Sunday, November 26, 2006

Ultimate Spin Doctor

Title: Ultimate Spin Doctor
Author: Expert Software?
License: Commercial/Abandoned

Due to a busy Thanksgiving holiday and one too many flights, just a short entry this week.

Despite no updates since January, the best abandoneware website on the Internet is still Home of the Underdogs. It lost its .org domain name this Summer due to a credit card issue and subsequent cybersquatting. Some information about all this is available in the HotU Wikipedia article.

But HotU is back with a .info domain address. I recently ran through their puzzle games and rediscovered Ultimate Spin Doctor. It is a Clockwerx clone/remake for Windows by Expert Software. Now, normally, I don't endorse abandoneware, but Expert Sortware website has been taken over by some other cybersquatter. Ah, the irony. So, if this does not count as abandoned I don't know what does.

Ultimate Spin Doctor is a fun, challenge puzzle game. The game is played on a square grid of dots. The object is to get your spinning clock arm (the yellow one) from the starting dot to ending dot. When the clock arm gets near a neighboring dot, you can pass like a trapeze artist to it and thus work your way through the grid toward your objective.

Of course, there are obstacles. There are enemy clock arms spinning on some dots and mines. There are switches which open doors to pass over. There are teleporter dots. All the usual puzzle game stuff.

Ultimate Spin Doctor comes with 100 levels. The first ten form a nice tutorial. The later levels get tough. If you need a hint or two, a Clockwerx fan put together a walkthrough. There is some timing necessary, but it usually is not too bad. Happy spinning.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Title: rE/Generation
Author: Dream Codex
License: Freeware

A quick nostalgia trip this week. I recently played through a D/Generation remake called rE/Generation. The original D/Gen came out in the early 90s, and I loved it. It was part action game, part adventure game, and part puzzle game, a wonderful hybrid of these various genres.

The best part about D/Gen is the great back story which develops throughout the game. Something has gone wrong at Genoq, a bioweapon developer. You have to rescue the hostages, stop the bioweapons, find out what happened, and save the world . As you work through the rooms and floors, the story is told by the hostages and the computer terminals. It is one of the best stories I have ever seen in a computer game.

The goal of D/Gen is to secure each room. Each contains various baddies to avoid or shoot. There are switches to turn turrets off and toggle force fields. Some doors require special access cards which are usually located in other rooms. You have a gun and sometimes grenades. The game play is actually very simple. Some rooms contain hostages hiding in corners to be rescued. Everytime you reach a hostage, you can talk to them and find out more about what happened. Some rooms contain computer terminals which you can activate and read.

This week's game, rE/Generation, is a remake which came out about two years ago. It is very faithful to the original. A few extra levels were added. Anyone who remembers D/Gen needs to play rE/Gen.

rE/Gen suffers from being an old DOS game converted to Windows. The controls seem outdated, the graphics while better than the original are not great by current standards, and sound is poor. But it is just the way I remember it. So I cannot fault rE/Gen for any of these things.

D/Gen and thus rE/Gen is not a puzzle game, nor is it an action game or adventure games. It is a combination or hybrid, and thus will not appeal to many. Also, it is also a difficult game, but worth it.

There is one bug which I noticed. Clicking on a computer terminal with the Window's mouse in windowed mode, the game freezes. There is also a full screen mode with no mouse cursor.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Lines of Action

Title: Lines of Action
Author: Benjamin Guihaire
License: Freeware

As a young lad, I happened upon a copy Sid Sackson's Gamut of Games in a used book store, a great find. It contains a wonderful collection of rules for abstract strategy games, many described for the first time. One of my favorites from this book is Lines of Action, a simple but deep game invented by Claude Soucie. I subjected my siblings to many games of Lines of Action way back when. I recently remembered the game and went searching for a good computer opponent.

Lines of Action is played on a checker board with twelve pieces a side. The complete rules are available at the Lines of Action Homepage. The goal is to connect all of your pieces. Each turn, one piece is moved horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. The main rule is that the number of spaces a piece can move is equal to the number pieces, friendly and unfriendly, in the row, column, or diagonal of motion. You cannot move over an opponent, but you can land on opponent removing it from the board.

What has always fascinated me about Lines of Action is the lack of an easy heuristic to evaluate positions. Games like chess and checkers have simple material heuristics. One thing you will quickly learn about Lines of Action is that a material advantage is not a good indicator of who is winning. With fewer pieces it is easier to connect them. Some rough guidelines I have learned from playing over the years are that you want to connect your pieces, try to isolate one or more of your opponent's pieces, and keep your piece mobility high. This is all easy to say, but I still do not know how I would go about writing a subroutine to evaluate Lines of Action positions.

It turns out that there are many Lines of Action programs out there. I like Benjamin Guihaire's program the best. It has a simple interface and plays a reasonable game. There are ten skill levels. The easiest level can be beaten without much thought. The middle levels kick my butt, but I do not claim to be a good player. One fun thing about his program is that it includes several alternative starting configurations.

I do have two minor issues with Guihaire's program. First, when the computer wins, I brings up a "black has won" dialogue box before displaying the winning move. Second, clicking on help sends your web browser off to a site which does not exist any more.

Guihaire's program is considered weak compared with some of the best ones out there. Here are a couple of others. Mark Winands' MIA program is one of the strongest in the world and free. I find its interface confusing though. Mark wrote a Master's Thesis on Lines of Action which is worth a read. There are two others offered up by The University of Alberta GAMES Group: Mona and YL. They have a JAVA Applet which proports to allow you play against them online, but always get "Error: Could Not Connect To Server(" after my first move.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Old DOS Games

Remember the days when you had memorized critical information such as SET BLASTER=A220 I5 D1 T4. You had multiple boot disks sitting there next to your computer. One for those extended memory games; another for the emm games. Setting the number of FILES and BUFFERS just right in your config.sys was an art. VGA graphics! Remember the advance that was VESA. Those were the days. The days of DOS.

Here are three throw back puzzle games to those DOS days. All three feature crappy graphics, crappy sounds, no mouse, and excellent puzzles. I found them at DOSGAMES, a fun nostalgia trip for those of us over 35.


All you have to do is make it to the exit at the top. Standing between you and the exit are a collection of boxes and one way gates. Some boxes can be pushed, and others can be pulled. The arrows indicate the direction or directions in which boxes can be moved. 15 levels come for free, others can be purchased. The levels are quite challenging.

Vampiric Tower

In this one, you have to collect all the viles and then make your way to the exit. Of course, you have to avoid getting in the direct line of sight of a pumpkin because they will kill you. There are blocks which can be pushed around to block the glare of those evil pumpkins. When the going gets really tough, you can transform the little girl into a bat and fly over the spikes tiles. Vampiric Tower comes with 50 levels, some of which are pretty tough.


The third game, Spych, actually uses the PC speaker for sound. I finally got to test whether I connected the speaker to the mainboard correctly when I built my computer. The goal in spych is the same as the others: collect all the chips and make it to the exit. There are boxes to be pushed around, doors to be unlocked, and bombs to be defused. Spych has 31 tricky levels.