Stonekeep, PC

Stonekeep is a strange first-person Role-Playing Game, developed and published by Interplay Productions in 1995.

I say “strange” because Stonekeep comes from a time when developers were looking for any excuse to inject some full-motion video into their games, and Stonekeep uses digitised video quite a lot, and it now looks very dated. Actually, Stonekeep uses two very dated graphical techniques to create the world you’re exploring – the second technique being Silicon Graphics-rendered graphics (the first being the aforementioned digitised video technique, a la Mortal Kombat). It’s the clash of the bad graphics techniques…

The way the digitised video has been used in the game means that a lot of the characters and monsters in it look kinda like pantomime villains… Well I felt like I was playing a pantomime fantasy game with Stonekeep… The visual style of this game reminds me of that TV show, Knightmare – the one that superimposed live actors over painted fantasy backdrops… That’s what they tried to do with this game – film people in costumes and incorporate them into a Role-Playing Game… And the end result is a bit of a weird mess!

In spite of the outdated presentation Stonekeep plays excellently. Movement is quick and simple, and is tile-based. A journal keeps track of quests, items, maps, stats and available spells (which are cast using runes inscribed on wands). Combat is real-time; similar to that seen in the mighty Dungeon Master. Quests and puzzles are fairly simple – mostly unblock a route or kill a bad guy – although there are a few surprises along the way that take Stonekeep beyond the merely ‘generic’.

I wouldn’t say that Stonekeep is a ‘solid gold classic’, but I would recommend that RPG fans give it a try. Or even better: play it to the later stages at least, because that’s where it gets more interesting. That said: if you have a low tolerance for goblins, faeries, and ice queens then maybe this game isn’t for you…

Stonekeep is a game that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and does have its moments, even though the story and setting are a little trite. Don’t let me put you off though – Stonekeep plays nicely in DOSBox and is cheap on GOG.com and is well worth adding to the collection.

More: Stonekeep on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Stonekeep on GOG.com

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Game Boy Advance

Released in Japan in 2004 and everywhere else in 2005, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap was developed by Capcom and Flagship, with Nintendo overseeing the project. The result is: a fantastically fun handheld adventure game, with beautiful 2D graphics and captivating gameplay.

In The Minish Cap, Link makes friends with a talking, magical cap that guides him into a world of monsters and miniaturisation. A miniature race of people, no less, called The Minish. And – as Link explores and makes progress in the game – his powers increase, as does his arsenal of weapons and tools. Just like in every other Zelda game. And – just like every other Zelda game – The Minish Cap is packed with new ideas and game mechanics that make it a joy to play. The ‘Gust Jar’ is one such example: stand on a floating lilypad and shoot it in the opposite direction to which you want to travel.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the look of The Minish Cap. It has the visual appeal of something like A Link To The Past, but with a unique Capcom twist to it. The Minish Cap is a procession of beautifully-drawn (and incredibly colourful) pixel art, from start to finish, and really shows what the GBA is capable of.

Gameplay-wise: there’s little to fault. There are enough dungeons, puzzles, boss fights, and side quests to keep you going for days. Weeks even – depending on how much you like to take your time.

As Zelda games go, I would put The Minish Cap up there with the best of the 2D adventures. It’s a must-play if you like cute and colourful exploration games.

More: The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap on Wikipedia

100 Best Level-Grinders Of All-Time on thekingofgrabs.com

100 Best Level-Grinders Of All-Time

Shining The Holy Ark, Sega Saturn

A direct follow-up to the classic Megadrive game, Shining in the Darkness, and arguably the best level-grinder on the Sega Saturn, the awkwardly-titled Shining the Holy Ark is a superb first-person, party-based RPG with turn-based combat.

Developed by Sega‘s own Sonic! Software Planning team, Shining the Holy Ark was published in 1997 and is a mix of 3D and 2D graphics. The environments are made of simple 3D polygons, and all the characters are animated using 2D graphics (by the looks of it: possibly rendered on a high-end 3D workstation). Like most “Dungeon Master clones”, you explore tunnels patrolled by belligerent monsters and can step from tile to tile on the map using the joypad. Unlike Dungeon Master: you don’t really get to see the monsters in the distance before they attack you. Just like in Shining in the Darkness: when you step on certain tiles, scripted battles will take place – usually with the combatants sidling-in from the side of the screen, as if to surprise you. The direction the enemies arrive on-screen to fight you is crucial to the gameplay because you can use ‘pixies’ to counter your opponents before the battle starts – that is: if you get the direction right when you counter. Random battles also happen from time to time and the direction thing also applies. Combat is icon-driven, but very easy to understand. You can fight, run, and do all the usual stuff, and you choose your commands from a series of pulsating icons (which are very similar to those seen in a later game: Golden Sun, developed by Camelot Software Planning).

The story in Shining the Holy Ark isn’t anything to write home about. Like most games of this type: dialogue and situations are simple and a bit dumb, but that doesn’t really matter because the game is both extremely playable and very challenging. Like the original Shining in the Darkness, Shining the Lost Ark is tough. You can forget trying to complete any of the dungeons in one visit. The tactic that saves you is in using an Angel Wing, or a Return Spell, to warp back to town to heal-up. Then go back in. Thankfully there’s a very nice automap feature (brought up by pressing Start) when you’re actually in the dungeons, which helps make exploring fun and not confusing.

I hadn’t played Shining the Holy Ark until recently, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m a big fan of the original Shining in the Darkness, and this is a perfect continuation in many respects. Graphically, it’s a little dated (it’s those pre-rendered character graphics that date it), but gameplay-wise it has survived the rigours of time extremely well and is very much worth playing now; if you can find a copy. If you like JRPGs this is a must-play game.

More: Shining the Holy Ark on Wikipedia

Zany Golf, Atari ST

Zany Golf was released by Electronic Arts in 1988. It originated on the Apple IIGS but was quickly ported to 16-bit computers, including this fine Atari ST version.

Zany Golf is a crazy golf simulator, with simple controls and complex courses. Up to four players can compete at once.

You make a shot by left clicking and dragging on the ball, then letting go of the button. If you’re skilled (and lucky) the ball will go where you want it to go. Invariably, though, things do go astray…

There are nine holes – plus a bonus hole – in total. Some holes have weird animated objects on them (like the iconic giant hamburger) which you have to deal with, and some have special abilities (like the magic carpet, which allows some control of the ball with the mouse). You have a limited number of strokes per hole, but can pick up extra by touching fairies or hitting certain other targets. Getting to the ninth hole can be quite an achievement.

Zany Golf is a classic physics-based golf/maze game. I have fond memories of playing it back in the day, and still find it fun to play now.

More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zany_Golf

Vagrant Story, PlayStation

Vagrant Story is an action/RPG released by Square in 2000 for the PlayStation.

Some people rate it as one of Square‘s best games of all time. Which is saying something.

It’s an adventure with swords and magic, comic book cut scenes, and an excellent turn-based combat system. In Vagrant Story, when you attack something, you can choose which part of the enemy to hit (head, arms, legs, etc.), making for more tactical combat than your average level-grinder.

Stylistically, Vagrant Story is also a cut above the rest. Everything from character modelling, to level design, to interface, to typography is beautifully realised. Presentation throughout is wonderful. Anyone lucky enough to get to play this game will have a treat from start to finish. Unless you’re one of the unlucky few who won’t get on with combat system.

Almost 20 years old now this game! How time flies…

More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagrant_Story