot of meaningful choice.

Every race and building in this game often has an interesting backstory if you care to read it, and I love how there are racial conflicts that force you to choose between hosting Gnomes, Dwarves, or the lazy, lazy Elves in your kingdom. Enough heroes die, and a monster-spawning graveyard appears. Various missions can offer surprisingly flexible win conditions and events, from bedazzled heroes to other kingdoms helping you out.

Have I mentioned the mission narrator, who sounds like Sean Connery? Or the adorably cute Gnome voices? Or how nail-biting it can be to watch your tax collector with a full pouch get stalked by a minotaur? Or be under attack but have no gold to tempt heroes into helping out?

The only real downside is that Majesty only ever released one expansion pack (the Northern Kingdoms), which means that there is a limited number of quests to play through, not counting the custom mission generator. I never liked any of the sequels or spin-offs, as they lacked the tight design and charm of the original. But at least GOG.com offers a fully playable Majesty for me to still enjoy today, and enjoy it I do.

Retro Gaming: Age of Empires II

I am absolutely horrible at Age of Empires II.

I didn’t used to be. Back in 1999, this real-time strategy title was the backbone of much of my gaming time for a good long while, and I commanded empires that were as prosperous as they were mighty. A lot of gamers were hooked on this title due to its slick interface, ease of play, and the “Civilization-lite” progression through four eras that gave you a sense of time passing. It’s easily been the most popular and long-lasting of the Age of Empires series, with a HD edition in 2013 and an upcoming “Definitive Edition” that’s due later this year. That’s not even counting the official expansions for the game, the most recent of which was 2016 (!).

With Age of Empires IV on the way for… sometime in the future… I took advantage of a Steam sale to pick up the HD edition and give this old favorite a whirl. This is when I discovered that I am just rubbish at playing this game in 2019. I even scaled back the difficulty and still saw other empires racing ahead of me in ages and military might as I struggled to remember all of the different tech upgrades.

It’s still a great game, don’t get me wrong. It looks good (if tiny) and it’s quite simple to assign villagers to various tasks, build up defenses, and create impressive-looking armies. The mechanics were fine, and while I wished that I could zoom in at a resolution that pictured my village and citizens as something larger than individual atoms, it was quite playable indeed. The music, the sounds, the different civilization units — all of these were (and are) great.

So what’s the problem? I think it comes down to balance. There are two factors to balance in Age of Empires II: advancing through ages to get better buildings/units and creating a large enough standing army to defend and conquer. The former requires a lot of villagers to establish a strong economy and plenty of resources spent on upgrades, buildings, and age advancement, while the later asks for those same resources to throw toward the military. But how to balance it, I don’t know. I didn’t do my research and I had no idea how many villagers, farms, etc., I should have going to create a good rate of progress without completely ignoring the military. Feels like there should be a set ratio or pattern, and without that, I was either progressing too slowly or ignoring my defenses.

Still, I love how alive a town feels in this game. I kind of care about all of my people as the villagers tend to sheep and hide out in the town center when it comes under attack. I really appreciate the ability to build up walls, gates, towers, and other castle-like defenses to help keep invaders from simply rofflestomping all over my lands. And I had a good time creating a number of my favorite unit, the Janissaries, that could fire off impressive waves of rifle-like attacks at the foe.

I just wish I didn’t stink so much at it. Oh well, no time to really invest in getting it right, because the Summer of the RTS demands my attention move on to another game!

Retro Gaming: Warcraft II

I’ve been going on a bit of a retro RTS kick lately, and one of the first stops on that tour had to be the game that — alongside C&C Red Alert — was one of the most instrumental in sucking me into this genre.

Released in 1995, Warcraft II helped to establish Blizzard as a powerhouse studio rather than a firm that did the random console title. Everyone, just everyone, played this game. It was far more polished and full featured than 1992’s Dune II, one of the first popular real-time strategy games. Even my wife confessed to playing this a lot as a teenager, which gave her a shock when she saw that I had purchased this through GOG and installed it on my computer.

So with years of World of Warcraft under my belt and over two decades since playing this game, how does Warcraft II hold up in 2019? What is it like, looking at it backwards through the lens of WoW? I was dying to find out.

While Warcraft II didn’t really do much new — it had multiplayer LAN, it had a long solo campaign, it spawned an expansion — it soared due to its art style, polished play, and personality. Really, those three factors are Blizzard’s defining qualities, and it’s interesting to see it even back then. It’s also interesting in how some of the buildings and troops look familiar to the WoW style (even as sprites) while others are far more fantasy-generic or alien to WoW entirely.

The first thing I noticed when playing through the Orc campaign was that Warcraft II hails from an earlier era of RTS where all of the controls were on the left side of the screen, which left a much reduced play field over on the right. It’s usable but restrictive. In fact, almost everything here is more primitive and clunky — moreso than expected. There are no tooltips. No ways to tell troops coming out of buildings to assemble at a certain point. Not a lot of in-game explanations about how buildings help certain units or provide other bonuses until after you make them.

It wasn’t hard to figure out how it all worked, just a little frustrating how old it felt. I was actually surprised that I could make battle groups with CTRL+number keys, and a little let down by how slow and stilted the animations and fighting looked. I mean, again, it’s all functional. Just not as smooth as you’d expect.

That said, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s still a good time to build up a base and establish dominance over a portion of the world. There’s a *ton* of personality, from the art of the buildings to the fluffy sheep to the vocal quotes of each unit (“zug zug” always gets me).

I think what was the hardest to adjust to was how painfully slow a match progressed. It simply took forever to get a town and army built up, and more often than not I was standing there waiting for enough resources to stack up to fund the next project. After about six missions, I felt that I had gotten out of this game whatever experience I wanted. It didn’t leave me desperate for more, is what I’m saying.

Other than design due to its age, the only criticism I have of Warcraft II is how Blizzard felt that adding ships and naval combat was an important twist on the Warcraft formula. I didn’t like this back then and I certainly do not now. Ships aren’t fun nor feel as immersive as fantasy ground units, and yet so many of the missions forced me to deal with them. It’s annoying as all get out to have to build up a shipyard, pump oil, construct a transport ship, then load up units just to move them from one portion of the map to another.

It was fine to play this for curiosity’s sake, but in retrospect, my $12 or so could’ve been spent better elsewhere. At the very least it highlighted how much of a jump the 3D realm was for Warcraft III and all of the successive design decisions that the new decade brought.