You Found a Secret Area!

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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

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….
Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

Gemini: Heroes Reborn – A puzzle platformer based on the biggest TV show of the 2000s.

If there’s anything I kinda miss about the modern age of video games is that there’s not enough tie-in games based on TV shows or movies. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s where we had classics like Disney’s DuckTales and Goldeneye, and were rather ubiquitous during that 8 and 16-bit video game boom. They slowly started dying off by the early 2010s, during the start of the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 era, and haven’t really shown up since. These days when I think of promotions with licensed properties, it’s usually as crossovers in other games, like Bingo Story and The Price Is Right, or John McClane of Die Hard fame in Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War. The most recent tie-in game I can think of is, amusingly, a game based on Space Jam: A New Legacy made by the people at Digital Eclipse.

Even though they’re not as common these days, there is still a video game based on a TV series or movie released here and there. Most of them are relegated to mobile devices, but sometimes a game or two does make it to the mainstream gaming consoles – or in my case, Steam. Gemini: Heroes Reborn is one of those rare cases.

“Hey, could you like, help me here? I can’t dodge bullets and lift people forever!”

Developed by Phosphor Games – a studio mostly known for making mobile games and Virtual Reality titles – the game was released in early 2016 as a tie-in to the TV series Heroes Reborn, a science-fiction drama that is a sequel series to one of the biggest 2000s-era TV shows: Heroes.

Would you believe it was pretty hard to find a good promotional image like this?

Admittedly I don’t watch a lot of television, so my knowledge of Heroes is through friends that did watch it: The show’s premise involves a giant corporation simply called “The Company” that was experimenting with human beings and giving them superpowers, of which a small group of people slowly find out that they have through a solar eclipse. Eventually they team up to stop the big-bad-of-the-week and eventually figure out the Company’s ulterior motives. Basically a serial TV show that would sow the seeds for things like the later Marvel Cinematic Universe.

From what I gathered, Heroes started out great in its first season, then the Writers Guild of America had a strike midway through the second season. The strike basically threw the whole planned storyline out of whack in such a way that the show never really recovered, eventually getting canceled after the fourth season concluded in 2010. In 2016, a sequel series called Heroes Reborn came and went for a single season, of which its story is the basis for Gemini‘s plot.

(Warning: Plot spoilers for Gemini: Heroes Reborn follow.)

I assure you that this game doesn’t have cutscenes that look like they were hastily made in Photoshop.

You play as Cassandra Hays, a woman who suffered amnesia as a teenager. She’s taken to an abandoned military base called “The Quarry” by her friend Alex to hopefully make sense of what happened to her. Eventually Alex gets captured by soldiers who apparently are still at the building, and Cassandra must find a way to save him. Cassandra later finds out she has special powers that allow her to travel through time, switching her between the then-present timeline of 2016 and the near-past of 2008, when the building was still operating. Eventually acquiring telekinesis powers in the past, she uses that and her time abilities to figure out what happened to her and what the purpose of “The Quarry” was.

Our antagonist, Trevor Mason. I wonder if he has a brother named Alex

The plot itself isn’t particularly remarkable. It falls into a lot of the common fiction tropes of characters double-crossing you and having to do bidding for the big bad – who’s unique to this game, voiced by Robin Atkin Downes of all people – while also figuring out the mystery of Cassandra’s family and her past.

Continue reading…