Grim Fandango: Year Three

From lowly deck swab to steamer captain — Manny always seems to land on his feet between the years of his spiritual journey. He pulls into port and for a moment there, I assume that this is going to be yet another port-related locale just like Year Two was. That gets turned on its head really quickly as the ship is boarded by sinister customs agents…

The whole crew sans Manny and Glottis get sprouted, and the two of them are locked up in a room to conveniently concoct their escape. Said escape comes by sawing the ship in half and sailing out into the middle of the ocean to then sink to the bottom of the sea. Yay? I guess? At least Manny doesn’t have to breathe and Glottis can go without for a while.

Down in the ocean they witness a cranky octopus grabbing shipwrecked skeletons and taking them away for indentured slavery. Naturally, Manny comes along for the ride and discovers that his old arch-nemesis, Domino, is heading up the works at this factory at the literal edge of the world.

Instead of being killed, Manny is given an even worse fate: To work for Domino in this mining operation. There are a couple of skeleton angel kids here that you can torment, which I do, because it amused me. Also, it was funny.

The whole layout of the factory is a lot more easy to navigate than the previous year, so I was able to get through it at a fast clip. The goal? To escape and take along everyone with you!

It helps to have a means of escape, which in this case was another giant ship that was hanging off the side of the world. Glottis goes to town on it with the usual awesome results.

Unfortunately, Meche and Manny are not doing so well on the getting-along-together front. Manny is irked that she brained him with a champagne bottle and tries to turn him in to Domino for the escape attempt, and Meche is annoyed that Manny appears to have betrayed her. Eventually the two seem to come to some sort of understanding and there’s even an almost-kiss (how would that work with skull-heads? You just mash teeth together? What would you get out of that?).

The only truly annoying part of Year Three involves opening up a safe by rotating very finicky tumblers. Took me several tries to get the hang of it. Reunited, the two of them discover that all of the stolen double-nine tickets are actually counterfeits, for some strange reason.

The escape sequence is very satisfying, I won’t lie. Domino comes after the crew in his sub, and Manny — ever the dashing hero — leaps down and takes him on. This culminates in Domino getting chewed up to pieces in the giant crushers that Glottis fixed to the front of the ship. See you later, pal!

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Grim Fandango: Year Two

I think it was a great idea for Grim Fandango to split its story up into four segments — “years” here — as it lends a sense of progression through the game and provides a nice big shift from one setting to the next. So as the Year One was all about Manny’s job in the city, Year Two sees him becoming a successful casino operator in a Casablanca-type town.

It’s a much bigger area with plenty of confusing connections, and getting to know the layout was easily my least favorite part of this year. My most favorite element was the character of Lupe, Manny’s coatcheck girl. She is this slightly hyper, over-enthusiastic, and utterly organized girl who makes every scene with her a laugh riot. She’s not manic, which is how writers usually go with these kinds of characters, but instead she’s very, very devoted to her systems.

At the start of this year, Manny — who has been waiting to see if Meche will come through — briefly spots her. She’s boarding a boat with Dominic and lobs a bottle at Manny’s head when he tries to board. For some reason, this doesn’t dissuade him from his quest to get to her, so the whole segment is him trying to figure out some way to get a berth on another outgoing vessel.

Let me say that the Meche connection is probably the most tenuous narrative thread of the game so far. Manny’s had all of ONE conversation with her which was mostly an interview about her past, and the second she disappears he’s deeply smitten and feels responsible for her going on the journey alone. I think that whole part happened too fast, and as a result, I’m not really buying his infatuation or compulsive need to go after her. Especially after she deliberately brains him with a bottle?

Getting on that ship is a horribly complicated affair, of course. It takes a whole lot of untangling to get the three things Manny needs: a union card, a sailor out of the way, and his former driver Glottis to give up his gambling ways. To accomplish this, Manny has to run all over the place inciting a riot, fixing casino tables, conducting a vault heist, scooping through kitty litter, avoiding the authorities, drugging people, and so on.

Fortunately, the scene and characters here are all so well-done that I didn’t mind all the busy work and backtracking. It’s in this segment that the film noir influence of Grim Fandango is heavily pronounced, as pretty much everything is Humphrey Bogart incarnate.

A few of the puzzles had very nonsensical solutions, but eventually I got there. Seeing Glottis as a soused gambler was pretty funny, and there is a lawyer who’s so slimy and smarmy that I was applauding how much the game made me hate him.

Also, there’s a security guard who is rather bonkers for her job and has a few very funny bits, including detonating a cigarette case that she suspects is a bomb.

One of my only complaints here, aside from the getting lost thing, is that one female character is introduced right before she’s killed (spoiler), yet apparently we’re supposed to care about her. That was odd, I thought. When the audience has no connection with characters, they don’t really mind if they get sprouted.

Eventually, through a lot of trickery, deceit, and outright lying, Manny obtains his berth and sets sail for the next port. Once again, he starts the year as a lowly worker mopping the deck… and ends it as the captain of a souped-up vessel (courtesy of the ever-tinkering Glottis).

Grim Fandango: Year One

You voted, I listened. After putting out there three possible candidates for a Halloween season retro playthrough, my Twitter followers selected LucasArt’s cult classic adventure game Grim Fandango for a romp.

That’s perfectly fine with me. My dirty secret is that I never got to finish GF. I owned it back in the day but the game glitched out on me a quarter of the way through and I wasn’t able to continue and complete my adventures. Then I threw it on the pile of “I really should go back and replay the whole thing” and kind of forgot about it. But now that there’s a remastered version on GOG.com and I have some time to retro game again, the excuses end here!

Grim Fandango was a really hard sell back in 1998 when it first came out. The whole premise of an adventure game themed to Mexico’s Day of the Dead was really strange (and even Pixar seemed to have difficulty wooing the masses with its talking skeleton flick Coco). I thought it was a wonderfully original idea, and the fact that it was created by Psychonauts’ Tim Schafer bumped it up in my estimation. Anyway, does it still hold up today, especially with old school adventure game mechanics? Let’s see!

The opening minutes lays out the bizarre premise here. Manny is a faux Grim Reaper in the underworld who works as a “travel agent” for the Department of Death to sell packages to the recently deceased who are about to embark on a four-year journey to find their eternal rest. Manny, however, is stuck doing this dead-end (heh) job until he makes enough money to work off some sort of debt.

One of the cool features of the remastered version is an audio developer commentary that can be toggled on so that every once in a while you can hear the team discuss various aspects of the game.

Grim Fandango is a wonderful mash-up of unlikely bedfellows, including film noir, the Aztec believe in the afterlife, and art deco, and all three of these influences run through the entire game. It’s such a unique look that has one foot in some version of our reality and one in another one entirely.

Anyway! The game! So Manny is not doing that well in the DOD, unable to land any big clients or make much money at all. Over the course of the first couple of hours, he discovers that this is because there’s something sinister going on in the DOD, as the best clients are always given to his rival Domino. Manny’s not without resources, and so befriends a beefy demon driver named Glottis and uncovers an underground revolutionary movement devoted to rooting out the truth.

While this is one of those adventure games where you can’t die (unlike most of Sierra’s crop), the puzzles can often be very fiendish and require a lot of experimentation and backtracking to solve. What I appreciate about Grim Fandango is that the interface is really streamlined — absent, for the most part. Manny’s head will turn toward any objects of note and the enter key will interact with people, things, etc. He does have a simple inventory, but no more than a half-dozen objects are in it at any given time.

At one point, Manny does return to the land of the living to reap a soul, and there we’re treated to this hellish display. I thought it really showed the imagination of the game’s developers, that the real world is the abnormal one while the underworld is, well, more acceptable to us.

Another imaginative twist is that “killing” the undead skeletons here requires shooting them with a special gun loaded with sprouts. The resulting flowers puts the dead to a permanent rest.

This is also a deeply weird and funny game, which is what we’ve all come to expect from a Schafer production. Some of the quotes here are just gold.

Eventually Manny crosses paths with a noteworthy client — a lady named Meche — who was a living saint and deserves nothing less than the best afterlife. However, it’s then that Manny discovers that the DOD has been stealing these rewards from good people and reselling them for a mysterious figure. Meche takes off on her four-year spiritual journey, and Manny soon follows after.

The rest of Manny’s first year takes place in a petrified forest (which wasn’t anything special) and a rather run-down port town named Rubacava. It’s here that he stops his journey for a while, becomes a businessman, and upgrades the place to a bustling port of call.

Chrono Trigger: A fun day at the fair

(This is part of my journey going playing through Chrono Trigger. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Chrono Trigger! It’s definitely one of my all-time favorite RPGs (and I’m certainly not alone in this), and I still very much enjoy playing it even over two decades since it first released. It’s so well designed with a great story, incredible music, and a sheer fun factor that rides high all the way through. Even though I played it last year, I wanted to give the now-improved Steam version a shot for a true Retro Gaming series (as I’ve never done that before) and to do a few things, such as all of the game’s side quests (as I’ve never done those before). No more introduction, let’s get going!

What still impresses me after all these years is how Chrono Trigger does the exact opposite of how most JRPGs start. Usually there’s some immediate threat, a village gets burned down, hero vows to save stuff, and we’re off. Instead of that, CT delivers a slow, satisfying experience of… a day at the fair. It’s actually brilliant. It teaches you a lot about the game, ties in to some time travel elements later on, advances the plot, and gets you familiar enough with the world so that you actually start to care about it. And it does all of this casually, allowing the player to go as fast or slow through it as possible.

It’s 1000 A.D. in a fantasy world that’s somewhere around the Industrial Revolution in terms of development (well, there are gadgets and fridges and so on). You start out as Crono, a spikey-haired lad who’s woken up by his mother and told to behave as he heads off to the festival to celebrate the country’s 1,000th birthday. He also wants to check in with his best friend Lucca and see her latest invention. Again, you have freedom to explore the town and even head into the nearby forest for some early fights/grinding, but little of it is necessary. I appreciate “just for fun” options that are in this game.

Speaking of, I thought I’d quickly list everything that you can do at the the fair:

  • Bump into Marle, a strange tomboy with a strange pendant, and go on a date with her
  • Buy gear and potions from vendors
  • Bet on the outcome of a footrace (I never win this)
  • Play a minigame to hit a bell at the top of a pole (I almost never win this, either)
  • Go into the Tent of Horrors and play three tough minigames. These do pay out in items that then appear in your home, making this as close to a housing feature as this game has.
  • Challenge a man to a drinking contest
  • Dance at a prehistoric party
  • Return a lost kitty to her owner
  • Fight a singing robot named GATO (which is my preferred method for gaining festival points, since you’re also getting XP and levels)
  • Go watch Lucca’s invention demonstration

I am the very very sweetest! Also, I just drank my body weight in “soda,” so I’m pretty sure I’m dying right now.

What was so cool about this festival is that most players going through it the first time had no idea that it was actually preparing them for the game and even setting up some story beats to come in the future. It was especially trippy to realize that your actions would have consequences down the road, although it was mostly for flavor. I liked it, even still. And for the record, I try to do all of the “good” things for the trial later on. Well, most of them. I do eat the guy’s lunch because it’s an easy way to heal up between fights.

Does GATO’s stomach have a pokeball in it? Seems rather before its time.

So let’s talk about Crono Trigger’s combat. It’s a blend of turn-based and real-time, keeping the pace of battle flowing while players queue up choices. At the beginning it’s pretty simple, but eventually you get regular attacks, “tech” attacks, and magic spells — and then some of these can be combined with other character’s moves to do even more impressive skills. I love it.

But the best, seriously the BEST, part of all of this is that Crono Trigger doesn’t have a random encounter system. Enemies appear on screen (although sometimes they pop out of the environment) and can be avoided or engaged as you wish. Coming from the nonsense that was Final Fantasy’s random encounters, this was such a blessing and continues to be today. You feel like you’re coming to fights on your terms, not the game’s.

Ugh, I hate this particular minigame. You get an important item from it later in the game, but I absolutely stink at doing this rapid “Simon says” interaction.

Alone in the Dark: Dance of death

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s Alone in the Dark. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Naturally, escape from the mansion is not easily achieved by waltzing back through the front door. An interdimensional worm now lives there and will suck me into its maw if I am audacious enough to try to leave.

Everything in this house wants to kill me, but it keeps doing so in such inventive ways that I can’t help but be impressed with the effort. One room has a haunted cigar that will suffocate me with smoke unless I douse it with water. This painting of a frontiersman starts chucking tomahawks at me. His mortal weakness? An old Indian blanket, of course.

Across the hall, his Native American counterpart painting starts firing arrows at me. This is where naughty Hogwarts pictures come to live!

As I talked about before, the monsters in this game are extremely limited in polygons. While this can make them more frightening at times with their movements and whatnot, most often they just come off as ridiculous. I missed out on taking a picture of the ghost in the library, but honestly, it looked like the purple Grimace. Don’t really know what they were going for there.

And why not, one of the rooms has a pirate waiting to slash me in two! Feel bad for this guy, spending years cooped up in a room without any company or his old parrot. Probably dreams of the sea. Oh well. Now you must die. A sword fight between us ensues, and it’s easily the most fun I’ve had in the game so far. Wasn’t too tough, either.

Other than the attic, the ballroom is the one place that I always remembered from playing this back when I was a kid. You can only get the item from behind the ghosts if you put on the right record — Danse Macabre, of course — and then make your way through them to grab it. I’ve always associated that piece of music with this game ever since. Stupid games, teaching me about classical music!

With all of that done, I think I’m finished with the main house! I descend down into the basement, which is substantially larger than I would have thought. I guess if you’re going to build a house, might as well situate it over a font of unspeakable evil? Lovecraft is applauding your decision.

BEHOLD MY CHILDREN: THE WORM THAT WILL END THE WORLD. HIS NAME IS HAROLD.

Once the game hits this underground cavern section, I’m much less interested in what it has to offer. There’s little in the way of story or things to explore; mostly it’s just some weird platforming and action sequences while you try very hard not to die. I never did like it when developers ran out of time toward the end of their game and felt like they had to stretch it out with bland and tedious elements.

You know what would be a great idea to include in a game where your character functions like a drunk, scared baby? Platforming! Yes, let’s jump with a character that can barely walk. This will end well for all involved. I am not joking here when I say that I had to save after every single jump in this room, because falling is way, way too easy.

The books in Alone in the Dark are the primary vehicle to deliver the backstory, but honestly, I’ve been avoiding most of them due to the really atrocious voice acting. All you need know is that a pirate named Ezechiel got involved with Cthulu and stuff and now he’s merged with a tree underground and is perpetuating horrors while trying to possess people who come into the house.

This, by the way, is the worst room in the game. It’s a maze that’s pitch black, and even with your lamp, you can only see a very small part of it. Oh, and if you’ve run out of oil or matches, well then, you might as well start the game over again. Good luck! Fortunately, I had plenty of oil left, so I used the tried-and-true right-hand rule to keep following the right wall of the maze until I found the door out.

So here’s the final tree-boss in all his terrifying glory. I feel a bit bad for him, being stuck in a tree for hundreds of years with only a single monster nearby and the ability to shoot fireballs. Has to be boring. Welp, time to light him on fire!

With the pirate-tree turned into a flaming mini-volcano (?), all that’s left is to make my way out of the house. That takes a bit of time, but at least all of the enemies are now gone. Fresh daylight! Good has triumphed!

And this is where the game really got me all those years ago, because it was such a relief to know that I beat the game and got out of the house. Sunshine is beaming down, the music changes to this cheery little tune, and I flag down a car…

…only to have this cackling skeleton-zombie-thing turn around and FREAK ME THE HECK OUT. I freely admit it: I screamed so loud that my parents upstairs called down, sure that I hurt myself. The skeleton doesn’t do anything other than laugh and then drive you away, but still, that was totally unfair, game. Unfair.

And that’s it, Alone in the Dark finished in two relatively short play sessions! It’s a really quick game if you know what you’re doing, and while the polygons are pretty laughable today, there’s still an effectively creepy vibe that the house and its sounds delivers.

Alone in the Dark: Knock knock

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s Alone in the Dark. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

I’m 42 years old. I shouldn’t still be scared — or at least intimidated by — a scary video game that I played back in 1992 but I am. I really am. I think it’s because Alone in the Dark was the first real horror game I ever experienced, and while it was pretty cool to go through, it also ended up scarring my psyche.

Similar to how I dealt with my lingering fear of System Shock 2, I figured the best way to get this out of my system (and generate a new retro gaming series) was just to play it. Anyone miss these playthroughs? Probably not, but that’s OK! They entertain me!

I don’t really know much of the video horror games prior to 1992, but I do know that Alone in the Dark marked a big step in the direction of what would become known as the “survival horror” genre. Essentially, this was a style of game where you were put in a frightening situation and made to feel vulnerable by being given a character that wasn’t especially fast, maneuverable, or a good fighter. In short, you were monster bait in the middle of Monster Central.

It was surprisingly effective.

Games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Amnesia all followed in this vein, but Alone in the Dark really pioneered a lot of the design elements. Yes, it has laughably crude and early polygon graphics (which were revolutionary on computers in 1992), but if you can get past it, you know what? Still downright creepy.

Even the introduction, which has my character investigating the suicide of a relative in the attic of his mansion, instantly put me back on edge. The sound design and music gets a lot of credit for this, as does the angles and that shot of a monster’s point-of-view looking out of a window at me as I approached.

Here’s where the fun begins. I start in the attic of this place, so already I’m in the thick of the house and can’t get out. Not easily, that is. To make matters more interesting, two monsters are coming into the room very shortly, so I had to move quickly… well, immediately to block their entrance.

Alone in the Dark functions as an adventure game with light fighting and stealth elements. So while your normal adventure game has you taking your time exploring every pixel of every room, these kinds of games have you doing so frantically, hoping that you won’t be caught and killed by the bad guy.

Wardrobe and chest moved, monsters blocked. Score one for Syp!

Should probably mention how hard it is to do anything in this game. It’s intentional, but moving and performing actions with this character is annoying. She turns and operates like a tank, and you have to go to a separate screen to activate commands and see your health. Fighting is even worse and I don’t want to try to describe it. Just trust me, it’s slow and awkward. It’s almost always better in this game if you can avoid fights.

Jeremy, the guy who killed himself, left his suicide in the attic. Now, what needs to be mentioned is that while the sound design is good, the voice acting is… what’s the term? Hilariously abysmal. I don’t recall there being voice acting in the version that I played back in the day, but man, they should not have added it. This guy reading the letter is so over-the-top, so bizarrely dramatic, that it had me laughing my head off. Seriously, go to 11:20 in this video and listen to this guy’s “acting.” Let me know what you think.

Down one floor and it’s time for room searching and item thieving! Because of the graphical style and limitations, there are no shadows or dark areas, so a bulk of the atmosphere is carried by the sound effects and the environment acting wonky (floors collapsing, doors closing mysteriously).

Oh, and I’m attacked by the POLYGONAL ZOMBIE FROM HELL! Always thought this guy looked like an anthropomorphic frog in a lounge suit, which is slightly less scary. Slightly more scary is the game’s combat system which is so very awkward to use. It took me a while, but I figured out how to win: You have to wait until the zombie starts its attack animation and take one tiny step back, then step forward and kick. Rinse and repeat.

By the way, when I died, the zombie was considerate enough to drag me all the way to an altar in the basement before the Game Over screen flashed.

Monsters abound on the second floor here. One goofy-looking bird thing jumps through a window in a neat POV moment. Then these purple scorpion dudes have to be defeated via mirrors. I think that the fact you can see so little of their details works well with this game, because your imagination fills in the gaps.

Alone in the Dark is very old school in its adventure game roots, which means that there are a LOT of “do one thing wrong and you’ll die instantly.” Like get too near to this ghost sitting in the chair here. She doesn’t like me much.

And yeah, it is weirdly creepy that this ghost lady is just sitting here looking at nothing.

Strange and unsettling angles are another survival horror staple and very much in effect here. And by the way, if you see anything with polygons, chances are it’s going to attack or kill you in some way.

Oh hai, bathtub jellyfish monster!

I actually felt a little bad taking out this haunted suit of armor by chucking a statuette at it. Poor guy was just standing his post, you know?

This is definitely the nicest room I’ve visited yet. Very peaceful and serene. Probably going to kill me ten ways from Sunday. Nearby, the kitchen has a pot of HUMAN REMAINS dun dun dunnn. This place really goes the extra effort to hit all of those horror tropes.

Now that I got the sword from the suit of armor, I’m a terror to the zombies. They can’t even get close before I cut them down. HI-KEEBA!

Remember that human flesh soup I picked up? Well it’s got a really funny use in the dining room. I put it on the table here and all five zombies in the room politely refrain from chowing down on me to sit in their chairs instead. The chairs are all pulled really far back from the table and no one is eating (most likely a restriction of the graphics and spacing here), but it’s still kind of humorous to watch.

Retro Gaming: Pharaoh

(Retro Gaming is a series in which I get some hands-on time with classic video games of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Check out this game and others on the Retro Gaming page.)

I can never, ever type the word “pharaoh” correctly. It is my everlasting shame.

So it’s been a year since I started KOTOR 2, and obviously both the sheer busyness of life and declining interest in finishing it up has forced me to put it on hiatus. One of my personal guidelines for the Retro Gaming series is to play a title only as long as it is fun or captivating, and if I hit the end of that… to move on.

There are many bigger retro games to cover, but at least until this fall, my time is going to be quite limited and I don’t want to get sucked into a massive run. Instead, I’m going to be going through my 200-plus GOG library and selecting a few candidates that would make for shorter (1-3 session) playthroughs.

To start us off, I’m going back to a city builder game that I loved back in college, which is Pharoah. I would say that Caesar III was probably more popular among my friends, but I was partial to the ancient Egyptian focus of Pharoah (and its expansion, Cleopatra). Its twist, if you wanted to call it that, was that you had to factor in the Nile’s flooding and subsequent fertile planting seasons in your building plans.

So here is the basic view of the Pharaoh screen, minus a bit chopped off at the top and bottom. Back in the day, it was very common to have most of your action buttons and minimap taking up 1/4 to 1/3 of your screen’s real estate on the left or right side. Eventually that moved to the bottom, but this game came out in 1999, which was before that shift.

We have an isometric view with decent sprite graphics. Somewhat colorful, but there’s a lot of desert color schemes going on, so it’s not as bright and bold as the Caesar games. As for animations, there’s a few with production buildings and with characters walking about, but it’s pretty crude stuff by modern standards.

One thing I really did like, coming back to this game, was the hieroglyphic menu. It’s absolutely beautiful and so well done with the theme of ancient Egypt. Even the border has some color and “pop” to it, and it’s little touches like this that draw me into a title.

The gameplay loop here is basically a juggling act. Your main goal is to create a growing and thriving population, as evidenced by the type and complexity of their houses. To do this, you have to keep adding new supporting systems to provide comforts, necessities, entertainment, and so on. All of it has to be laid out just so, because each building has a radius of effectiveness, so if you get your houses too far away, they won’t be receiving water or food or whatever else they want.

It might sound silly if you’re not into these games, but there is a real satisfaction of seeing a well-designed and organized metropolis thrive and hum. Of course, if things get too complex or there are disasters, then it could bring your carefully constructed deck of cards down.

I rand through a couple of scenarios to re-familiarize myself with the game. It’s still enjoyable in a way and devilishly challenging once all of the building types are unlocked, but I might be ruined by some of the more modern city and base-building games that I play like Rimworld. And while Pharaoh was newer than Caesar III, I don’t feel that it managed to eclipse the Roman-themed game in its visuals or gameplay features. Just a different coat of paint for people who had already played the heck out of that game.