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Die Hard Vendetta: The Lost McClane.

It’s the holidays again – at least as of this writing – and naturally I thought about writing about a holiday themed game. Realizing that’s not a particularly big pool of games to choose from, I opted for games based on media franchises that took place during the holidays. Like Die Hard.

We could have the never-ending debate of whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but instead I’d rather talk about the strange resurgence of Die Hard video games throughout the late-90s to early-2000s. After the Lethal Weapon-like Die Hard With a Vengeance hit theaters, the fate of the franchise seemed to be in doubt, with whether or not a fourth film would even be made.

I… sorta miss these? Companies publishing their own video game adaptations is something solely lacking these days.

During this time, 20th Century Fox decided to get into the video game business, forming the short-lived Fox Interactive, licensing some of their film franchises for video games, with varying levels of success. The Alien vs. Predator games were fairly popular, with the original No One Lives Forever franchise also being one of the more critically positive ones. Also a bunch of terrible games based on The Simpsons, but the less said about those, the better.

The action-packed Die Hard Nakatomi Plaza. Surprisingly alright, in spite of budget game jank.

Naturally since 20th Century Fox produces and owns Die Hard, it too got a fair share of video games. There’s the notable Die Hard Trilogy which did three different gameplay styles in a single game, which was uncommon around that time. There’s that time Sega made a game inspired by the film called Dynamite Deka that got localized as Die Hard Arcade when it hit the States. There’s even the Lithtech-powered Die Hard Nakatomi Plaza which was originally meant to be a free mod until copyright lawyers came in, converting it became a full-fledged budget title. I wrote about that one back in 2015, of which you can read here.

But there was one more attempt at a big Die Hard game. But this time instead of adapting the original film, they wrote a story that could’ve been the plot for a fourth film. And it’s the kind of game that will make you wish blew up Die Hard like Nakatomi Plaza.

Wouldn’t be a Die Hard game without some explosions.

Die Hard Vendetta is a first-person shooter developed by Bits Studios and published by Sierra and Fox Interactive, released in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube. Initially, this Die Hard video game project had its origins as a Nintendo 64 title, but once the popularity of the N64 waned, they pivoted hard to the newer consoles, thus the game was shifted over to the more powerful GameCube. There’s a lot of information on the Nintendo 64 iteration on Unseen64, of which it’s an interesting read.

At the time, critics were nonplussed by this edition of the franchise, with Jeff Gerstmann of GameSpot giving it a rather scathing review at the time. Other critics were about as critical, with this game being thrown to the pile of licensed video games that got mostly forgotten. I picked this up game several years ago when GameStop was slowly phasing out used GameCube games from their store. I remembered the GameSpot review for the game, and when I see a critic be rather harsh about a game, I kinda wanted to see for myself if it was truly that bad. Turns out they were right in this case.

Funny enough, I got Die Hard Vendetta around the same time I got swindled into trying StoneLoops! of Jurassica through GameStop’s short-lived Impulse digital distribution service. I wrote about StoneLoops! way back in 2012, one of the early posts on the blog. Funny little coincidence, there.

This is totally inaccurate to the movies. John McClane wouldn’t have hair nearly this good.

Taking place years after the events of Die Hard With a Vengeance, John McClane is a semi-retired NYPD police officer who moved to Los Angeles… sorry, Century City, who’s watching a news report from Dick Thornberg, the snarky news reporter from the first film, where he’s reporting at an art gallery where they’re announcing a piece of art being recovered from Piet Gruber, the son of Hans Gruber from the original film.

Guess getting William Atherton was a bit out of the budget for this game.

Eventually a massive shootout happens, leading to a hostage situation at the art gallery. Several people are at risk, including the art gallery owner and John’s daughter Lucy, who’s now grown up and followed the life of her dad by also being a police officer. Being the caring parent John McClane apparently has become now, he grabs his service revolver and heads down to the art gallery to find out what’s going on.

Bet that destructibility was pretty neat by 2002 standards.

Naturally, Die Hard Vendetta is a first-person shooter. Fairly straightforward shooter controls for the time in spite of the GameCube having fewer buttons than its contemporaries: The control stick moves, C-stick aims, L button does more refined aiming, R button fires, Z button reloads. Fairly easy to understand stuff.

Fumbling with an inventory system while in the midst of combat is not my idea of a good time.

D-pad up and down will switch items and weapons, and left and right can switch between John’s arsenal and items he’s acquired throughout the mission. X and Y are your jump and crouch buttons, hitting X twice will do a dive to prone, which is required to progress in some parts of the game. While the game does have a dedicated jump button, the game also unlocks an auto jump option where if you’re on a ledge, McClane will automatically try to jump across. It’s interesting and can be useful sometimes, but a lot of times McClane will either not jump far enough, or will jump when I don’t want him to. Worst off, the game has some rather nasty fall damage if you miss these jumps.

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Zaero for Quake II: Back to the land of unofficial expansion packs.

When I wrote about the previous Mods and Maps article about Soldier of Fortune, Inc., I honestly wasn’t expecting it to go beyond Quake. When I found it that there were new tie-in levels made for Quake II, it made me replay through Quake II and its expansions, something I hadn’t done in years. I was originally not so hot on it, and I thought maybe a replay would give me a fresh perspective on the game. Sadly, it didn’t.

Wouldn’t be an id software game without some classic monster infighting.

Quake II is… fine as a game, I guess. A solid shooter with lots of colored lighting, a derivative story, and a killer soundtrack by Sonic Mayhem – with contributions by Bill Brown, Jeremiah Sypult and Rob freakin’ Zombie of all people – that just lacked the sort of bizarre mish-mash that Quake did the year prior that I enjoyed thoroughly. It just felt rather derivative as a game. Considering how id software was in turmoil at the time, I’m not surprised it feels kinda boilerplate, because they knew anything with an id logo on it would sell gangbusters.

While playing those Quake II themed levels for that Soldier of Fortune, Inc article, it dawned on me that despite having written about all kinds of retro FPS stuff for Doom, Quake and Half-Life, I hadn’t written about anything related to Quake II. That changes today, as I look into one of the more deeper cuts of Quake II, released during that wild west period of the early-to-late ‘90s: unofficial expansion packs to games.

Good to know it’s not supported by id Software, I guess. Cover courtesy of Mobygames.

Zaero for Quake II is one of the aforementioned unofficial expansion packs. Developed by a group named Team Evolve, this expansion added new levels and weapons to the main Quake II arsenal. But how did this expansion come about? For those who weren’t really around when this was big – and admittedly, I was only tangentially aware of it back then – let’s give a quick refresher course on the shovelware compilation boom.

I get to use this cover again! It’s just as ridiculous as it was the first time.

For a period of time, a fair share of shovelware budget publishers such as Softkey, WizardWorks and others found a new way to make some easy cash: capitalizing on some of the biggest game franchises by releasing compilations of levels for these game, often downloaded off the still fresh-to-the-world internet, for $20-30 a pop. It was interesting to go to a store and find a compilation of new levels for Doom, which was becoming one of the biggest video game cultural touchstones of the 1990s.

Unfortunately this practice raised the ire of some developers, feeling that those publishers were profiting off the backs of independent hobbyists and budding game designers. At one point id Software themselves decided to respond with The Master Levels for Doom II, a small set of levels made by a handful of the notable members of the Doom community, which came with its own compilation of Doom levels compiled from the web called Maximum Doom.

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Mods and Maps: Soldier of Fortune, Inc. for Quake — Not *that* Soldier of Fortune.

A few months back, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Bethesda re-released the id Software classic Quake on modern systems and the PC. Ported to the versatile KEX Engine by Nightdive Studios, it added the base game, the two official Mission Packs, the MachineGames developed Dimension of the Past made for the 20th anniversary in 2016, and a newly made expansion, Dimension of the Machine, also by MachineGames.

Going back through Quake was a nice nostalgia trip, and while I had already played through the game countless times in the past – most recently in June to test out the fan-made Copper rebalance mod – It felt good going through the tech bases and castles with nailguns and the Thunderbolt once again.

The official port has licensed mod support, similar to the Unity-powered Doom remasters on these same platforms from a year or two back, with Midway’s port of Quake to the Nintendo 64 being the first supported mod. Though it does also support some older Quake mods if they were just simple levels and not involving complex scripting from recent source ports, which means stuff like the oft-praised Arcane Dimensions don’t work in the remaster yet.

Colored lighting on Quake 64, at the cost of more boxier level geometry. A fair trade, honestly.

It made me think of many old custom levels from the early days of modding, and one that I thought of was during that wild west period, when map makers would offer to make stuff based on licensed properties as free promotion. One of which was based on a TV show that most of you probably don’t remember.

Kinda hard to watch this show nowadays, but okay.

Soldier of Fortune, Inc. for Quake is not what you think it is. It has nothing to do with the later 2000 game by Raven Software. Rather, this three-level pack existed as a promotion for a television show, back in those days when people could just make custom levels and have them officially sponsored by those companies, akin to stuff like Chronic for Quake III Arena made to promote The Marshall Mathers LP.

But what is Soldier of Fortune, Inc.? SOF was a TV series created by Dan Gordon, an ex-Israel Defense Force soldier turned screenwriter, produced by Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Productions and Rysher Entertainment. Named after the magazine of the same name, SOF was an action series involving a rag-tag group of soldiers trying to stop various people doing the bad things. In essence, it was a modern-day Mission: Impossible. It often aired in late-evening time slots alongside shows like Baywatch, which meant it was made to be one of those shows that tried to capture some of the Baywatch audience by also being an action-packed romp.

The show did get renamed for the second season, losing the Soldier of Fortune branding. Now called SOF: Special Ops Force, the show had a few notable cast changes, including basketball player Dennis Rodman playing a supporting character and Peter Graves doing an introductory narration, further leaning into the Mission: Impossible trappings. The show ended in 1999 after that second season, being mostly forgotten by the general populace.

I was reminded of this show’s existence thanks to a podcast. It Was a Thing on TV – a TV obscurities podcast hosted by a few of my game show colleagues – had recently done an episode on Thunder in Paradise, another short-lived action show starring Hulk Hogan and Chris Lemmon stopping evil villains on beachfronts. Much like Soldier of Fortune, Inc., Thunder in Paradise was trying to capture the Baywatch crowd, but wasn’t successful at it either, only having one sole 22-episode season.

Thunder in Paradise would get a video game adaptation for the Philips CD-i and DOS that was during the peak of full motion video, using an episode from the TV series but with more footage shot for the game. It made me think of similar action shows from the ’90s that got video game adaptations, and suddenly I started thinking about how a similar action show somehow got a custom level pack for Quake, back when that was a thing that could happen. Nowadays those same entertainment companies just cut a check to Activision to put John Rambo in Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War for $25, complete with low-quality sound bites from the movies.

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Darwinia: An early Steam darling.

I’ve had a Steam account for about 18 years. I got mine the day it was available to the public: September 12, 2003. More than half of my life has been giving money to Gabe Newell and the folks in Bellevue so I can play PC games. It’s kinda surreal when you think about it.

It took Valve several years to make Steam a reliable service. Those first few years of Steam were not very great: The always-online factor, an unreliable community service where alternatives like Xfire shined, having to get used to not being able to play games on day one due to server overloads, the works.

A handful of companies weren’t on board with Valve, one of them being 3DRealms, who opted to sell their gravity-defying shooter Prey on rival service Triton first. And that’s not even getting into the recent kerfuffle Epic Games has been doing by trying to posture themselves as the David to Valve’s Goliath.

Those early years were pretty much bolstered by Valve’s offerings and any small-time developer or publisher that was willing to support their endeavor. Stuff like Rag Doll Kung Fu and Shadowgrounds. But a small fledgling UK company by the name of Introversion Software, who self-proclaimed themselves as “the last of the bedroom programmers,” decided to try putting one of their games on Steam, and it was quite a game.

This was available to people on Patreon one week early. Thankfully you don’t need any computer skills, just $1. You can support me here.

One of the many intros the game will play after the initial launch. Others include a cracktro, a dedication to Cannon Fodder, and even a reference to the ZX Spectrum.

Darwinia is one of those early Steam darlings. Originally released in 2005, the game would be Introversion’s second game after Uplink, and featured a similar theme of computers. Though instead of being a hacker like in Uplink, you’re a user trying to stop an evil threat on a network.

Wow, a free keychain and poster? Sweet!

Back then I wasn’t 100% on-board with digital distribution – technically I’m still not on-board, but regardless –  thus I ended up getting this game not through Steam, but through a physical copy published by Cinemaware Marquee, a publishing label known for taking niche games and bringing them to US audiences. In essence, Cinemaware Marquee was the Limited Run Games of the 2000s.

It came with the game, a poster and a keychain of one of the little Darwinians. Funny enough, since the game is so tiny, the game comes with a 500MB video splash screen that is about 10 times more than the size of the game. While I still have that physical copy, I eventually grabbed Darwinia on Steam proper along with a bunch of other Introversion games years later.

They don’t take long to throw you into the fray.

Darwinia is a real-time strategy game with some action game elements. You play as the unseen, unnamed player who’s entered the world of Darwinia, a life simulator with little characters called Darwinians. Darwinia has been infected by a mysterious virus which is slowly corrupting the world, of which you join in just as it’s happening. After being briefly scolded by creator Dr. Sepulveda, he lets you learn the mechanics to hopefully stop the virus.

This is quite a simple start compared to other RTSes….
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Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters: A crossword game by the Wheel of Fortune guy.

Late last year, I had written about Interplay and Platinumware’s attempt at trying to make a fake game show, Lexi-Cross. It was surprisingly interesting if a bit flawed. At the end of that article, I was reminded of a similar crossword-puzzle driven fake game show. This one came out during the big casual games boom of the mid-2000s, and actually featured someone that until recently, was rather elusive to the world of video games.

He looks… rather airbrushed here. (Cover courtesy of Mobygames.)

Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters is an interesting breed of game. Developed by Playtonium Games and published by Uclick, it’s a crossword puzzle game stylized like a TV game show, and features an actual host: Pat Sajak, the famous host of Wheel of Fortune. Originally released as a digital game with a trial mode, a later physical “Deluxe” release published by Atari came out in sometime in 2006 on bargain bin shelves everywhere.

I got my copy of this many years ago back in Year One: From a (now-defunct) Value Village in Seattle while I was visiting PAX West – then known as PAX Prime – that I also got complete-in-box copies of The Colonel’s Bequest and Police Quest II: The Vengeance. There were several copies there, one of which had been price-marked down from its normal $20 price down to $1. Knowing my love for dumb game show games, I couldn’t resist the $3 price tag.

I can’t assure you if this is actually on the set of the show or if he’s behind a green screen.

Before I continue, I should clarify a bit who Pat Sajak is for those unaware: He’s the host of Wheel of Fortune, one of the more popular game shows in the United States. Taking over from previous host (and future die-hard conservative Trump supporter) Chuck Woolery in 1981, Sajak has been hosting the perennial game show ever since. Sajak currently holds the record for longest-running tenure of hosting the same game show in the United States – 39 years, beating out the late Alex Trebek’s 36 years on Jeopardy! and Bob Barker’s 35 years on The Price Is Right, respectively – and shows no signs of retiring any time soon.

“And now, here’s your host… Vanna White?”

But interestingly, he never did video games. Like most game shows, there’s been an absolute glut of video games based on the famous puzzle game. But for a good long while, most Wheel of Fortune adaptations usually featured co-host and puzzle board operator Vanna White as host instead, even some of the later games featuring announcer Charlie O’Donnell. But no Pat to be seen, something he’s even pointed out on the show in the past.

In the mid-2000s, he started a puzzle game brand called Pat Sajak Games that briefly existed to sell puzzle books featuring him and his likeness, but it would also branch out to something that until then had been rather elusive to him: the burgeoning video game market. Which leads us to Lucky Letters.

It’s almost like I’m on an actual game show!

The game has three modes of play, all around the concept of crossword puzzles. One is the main Lucky Letters mode, which is the meat of the game. The others, the Lucky 10 and Lucky Players we’ll get into in a bit. But how does Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters play?

Excuse me, Pat, am I supposed to be seeing the circuitry on this podium?

The rules go a little something like this: There’s a crossword puzzle based on a theme (TV shows, locations, current events, etc). When the game starts, the player can choose a few letters randomly chosen to fill out the board. After that, the game will randomly pick a word out of the crossword, and give it a cash value from three slot machines of various values. The goal is to fill in the crossword clue by selecting correct letters from a pile of random letters. Each correct letter gives you money, but you lose money if you pick a letter not in the word, which will also end that turn.

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