Category: From the Bargain Bin

It came from the Bargain Bin… the mysteries of sub-$20 video games, where you weren’t sure if you were paying for a gem or an absolute clunker. These are the budget games that make you question whether it was worth the money spent…

I Am Alive: Ubisoft’s dollar store version of a survival action game.

I never really cared for post-apocalyptic stuff. That stereotypical dystopia of derelict cities fighting off some zombie horde or devastating dust storm while people living in squalor… It all felt a bit too played out to me. Considering what’s happened in the past few years with us living through a global pandemic, I can’t say I’m really interested in playing too many things that hit a bit too close to reality like that.

That doesn’t mean I never play those kind of games. I’ve played stuff like Fallout 3 and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead which take place in dystopian worlds and yet still enjoyed them. But it’s definitely not something I actively seek out.

Yet, I decided to start 2023 by playing a game that took place in a post-apocalyptic world. One that was recommended to me as something interesting, but fairly clunky. And as you’re gonna learn, feels like the dollar store brand of something more notable.

I mean, it’s better than being dead, I suppose.

I Am Alive – a title that while grammatically correct, still sounds weird to my ears – is a survival action game published by Ubisoft and developed by Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio. Released in March 2012 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and later the PC through Steam and Uplay Ubisoft Connect; the game was one of those aforementioned post-apocalyptic games, coming out just as the survival action genre was starting to take off.

Originally announced as just Alive in 2008, I Am Alive was being developed at Darkworks, a French studio who had done other similar games, such as the interesting survival horror game Cold Fear and the mostly-forgotten Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare

After an initial trailer showing a player surviving a catastrophic event in Chicago, Illinois, the game went dark, with only occasional news reports of the game still being alive (no pun intended). After countless delays, the game was rumored to be canceled until Ubisoft moved the development in-house around 2010, while also shifting the game’s focus from a major retail title to a smaller digital-only title. Darkworks shuttered its doors not long after.

Unless some Darkworks developer held on to some unfinished development code, this particular version of I Am Alive is presumably lost, with only some proof of concept trailers still available online.

Even after moving development to Ubisoft Shanghai, they opted to take Darkworks’ concept and start completely fresh, basically making a new game under the same name. Let’s see if they revived this concept, or if it should’ve stayed dead.

It’s like I’m watching a found footage movie!

In I Am Alive, we’re introduced to the playable character, a boring, run-of-the-mill dude protagonist whose name is never mentioned at all during the game. For some reason, I thought his name was “Ethan,” but all the sources I checked have him unnamed, so he’ll be named Our Hero going forward. 

After The Event – the nebulous term the game uses for the apocalyptic event that ravaged the country – Our Hero returns to Haverton, a fictitious New York-like locale. He goes to find his wife and daughter – who do have names unlike Mr. Unknown here – but after finding that they’re not home, Our Hero then gets wrapped up in a journey that involves reuniting other families, getting supplies, and taking advice from various strangers around Haverton to eventually escape out of this hellhole.

Ezio Auditore he ain’t.
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FOX n FORESTS: A retro-style platformer with a surprising twist.

About 10 years ago on another WordPress blog I had, I made a rather dumb wordy rant about how retro pixel-style games sucked and how I was getting sick of them appearing everywhere. This was before games like Undertale and Celeste came out, games that showed how you could make that style work perfectly. In essence, I was being a graphics snob, which is somewhat uncharacteristic of me these days.

I only mention this because this post is gonna be about a game that uses pixel art, and how surprisingly good it looks. Basically letting my past self have some crow. Though in this case we’re talking about a fox, not a bird.

Oh no the fox is kinda cool-looking

FOX n FORESTS is a retro-style 2D platformer developed by Bonus Level Entertainment and Independent Arts Software, two studios based out of Germany. Bonus Level is a modest indie studio founded by Rupert Ochsner, a former developer who worked on projects at Deep Silver including Saints Row The Third, though mostly in a business role. Independent Arts on the other hand, are known for a myriad of games, mostly ports of games like Tropico 6 to console platforms and the Moorhuhn series of games (known as Crazy Chicken outside Germany). So two developers with at least some amount of game history, just on the more “shovelware” side of things.

Originally pitched on Kickstarter in 2016, FOX n FORESTS was released in May 2018 on all the major platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and of course, PC via Steam. Outside of getting mentioned by James Stephanie Sterling in their “Greenlight Good Stuff” series, this game very much came and went when it came out. Yet I’m always curious about lesser-known games that aren’t talked about much, so I was willing to give it a try.

“Fifth season” sounds like a boy band from the ’90s. I guess it fits, considering what the game is referencing.

You play as Rick, a “foxtastic” – their words, not mine – hero who is persuaded from murdering a poor partridge to help the Season Tree, who’s lost their magic bark to various villains around the seasonal world. It’s up to Rick to recover the pieces of magic bark and give them back to the season tree to save the day, and get handsomely rewarded in the process.

Is the story a bit silly? Yeah, definitely. But I’m not expecting high-quality writing here, especially for a game trying to hearken back to the days of retro platformers from the SNES era.

Rick’s journey begins! …and already it’s a bit tougher than he was expecting.

Rick starts with a fairly simple arsenal of a sword and a bow. The sword is used to attack enemies while moving, crouching or jumping. The bow is used to attack enemies at a distance, but requires Rick to be completely stationary and on the ground. As Rick progresses, he gets arrows that can alternate between special fire modes that come in handy later on for damage, or to activate platforms he couldn’t get to previously.

Damn, I wish he could do that for real!

The sword has a very special ability: pressing on either left or right trigger changes the season, which varies from level to level. The first level lets Rick switch between the warm summery colors to a wintery cold, which freezes all the water and makes some platforms easier to see.

Another level switches between a spring dusk to a fall breeze, complete with growing fruit and falling leaves that double as platforms to make progress. This is a pretty neat mechanic. However, visiting the other seasonal area slowly drains your mana bar, so this requires a balance of switching between seasons at the most opportune times to make progress.

Damn, this badger ain’t even phased by those bees

At various points, another character named Retro the gaming badger appears to save the player’s progress mid-level, at the cost of some gold. Naturally he spouts off a bunch of retro video game references, as a wink and a nod to the games inspired by FOX n FORESTS.

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Juggernaut: The New Story for Quake II – A janky expansion.

After writing about Doom Eternal last month, I felt like I was kinda losing my touch when it came to offbeat, weird stuff. Struggling to think of something to write about, I thought of something. And it’s time to head back to the unofficial expansion mines once again.

I’ve been down this road countless times at this point, but this is one I had to come back to, since I mentioned it briefly before late last year. Since I covered one of the unofficial expansions — Zaero for Quake II — back in November 2021, I had to go back and look at another expansion for Quake II. And y’all, it’s a doozy.

“Headgames is in no way affiliated with id Software.” Gee, I never would’ve guessed. (Cover courtesy of Mobygames.)

Juggernaut: The New Story for Quake II – quite a mouthful – is an unofficial add-on for id Software’s space marine Strogg-killing shooter Quake II. The second of two unofficial add-ons, this came out around 1998 as a way to add more to your Quake II experience.

I became familiar of this thanks to Something Awful, back when they used to “review” video games of dubious quality. Much like a lot of internet writing of that era, it’s really hard to go back to reading, especially since its creator Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka was an absolute piece of shit. But I had been curious about this add-on, so I started looking for a copy. Turns out it was a bit tougher finding a complete copy than I thought it would be, thus I put it aside and wrote about Zaero instead. It wasn’t until after I published that did a friend come and help me find a copy.

Much like previous add-ons – official and unofficial – the game offers you to shoot and gib monsters, grab keys and have a fun time, right? I wish this was true, as this is not the case with Juggernaut. Problem number one is who published it.

Sadly not sponsored by Foreigner.

Head Games was a fairly infamous budget publisher through the late ‘90s, alongside some of the more infamous ones like Valu-Soft. While they dabbled in publishing unofficial expansions like the previously talked about Aftershock for Quake, their bread and butter was the “Extreme” line they published from 1999-2000, like Extreme Rock Climbing, Extreme Boards & Blades, and yes, the infamous Extreme Paintbrawl games. They’re not known for a high pedigree of quality, so buying a Head Games product meant you had to put your expectations real low. And this was before Activision acquired them.

That looks more like a dome than a canopy.

Though we can’t just blame the publisher: Developer Canopy Games has their own tale of making clunky games as well. For the most part, they were known mostly for budget-label driving games based on Harley Davidson, Hot Rod Magazine and oddly Initial D of all franchises; as well as Midnight Outlaw: Illegal Street Drag, a racing game clearly made to cash in on the Fast and the Furious franchise that Something Awful also covered back in the day. (This will be the last time I mention that site in this article, promise.)

They occasionally dabbled in other genres, including the then-lucrative market of hidden object games in the late-2000s, but from the research I did shooters were not really their thing. Juggernaut would end up being their only add-on for a commercially released game. So I don’t have high hopes for this.

These cutscenes are… interesting, to say the least.

According to what I gleamed through the cutscenes and the readme files, the story goes like this: In the far-flung future, a Juggernaut ship exported people from Earth to the two moons on Jupiter – Europa and Callisto, respectively. You’re a soldier named “The Defender” who lives on Europa, doing your usual mining business until you find out that settlers of Callisto are doing science experiments on people that turns them into mutated beings. The Defender must fly to Callisto and eliminate those mutated freaks before their demon stuff… spreads throughout the universe? It’s not really clear, the story is likely explained more in the manual or the intro cutscene than it is in-game.

Fun fact: In this intro demo, the player has god mode on. Already a bad sign.
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Alien Rage: An old school shooter in more ways than one.

Over the 10 plus years I’ve been writing about video game stuff, one thing that’s stayed constant is me writing about the most jankiest, clunky games out there, often in January. So much so that I almost considered making an event called “Jank-uary,” where people would play these particularly busted games as a celebration of the underdogs and trash of video game culture. Maybe I’ll still consider that in the future if there’s any interest.

Since it’s the start of a new year, what better thing to write about then yet another janky FPS? After all, might as well keep up my tradition of writing about this jank to start the year. This time with a developer I’ve talked about a few times in the past!

“Bet you can’t scream louder than me, human!” Cover courtesy of Mobygames.

Alien Rage is a first person space shooter made by the present-day masters of budget label games: CI Games, the company formerly known as City Interactive. Released on Steam, the Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in 2013, the game came out to mostly uneventful fare, often being forgotten except by people like me who are a glutton for punishment as well as quality Eurojank™.

We’ve talked about CI Games/City Interactive twice before: Once in January 2019 when I wrote about the interesting-but-flawed Enemy Front, a World War II FPS that tried to be a bit more stealth-action like the old school Medal of Honor days; and again in April 2021 where I covered the infamous Terrorist Takedown, a rail shooter that was made during peak War on Terror, and for a long while was CI Games’ most iconic franchise before Sniper: Ghost Warrior came around.

Since I’ve played a myriad of the company’s work at this point, I know to go into this with the lowest of expectations. And boy those expectations were met and then some. The result is a game that doesn’t quite understand what it wants to be.

It’s always those rare materials that we’re looking for, isn’t it?

Taking place in the distant future of 2242 AD, humans find a new material named Promethium on a space rock, which they use to make a space colony. Then the Vorus, an alien race, come in and invade, taking over the Promethium, and starting a war between the humans and the aliens. Eventually the aliens burrow underground to further stop the humans in their tracks, and it’s all hinging on the help of one supersoldier named Jack to go in and eliminate the Vorus threat once and for all. Yep, in typical classic shooter fashion, they send one guy to do the job of a whole platoon. Though Jack is not alone in his journey, Jack is supported by an AI assistant named Iris and a soldier buddy named Ray. Guess you gotta give Jack someone to talk to, eh?

“Hmm. This certainly looks like Something Bad’s about to happen…”

Alien Rage is a run-of-the-mill first-person shooter. Jack can hold three weapons: a sidearm and two human or Vorus weapons he procures throughout his journey. Standard WSAD controls for movement, left click fires, right click ironsights, F does a melee attack, and E is the catch-all use button, where Jack will activate keypads and climb over chest-high walls when prompted.

Middle mouse button activates a special alternate fire which changes for each weapon: A burst fire for the pistol, a grenade launcher for the SMG, etc. The player can hold a maximum of five of these overall, and can be used for any of the game’s weapons, so one must be careful when using them on a pistol rather than a rocket launcher.

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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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