Friday, March 9, 2018

Unearthed Treasures: Disney's DuckTales 2 (NES)

Up until a few years ago, I was certain that my desire to explore the medium's history and unearth its most precious treasures was product of a stimulus whose development had begun no sooner than the year 2000, which was around the time I'd suddenly become infused with a newly born adventurous spirit. "That had to be when the seeds of evolution were planted," I thought. Really, there was no evidence, as far as I could tell, that the pre-2000 version of me was at all interested in delving into video-game history or unearthing anything beyond the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2, which was a special case.

But now that I've had time to more thoroughly examine my history and in particular reflect upon how things were during my late-teenage years, I've come to see the truth--that the seeds were actually planted a few years earlier, during a period of discovery that I failed to recognize as such because, I guess, its focus was limited to systems with which I was already familiar.

It's obvious to me, now, that the period in question holds much greater relevance. It wasn't about some kid merely finding novelty in past creations, no. It represented something more. And when viewed from an informed perspective, it can rightly be recontextualized as a precursor to my current mission.

So it's become clear that the igniting sparks were being emitted as far back as 1997, when despite my embracing of new technology I'd begun to re-exhibit a fondness for the consoles that my friends and I had since left behind. And it was all thanks to the rental scene.

Mainly, whenever my parents would head off to the Blockbuster Video store on 86th Street, looking for a nice movie to rent on a mundane Saturday afternoon, it was common that I'd tag along and browse the game aisle in search of undiscovered NES games, which--strangely, I thought--were now showing up in greater numbers. I mean, the NES had been off the market for almost two years at that point, so it seemed logical to think that store owners would be feeling more inclined to begin phasing out NES games rather than bolster their available selections. But, for whatever reason, they were choosing to do the latter. And that was fine by me, really; I was happy to get the chance to play newly discovered NES games, which I saw as highly viable in light of (a) the N64's increasingly sparse release-schedule and (b) the presence of our new big-screen TV, which unlike the outgoing 70s-brand model had full AV-cable support! And let me tell you, man: 8-bit games felt all new again when played at three-times the resolution!

It was during this period that I discovered a bunch of NES games--many of them late-era releases like Mighty Final Fight, Wario's Woods and the Mario edutainment titles (Mario is Missing! and Mario's Time Machine). Before then, I'd never read or heard about any of them. I couldn't even recall their appearing in Nintendo Power, whose provided coverage, if it existed, had to be so minuscule that I didn't even notice it.

Then one day, as I was browsing that aisle, I came across the most surprising NES release ever: Disney's DuckTales 2. And as my eyes came in contact with the game's box cover, a single thought popped into my head: "What the hell?! Since when is there a DuckTales 2?!"

It was a feeling akin to the one I detailed in my Adventure Island IV piece--the feeling that consumes you when you're flipping through the cable channels one night and suddenly discover that one of your all-time favorite movies had a sequel to which you were completely oblivious ("Grease 2?!").

It didn't make any sense. I mean, the original DuckTales was a beloved NES classic, so how was it that a sequel to a game of its distinction went completely unnoticed--even by Nintendo Power of all publications?

Truthfully, though, I was actually kinda glad that it had. The complete lack of information was what made DuckTales 2 such an exciting find--what provided it such a powerful air of mystery, which it retains to this day. I was never more excited to rent a video game.

So I took it home and spent a nice weekend with it. Thinkin' back, I remember it bringing me a lot of fun and cheer. Yet my memory of the experience is colored more by the sense of wonderment I felt as played it--the feeling that I'd, well, unearthed a precious treasure upon which few had ever laid eyes. That's how I continued to conceptualize DuckTales 2, with which I wouldn't again cross paths until a few years later, when I got my own computer and began immersing myself in the emulation scene.

I've been wanting to talk about DuckTales 2 ever since--tell everyone about what it means to me.

Now, I don't plan to go into great detail about how the game plays, since it's so iterative that you can probably guess as to what its gameplay entails. Don't take that to mean that DuckTales 2 a straight retread, no; rather, it's best likened to the latter three NES Mega Man titles, which repeat the formula but make incremental improvements while adding in some new stuff. In this piece, I intend to highlight these new additions and further explain why the game so strongly resonates with me.

So stuff yourself into this helicopter and join me for a quick trip around Scrooge McDuck and friends' enchanting 8-bit world!

Interestingly, the splash screen transitions into an intro sequence wherein we get a sneak peak of the stage-selection map and a synopsis of the game's plot via a dialogue exchange between Huey and Scrooge. The observable map is a key addition, I've always thought. While I wouldn't call its inclusion a major differentiator, it does provide the game an appreciable sense of scope in comparison to the original, whose entire world was condensed down to but a few lines of text on a giant computer screen. Never discount the impact of the small details.

The title-screen theme isn't a one-to-one recreation of the original DuckTales', no, but it might as well have been. It's obvious that the composer was content to simply swap in some new instruments and call it a day. I'd term this approach "lazy," but that feel like an empty charge. After all, what else could they have done--replace it with something else? Forget that; there's only one tune that truly says "8-bit DuckTales"!

So you don't even need to own a manual to have some idea of what's driving this adventure. The story is that Huey, Dewey and Louie--Scrooge's nephews--found a curious scrap of paper in McDuck Manor's basement, and it turned out to be a section of a map. Scribbled on the map were the words "The Secret Treasure of McDuck." They figure that the map belonged to their great-great-grandfather Uncle Fergus (Scrooge's father), who for unknown reasons tore it up and hid the pieces all over the world. Upon hearing this, Scrooge immediately springs into action and declares that it's time to go on a worldwide treasure hunt.

In actuality, acquiring Fergus' treasure is a secondary goal and not critical to your success. Really, you can happily ignore the entire map-finding quest, since there are no negative consequences for doing so; the game is eminently conquerable without your having to put in any extra effort. But I'd argue that it's worth seeking out the map pieces--prolonging an enjoyable game that will otherwise be over all too soon.

Rather, it's essential that we visit five separate locations and relieve their wicked guardians of their prized treasures, just as we did in the original DuckTales. Stage-selection is once again carried out Mega Man style, which affords us the option to conquer the game's initial five stages in any order we so please. And we make these selections via the afore-seen map, which depicts a fictionalized, vibrantly colored version of the real world.

I have to say: There's something wondrous about the way maps in old games portray the real world--how their charming renderings inspire us to imagine what it would be like if our world held similar mystery. That's how I felt growing up. That they were able to do this so effectively meant a lot to me when I was a kid whose conception of the world was a product of pure imagination.

This map also provides access to the nephews' shop, which you can visit after completing any stage or after escaping from a stage via Launchpad's helicopter. Here we can buy a number of useful items--all of them uniquely functioning. Since you now lose any accrued wealth after losing a life, you might want to buy a safe, which allows you to retain your wealth no matter how many times you die during a given stage. If you're not confident in your ability to finish the game with the set amount of stock, you can buy insurance in the form of a continue globe, which grants you a single continue. And you can purchase health-replenishing cakes; they automatically transfer into Scrooge's three-slot inventory, which you can access during play.

Otherwise, if you've been zealous in your gem-collecting, you can score any of three high-value items: two meter-expanding health upgrades (both of which were hidden items in the original game) and a piece of the map. They cost $750,000 and $1,000,000, respectively. Also, as they share the same slot, these items rotate into stock, so you'll have to grab all of three of them during separate visits. Though, I'll never understand why the ducklings force their uncle to pay for items that are readily accessible. It's either that (a) the ducklings are duplicitous money-grubbers or (b) Scrooge is really that gullible. I mean, the items are right there, man; it's not like you're settling with a shipper from Mongolia who will take them off the table if you don't pay up.

And you might as well invest in these items, since money has no other use. So go crazy. Throw caution to the wind. Hell--you should just hurry up and give all of your money to Huey and the crew, those greedy bastards.

Before I move on to the stages, themselves, I should also mention that Capcom has implemented a new cane-based mechanic: Scrooge can now push or pull certain objects by latching his cane onto them. In the case of rivet-lined canisters, which are newly appearing, he can drag them in either direction and use them as makeshift platforms. There are all sorts of objects with which he interact in unique ways.

Additionally, as they did in the Game Boy port of DuckTales, the developers have made a hugely desired refinement: You can enter pogo mode by simply pressing B while airborne, where before you had simultaneously press down plus B. It's truly a much more reliable means of initiating the maneuver, and it leaves less of an opportunity for misread input (like the controller incorrectly interpreting a diagonally-downward press of the d-pad as left or right, which completely nullifies the action).

Also, DuckTales 2 features an upgrade system. If in certain stages you're able to locate Gyro, he'll reward you by retrofitting Scrooge's cane with one of three power-boosting adapters. I'll talk more about these as we obtain them.

Now, if you want to collect all of the map pieces in the most quick and convenient fashion, you're going to want to take the optimal route. This mode of travel entails visiting stages in a very specific order--procuring from one stage the upgrade whose use is required in the next. I'm going to be guiding you along this route.

So let's get to it!

First we're heading off to Niagara falls in search of the Crystal Flower.

It's probably not a coincidence that Niagara Falls, from a level-design perspective, is pretty much an analog for DuckTales' Amazon, which likewise holds the distinction of being a "recommended starting stage." However, Niagara is a lot prettier than its jungly counterpart. Its environments are more vibrant and animated, and its backgrounds are populated with the type of rich, interesting imagery that was otherwise absent from the jungle stage. Really, the same can be said for DuckTales 2 on the whole; it's a much more visually attractive game than the original DuckTales, which exhibited a restrained, often-washed-out color tone and featured many backgrounds that were composed entirely of single colors. What a difference a few years can make.

Call it a product of experience and an ever-deepening understanding of the NES hardware. Capcom became master of the NES. Such is evident in the company's late-era NES games, all of which showcase the type of visual depth and technical complexity that wouldn't have been attainable on even 1990-level NES hardware. DuckTales 2 is a great-looking 8-bit game is what I'm sayin'.

Also, the stage's theme is delightfully uplifting. Its depth and reverberance are such that each buoyant strain is able to penetrate your soul and fill you with vigor. The piece is powered by a wonderfully remindful energy; listening to it really takes me back--reminds me of good times and great summers spent with friends.

Sadly, its level design isn't as interesting as the Amazon's. Niagara's, in comparison, is a disappointing linearity. It always feels as though there's only one path forward. For that matter, all of the stages in DuckTales 2 feel overly structured and thus limited in scope. It's true that the map-quest element creates some in the way of explorability, but it's mostly illusory; really all you're doing is making quick detours. There's a real lack of that labyrinthine interconnectedness that was so essential to DuckTales' level design, even when it was available in limited doses. Instead it seems that we're always gravitating straight toward the boss.

But there's still plenty to find. Niagara Falls, for instance, is home to two items of interest. The first is a map piece whose obtention requires smacking open a large, embedded treasure chest using Scrooge's jumping golf shot (press up against a wall until Scrooge enters his stance and then jump and swing). I remember thinking that this was such a cool new ability; in fact, I was always sure to cite it as one of the series' best innovations. Then a few years later--in, say, 2010--I discovered by accident that this same jump-swiping mechanic had been implemented into the original DuckTales. "Since when?!" was all I could wonder.

And no--I don't feel like an idiot for having overlooked this fact. Really, why would I have known about it? I mean, I can't think of a single instance where DuckTales' level design requires that you jump and strike an object. So don't shake your head at me, pal. Blame Capcom for not putting the mechanic to any use!

We'll receive the other desired item from Gyro, who has found himself trapped in a landslide. After we "rescue" him (or "talk to him and then just kinda leave him there," as it were), he'll reward us by retrofitting our cane with the Iron Adapter, which allows us to break reinforced blocks with pogo jumps. This ability will prove essential in a future destination whose map chest is sealed off by blocks of that variety.

Also, Niagara introduces a new mechanic: propulsion. You'll put it to use after knocking a foldout raft into a pool of water. Once you've boarded a now-buoyant raft, you can propel it forward by striking the adjacent wall, against which it's firmly pressed, with your cane. Some of the game's more-involved platforming sequences are fueled by this mechanic; such challenges entail working around obstructions by alternating between propelled rafts and platforms that are placed overhead. Coincidentally, it's by way of raft that we rescue Gyro.

And that's about it for Niagara's unique additions. The rest is what you'd expect from an Amazon equivalent: You have your cavernous depths. Spike-lined tunnels whose traversal demands some crafty pogoing. Hopping across a series of unsteady platforms while being assaulted by a constant stream of flying enemies (dodo birds, in this case). And even a very similar collapsing bridge.

And our ascension to the falls' peak culminates with a tense battle against the Firequacker. DuckTales 2's boss fights in general are tougher than the original's, I find, yet it remains that bosses are still bound by fairly simple patterns. For the Firequacker, it's (a) swoop two times in a row, (b) descend diagonally downward to the room's opposite side, (c) throw a single fireball toward Scrooge's current location, and (d) repeat. Once you've figured out his pattern, defeating the Firequacker becomes a matter of finding the openings--taking into account that this swooping menace takes up a lot of space and has a particularly large hitbox--and correctly timing your pogo-jumps.

Extinguish his flame and the Crystal Flower will be yours.

Now our sights turn to the North Atlantic. The reason: Launchpad informs us that a cargo ship has gone missing within the Bermuda Triangle. He surmises that its disappearance is the result of pirate activity. If we can locate and board the ship, we can get our hands on the Mermaid's Teardrop, a famed jewel.

I really like how this stage communicates its atmosphere: The action begins on the ship's deck, which is under the constant deluge of torrential rainfall. We can see that this storm is product of blanketing dark clouds whose sole identifying features are the eerie purple curve-marks that highlight and give form to their contemptuous undersides. At the same time, the music--with its deep base, slow tempo, and haunting strains--is lending the ship's every structure and environment an entrancingly mysterious vibe. We're talking about the kind of tune that would feel perfectly at home in a game like Shadowgate or Uninvited. Yet here it is working a similar kind of magic in a cutesy platformer.

And these aural and visuals qualities work together to create a great setting. It's my kind of place.

The ship presents two of the more interesting uses of the object-pulling mechanic. First, Scrooge can gain entrance to the hull's interior by blasting away its access-denying barricade using the nearby cannon, whose ringed trigger when yanked will release an obstruction-clearing cannonball. Later on, he can use his cane to manipulate levers and thereby operate associated conveyors, using which he can maneuver currently inaccessible treasures--those wedged and stuffed into narrow spaces--into open space. I only wish that these types of mechanisms had been used as the foundation for slightly-more-intricate puzzles, like those encountered in the subsequent Game Boy version. Here, disappointingly, solving problems is merely a matter of tugging on objects and waiting a few seconds.

This time, we won't need to launch a rescue effort to rescue Gyro, who can be seen hangin' out on the ship's forecastle deck, in plain sight. So untroubled by his current predicament (you know--being lost in the Bermuda Triangle, to which he had no real reason to travel) is Gyro that he'll happily take the time to outfit our cane with the Hammer Adapter, whose tempering modification is such that Scrooge can now use a golf swing to clear away those aforementioned reinforced bricks. And that's all we need here. We'll send someone to fetch Gyro later on, I guess.

Ultimately we'll have spiraled around to the captain's cabin, where the pirates' leader is residing. Our boss is the hook-armed Pirate Capt'n, whose pattern entails walking from one side of the screen to the other and occasionally jumping up and hooking onto the surrounding tie-down rings. We're expected to maneuver about and find suitable attack angles using the same tie-down rings, but, really, they just seem to get in the way and cause all kinds of headaches. Scrooge hooks onto them automatically, which creates the potential for scenarios wherein you'll unintentionally latch onto one of these rings when instead your plan was to attack the Capt'n using an uninterrupted leap. The result is often repeated collisions with the Capt'n, who takes up a lot of space as he lunges about.

There's no question that this was a deliberate design decision. Fortunately, you can easily circumvent the issue by remaining grounded and attacking the Cap'n with short-hop pogos whenever he travels near the screen's edges, whose vertical spaces are bereft of rings; too, a successful strike will propel you high enough into the air that the Cap'n will have left the vicinity by the time you've landed, eliminating the possibility of contact damage. "No stress, no mess," as they say.

Finish off the Cap'n and earn yourself the Mermaid's Teardrop.

Our next destination is Scotland. Specifically, our sights are set on an ancient castle that is to be ruled by an evil sorcerer who serves as guardian for a secret treasure: the Lamp of Eternity.

The ancient castle is basically our Transylvania analog. We'll encounter ghostly enemies, knights (the variety that unexpectedly emerge from the background, theirs at first a seemingly innocuous state), and frogs (which I guess fit into the stage's magic and spell-casting theme). Also, the place is loaded with illusory walls, beyond which many a secret lie (like the map piece). You've seen all of this before.

To be fair, the stage is at least tonally distinct, thanks entirely to a musical theme that has its own ambition. Whereas Transylvania's theme was high-energy and aggressively haunting, Scotland's is more meticulous and eerily subdued; it does well to imbue the surrounding space with a mysterious vibe that has a way of filling you with the sense that unseen forces are lurking about everywhere. That it's able to produce such an atmosphere is the prime reason why Scotland is one of my favorite stages.

Though, during the years that DuckTales 2 and I were separated, there was one particular thing I remembered about this stage--one thing above all: the tie-down rings onto which Scrooge latches his cane. Certainly I noticed them in Niagara, yes, but it was my viewing them in this particular setting that made me think that I'd seen these same rings (or, at least, entirely similarly rings) somewhere else--in some other game. It was then I realized that they were just about identical to the decoratory hooks in Knight Man's stage in Mega Man 6! It was such a cool aesthetic link, I thought. And it made sense: The two games did come out within a year of each other, after all.

Now, I understand that I come off as an enabler when I celebrate the practice of recycling assets, but I can't help it; I just love it when companies create these kinds of spiritual connections.

I felt the same way the first time I reached the tail-end of the Himalayas stage and set eyes on that orange moving platform, which when bore a strong resemblance to the destructible walls from Mega Man 2! Well, if it was turned 90 degrees, of course.

Why I obsess over such things, I don't know. I guess that's just who I am!

By the way: Please send someone to destroy me.


I should mention that this new latching mechanic has a second application. It's otherwise an activator of weight-based mechanisms. If, say, a platform has a handle on its underside, Scrooge can hang from it and force the platform to lower. Likewise, if one side of a pulley is weighted down and positioned to be an obstruction, you can raise it into the air by hanging from its uncoupled ring.

We'll have to negotiate our way past a few of the latter to reach the boss room, which is domain to the sorcerer. Frankly, he's the game's most easily defeated boss. His is a simple one-step pattern: Both the sorcerer and his illusory clone will appear on either side of you; three seconds later, the true sorcerer will reveal himself and use his staff to summon forth either of two attacks: a ground-trailing tornado or a fierce lighting bolt. All you have to do, really, is wait until the sorcerer takes solid form and then immediately pogo your way directly towards his head; this airborne motion will allow you to both score a hit and easily evade the incoming summon. You can't miss, baby!

Once you've dispatched the sorcerer with five noggin'-denting pogo jumps, the Lamp of Eternity will be yours.

Our next target is MU (Mauritius), an island nation located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. According to Launchpad, its folklore speaks of a sanctuary that exists deep within the waters offshore. Apparently it's home to a mysterious stone plate that's said to be imbued with magical powers.

Think of MU as yet another Amazon variant (right down to the pillars and ceremonial totems), but this time with a pervasive sunken-city vibe.

Gyro is loitering about somewhere near the stage's starting point, though his location is hidden. Finding him will require a little work: A couple of screens in, you'll see a big chest wedged into the ceiling; you'll have to clear it away by propelling one of the nearby rocks into it. The chest was concealing a vine, up which you can travel to access a secret area and meet with Gyro; he'll reward our sleuthful effort by furnishing Scrooge's cane with the Power Adapter, which affords it the firmness necessary to pull objects that were previously too heavy to move--an object like, say, the stony column located immediately to the right. Just don't forget to pull it back through the opening so you can use it as a platform to reach the area's treasure-rich upper level.

MU contains another one of those instances that endured in my memory: its environment-altering block puzzle. Inevitably we'll happen upon a strange monument whose outstanding feature is an arrangement of colored sun symbols. This pillared construction--specifically its block pattern--not so subtly hints at the solution to a block-pulling puzzle found in a similarly structured room on the other end of the cavern. Following its instruction, we sink the blocks into the corresponding apertures and activate a mechanism that causes the island to raise up a couple of meters (an event we witness from the map screen, to which we briefly return). This causes the obstructive water to drain from the stage's lowest level, which hides a collection of high-value treasures and another map piece.

Annoyingly, the map is buried behind three screens' worth of rocks and bricks; procuring it requires that you endure a long, tedious sequence in which you must spend two minutes meticulously cutting our way through the debris--both coming and going. This is by far the worst part of the game. "Just why?" is all you'll ask.

However, I fondly recall how I felt about the initiating sequence and that little isolated puzzle room. I cant easily explain why, exactly, it sticks with me. I mean, it's not like the puzzle is uniquely challenging or memorable in any way. And the room, itself, contains none in the way of distinct imagery. That I remembered it so clearly had more to do with the way the sun was refracting through the den's windows that day--how its light was bathing the corner of the TV in the most reminiscent of ways. It was like a defining moment of the discovery phase--for how the resulting visual was able to effectively marry my feelings of nostalgia and my excitement over having unearthed a game that spoke of a rapidly expanding world that was likely hiding many similar treasures (helping to drive this sentiment was my recent introduction to the then-mind-blowing Internet world via my brother's new Windows-based computer).

But enough about that. Let's talk about the stage's boss--Robo Duck.

Here we have what many consider to be the most difficult and most frustrating boss in either game. What makes the battle obnoxious is its mode of progression: Unlike other bosses, Robo Duck's weak point isn't readily assailable, and finding the opportunity to render it such can sometimes require great patience. Basically, he'll park himself on either side of the screen and continue executing two separate attacks: firing one of his arms straight ahead as if it were a rocket and stomping on the ground hard enough to cause debris to fall from the ceiling. What you're hoping to see is the latter attack, which leaves remnants in the form of three bricks; you can then propel the closest brick into Robo Duck, the resulting impact causing him to collapse into a heap and reveal his vulnerable antenna.

However, there exists the potential that he'll repeatedly execute the former attack, and if this happens, you can find yourself stuck there, having to wait several minutes. Also, there are times when he'll unceasingly stomp on the ground and cause debris to fall over such a wide range and at such a fast rate that you'll have neither the time nor the space to set up and execute your brick-propulsion; even if you're lucky enough to get a shot off, it's still likely that you're still going to take a hit. If you get flustered and try to force the action--fight through the storm of bricks--chance are that your entire health meter will be drained in a flash.

All you can do is hope that he cooperates, like every boss should. And try to time it so that you can sneak in two hits during each cycle--save yourself a minute or two.

Pogo that antenna five times to vanquish Robo Duck and secure the stone plate.

Our final stop is Egypt, where we're tasked with figuring out the secret of a pyramid that protects the treasure of the Nile. Our efforts are fueled by an ancient tale that speaks of King Khufu's Knife, upon which no one has ever laid eyes.

And hey, look--we're in Pharaoh Man's stage! Well, not exactly, though Egypt does shamelessly recycle its quicksand hazard plus the mechanics that govern it. There are Mega Man connections abound, I tell you! I would even say that there are times when DuckTales 2 feels like a Mega Man game. I guess that makes sense; the two series do run on the same engine, after all. There was bound to be some measure of congruity.

Though, whereas in Pharaoh Man's stage we wanted to resist the sand's pull, here, in the stage's opening segment, it's in our best interest to let ourselves remain somewhat immersed so that we can avoid the pesky mosquitoes that are erratically flying about overhead. Contrarily you'll want to find ways to completely avoid dipping into these pools whenever snakes are patrolling over their surfaces; the sand's adhesion is such that it's near-impossible to effectively dive out from it with any sense of momentum, which you'll need if you desire to reach the height necessary to pogo onto sand-dwellers without taking damage.

Oh, and I have to credit Capcom for another much-appreciated refinement: You can now use the d-pad to advance text. Now I can speed through Launchpad's dialogue by hyperactively pressing directions instead of mashing A and B, doing which has often resulted in my accidentally saying "yes" to his offer to fly me back to the stage-select hub. Because I'm 12 years old.

If while taking this route you obtain the final map piece, the scene will immediately transition to the secret stage--the site of Fergus' hidden treasure. After completing that stage, you'll have to return here and retrace your steps to get back to where you were. Be advised, though, that if you defeat the boss before obtaining the map piece, you'll lose your chance to access the secret stage; the game will instead immediately transition to the endgame sequence. More on this in a bit.

The boss in question is the staff-wielding King Tut. His is a relatively simple pattern: He emerges from the quicksand, in one of three locations; hops out onto the platform directly in front of him; releases an electrical blast from his staff; and then sinks back into the quicksand. There's a limited amount of solid ground, so this battle is mostly about predictive positioning and timely pogo jumps. It's a potentially tricky battle, yes, but at this point in the game you should have enough of a health boost to tank your way through it.

If you're able to permanently sink Tut, King Khufu's Knife will be yours for the taking.

As previously mentioned: If we obtain the final map piece during the course of action, the scene will immediately shift to the secret stage, where Uncle Fergus' treasure is hiding. Huey confirms the location to be that very same castle in Scotland.

I'm not shocked that we're being forced to return here. Hell--it almost seems mandatory to have to revisit castle stages in DuckTales games. Though, in this instance, we're not retreading old ground; rather, we're traveling to the castle's basement, which represents an entirely new stage. It encompasses the castle's sewer and dungeon areas. Most interestingly, it's replete with uniquely communicated atmospheric touches. For one, it features a dissimilar color tone: a gloomy combination of dark green and yellow. Its ambiance is otherwise defined by its bizarrely discordant musical theme, whose strains are so inharmonious that the tune has a jarring quality to it; it works to make traversal feel more uneasy than it actually is. It's not a good tune, no, but it does produce the desired effect.

Really, it's the only stage in the game that can be said to be truly labyrinthine. It features multiple branching paths, all of which inevitably spill into one of two direct routes. You're free to plow ahead--follow the most obvious path and hurry to the boss--but you'll probably want to explore the basement and rack up some goodies, which it has in abundance. But keeping to a branching path is difficult because the basement is also filled with illusory walls and floors, most of which funnel you forward in a way that makes backtracking impossible. If you hope to thoroughly explore this place, you'll have to remain observant and put to use the intuition you've gained from your years of gaming (you know--predict where a sneaky level designer would be apt to place a fall-through floor).

Don't sweat it if you screw up; it's not imperative that you amass a ton of wealth. Save for in one very specific instance, your money-total doesn't effect the ending you receive. I'll talk more about this in a moment.

The basement recycles the previously encountered sorcerer, though it's not a complete copy-and-paste. This time, he relies exclusively a unique summon: a transformation orb. If it makes contact with Scrooge, the old duck will take damage and suffer further humiliation when he finds that he's been transformed into a frog, which renders him unable to inflict damage on the sorcerer. It's a temporary curse, yes, but you'll have to wait out a fairly long 8-second penalty time. Otherwise, it's basically the same battle as before, the previously detailed strategy working just as well here.

Dispatch the purple sorcerer a second time to finally reclaim the Secret Treasure of McDuck! And then head back over to Egypt to finish your business there.

Oh, but it ain't over yet.

Surprising no one (well, no NES-era Capcom fan, at least), Flintheart Glomgold suddenly emerges onto the scene and makes a play for out treasure collection. We learn that the old wretch has kidnapped Webbigail--the granddaughter of Ms. Beakley and another of those "helpful" supporting characters with whom every player is always trying to find new and interesting ways to avoid making contact--and is holding her captive on that ship in Bermuda; the deal is that he'll exchange Webby for the treasures.

So we return to the ship and head directly for its quarterdeck, which was previously inaccessible (we can't return to the ship's interior, which is now permanently sealed off). Of course, this exchange is partly a setup; the moment we hand him the treasures, he renegs on his end of the bargain and sics one of his minions on us. In truth, he is the minion: We learn that the "Glomgold" standing before us is actually a shape-shifting (or "liquid metal," if you understand the reference) robot called the "D-1000." Well, now you know for certain the time-period in which this game was released.

Really, the D-1000's shape-shifting potential is limited to his limbs, which drive his offense. Despite his holding the status of culminating end boss, the D-1000's is one of the more simplistic attack patterns: He'll extend an arm upward and pull himself up to the ceiling, from where he'll kick at you by extending his forward-facing leg diagonally downward, Dhalsim-style, twice in quick succession. Then he'll walk forward a bit until he's within, say, a three-block distance of Scrooge and repeat the sequence. That's all there is to it.

Still, this fight will surely fluster those who don't know how to approach it. It's designed to punish players who are overly aggressive and those who think that they can recklessly tank their way through it. Rather, it's best to hang back, near the screen's edges, and let the battle come to you--force the D-1000 to stomp his way over to your current position and sneak in a hit while he's in motion, whence he's slower to initiate his ceiling-grabbing animation. If instead you instead decide to stick close to him, it might appear that his defenses are impenetrable.

And that's it. Once the D-1000 is defeated, the game is over. There's no impromptu race with Glomgold or any other in the way of surprise sequences. The real Glomgold, in a last-ditch effort, attempts to sink the boat and ducks with it, but the action fails; Scrooge and Webby manage to escape in time.

Your efforts will be rewarded with one of three endings: In the "normal" ending, the treasures sink with the boat, leading to a sentimental moment wherein the usually-miserly Scrooge feels no desire to lament their loss because he realizes that family and friends are more important than money. But then Launchpad is able to recover the treasures with his helicopter's rescue rope, thus rendering all that previous talk pointless. It then cuts to the final money-accumulation screen.

The best ending, which you'll earn if you retrieve the Secret Treasure of McDuck, repeats the aforementioned scene and expands upon it with a final shot wherein Scrooge reveals that he had been hiding the big prize, Fergus' treasure, underneath his hat--intimating that it would not have been a total loss had all of the other treasures been lost forever.

Additionally, you can trigger a completely unique third ending by meeting a special condition: finishing the game without picking up a single gem. In the resulting scene, the defeated Scrooge and his crew watch on as a television broadcast announces that Flintheart Glomgold has found the Secret Treasure of McDuck and cemented himself as the world's greatest adventurer. Now agitated, Scrooge promises that the two haven't seen the last of each other.

Enduring Thoughts

What else can I say? DuckTales 2 is an overly familiar game, certainly, yet it holds a wonderfully unique appeal. It's both a great late-era NES game and a shining symbol for all of the fascinating releases that fell under the radar during the console's twilight years. You shouldn't miss it.

For me, DuckTales 2 holds special significance. It has made what I consider key contributions to my development as an enthusiast. If I can count the ways: It helped open my mind to the idea that there's no such thing as an "expiration date" for video-game hardware. It serves to remind me of the exciting period wherein I began to realize that the gaming world was far more expansive than I ever knew. And it's the first of a group that brought about the era of my "new nostalgia," a term I use to describe how I feel about all of those utterly alluring games I discovered during my college and early-Internet years; it joins together with Adventure Island IV, Rockman & Forte, Fire 'n Ice, and the MSX Eggerland games to form the foundation for this "new nostalgia," which I hold for the time when information was always readily available and the medium's history was still packed with mystery.

Really, I don't care to compare it to the original DuckTales in terms of quality (though, I do think that the original has superior music and level design). That's not what matters. What's important is how it makes me feel about games. That's what truly differentiates it.

People will say that DuckTales 2 is too easy or "kiddy," but so what if either is true? Neither is a detrimental quality. And even if you're the type who's scared away by such descriptors, you should know that DuckTales 2 is rife with other qualities that might appeal to you: It's fun to play. It boasts an alluring aesthetic. And it's loaded with 8-bit spirit. It's the kind of game that can brighten your day just by your being around it--just by your listening to it and absorbing it.

DuckTales 2, quite simply, is a delightful, feel-good video game upon which I can always count to deliver a half hour of entertainment and nostalgic feelings on a sunny weekend afternoon.

That's what it means to me.

So let's hear it for DuckTales 2, the first unearthed treasure.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Rediscovered Classics: Rick Dangerous (Atari ST)

Let me tell you something, friends: There are times when video-game history can prove itself to be an untangleable web. That's how it feels whenever I'm forced to consider a particularly complex set of subjects and chronicles; no matter how many times I read about or refamiliarize myself with them, I find that I'm invariably left in a state of bewilderment.

Take the Wonder Boy-Adventure Island licensing arrangement, for example: If I were to pore through a hundred retrospectives on the topic, I'd still struggle to grasp how all of the pieces fit together. Try to explain to me the intricately plotted narrative of how several warring entities battled in secret to gain publishing rights for Tetris and see if I can remember any of it in a week. The story behind the Crazy Castle series' frequent protagonist-swapping? Utterly baffling. For whatever reason, my brain simply doesn't want to process or retain the information.

So it shouldn't surprise you, then, when I say that I've long struggled to comprehend the post-5200 history of Atari, the unraveling of which is a task akin to deciphering string theory. If only now I'm coming to have a glimmer of understanding for how the company shapeshifted over the years, then you can imagine how much of an unsolvable riddle it was for the 20-something version of me, who had enough trouble trying to properly insert a game CD into a PlayStation. From what I could tell, there were apparently two Ataris, one of which absorbed the other before merging with JTS Inc., whose assets were then acquired by Hasbro, which turned around and sold them to Infogrames, which was currently the asset-holder for a third Atari (or the first one, maybe), which through a series of purchases united all such entities into a single Atari brand, whose name in following was minimized before it was suddenly revived in 2001, at which point it was again splintered into two separate companies, one of which was acquired by Namco-Bandai while the other was rebranded Atari SA, the owners of which established two additional Ataris, and then... I don't know, man. I get a headache just thinking about it.

All I knew for certain was that the Atari of my youth--the one whose products had shaped my interests and provided me so many great memories--was gone forever, the creator of that woodgrain-lined wonder-box having long since spiraled into oblivion. Really, I didn't care to read any deeper into the subject. It was too painful (on both the heart and the brain). I mean, it was interesting to discover that the company had found considerable success in the home-computer market during the 1980s, yes, but such information just didn't hold any special meaning for me; it all seemed so foreign, as if this corporately subsumed version of Atari lacked any true connection to the free-spirited group that produced the console with which I grew up. To me, the two entities were related in name only. So I thought it better to turn the page--leave the past behind and remember Atari as it was.

And that was it. For the longest time, I didn't care to read about or sample Atari's post-5200 machines. The only time I'd look upon the company's name with any amount of curiosity was when it would pop up during a Gamefaqs search. And even then, my interest was fleeting. "What's an 'Atari 8-bit'?" I'd momentarily wonder before quickly turning my attention to a more-relevant link.

Once inseparable, Atari and I had become two ships passing in the night, our paths almost never crossing.

But that was then and this is now. Believe me when I say that the willfully ignorant 20-something version of me is an ancient memory. The person who stands before you today is an impassioned enthusiast, and in this new era, no platform is off my radar. I'm going to discover it all.

And since I've recently been on an old-school computer kick, it seems like the perfect time to begin earnestly delving into Atari's computer history--to finally come back to the home team.

I've chosen to start with the Atari ST, with which I was largely unfamiliar until early February. Until then, about all I'd gathered was that the ST was a direct competitor to the Commodore Amiga and featured a similar mouse-controlled interface. Otherwise, I knew very little about the system's hardware capabilities or game library. So I decided to do what was normal under these circumstances: Play those that were said to be the system's best games or those that diehard ST fans swore were its enduring classics. And from that group, I plucked out a game that seemed right down my alley: 1989's Rick Dangerous, a side-scrolling action-platformer. It was released for several computer systems, yes, but I've been told by people who were immersed in the scene that it's most strongly associated with the Atari ST.

So for the past week, I've been playing Rick Dangerous, which I can best describe as the progenitor of hardcore platformers like I Wanna Be the Guy, Super Meat Boy, 1001 Spikes, and the recently released Celeste, all of which occupy a genre that can be more accurately termed "spike-fueled nightmare simulator." Yet the ol' granpappy Rick Dangerous represents more than just a template; oh, no--this bad boy can honestly claim to trump just about all of them in terms of the horror it unleashes. I'll explain how as we go.

Rick Dangerous is historically based, its events playing out in the year 1945. Gauging both the art direction and subject-matter, it's obvious that the game takes plenty of influence from the Indiana Jones movies, whose stories and characters inform the creation of Rick's world. Coincidentally, Rick Dangerous was developed by Core Design Ltd., the company behind the Tomb Raider series. So we can see that the group has great fondness for the 1940s post-war period as depicted in Spielberg and Lucas' serial-inspired classics. And here we have its first expression of that endearment.

Our hero is the titular Rick Dangerous, to whom the manual (scans) refers as an "intrepid Super Hero and part-time stamp collector." And that single description tells you all you need to know about the game's style and form. Once we look beyond the box art's realistically drawn, seriously toned (and dangerously close to plagiaristic) imagery, we find a game that's eager to quickly abandon any and all pretense of seriousness. Its visual and comic stylings, in both the game and the documentation, give rise to the type of madcap, satirical humor you see in many of the era's adventure series (Maniac Mansion, Leisure Suit Larry, Monkey Island, etc.) and Apogee's platformers.

All of the characters are portrayed as dwarven and stubby with exaggerated facial features. Rick, himself, is drawn as a pint-sized, dysmorphic Indiana Jones, his toothy sideward smile always on display.

This world is pure Looney Tunes, basically.

There's no all-encompassing narrative here. Rather, Rick, our typical fearless adventurer, takes on one self-contained mission after another; while normally he seeks treasure wherever his whims carry him, he's also known to take on missions for third parties. Whatever the case, we'll be traveling around the world and braving our way through some of its most dangerous settings. If we hope to avoid certain death, we'll have to call upon our adventurer's wit and the instincts that have guided us through some of history's most questionably designed video games.

And the Atari ST does well to render it all. It's yet another graphically impressive computer system. It boasts a rich resolution, and its colors really pop. Rick Dangerous, in particular, features some charmingly bold color-schemes, and it effectively uses darker shades to highlight textures and create the illusion of shadows; its textures are sharply rendered and clean-looking, and its separate layers blend together in a way that's tonally harmonious and pleasing to the eye of a classics-loving enthusiast. Really, Rick Dangerous is a good-looking game. They say that the Amiga version is the prettier, but in my estimation they're just about identical; the Amiga version has deeper resonance and higher-quality sound samples, sure, but that's about it.

Though, the game is very light on music. Its soundtrack is limited to a handful of tunes--title-screen and ending themes plus handful of stage-opening ditties. Mostly, the action is accompanied by an uneasy silence, which works out for the best, I'd say; the consumption of music would simply eat up precious brain processes, every ounce of which you'll need to fathom the game's Satanic level design.

Rick Dangerous shines more in the area of sound effects, all of which are well-sampled, crisp-sounding and loud. The game's noises boom from your speakers: Gunshots resound, explosions thunder, and dispatched enemies' pained wails ("WAAAAAAH!") pierce the air around you.

Even though it lacks for musical accompaniment and variety of location, Rick Dangerous is visually and aurally pleasing game. And that's about where the compliments end.

It's an Atari machine, so naturally the controller's input is limited to a control stick and a single button (to which we refer as the "Fire" button). As there are multiple functions but only a small number of inputs, controls can become a bit sloppy in particular instances. More on this in a moment.

The basic controls works well enough: Rick's left-to-right movements are responsive. His every jump is fully controllable, its apex afforded an extra bit of hang that helps to extend the time available for corrective redirection. And he can enter a crouch and smoothly crawl along the floor, the maneuver allowing him to sneak below enemy projectiles and squeeze his way through narrow passages.

All three of his weapons are assigned to the Fire button, the holding of which locks him in place in preparation for subsequent attack input. To utilize any of his weapons thereafter, you'll have to apply directional movement. Pressing forward extends his staff (the "Big Stick," as it's called), which doesn't inflict damage but instead, strangely, compels humanoid enemies to temporarily halt and unwittingly leave themselves open to attack. Pressing up fires his gun. And pressing down lays a stick of dynamite, whose explosion can kill enemies and clear away certain obstructions. Be aware that (a) he can't lay dynamite while crawling within a cramped tunnel and (b) the explosions can kill him, too.

At the start of any life, he's supplied six bullets and six sticks of dynamite, and he can replenish his stock by collecting the respective ammo and TNT crates. But be careful not to shoot at or lay dynamite down anywhere near these crates; much like in Gauntlet, accidentally blasting replenishment items will destroy them. And trust me: You can't afford to make that mistake.

The sloppiness starts to creep in when particular control elements come into conflict. If Rick attempts to leap over an enemy that's currently positioned near a ladder, he'll instead grab onto the ladder and enter his climbing animation, since jumping and climbing share the same input (pressing up on the control stick). As the top rung of a ladder registers as solid ground, there are times when Rick will automatically leap upon reaching its top; this will often lead to his unintentionally springing up into an afore-tossed projectile. And if your plan is to climb up a ladder and immediately shoot the enemy lurking directly above, forget it; you'll be lucky if the game recognizes your input.

To its credit, the game won't force a crawling Rick to descend down ladders. Also, it'll also prohibit him from scaling them when he's locked into attack mode. So the game can be mechanically sound when it wants.

But trust me: The bad far outweighs the good. This game has an abundance of other issues, a lot of which I'll be highlighting along the way.

And since the game is as stubborn as it is evil, it doesn't supply you many in the way of resources. You get six lives and zero continues. That's it. And never once does it award a 1up--not after you've completed a stage and certainly not after you've accumulated a set number of points. That's just crazy, man.

Now, if you're emotionally prepared for such, allow me to show you the many ways in which this game inflicts pain upon its deluded subjects. Scroll down to find out what fresh hell awaits you.

Our first mission begins after Rick crash lands his plane in the Amazon wilds while searching for the Lost Goolu tribe. The grounded adventurer finds himself in the Goolu's cavernous habitat, where there are tricks and traps abound. Beware: The level design is treacherous from the start, and there's no opportunity to ease yourself in.

The Indiana Jones influence is strong with Rick Dangerous, so it's not surprising that it seeks to replicate an iconic Raiders of the Lost Arc scene: Its opening moments are comprised of a sequence wherein you have to outrun a large boulder, which aggressively trails you for the length of three screens. Though, the boulder doesn't actually appear until you take a few steps, which for the uninitiated creates the illusion that the designers are providing the player a safe space within which he or she can experiment with the controls and get a general feel for the game. They're not. You get no such luxury. Once you press forward on that control stick, you'd better keep on holding it. Pause for even a microsecond and you're dead. Welcome to Rick Dangerous. You'd better learn in a hurry.

Only after you've survived this sequence will you find momentary safety. Be sure to appreciate it.

Thereafter, Rick Dangerous wastes no time in showcasing its multitude of questionable design choices. For one, it really, really loves blind drops onto spikes and other deadly objects. Anytime you're descending down a multi-pathed vertical room and find that your field of view is suddenly cut short, it's a certainty that your forward traversal will become a pure guessing game. Blind drops are objectionable even in sanely-designed games like Mega Man 2, where they're encountered occasionally, so you can imagine how infuriating a device it becomes in this banefully constructed torture sim, wherein every other drop can lead to potential death. You'll have to be clairvoyant enough to know which gaps to avoid and when to hold a specific direction while falling. Such instances are so numerous, in fact, that you're likely to forget which drops are which during subsequent attempts, especially when your mind starts to wander as you tediously retread the same ground over and over again.

The game also has a fondness for the types of spikes that suddenly jut out from whichever wall or surface you're currently approaching or brushing up against. And they can appear at any time in any location and without any warning. Soon you'll find yourself overcome by a sense of paranoia; you'll be second-guessing every plan for forward-advancement and looking at every object and structure with suspicious eyes. Oh, and while you're busy considering what might or might not be a trap, you'll probably be killed by the spiky gate that just dropped on your head--the one you didn't see because it blended in with the blocks' gray texture. I mean it: This game throws everything at you--every rotten trick imaginable.

This brand of chicanery is so constantly on display that I'm not even going to continue mentioning it. It's what you should come to expect. The whole of Rick Dangerous is an exercise in the most brutal form of trial and error. You can't anticipate where, exactly, the danger lurks or when it's about to strike. All you can do is cautiously inch forward and hope that (a) the innocuous-looking wall ornament doesn't spit fire in your face, (b) spikes won't jut out from the wall adjacent to that ladder's base, or (c) the ceiling directly above doesn't suddenly collapse. You learn by dying, which you'll do a countless number of times. Inevitably it'll become clear that memorization is your only true ally in this world.

And this is not to mention Rick Dangerous' hardcore-platforming aspect: This game is rife with challenges whose surmounting requires maneuvers that are both highly leveraged and super-precise. We're talkin' about the kinds of jumps where you'll have to inch your way over to a platform's very edge and hit "up" at the very last second if you hope to avoid bopping your head--a single pixel of it--on the uncomfortably close ceiling above. We're talkin' about actions that demand triggering a device and responding to its unexpected, life-threatening movement with perfect timing. Rick Dangerous' is the type of no-holds-barred game design that makes you believe that its creators are unrepentant sadists.

Well, I'm convinced, at least.

The only bit of good news is that enemies are also susceptible to all of these deadly hazards.

The most common of these antagonists are the humanoids, who come in two flavors: patrollers and seekers. The former simply marches back and forth over an assigned space while the latter actively chases you down--endlessly gravitates toward your current position. Seekers, however, can behave quite erratically, those of their type sometimes choosing to momentarily confine themselves to a given space wherein they begin aimlessly circling about; this makes it difficult to effectively predict their movements and manipulate their AI. I'll explain later why this can prove troublesome.

Here, in the Amazon, it's the tribal natives who want to kill us. Some of them are weaponless while others carry spears, yet there's no real distinction between them; the difference is purely cosmetic; the spear-carriers never actually put their weapons to use (nor do any from this class of enemy). You can take out a humanoid-type enemy with a single bullet or a stick of dynamite.

Another persistent threat are the stone masks that can be seen adorning the cavern walls. These masks will begin to rapidly spit out arrows whenever you move to within an unmarked trigger point. Your best option is to crouch beneath the fire and stay in your crawl until you move out of the affected area. Most masks are simply decoratory, yet still they're able to arouse fear, because, really, you never know. Just to be sure, you should always make it a point to crawl about whenever both you and a mask are currently on level surface. But you know what? You should always stick to crawling. I say this because there are also instances where arrows or other projectiles suddenly come flying out from even normal-looking objects like solid bricks and wall tiles. Because of course they do.

The only other enemy here is a bat that has been assigned a very specific function. It's invulnerable to your weapons, so don't bother trying to kill it. Instead, think of it as a cog in a wheel--part of a mechanism of which you need to take advantage. Firing a single bullet into the resting bat prompts it to fly diagonally downward, thus removing itself as an obstruction; furthermore, the bat will help to clear the way forward by taking out the unsuspecting Goolu below. This is the game teaching you to think laterally. Running in, guns blazing, isn't always the correct answer and will likely lead to the regrettable depletion of your stock.

You'll also learn, probably via experimentation, that you can use dynamite to blow up the deadly-to-the-touch stalagmites and the bricks that block the way forward. Though, which bricks can be cleared away won't be immediately obvious; finding a dislodgeable fragment might require an extra bit of experimentation and some liberal use of your dynamite. Be advised that an explosion's range extends two tiles in every direction, so it's in your best interest to back off a bit and take cover. Also, it makes sense to duck into an aperture or climb to a higher level after setting dynamite near a targeted obstruction, since certain objects are programmed to violently fly in your direction after being dislodged.

Oh, I forget to mention that you can also climb on specially marked background textures. In this stage, you can grab onto the cavern wall's craggy handholds, which aren't always noticeable. As they tend to blend in with surrounding tiles, you might have to pay some special attention to spot them. Also, it's important to know that, as in the case of ladders, you can propel yourself off of a handhold by jumping as you near its peak. This will prove to be a useful skill later on.

Miscellaneous mechanics include blocks that move in scripted patterns, usually a few seconds after they come into view; they're traversable when locked in place, but they will kill you if you touch them while they're in motion. Also, you'll stumble upon trigger points that make spikes retract! But don't get your hopes up, fellow traveler; you won't find many of these.

Don't forget that you can reset a room's activity by exiting and reentering. This will prove to be a useful tactic in those instances where the most erratic of seeker-type enemies are clogging up access points. There are times when your successful progression will require hightailing it from the get go and beating these enemies to the spot.

And if you truly care about earning the highest score possible, you might want to collect any of the treasures you see laying about. The Amazonian cavern is home to a number of gold statues whose appearance I can only describe as "serpent-haired tiki head." Each one is worth five hundred points. Some are virtually free to collect while others are perilously placed. And then there are the sort that are just plain bait; you can snag them with some exceptionally precise maneuvering, though I'm not certain that they're supposed to be procurable. If you think it's worth the risk, though, go for it. And even if you're not the high-scoring type, you still might want to make it a priority to accumulate at least 1,000 points. I'll tell you why in a bit.

Also, you should never pass up an opportunity to grab those ammo and TNT cases. Trust me: You don't want to be short on ammunition in this game. Particularly, if you run out of dynamite, it becomes impossible to advance past certain stage sections; if that happens, you'll have to intentionally kill yourself so that you can restart with a full supply. Hell--there are times when killing yourself is the strategic thing to do, like, say, when you're short on bullets and there are no crates around. Though, throwing away even a single life is not something you should be doing if you're seriously attempting to beat this game. And God help you if you are.

Actually, being able to complete this first stage might actually qualify you as a deity.

Sometime later, Rick heads to the pyramids in Egypt at the request of London. He's tasked with recovering the Jewel of Ankhel, which has been stolen by "fanatics" who seek ransom for its return.

And no--I ain't even gonna dignify that pun by repeating it.

So the action takes place within the ornamentally rich innards of a pyramid, its passages populated with sarcophagi, arcs and lion-headed statues. The backgrounds' tiles are filled with hieroglyphics; those displaying horizontal strokes (or grip handles, I would imagine) are climbable, but as they, too, tend to blend in with the surrounding patterns, you'll have to actively be on the lookout for them.

The changes are mostly cosmetic: Here you can collect pharaoh busts, which are worth the same 500 points (the value of treasures never increases). Also, because we can't escape that Indiana Jones influence, we find that our humanoid antagonists are fez-wearing middle-easterners, who function identically to the Goolus. And snake statues take the job of stones masks and fire arrows whenever you're in range of the associated trigger points.

Though, we will encounter some newly introduced death traps: There are collapsing ceilings under which you must swiftly crawl. Though it may strike you as a clever idea, forget it: You can't simply wait out their falling animations and then traverse over them, since, for uncommunicated reasons, the ceiling blocks are deadly to the touch even when they're completely still. Also, there's an instance where you'll have to trigger a switch that temporarily raises a nearby block, under which you must race, with absolute perfect timing, before it drops back down. And some of those aforementioned arcs (I'd say predictably, being a fan of the Indiana Jones movies) are too dangerous to approach; if you get too close to them, they'll release undodgeable swirling fireballs. Even if it's true that the majority of the arcs are harmless background elements, it's still best to play it safe and tactically avoid them--work your way around them using any available circuitous routes.

The pyramid also introduces two new platforming elements: The first are springy surfaces that propel you upward at three-times your normal jumping height. As is a continuing theme with this game, it's not always obvious which platforms have been imbued with this springy property, since they're all similarly drawn; you won't know until you walk upon or land on one such platform and hear a boinging sound. Later on, you'll encounter horizontally moving platforms on which you'll have to ride; this is made exceptionally difficult because the game's physics lack friction, which means that you'll fall off these platforms if you're not constantly moving in rhythm with them. What's worse is that their movement-patterns usually entail pausing briefly before unexpectedly blasting forward. You can't help but feel that riding atop them is precarious in the most terrifying way. If you hope to successfully negotiate these sequences, you'd better possess supreme reflexes and some high powers of concentration.

Otherwise, the pyramid exhibits more of the same nastiness, including a particularly rough sequence early on where twice you have to guide seeker-type fanatics into an arrow trap by guiding them down a cramped stairway whose third stair begins firing arrows the very instant you touch down upon it; when dropping down to it, you have to remember to immediately enter a crouch and crawl over to its right side--but not to its extreme edge, which is outside the trigger range. If that happens, you'll have to instead halt, turn, and shoot the trailing fanatic in a single motion, a series of input that's highly susceptible to control conflict--specifically unintended actions. I hope your control stick/d-pad has a small dead zone. Mine doesn't, and so I screwed up this sequence a countless number of times.

Also contributing to the trouble was a mechanical oversight: When a crawling Rick begins his drop down to a level below, his animation is such that he has to first enter an upright position, which momentarily increases his targetability and renders his evasive maneuvering pointless. One of those arrows is going to catch him, man. (Actually, I find that this type of oversight is common in many games wherein crawling is a feature.)

As it became apparent during your earlier interaction with the bat, you have to know when a little experimentation is in order. There's one instance where three Egyptian guardians are patrolling a narrow passage at a time when Rick is likely to be short on bullets. While he might appear to lack the necessary resources, his greatest weapon lay right in front of him: the sarcophagus that stands in proximity to the guardians. If you speculatively fire a bullet into it, you'll find reward in a triggered event wherein angry mummies will start emerging from the sarcophagus and eliminating the guardians for you. Of course, they'll then become your problem; you'll have to sneak past these very same mummies, who will continue to pop out at regular intervals. Thereafter, you'll want to refrain from shooting sarcophagi, since their mummified inhabitants are invincible and tend to clog up the already-narrow spaces.

And then there are times when Rick Dangerous can be completely baffling. There will be many of those moments when you find yourself stuck in a room or a stage section that lacks either an apparent exit point or a mechanism whose manipulation might be the key to opening the way forward. And the game will give you nothing: no hints, cues or indicators. Your advancement will be wholly dependent on the discovery of mechanics whose existence you couldn't have know about; we're talking about the type of arcanity that entails shooting or stabbing random blocks or walls to activate moving platforms or other mechanisms "How was I supposed to notice that the brick on the left has a tiny, barely decipherable differentiating crack?" you'll wonder after stumbling upon the answer.

Now, as someone who grew up playing Commodore 64 games, I'm used to this type of esotericism, but still--this is unfair. You simply don't have enough ammo to go firing off bullets all willy-nilly, hoping to fortuitously strike an invisible trigger.

Competently managing your ammo supply is crucial in a serious run. Really, you have to conserve it where you can. Of course, if you're short on bullets and TNT, you can always jump over enemies, sure, but this, too, can prove risky, since (a) the erratic seeker enemies are known to suddenly switch directions while you're directly above them and (b) the game's hit-detection is ridiculously unfavorable. I'm not exaggerating: The enemies' hitboxes extend out at least half a tile from the their visible frames; so any time you attempt to jump over an enemy, there's a good chance that you're going to collide with him.

And this is what the game puts you through. This is the type of pain you're expected to absorb. I mean, Christ, man: I had to stop several times while playing and question my own sanity. "Why am I continuing to play this torturous creation?" I'd ask myself, my blood pressure having reached peak levels. "For whose sake am I doing this?"

These are not the kinds of thoughts that should be going through your mind when you're playing a game.

There's no rest for the certifiably insane, I guess. A few days later, we head off to Europe in response to a communique from British intelligence. The organization has requested that we rescue allied prisoners from the notorious Schwarzendrumpf Castle.

We're obviously in Austria and up against Nazis, who are of course the favorite villain of fedora-wearing adventurers.

So we infiltrate their stony prison, where they store their captives as well as their liquor. You can see wine racks and barrel taps everywhere you look. There are also some broken bottles laying around, and they're deadly to the touch--for both Rick and the enemies.

And just in case you didn't think the game was serious about it before, it wastes no time in reminding you that it wants you dead from second one. The enemy assault begins the moment you advance past the stage intro. Before your brain even has the chance to process the images appearing onscreen, Rick is being rushed by a spike-collared bulldog. You'll have literally a third of a second to respond to its charge with a well-executed jump. But chances are that you won't see it coming nor will you be able to react in time; it's likely that you'll be helplessly wiped out at least once the first time you intrude upon this stage. And you had better be paying attention when you restart: If your focus isn't there or your mind has drifted, it's possible that your entire stock will be drained in a flash. Similarly, some of the stage's checkpoints put you directly in the line of incoming fire, so you'll have to remain dialed in at all times.

But those bulldogs represent a nasty obstacle. You can't kill bulldogs, so the most reliable strategy for dealing with them is to move to within the trigger point--within four or five tiles of their resting position--and jump forward in anticipation of their charging attacks. Some bulldogs, however, have fallen into such a deep sleep that they won't even perceive your presence; sleeping dogs are essentially decoratory, and you can pass through them unharmed.

Our humanoid enemies are Nazi guards, some of which are drawn with shotgun-holding scabbards on their backs. I'm just now noticing that the weapon-carrying enemies' left- and right-facing sprites don't mirror each other; the designer actually made the effort to render uniquely detailed sprites for their separate profile views. I'm glad to see this; I've always been one to appreciate the small details.

Replacing the wall-mounted projectile-spewers is a special variety of humanoid who parks himself near the screen's edge and begins firing rockets the moment both of you occupy the same horizontal plane. Unlike the standard humanoids, rocket-firers are invulnerable, so you'll want to avoid direct engagement (most of them are placed within enclosed spaces, anyway).

The points-awarding "treasures" are actually the P.O.W.s, who can be seen bound by rope in front of their cells. Normally you'd want to place your prisoners inside the cells, but hey--what do I know? I'm not a cartoon Nazi.

This prison stage is a wicked concoction that combines all of the afore-experienced nastiness with yet another cruelly conceived game mechanic: Lost Woods-style mazes. That's right: Now you won't even be able to trust your sense of direction. There are times when you'll be presented two paths; the correct path will advance you to a new area while the other will send you back to a previously traversed area, sometimes way back near the start. Because, at this point, why not?

This was about the point where I could no longer make any meaningful progress. "Please let this be over," I'd say whenever I was lucky enough to make it to a new room's exit. But the stage would just never end, and ultimate death remained a certainty. Soon it became clear to me that I just wasn't going to be able to beat this game.

Fortunately, I learned via a Google search that Rick Dangerous has a secret level-select option. You can unlock it by entering the name "Pooky" on the high-score screen, to which you'll gain access if you've accumulated at least 1,000 points. Thereafter it'll remain unlocked until you reset the game. I wasn't going to see the final stage without it.

Unfortunately, there are consequences for resorting to this tactic. I'll explain later.

The rescued prisoners inform us that the enemy plans to attack London from its secret missile base. So now it's up to Rick to infiltrate this base and destroy its weapons system. While not Rick's, this is fortunately our last mission.

While its level design is as brutal as ever, the secret base is thankfully a short stage. And once again, it's nasty right from the opening moment. Before the graphics can even finish loading, the rocket-launching soldier on the screen's opposite side will begin his ceaseless fire. Somehow, you'll have to find a way to dodge them and find the opening necessary to descend to the room's lower level, where waiting are two sandwiching seeker enemies and a missile-storage rack whose ballistics fire off on their own; you'll encounter plenty of the latter as you advance through the stage, though, like with the arrow-firing wall ornaments, it'll be impossible to know which ones are active and which are purely decoratory.

Really, this opening room is just nuts. I mean, imagine spending 35 agonizing minutes making it here just to have your entire life-stock wiped out in about 8 seconds--before the stage's intro ditty can even finish playing. Even the cats who worked on Battletoads would be playing this thinkin' "Man--these level designers are a bunch of psychos!"

The enemy set is a combination of the previously encountered Nazi soldiers, some important-looking officers, and the installation's wrench-carrying mechanics. Also, there are some new traps, including one of the game's most abhorrent: flames that suddenly spew out from innocuous-seeming objects. It's not that they function any differently than the usual projectile-spewers, no, but that they emerge in the most inconvenient places, like, say, the wall directly adjacent to the ladder you're currently climbing. You can't bait out a flame or race past it when it temporarily retracts, no; get anywhere near it and you're dead. Rather, you have to avoid triggering them by inching your way over to the ladder's extreme edge and gingerly ascending; inch a single pixel too far and you'll fall to ground, probably onto spikes or some other deadly hazard. If an alternate path is available, be sure to take it.

There are also miniature gray rockets laying about. They may appear to be background objects, like the larger green rockets, but they're actually on the sprite plane and deadly to touch. Strangely, a few of them are collectible (as points-awarding "treasures"), but, as per usual, you won't know of their true nature until you approach them. Some others rocket off the screen and destroy enemies for you.

Otherwise, you'll have to deftly dodge and negotiate around cranes and minecarts, which sometimes appear in tandem.

What you'll learn is that the base's platforming element, more so than any other stage's, demands nothing less than pixel-perfection.

Finally you'll arrive at the game's final room, in which a single action is necessary: You have to blow up the missile-control panel by laying a stick of dynamite beneath it. Once it's destroyed, deadly explosions will rock the entire room; you can either take cover in the middle portion of the ground floor--wait out the blasts in the room's lone safe spot--or make a rush for the exit on the right. Either way, ultimate victory will now be yours to enjoy.

Your reward for enduring this absolute nightmare of a video game is a single-screen's-worth of congratulations, the accompaniment limited to a 15-second MIDI version of Rule, Britannia! and some text that alluding to Rick's future escapades, which are undoubtedly visited in the sequel. This is your reward except for if you used the secret level-select option, in which case you'll receive absolutely zilch. No ending scene. No congratulations. No special jingle. No nothin'. Just a black screen with the words "Game Over" plastered across its center--the same one that appears when your game ends via stock-depletion. Then it takes you right back to the title screen.

I mean, Christ, man--how uncharitable can you be?

Final Thoughts

Well, all I can say is that I'm very disappointed. Not with the ST, no; Atari's is yet another exciting and awesome mid-80s computer system, and its appeal is such that I wish it had been a part of my life when I was growing up. My problem is with Rick Dangerous, which I mistakenly thought would make a great first selection. You could say that I chose ... poorly. Frankly, Rick Dangerous' made for one of the most unpleasant, aggravating experiences I've ever had with a game. The people talking it up on Youtube must be mentally disturbed. That or they're blinded by nostalgia, so much so that they make even someone like me seem discerning in comparison. Oh, you bet that I'm totally placing the blame on them; after games like Rick Dangerous have finishing robbing you of all humanity, ideas like "personal responsibility" cease to have any meaning.

Rick Dangerous is a masterwork of terrible game design, and it proudly boasts of that distinction. It has no shame: It gleefully defies reasonability. It laughs uproariously at the thought of bringing a smile to the player's face. It piles on the pain without ever exhibiting any sense that it knows--or cares to know--that it's going too far. Really, it can't help itself. It wants you to suffer. It wants to advertise that its creators didn't know the definition of the word restraint. Now, I can't speak as to whether or not their creation, Rick Dangerous, is the most egregious of its kind, since I've played only a handful of them, but I wouldn't be surprised if consensus recognized it as such. It's that vile.

"So why do I do this?" I often ask myself. "Why do I voluntarily subject myself to these sadistically designed games?" And I always arrive at the same answer: "I don't know, man!" Really, I think that my willingness to suffer through bad games is a product of my natural inclination to want to see the good in things; that's probably what's driving me. That how it was with Rick Dangerous, at least: I kept holding out hope that it would find itself--blossom into the type of entertaining, wonderfully novel action game I associate with computer systems. But it refused to do so, and by the middle of its second stage, it became obvious that it had no desire to change its ways. The game had praiseworthy visual charm, certainly, but it just wasn't any fun. If ever there was a moment when I tried to convince myself that positive momentum might be building, it was surely fleeting; it would only be a matter of seconds before the game would slap me in the face with a baking sheet to remind me of what it was.

Now, I'm quite aware that the Atari ST is home to a number of superior games, and I'm going to find them. And I'm going to cover as many of them as I can on this blog. Believe me when I say that there are good times ahead for the ST and I.

Well, that or I'll unwittingly pick out more games like Rick Dangerous and consequently wind up in a mental ward.

And you know what? That would actually be more fun than playing Rick Dangerous.