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.

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KOTOR 2: Korriban

(This is part of my journey going playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

With appearances in KOTOR, KOTOR 2, and SWTOR, Korriban is one of the very few locations to be visited in all three Old Republic games to date. As I’ve never been this far in KOTOR 2 before, I’ve never seen this game’s version yet, but I assume it’s a lot of repurposed maps from the first title.

It is, indeed, a very familiar planet to my SWTOR eyes, and a very short one as well. The big bad on this planet is Darth Scion, the craggy scarred Sith who looks to be in dire need of moisturizer. After picking our way through the valley of the tombs (in KOTOR 2, these tombs are not explorable), I find my way to a dark side cave.

This is kind of interesting, actually. If you ever thought the dark caves in Empire or Last Jedi were a keen peek into how the Force works, at least you get a small taste of that here as well. I guess if you’re a light side player, you can view this as a test for your character, and if you’re a dark side player, this is… basically a vacation resort? I was never clear on that.

The cave is essentially these illusionary setpieces with notable figures. First there is pre-jaw-ripped-off Malak from the first game giving a pep talk to troops. Then Kreia shows up and everyone calls her out on how evil she is, which is what we call in the biz “foreshadowing.”

And there is a fight with Revan, which presents an existential crisis for players who were that character in the first game. He still looks hecka cool here.

After that is the Sith Academy, another reprise from the first game. Like Dantooine, it’s no longer a learning facility but just a dungeon crawl. A pretty enjoyable one, all things considered, but nothing more.

We do find Master Vash dead in a cell, so I guess I don’t get to kill my allotted planetary Jedi. I found it bizarrely humorous how Vash’s corpse has a lightsaber on her, which mean that she could have carved her way out of here and fought. Maybe she had a death wish.

After that, it’s a way-too-quick confrontation with Scion. It’s supposed to be this nerve-wracking confrontation, but you don’t get to kill him because Kreia telepathically yanks you out of there saying that he’s too dangerous. Speak for yourself, sister.

Back on the ship, we get a call urging us to come back to Onderon. Meanwhile, Kreia is shown stalking crew members while invisible. I’m sure the twist will be that she’s really a good guy in the end. Maybe the taller version of Yoda.

KOTOR 2: Onderon and Dxun

(This is part of my journey going playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Next up on our galactic Jedi scavenger hunt, Onderon! Which might be a more difficult planet to get to considering that some local general has it out for me and is attacking my ship. For some reason. The solution? We duck down to the moon of Dxun instead.

Once again, Kreia goes Mob Boss crazy behind my back, threatening Atton to keep the Ebon Hawk (I keep wanting to type “the Ethan Hawke”) grounded until she says so. At this point, the game is completely telegraphing THIS GIRL IS EEEEVIL in all of her scenes. It’s not the fun kind of evil, either, which is what I’m going for.

Dxun is a jungle moon that is overgrown with graphical bugs. My characters kept disappearing — or parts of them at least — until I finally realized that it was the panes of grass that weren’t being transparent for some reason. I disabled foliage and went on with my day. Weird.

Dxun is home to the Mandalorians, the behind-the-scenes antagonists of the first game that are now licking their wounds and regrouping. I have to suck up to them to curry enough favor to get a shuttle ride over to Onderon, so cue lots of side quests.

At least I get to have some fun. One side quest saw a Mandalorian treed (well, “rocked”) by some local beasts, and I set off some explosives with him in the middle. You know that I’m accruing dark side points when HK is praising me.

Oh, and there’s a fight with about two dozen droids that’s all kinds of awesome. By this time I’m wrecking droids left and right with my force powers, so it’s not even a fair fight.

Hey Kreia’s back! She’s back everyone! Bullying like usual! Good show, Kreia!

So Mandalore decides to tag along, although he never takes off his helmet (HINT HINT says the game). We trek on over to Onderon, where the city is on lockdown as a tense standoff between the General and the Queen, which represent the dark side and light side… er, sides, I guess. It’s a powder keg waiting to go off and I’m a happy zippo lighter running through the place.

I go through great lengths to try to meet up with the next sucker, Jedi Master Kavar, which takes me through the local politics and a murder investigation. Also, I end up getting FORCE STORM which is the BEST POWER EVER and I’m using it on ANY RANDOM PASSERBY because I’m 40 HOURS INTO THIS GAME after a year of playing it and AM A LITTLE LOOPY.

The meeting with Kavar does not go as I had imagined. He does half-heartedly apologizing for the Jedi council going overboard in exiling me, but soon enough he runs back to the palace. The general then shows up and mentions something about some Sith Lord manipulating things behind the scenes. Whatever. I just want to be emperor of the galaxy or at least my own pleasure planet.

And that’s it for Onderon, at least for now. On to Korriban!

KOTOR 2: Dantooine

(This is part of my journey going playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Before leaving Nar Shaddaa, I had to defeat Jedi Moustache up there, which was no easy task. The game is balanced around the idea that you’re using a lightsaber or some other melee weapon, so trying to pew-pew him with blasters is a rough go (especially with the whole blaster bolts-deflecting abilities that Jedi have). I had to save scum a lot and use my Kill power excessively, but in the end I conquered him and absorbed his force points into my own being. Didn’t get any loot, despite him using that lightsaber up there, though.

The good news is that with the completion of Nar Shaddaa and a few fights with HK units, I had enough spare parts to put together fan favorite HK-47! Man, I missed you, buddy. How’s it hanging? Still assassinating meatbags everywhere?

I also tried to pry into Atton’s mind with my Force powers, which he didn’t appreciate for some reason. Whatever. I’ve given up on the whining pup.

On to Dantooine! KOTOR 2 mixes it up between familiar locales (reusing maps) and new places, and this is definitely a regifting situation. Still, I now have a fully evil party as I took Hanharr and HK with me.

Truth be told, as much as I like HK-47, he wasn’t as good of a fighter as other characters. I’m debating whether or not to keep him for future planets. Oh geez, I probably will, just for the quips alone. Plus, he appreciates my villainous moves.

Dantooine is looking a bit different than in KOTOR 1, and none for the better. Between games, the Sith ended up razing the Jedi enclave here and the survivors ended up fleeing (which is why I’m chasing them down all over the galaxy). The locales aren’t too happy with the Jedi for abandoning them, although it does seem strange that there wasn’t a single bad word said about the Sith for, you know, the mass damage and all.

There’s a weird interlude on the Ebon Hawke where HK realizes that someone’s locked down the history settings for the navicomputer and then T3 zaps him. HK is completely fine, of course, and this is not spoken of again. What in Sam Hill was that about?

Dantooine is, essentially, two dungeons and a quest hub. There’s a small cave and the larger basement of the Jedi enclave, both crawling with oversized insects and other threats. It’s a great place to farm XP and get some loot. Plus, bonus, I killed a Jedi novice and took her lightsaber, my first in the game so far. Gave it to Visas, since she can do a lot more damage with it.

The planetary storyline convenes with a showdown between the settlers and the encroaching mercenaries. You can take either side, so naturally I’m all Team Mercs and got a talking to by the good guys. It was a fun battle, oh yes it was.

What wasn’t so fun was the showdown with the planet’s last remaining Jedi, Vrook. Baldy here is an absolute terror to fight, chopping right through shields and hit points while healing himself up any time he dips below half health. I didn’t have the best skills to defeat him, and the game makes you fight him one-on-one for some reason, so it took a long, long time to get past him — and only then on the sheerest of luck. I tell you, playing a bad guy in KOTOR 2 is actually harder than a good guy in some ways.

At least the planet is done and we are up by two lightsabers and a nice new armor set for myself!

KOTOR 2: Goto’s Yacht

(This is part of my journey going playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

The trap has been set — and perhaps too well, because I’ve been captured and taken to Goto’s yacht. The holographic mob boss has an odd conversation with me in which he attempts to give me some sort of verbal support and encouragement, saying that the Republic is going to collapse and that I need to forestall this from happening. But then he keeps me prisoner anyway, so what the heck, Goto?

I do wish that we could meet the programmer behind the HK droids and ask what kind of messed-up logic chains he or she used when making these murderbots.

I’m given the strange task of rescuing myself, and so I pick Kreia and Visas, mostly for healing and raw destructive power. Actually, Kreia is overpowered in this setting, because she’s got a deep pool of Force points and has the “destroy droid” skill. This is a nasty chain attack that absolutely devastates pretty much all droids in a room and trivializes any battles. And considering that Goto’s yacht is nothing but droids, I’m on easy street.

It doesn’t take too long before I find myself (whoa, deep) and strike out looking for vengeance. Oh, it’s on, now.

As we clear out the yacht, I came upon this window and thought it was a particularly striking view. Thought I should share it. You’re welcome.

Anyway, bounty hunters pour in, we slay all, we escape, Goto’s yacht is blown up by some self-destruct because why not.

But Goto isn’t dead, of course. He tosses me a droid to join my crew, and I don’t think it’s worth pretending to be ignorant any longer about the big ‘twist’ here — that the droid IS Goto… or G0-T0. Anyway, wicked awesome to have one of those interrogation bots on staff, but I think I’m going to stick with Visa Card and Murder Wookiee for my team going forward.

KOTOR 2: Nar Shaddaa part 3

(This is part of my journey going playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Things are coming to a head in Nar Shaddaa, which is both an exciting and dangerous time. Well, let’s go walk into a trap!

Atton rushes after me with a few medpacks and a completely unnecessary sentiment about being careful. I can’t take him very seriously, as his Dark Side corruption and side head-thingies make him look like an emo raver. Back to the ship with ye!

You know what’s one big difference between KOTOR 1 and 2? The sequel has a LOT more cutscenes and isn’t afraid to keep splitting up the party and having you control just one character (and not only your main). Hanharr approaches me and offers the terms of an alliance, and because I’ve always wanted a psychotic Wookiee at my side, I eagerly agree.

Meanwhile, Mr. Caution heads to a bar instead of back to the ship and promptly gets ambushed by the assassin Twi’leks. Let me say, this is the most brutally difficult fight in the game so far. I’d go so far as to say that it’s impossible with normal tactics. Atton’s single blaster can’t cope with two targets swinging swords at him, and it’s too crowded to throw grenades.

So basically, you have to cheat. There are two suggested solutions. The first is to scout out the bar before this scene and plant mines everywhere so that the sisters roll into them and die. I didn’t know about this and don’t have enough mines anyway, so that’s out. The second is to scoot around the bar and then fire away at an enemy too dumb to follow. Yeah, it’s an exploit, but I’ll take it.

Meanwhile, with Hanharr at my back, I boldly stroll into the trap and… get knocked out instantly by Mira the Good Bounty Hunter. She takes my place in the spacesuit for some stupid reason, which doesn’t help her cause because she soon gets captured afterward.

I, on the other hand, wake up in the apartment of the Jedi I was trying to find all along. He is super-duper-impressed that I found him, a sentiment that I share because I didn’t find him so much as “wake up from a drug-induced coma to see his droopy moustache hanging above me.

I won’t lie; Nar Shaddaa feels like it’s been going on a little too long and I have started to lose track of what I’m doing, who all of these bounty hunters/exchange mob bosses are, and why I should care. I guess the ultimate target is ol’ squid head here. My ace in the hole is standing just over his shoulder.

For the second time now, I make my way to this poison air bar. Not even gas masks help, but apparently now my magical bag of Jedi tricks spat out a new “Force breathing” ability that will make me a champion at free diving contests.

As I said before, this game isn’t afraid to send you solo to jack up the difficulty, and this bar is a stiff challenge because of that, the ever-present poison gas, and wave after wave of bad guys. I have to take it slow to make sure my force points replenish for heals, because I’m direly low on health packs. What’s on my side is the fact that all of these mobs are pretty weak and ineffectual in their attacks.

Once I make it through the bar and the ensuing maze (yes, that lovely RPG staple) in the underground tunnels, the story shifts over to Hanharr and Mira. Squid Head pits both of them in a battle to the death, out of which Hanharr emerges triumphant. I assume this is because he’s the dark side character and my character has definitely fallen on that side of the spectrum.

Here I get to control Hanharr as my character, and let me tell you, this guy is a BEAST. He’s melee, but he takes enemies apart so darn quickly that I can’t fault him. Wish I could play a Wookiee for the entire game.

This whole sequence is rather breathtaking in its pacing. It keeps switching back and forth between different playable characters: Hanharr, my Jedi, and Anton’s B-squad. You actually do get the feeling of urgency and movement from this, and isolating characters for parts brings out vulnerability and uncertainty in the player. Can I do this? What if I can’t heal through it? After all, if my one character dies, it’s game over. I don’t have a full team most of the time to balance combat situations out.

Egads, this Nar Shaddaa climax just keeps going on and on and on. There are so many cutscenes and character transitions that I think it would be wise to create a flow chart. The short version: Squid Head is betrayed by the mysterious Goto for betraying him, and I get knocked out for probably the 17th time in the last hour.

Meanwhile Kreia shows up to torture and force-blackmail Hanharr into being my helper — until she needs him, of course. Dun dun DUNNNN. You know what, I’m starting to think she’s evil. Pretty much most of my crew is evil, and not just “kind of bad” but “actively working for the bad guys I’m fighting against.” Why don’t I just cut these people loose and go my own way?

To meet Goto (which is a thing I want to do, supposedly), a convoluted plan is hatched to change the transponder codes on the Ebon Hawk to one of the Hutt’s freighters so that Goto captures it and then we infiltrate from the inside. Or we could just go get slushies? Anyone? Fine. Stupid plan anyway.

KOTOR 2: Nar Shaddaa part 2

(This is part of my journey going playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

It’s obviously been a rough and extremely full summer, which is the excuse that I’m going to give for my two-month absence from this series. Let’s see if we can start making some headway on getting through KOTOR 2. Maybe one day I’ll even see its conclusion!

I honestly don’t remember where I was on this planet or what I was doing, and the quest log isn’t too helpful. My fallback strategy in these kinds of moments is to keep exploring parts of the map I haven’t seen yet, talk to everyone, and hope I hit upon mission objectives. Also, because I’m being a Jedi Jerk, I have to kill/betray/lie to everyone.

I begin by mapping out this huge alien bar, which ends up being a disappointment since there is no one to talk to and the whole place is basically a fog of poison. It’s totally enjoyable listening to my companions repeatedly informing me that they’re succumbing to the green gas. Yes, yes, we’ll go soon. Hold your breath for now.

Even though most everyone I bump into is a smuggler or scum, I still get docked dark side points if I don’t bend over backwards to be nice and try to take the peaceable solution. Naturally, I’m all “forget that, I have two blasters and itchy trigger fingers,” so I leave a trail of corpses behind me.

And now back to Awkward Moments in Video Game Writing. Well done, SWTOR 2. Well done.

My favorite semi-evil moment of this play session was extorting a droid questgiver SO HARD that he ends up ripping out parts of himself to give me as bonus rewards.

As a side note: Why can’t we extort MMO questgivers for better rewards? It’s called roleplaying, people!

If I can get into a fight, I will. Don’t matter much who with. They’re all bags of experience points to me, and this gal’s gotta level up to be able to overcome her no-lightsaber handicap.

I do end up clearing out all of the Exchange on Nar Shadda, which nets me a nice bounty of XP and gear. I don’t know if I actually finish up any quests, but really, who cares? Meanwhile, Atton displays that classic SWTOR hold-my-side injury pose. Made me laugh.

Meanwhile, my B-team of companions don’t think to actually, I don’t know, lock up the ship or anything, and it is subsequently boarded by no less than:

  1. A small army of gang members
  2. The previous owner of the ship who asserts his claim
  3. A blind Sith

WAY TO GO, B-TEAM. We’re going to have some serious airlockin’ when we get back to outer space.

After a protracted and pretty enjoyable battle, I go one-on-one with Visas here (or Visa, as I’m going to call her from now on). She’s actually the apprentice of my archnemesis who’s going to help me out for a while until I can meet-slash-confront him. Better the enemy that you see than the one you don’t, I suppose. The fight with her is a little tough because she keeps deflecting all of my fancy blaster bolts, so I just use my force power “kill” to strangle her in that friendly way that I have.

Finally, some movement forward in the plot! We might actually be getting off of this planet one of these days soon!