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 by Steve Metzler
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Archived commentary

Wednesday, 1st July, 2015

In which Black Dahlia makes a quick round trip off the backlog shelf and back onto it again
I was recently perusing one of those retrospective lists of the top adventure games of all time, when I spotted Black Dahlia sitting comfortably near the middle of the list. This title had also been sitting comfortably on my considerably large backlog shelf, which very occasionally sees a box being plucked off it and revisited, and the game therein sometimes being played to completion years or even decades after it was purchased.

So this past Sunday I decided to give BD another go despite my having already mentally placed it firmly in the 'twiddleware' category; twiddleware being some very useful adventure gaming jargon which - if memory serves correctly - I picked up from one of my erstwhile colleagues at Games Domain Review... ah, yes. A few well-spent minutes in the Wayback Machine yields this appraisal of BD, from fellow GDR reviewer Paula Reaume back in 1998:

If you're like me, you want a great story and logical puzzles that integrate well with the environment and loath twiddle-ware, I would say you should probably skip this one. In the end it all comes down to basically this: Black Dahlia is one terrific story with very poorly done puzzles.

OK, so twiddle-ware properly defined is supposed to have a hyphen in the middle of it. Anyway, the first time I played BD years ago, I remember only getting about 10 hours or so into it before I too got fed up with the illogical puzzles. But on Sunday I spent more time getting the game to run in Virtual PC (with Turbo to slow my processor speed down to 22% of normal to make it playable) than I did actually playing it. I got stuck on the very first puzzle. After consulting a UHS guide when all possible avenues of thought on this puzzle were exhausted, I was to learn that the 'CMR-140' I found on a piece of stationery was in fact supposed to be a phone number. In an attempt to be fair to the puzzle designers, the phone on my desk in the game connects after you dial 6 digits, so somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that there were only 6 digits in the phone numbers of the BD universe. And... the encrypted numbers on the list I had to decipher looked like this:


Where 'CHI' meant the phone was located in Chicago, 'CLV' was Cleveland, etc. But, hey, when I grew up in good ol' NJ, USA, all the local phone numbers were 7 digits. So 'CMR-140' just didn't register in my mind as a phone number. If it had been 'CMR-1430' or something, that would have been different. OK, so we'll have to concede them that one. Begrudgingly. But it was when I got all the way through the 10 levels of UHS hints on this puzzle that I knew I had to put this abomination that was only going to wreck my head if I played any further straight back on the shelf: for without giving anything away to the three or four unsuspecting people on this planet who may still want to play BD... the eventual solution to the puzzle implied that everyone in Cleveland not only had a 6-digit phone number, but that the first 3 digits of the number were all the same. Do the maths. That means there can't be more than 1000 telephones in all of Cleveland. WTF?! That explains a lot, actually.



Saturday, 13th June, 2015

Hadean Lands review posted
If you haven't played this yet, be careful how you fling around that epithet of yourself as an 'adventure gamer'.

That is all.

Hadean Lands review



Saturday, 6th June, 2015

Hadean Lands walkthrough posted
Well, I did stay on that interactive fiction kick for a while. One of the best adventure games of 2014 turned out to be Andrew Plotkin's Hadean Lands. I won't say much more about it here because I plan to write a review for it shortly. But it took Andrew nearly 4 years to make the game, and it took me 5 weeks of pretty much concentrated effort to write the walthrough. 'Intricate' doesn't even begin to describe this game: Hadean Lands walkthrough

But 'fantastic' comes closer.



Monday, 9th March, 2015

1893: Less of a Mystery
Just back from a longish holiday, but before I left I managed to make it most of the way through 1893: A World's Fair Mystery. By 'most of the way through', what I mean is that I recovered all of the stolen loot, which as far as I can tell amounts to about 80% of the gameplay. There is still the remaining task of figuring out who was responsible for the theft and helping the authorities to apprehend them, and I'm in the process of deciding whether I have sufficient interest remaining to finish it off completely. The game plays through over the course of a week (in 1893, that is) and I got as far as I did by playing from the start in three separate saved game 'slices', ignoring the bits that didn't have anything to do with recovering the stolen property. And... I made a lot of maps :-\

I must say, everything about this game is top notch, making it the best piece of interactive fiction (IF) that I have played to date. The puzzles were superbly ingenious, and the descriptions of the fair are marvellously detailed. A real slice of U.S. history. Having said that, those were different times when the question of sustainability of our western lifestyle was obviously not so much an issue as it has become nowadays. The amount of wealth on display was staggering (but so was the sheer amount of waste), and there were quite a few times I wound up shaking my head and wondering to myself: "What were they thinking?"

So, where to next? I'm thinking I might stay on the IF kick for a while. Perhaps Anchorhead.



Tuesday, 13th January, 2015

Still here
I suppose it's only fitting that since my previous post was concerning the then imminent release of Tex Murphy: Tesla Effect, those of you seeking closure in this regard have now found it, in the form of a review of same.

Meanwhile, about a week ago I stumbled upon an intriguing interactive fiction (IF) site authored by a very accomplished Norwegian chap Texan ex-pat by the name of Jimmy Maher, who now lives in Norway. Since 2011 he's been chronicling the history of IF all the way back from its roots in Crowther and Woods' seminal Colossal Cave Adventure. My own roots in computer gaming go back almost as far. In 1985, my company bought a DEC MicroVax to run an Intel 8085 cross-assembler on, and what was on it but only Dungeon, the prototype for Zork that the Infocom founders wrote when they were students at MIT! Maher's site is here:

The Digital Antiquarian

And darn it if he doesn't turn out to be something of a rock star in IF circles with a game of his own, The King of Shreds and Patches, that is very well placed in the top 50 IF games of all time according to the Interactive Fiction Database - Top 50 of all time.

And so, I've decided to park the graphical adventures and big RPGs for a while, and return to my roots. I had purchased a copy of 1893: A World's Fair Mystery when it first came out, and had got only a few hours into it before something no doubt more shiny came along. But I see that it made the IF top 50 list too, so I'm going to dust it off and crank it up again...



Wednesday, 23rd April, 2014

Tex getting set to ride again
The latest installment in the Tex Murphy series, Tesla Effect, was slated to ship yesterday, but the release has now been delayed 2 more weeks until 7 May. The creators seemingly want to give it a bit more polish. As someone said, we've already waited 15 years; we can wait another 2 weeks.

Seeing as The Pandora Directive was probably my favourite adventure game of all time, I am really looking forward to this one out of all the recent Kickstarter-funded games. To tide you over, here's a little teaser in the form of the latest trailer:

Jane Jensen's Moebius: Empire Rising has also shipped recently, and is garnering mixed reviews. I'll probably try to source that one and get playing it in the meantime...



Wednesday, 26th February, 2014

Hey, Virtual PC 2007 works fine in Windows 8 too!
There's a small number of very old games that fall in between the cracks, so to speak, of techniques that can be used to get them running on modern operating systems. They were all made in the 1995 - 1998 time frame, when DOS was on the way out and Windows 95/98 was starting to come into play as a gaming platform. One of these games is an obscure yet fairly respectable adventure game, AMBER: Journeys Beyond. It depends on an ancient version of QuickTime, and also on an old scripting language. So you really need to be running Windows 95/98 in order to accomplish this. And that means you need either a very old PC, or virtual OS technology.

In theory, you ought to be able to employ the latest in virtual machine technology to solve this sort of problem in Windows 8, a thingy called Hyper-V. But the catch is that it will only work with hardware that was developed in the last year or two. Since my PC is more than 5 years old, well... might as well fugeddaboutit.

But even though Microsoft are trying to push Hyper-V as their latest and greatest virtualisation solution, and it seems that Virtual PC 2007 falls over at the first hurdle and refuses to run in Windows 8, there is a very simple way to get it running. After installing Virtual PC 2007, all you have to do is rename the executable file from VirtualPC.exe to something like VPC.exe and away you go. Windows was only checking that the file name wasn't on some list of deprecated programmes it didn't want you to run any longer :-) I've updated the Virtual PC 2007 FAQ to reflect this information.

Bonus: two posts in one day!
In our recent Diablo II review (granted, that review is already a year old, but that is recent in time frames) I said the following regards the Lord of Destruction expansion set:

Though very tempting at a mere $9.99 and still available to this day, I have so far resisted getting the expansion set. Life is too short.

Though that statement was true up till this past weekend, it is now a fait accompli as I finally broke down and downloaded it from Well worth it. After installing LOD, you have to patch it to at least v1.13 before it will run full screen in Windows Vista/7/8, and you also need to run D2VidTst.exe (in compatibility mode for Win 98) and change the graphics from 3D to 2D, else it runs really slow when you have a lot of enemies on the screen. So once again I am having a blast with Diablo II, and I'll write up the LOD expansion set after my first run through.



Thursday, 23rd January, 2014

As Grim as ever - and in this case that's no bad thing
So there's this new utility that allows you to play Grim Fandango in all its former glory:

Grim Fandango Deluxe

Sure, it's a bit of work to copy over the files from the game CD, but probably worth it in the end because you can avail of the engine they have developed to run the game with 3D acceleration turned on. However... last night I decided to see if I could get Grim working the old fashioned way with a bit of the ol' hacking, because:

  1. The graphics, which are from 1998, look just fine to me in software rendering mode. Nostalgia!
  2. I obtain more personal satisfaction through making it work myself, with just a small bit of effort and ingenuity, i.e. the Nerd Factor™.

Grim is one of those games that, since being developed before XP even came out, can't handle thread-switching on multiple cores. But all you need do is run this handy utility called imagecfg - that's been around since the days of Windows NT - on a game's .exe file, and you can bind the application to a single core so it can't thread-switch between cores and freeze the game on you. To get it to work on XP, all you needed to do was use imagecfg on the game's launcher, Grim.exe, and that did the trick. Didn't work in Windows 8.1 :-\ I tried a few other things and was about to give up when it occurred to me to un-install the game and try applying imagecfg to the main executable, GRIMFANDANGO.EXE, instead and... all of a sudden I'm lost in the LucasArts magic once again, and had to drag myself away from it to write it up.

Details of what I did can be found here.



Sunday, 5th January, 2014

And so XP finally buys the farm
Windows XP is 12 years old already, and patches for it will no longer be released after 8th April, 2014. So over the Christmas break I bowed to the inevitable and upgraded to Windows 8.1. It went a lot smoother than I anticipated, and I'm delighted to report that the two most important tools of the trade for running very old games on new systems, DOSBox and ScummVM, work just fine. The only caveat, and it's a real important one, is that since every Windows operating system since the dreaded Vista features Unix-like security, you need to make sure that you install all your old games in a place where you have administrative privileges. For me, that would be:


Naturally, your name may vary :-) If you don't put your old games somewhere underneath there, then you won't be able to create and edit batch files and the like and you probably won't even be able to save games. I have updated my DOSBox and ScummVM guides to reflect these important changes. I'm going to have to take a deeper look at how you could actually get something like Windows 98 running in a virtual machine in Windows 8. That might take some time.

Oh, and almost forgot: had to rename these pages to "Steve's XP Legacy Games Corner". Didn't change the URL though, as people may have it bookmarked... you do have this place bookmarked, right?



Saturday, 4th January, 2014

Plus ça change
Heh. My bright idea to track those new Kickstarter-funded games through development back in last July didn't work out so well, did it? I suppose when you are creeping up on the 60-year old mark like I am, computer games inevitably start to lose their appeal. It's mostly due to the long hours you need to put into the type of games I generally play, big RPGs, to reap any kind of substantive personal reward from playing them. The biggest problem is that if you don't finish them in one go, you lose weeks to months worth of hard-spent graft because you forget what you're doing if you put a game down for too long. I've had to start playing Mass Effect (yeah, the first one) from scratch three times now because of this. And the best I've managed is to get about 2/3 of the way through, from what I can surmise.

This isn't about making a New Year's resolution to do better at maintaining the site. Rather, it's about learning to accept where I am at this stage in my life and career. Over the holidays I did manage to get a bit stuck into Skyrim, which was purchased and sitting on my shelf untouched for a year until now. Have to say that I am enjoying it immensely. Part of the reason for that is that I'm not having to worry about writing a guide for it. One person just can't keep up with the wikis that have sprung up in the past few years, with hundreds of contributors helping to flesh out the very last detail of even the biggest world-as-your-sandbox game. So my last legacy to the gaming community in this respect will probably be my Fallout 3 guide. In the end, I actually managed to contribute to that particular wiki.

Another factor in my lack of time for gaming is my current de facto hobby: the science of anthropogenic global warming. I've been reading everything I can get my hands on about this topic since about 2009 or thereabouts. Most of my time since then is spent up on various fora, trying to persuade various people who are probably never going to be persuaded till the cows come home that we need to take action to avert what is probably humanity's most pressing impending disaster to date. Several times I even contemplated turning this blog into a science blog but... nah. Maybe next year. I am really looking forward to playing the new Tex Murphy game :-)