1990 Silicon Dreams Games and Movie Reviews: December 2011

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Minesweeper Review and Strategy (on a dare)

(as requested by Foundie)

If you started gaming in the 90s chances are Minesweeper is the first game you got with your brand spanking new Pentium 2 or 3, alongside the standard Windows 95/98 package. If you were like me and didn't have an Internet connection you've probably spent a good few months playing it. That and a few other puzzle games like Breakout or Pinball, or anything I could scrape off the CD that came with PC magazines. 

The premise of Minsweeper is a simple one. You have a board with a number of square tiles and beneath each tile is either a number between one and eight, a blank space or a mine. You click on the tiles either to open them or mark them with a flag which signifies a mine. In addition the blank tiles are usually clustered in groups and if you land on one it will open up all the other blank tiles connected to it, as well as the number tiles that border it (this is important because it provides the beginning of your strategy). If you land on a number tile, that's when the game really starts. The numbers signify the number of mines next to that tile in all four directions and diagonally. If you land on a mine tile the game is over. 

When I started playing I didn't have anyone explain to me what to do, but I quickly figured it out. There's three difficulties and each one presents a larger playing field, so starting with the first one will generally give you a lot of blank tiles and once you open those up it's easy to figure out the rest. 

The main strategy of Minesweeper is to open up a field of blank tiles by clicking randomly and then look for a Number One tile that borders a corner. Naturally if it's a one-tile and all the tiles next to it are open except for one that's where you'll have your mine. So right-click to mark it with a flag and continue onwards. If you have a flag and a one-tile next to it naturally all the other tiles around that tile are safe. Two-tiles work pretty much the same way. Look for a two-tile that borders an edge, if all it's neighbours are open except for two, or if one is closed but the other one is flagged, you know where your mines are. In the same way if a tile has the number eight all of its neighbour tiles are mines. Meanwhile as you're clicking away landing on blank tiles will help you out by opening up additional possibilities to eventually find all the mines on the playing field.

So the first two difficulties of the game are pretty straight forward and you can have some fun trying to beat your best time, but the real deal is the Hard difficulty. The game board is absolutely huge and with no tolerance for mistakes (you have to start over every time you land on a mine) it's going to take you some time to beat it. Very few people I know have actually beaten it and the first time I did I was absolutely thrilled. What makes this one so difficult is that chances are with a field as big as this, you're going to end up in a situation where you simply have to guess which of two or three tiles is a mine. There will be no way of logically telling them apart, and you may be lucky but chances are you won't be (sometimes you may have to guess two or three times). There's a way around this, though. The most important thing to remember when playing Minesweeper on Hard is Always start with opening all four corner tiles. The narrow areas around the corners are exactly the place where the limit of only two directions from where you can attack with the help of the number tiles, results in having to guess on a tile. So take that extra time and blow some mines up until you end up with a game where all four corner tiles are open. Get some practice and you'll be beating Hard difficulty Minesweeper in no time. Then you can brag to your friends, your spouse, or your boss about it and watch them despair over trying to complete even the simplest levels.

With Windows Vista and Windows 7 came a graphically updated Minesweeper, its main disadvantage being the annoying sound every time you open a tile and the lack of the yellow smiley face man from the original Win 95/98. Still the old-school fans of the game can probably find the classic version on-line under Java.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Half-Life review: part 1

These days you can get pretty much anything on Steam. Back in the 90's though our main source of computer games was your run of the mill PC games shop, and even before that we had computer clubs which were nothing more than a garage fitted with desks and eight to ten computers. The 'boss' as we called them would sit at one of the computers and watch movies or browse the web all day, while taking payments of anywhere from 45 cents to 60 cents per hour for each kid that wanted to play the preinstalled games, which numbered from twenty to as little as seven or eight. The 'club' would feature a glass exhibit of the game boxes in one corner, as proof that they were all legitimate copies.

My first experience of Half-Life was in one of those clubs in my neighbourhood. It was as big as a game could be back then with an exciting multi player dominated almost entirely by the Crossfire and Stalkyard levels with the occasional Undertoe. Half-Life made a great impression on me, it was the second FPS game I'd ever played. The first one was Quake 2 which had one of the most memorable level designs, but Half-Life had a sort of feel to it, as if you were in the story, with its long initial ride through the compounds of Black Mesa, the starting levels being an exploration of the lab's inner workings. Before you could kill anything, like in any other First Person Shooter, you could walk around the offices and simply mess with the environment, start and stop the taps in the bathrooms, ruin somebody's microwave meal, jump on top of things, jump on people's heads and in any way annoy the living Hell out of everyone you meet. The selling point of course was getting your HEV suit and heading off to the test chamber, where Half-Life really starts. Before that you may hear a few bits and pieces of conversation overshadowing what's about to happen, and even just before you enter, you witness an electrical board exploding in the face of a couple scientists. After the experiment takes place, there's no doubt that some serious action is waiting for you on the other side of the rubble and smoke, and the whole experience is punctuated not only by the alien invasion from the planet Xen, but by the army trying to silence any witnesses on the site, the special ops, and even various malicious pieces of broken equipment like high powered lasers cutting through the floor and walls, security turrets that have gone into kill-on-site mode, fan blades, broken cables, pieces of the outlying architecture rolling about.

Throughout the whole game there's a sense that nearly everything and everyone is out there to kill you, with the rare exception of your colleagues. And to top it all off most of them are turning into zombies.

The first few levels of the game are your run of the mill laboratory setting, where you're trying to make your way out through a maze of pipes, elevator shafts and corridors, your only weapons being a crowbar, a pistol and later on a shotgun and some grenades. The ammo in the game is sparse owing to the survival-horror atmosphere the game aims at, but if you shoot strait and learn which weapons are most effective against which enemies it shouldn't be a problem to clear through it. The occasional puzzles involve jumping and climbing through the broken lab sections, using buttons to open doors, pushing crates to get to high places, etc. Later on in the game it deviates a bit from the labs into some industrial looking settings, like various access shafts and the final few levels are set in the world of Xen, where you have to face the final boss, which just so happens to be a huge alien baby-like creature with some strange physics-bending powers to hover above the ground, teleport you away from itself and throw balls of energy at you.

The overall Half-Life experience was then that you were completely screwed, something that sort of repeats itself in Half-Life 2, although compared to it, the Half-Life 2 world seems a bit more structured, despite being ran down, with the aliens having settled in and assumed a level of control over the human population. If you've only played the second part of the game, you'd be surprised to find out that the Vertigaunts were not always friendly. In fact in the first game, they are one of the first enemies you meet, and the explanation for their latter conversion is that in the simplest of terms they were about as bewildered to find themselves being teleported en-masse to your world, as you were to find them popping out of the walls and ceilings.

to be continued

1990 Silicon Dreams: Introduction

This blog is about my on-going fascination with computers, which started out with the famous computer clubs in my home town back in the 90's some time before most of us could afford owning a computer in our homes. It is a fascinating, and a bit nostalgic outlook on how technology has come to shape the culture of the world, the way we enjoy our lives, the ways we think about friendships through social media, but mostly how computer games have skyrocketed into one of the largest industries in the world.

From the early days (at least from my time-frame perspective of early) of Blizzard's Lost Vikings, Star Craft, Warcraft and Diablo, the undying cult towards Counter Strike, Quake 3 Arena and Call of Duty, to the present day of next generation gaming with its up-sides and its inherent flaws.

It's a personal story as much as it is a history of the passion for gaming, which ultimately led to my decision to move to study Computer Engineering, but it's more than that a way for me to remember some of the most satisfying and exciting times of my childhood. Hence the 90's will be largely involved, but whenever necessary the topics may overflow into the early years of the 21st century.

At the same time it's an opportunity for me to re-discover gaming, after a solid streak of 4-5 years of playing exclusively World of Warcraft. It'll be a way for me to go back to the games I used to love, most of which had very little to do with graphics or achievements, and a whole lot to do with brilliant story-telling, exciting atmosphere and pure, simple, yet insanely satisfactory gameplay. How many of you remember the first two chapters of the Fallout series or Planescape Torment. How many remember Lego Racer or Disney's Hercules, the 2nd installment of Quake with it's seemingly endless Single Player and excellent Multi Player. And since I've found out in the last few years of grinding levels, raiding and collecting pets, that I myself am starting to forget, I'd like to take this opportunity to remind you and remind myself of why I love gaming.


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