Thursday, July 31, 2014

Risk of Rain Soundtrack Review

  • Name: Risk of Rain OST
  • Label: Chris Christodoulou
  • Composer(s): Chris Christodoulou
  • Number of Tracks: 17

Usually when I purchase a game, if the soundtrack edition is only a few dollars more, I'll usually grab it since, as you know, I'm a bit of a VGM aficionado. So if I go out of my way to buy the soundtrack for a game separately, it usually has to be something that's pretty special - Risk of Rain's soundtrack is one of them. Chris Christodoulou (what an awesome name) has delivered a soundtrack that not only fits the theme and mood of the game (i.e. exploring a hostile alien planet alone in all its 8-bit glory) but it manages to be a pretty good album standalone.

There is a mix of genres here including prog rock, metal, drum 'n' bass and industrial, all with a dash of chiptunes. "Wait, did you say prog rock?" you might ask. Yes I did, and that's a genre you don't hear often in a video game soundtrack but it's one I'd like to hear more of. I'm a big fan of works by Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis and believe their kind of sound fits in perfectly with sci-fi games, which Risk of Rain happens to be. There are already many fans of the music that have made comments to Chris about the similarities with Pink Floyd and he says this is no coincidence. He mentions in his album notes:

" could say there's a 70s-phychedelic[sic]-progrock vibe going on, a sort of electronic/rock hybrid of sounds. Guitars, basses, keys and good-old drums, mixed with synths, choppers, bit-crushers, vocoders and more drums..."

The closest track I could think of in terms of capturing the Pink Floyd vibe would be "Moisture Deficit" which starts off sounding like backing music to an old Sean Connery James Bond film but has got enough of a blues sound and power chords to be considered a work of Pink Floyd's. I also have a few other favourites on this album including the toe-tapping "Dew Point", the hypnotic "Monsoon", the epic sci-film sound of "Aurora Borealis", and the strangely alluring 11/8 time masterpiece "25.3°N 91.7°E". So you won't need to look hard for some quality music on this album as most tracks lift their own weight, except for maybe "Intermission", but you'd probably expect that with a name like that.

Score - 8/10

Chris Christodoulou has done a fantastic job in not only making a suitable soundtrack for sci-fi roguelike Risk of Rain but an album that's very pleasing to the ear for those who like a bit of chiptunes added to their prog rock. If you're looking for quality indie game soundtracks, this is one of them.

You can grab this album off Chris Christodoulou's bandcamp page for €4.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Where are they now? - Ken Williams

Ken Williams - Founder of Sierra On-Line

For today's "Where are they now?" I've decided to feature one of Al Lowe's colleagues at Sierra (considering Al Lowe featured last week). Today's individual is not just any colleague though, he happens to be the founder of one of my favourite game development studios, Sierra On-Line. I'm of course talking about Ken Williams who was Chairman and CEO of Sierra On-Line until 1996 when it was finally bought out by CUC International (and became an entirely different kind of Sierra with his departure). So where did Ken originally hail from anyway?

Ken Williams was born in Evansville, Indiana back in 1954. His father, a T.V. repairman, eventually moved to California and Ken ended up growing up in Pomona, California. Ken attended Pomona's campus of California Polytechnic and majored in Physics. He also met his future wife there, Roberta (Heuer) Williams, at the age of 16. They married just before his 18th birthday and eventually had two sons: D.J born in 1973 and Chris in 1979.

Since Roberta became a parent during college, Ken wanted to find a new job fast. He attended a 9 month programming trade school called Control Data Institute in Los Angeles and graduated top of his class. After graduation, Ken had several programming jobs after that but the turning point in his career was when he first purchased an Apple II. Ken originally wanted to write a Fortran compiler with some help from some part-time programmers but Roberta had other plans. She recently played a game called Adventure (aka Colossal Cave Adventure) by William Crowther and Don Woods and thought it would be a neat idea if you could make a similar game but with graphics - this game would be later known as Mystery House (1980), one of the first adventure games ever to include graphics. On-Line Systems was founded that same year and would be renamed Sierra On-Line in 1982.

Blue leaflet that was bundled with Mystery House

Ken would work on several games in different capacities for the many years he was at Sierra. Obviously during his early years with the company in the 1980s, he was still doing a lot of the programming on games such as King's Quest II, Space Quest I, The Black Cauldron, Police Quest and Leisure Suit Larry 1. He eventually did a lot of work as an Executive Producer especially during the late 80s and early 90s (when most of my favourite Sierra adventure games were made).

All good things must come to an end though and in 1996 Ken Williams retired when Sierra was sold off to CUC International. Sierra was never the same after Ken's departure but it managed to survive in one form or another until 2008 when Sierra as a brand name ceased to exist. Ownership of Sierra's IP is now held by Activision Blizzard.

Ken has been retired for well over a decade now and has spent a lot of his time sailing around the world with Roberta in their own yacht. He's written about their exploits via his blog and also in a couple of books. In 2003, he started the SierraGamers website which has a vast collection of information about the company including photos, Sierra alumni profiles and a forum. He also now runs a business called TalkSpot which develops custom websites.

In terms of game development though, has Ken been up to much and will he ever come out of retirement to do more games? It's hard to tell since information about him and his game designer wife, Roberta, is hard to come by - even on Ken's own SierraGamers site (since it doesn't look like he's updated or posted to it in a few years).

Chris, Roberta and Ken Williams

In 2011, Ken and Roberta helped their son Chris (who was a lead engineer at KingX Studios at the time) out in asking the SierraGamers community if anyone wanted to test a new Facebook game called Odd Manor. Since then, Ken has also been a Kickstarter backer and vocal supporter for games in development by Sierra alumni such as SpaceVenture, Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption and Precinct (which was unfortunately cancelled).

With respect to their opinions on future game development, while they were pretty dismissive of the idea earlier on in retirement, I did come across these couple of paragraphs on Ken's bio page at SierraGamers:

[Roberta] says she will consider coming back to the industry when adventure games start selling again.

I'm less optimistic. I do believe there's room for an adventure game to succeed, but only if it does something new.

If you ask me, there's a huge revival in adventure games at the moment, at least with respect to the indie scene, not to mention the Kickstarter projects by Sierra alumni. The only problem though is if Ken still believes that "the old style games are best left in the past" since that's pretty much what's been going on. How good would it be to see Ken and Roberta team up again to make a computer game though? In fact I'm pretty sure if they started a Kickstarter project they'd be even more successful than their peers thanks to the popularity of the King's Quest series. We can always hope.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

DuckTales: Remastered Review

Ain't that the truth

  • Developer: WayForward
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Release Date: 13 August 2013
  • Time played: 4 hours

I was a kid when the original DuckTales cartoon was on T.V. and it was one of my favourite shows growing up (along with other classics like Talespin, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers) especially considering it has one of the catchiest theme songs on the face of the planet. This video below sums it up best:

So when I heard about this game called DuckTales: Remastered I just had to investigate a little bit more to see what game it was actually remastering. I must confess that before learning about DuckTakes: Remastered I'd never heard of the original NES game but it was apparently pretty popular. Since I was already a fan of the T.V. show and the original was a huge success, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to be acquainted with the original game but in a 21st century veneer. Yes, I know it's probably not as difficult as the original (remakes never usually are) but that doesn't bother me too much since I'm no masochist (well, most of the time).

Plot (4/5)
The game's plot is similar to a DuckTales cartoon episode. Scrooge McDuck, his nephews, Launchpad and various other characters from the series (which make cameos), go on adventures around the world grabbing ridiculous amounts of loot and treasure in order to make Scrooge the richest duck on the planet. The plot is obviously targeted for kids so they're not going to win any awards for scriptwriting but they stay pretty true to something you'd expect from the original T.V. series and I even laughed at a couple of quips made, since they're the kind of things you'd expect their characters to say.

Gameplay (3/5)
The game is a basic platformer. You can jump around the map as you'd expect but you can also use Scrooge's cane as a pogo stick in order to jump higher and to dispatch enemies. The aim of each level is to collect as many gems as you can while avoiding obstacles and defeating enemies. Eventually you'll come across the final boss and defeating it will reward you with a treasure. Yes, it's pretty simple game mechanics but it works a treat. Some parts of the game may be a bit difficult requiring several playthroughs but it's usually quite logical what you have to do and it's never too difficult to induce monitor-throwing rage.

Ah the accident-prone Launchpad

Sound (5/5)
Apparently they managed to get some of the original voice actors to return for DuckTales: Remastered and you can tell. It's almost as if you're back in the 80s watching the T.V. series again. Almost.

Music (5/5)
Music in the game is composed by Jake Kaufman who is the administrator for Video Game Remix site "VGMix" and has also composed music for several indie games. Kaufman has done a fantastic job in subtly remixing the old tracks just enough to make them new and fresh, but not too much, so that they still retains some of their oldschool charm.

Graphics (4/5)
The game still has a similar look and feel to the original game except it's obviously now at a higher resolution with more colours, so it's looking cleaner and crisper. While nothing fancy has been done I like the art style and just like the music, it's more of a subtle or incremental change rather than a complete overhaul.

Replay (2/5)
DuckTales: Remastered took me just over 4 hours to complete, so it's not a very long game - and that's after it took me a few tries to get past the difficult bits. There isn't much incentive to replay the game except for completing a few more Steam achievements or earning enough loot to unlock more of the in-game art and music.

Polish (4/5)
The game is rather well polished except for the fact that quitting midway through a level means you have to start the whole level again! I know this is probably how it was done in the old days but it becomes frustrating at parts where you need to do something else and you don't want to pause the game. That's 45 minutes - to an hour's work down the drain!

Score – 8/10

While I never played the original DuckTales I have watched the T.V. series and I'd recommend this game to any fan of the T.V. show. Sure the game is short and it's still aimed at kids but there's no denying how much love the developers have put into this little gem.

If you want to get the game, you can get it on Steam.

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[ LINK: Official DuckTales Remastered website]