Blast Em! (2014 - PC)

Blast Em! is certainly not the best sidescrolling space shooter I've ever played, and is mainly only good for two things - a great techno/rock soundtrack and adding some easy (though time-consuming) achievements to your Steam profile. You only get one life and no continues, and the only real goal is to survive as long as possible and try to get a high score. The ship fires constantly on its own, so all you have to do is move it around with your mouse. Score accumulation is slow because you only increase it by collecting coins from defeated enemies, and (pretty much necessary) powerups cost coins. So, you have to play for awhile before enemies that drop higher-value coins start appearing, and once they do, you're likely to get wiped out. This means redoing the easy, beginning portion of the game over and over and over again before getting your shot at a really high score. I'm not sure if the game goes on forever or if it has an ending, and at this point, I'm too afraid to ask. I have all the achievements, so I considered it "beaten".

It also has an annoying glitch that sometimes causes your ship to self-destruct for no apparent reason. The developers have been trying to isolate it and fix it for some time, with no such luck. The game's saving grace is that it often goes on sale for less than a dollar, so if your curiosity gets the best of you, just wait for a sale.
Rating: 2.5/5

Shadowgate (1989 - APL2)

I've been a pretty big fan of the NES version of Shadowgate for years, so I jumped on the opportunity to buy the remake on Steam while it was being offered with the Mac and IIgs versions as a free bonus. They're essentially the same, except the Mac version is black and white while the IIgs version is in color.

After finishing the IIgs version, I've come to the conclusion that the NES is a much better way to play it. The inventory and item usage is more cumbersome than the simplified interface on the NES. It took me forever just to figure out how to light a torch, and it seems far too easy to accidentally make your torch go out. Since there is no music, you have to keep an eye on the dialogue box constantly to watch for the message about your torch going out, and there doesn't seem to be a warning for the first torch, so you have to light a second one right away. There are also far more opportunities to screw up, forcing you to start all over again. For example, you can get past the Troll an infinite number of times (assuming you know what to do) on the NES version. Here, you have two chances and that's it.

There's an animation of a cat chasing a mouse that shows up in certain rooms that gets really annoying after awhile. I was shocked to find out the rope bridge puzzle was completely different here - those used to the NES game are likely going to get frustrated wondering why it isn't working and what exactly to do instead. It's also buggy - essential items sometimes disappeared from my inventory. And let's face it - the music really made the atmosphere on the NES version.

It's not that I'm against playing this version entirely, especially for historical reasons. I just don't feel it's the definitive way to play it, and I strongly recommend checking it out on the NES first if you haven't yet.
Rating: 3/5

Shadowgate (2014 - PC)

Now you're looking at the reason I don't have very many reviews for December. I spent almost all my spare time playing this fantastic 2014 remake of Shadowgate from the people who made the original game. While this does reuse almost all the settings of the original, and many of the puzzles, and the story is basically the same, there is a massive plethora of new material. It's not a straight port with new graphics, it's a complete reimagining.

One thing my nostalgia wants to nitpick is that the atmosphere doesn't quite feel the same as the NES version, but I think that just might be difficult to recapture. It does, in many ways, feel like a hidden object game, only without the hidden object scenes. However, there are four difficulty settings, which add increasingly more rooms to explore and more complex puzzles to solve, and even the easiest one is harder than the hardest hidden object game I've completed. So, it is definitely a challenge for those familiar with the original, but many features (such as a new hint system provided by a talking skull named Yorick) make it accessible to newcomers. The multiple difficulty settings, plus the myriad achievements, also solve the "lack of replay value" that the original game had.

While the game wears its roots on its sleeve, which is good for hardcore fans, it also contains numerous pop culture references, some of them (Dragon's Lair; The Castle of Cagliostro) more appropriate than others (It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; Professor Layton and the Curious Village). This also accounts for some of the difference in atmosphere between this and the original: The original seemed very much like it took place in its own world - the descriptions of lands beyond the castle itself created a great sense of the bigger picture. But all the references here project a mixed sense of being in a game world that somehow knows about things from unrelated properties. At least it has a lot of monsters (most reused or slightly changed from the original game), unlike Shadowgate 64, which had almost none. Also, it's a minor complaint, but kind of disappointing that there's a bazillion readable books in the library, but not one that contains the original's hilarious Blue Dragon dialogue.

Probably more important than the references are some of the story changes, particularly those involving the final boss, that longtime fans may or may not approve of. I'm not entirely sure of what to think of them, myself, and I was wondering if the final puzzle or ending would change at all on the harder settings to be more true to the original, but neither does. The remake also leans far more heavily into the horror genre. While the original had some gory death descriptions, the remake has some that are played out in cutscenes and are even far more disturbing than the worst ones in Uninvited. Not necessarily a negative point, just something you might want to be aware of.

Many players have complained about the double time limit - one for if all your torches run out and another for the mandatory banshee curse (based on the wraith curse from the original, non-NES versions of the game), and while the latter did force a few restarts on me, I wasn't particularly bothered by it either, as I see it as part of the challenge.

The orchestral soundtrack is based on the melodies of the NES version, but there is also an option to use the actual NES chiptunes, which I prefer since it makes it easier to tell when a torch is running out.

All-in-all, this is a pretty strong recommendation, whether you're new to Shadowgate or not. Hardcore fans may not approve of all the changes, but there is still plenty of challenge and fun to be had (even that elusive Goblin Room makes an appearance, and you can actually do stuff in it on the hardest setting). I would definitely check out Steam and GOG (whichever you prefer) during sales for it. If you're having a hard time deciding to get the normal or special edition, be aware that GOG lets you purchase the SE upgrade separately, and you can also get the soundtrack separately on Bandcamp if you decide you want it later.
Rating: 4/5

Cheers: The Complete First Season (DVD - 1982)

When I first started watching Cheers years ago, I came into the later seasons. When I tried to watch it from the beginning, I couldn't get used to the cast differences - Coach instead of Woody; Diane instead of Rebecca; and no Frasier Crane. Now that I'm an adult, and it has been awhile since I've seen the show at all, I figured I might be more receptive to starting it from the beginning - and I was right.

While I still find Diane somewhat annoying (perhaps deserving of Carla's "trolling" at times), I generally had a very good time watching Season 1. It's almost hard to believe it had such poor ratings that it was almost canceled - maybe it was a bit ahead of its time. It's clearly something written for adults, on a higher level of maturity and intellect than many of the "two-parent family" sitcoms of the 80s, sometimes even tackling social issues that were way more taboo at the time (in one episode, an old friend of Sam Malone comes out as gay). Not that it isn't fun; it is. Along with the more serious issues, there's enough humor and silliness (some of it having been based on real-life bar conversations) to go around.

I'm still not convinced Sam and Diane were the best match (which becomes a moot point in the later seasons), but the "Will they, won't they?" scenario does keep things interesting, and leads to perhaps the season's greatest punchline - After a heated argument in Sam's office room, they open the door to find...well, I don't want to ruin it. (I actually remembered seeing that gag years ago - it still doesn't disappoint.)

Some great guest stars include Harry Anderson as the conman, "Harry the Hat", who performs seemingly impossible stunts such as leaving through the front door and reappearing in the back room moments later; and Glynis Johns as Diane's mother, better known as Winifred Banks from Mary Poppins.

So, it's a highly-recommended great start to a great and long-running series.
Rating: 4.5/5



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