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Review of Return to Monkey Island.

Look behind you, a new Monkey Island game!

Return to Monkey Island is an adventure game that continues the tales of Guybrush Threepwood from the The Secret of Monkey Island series. By way of background, while I did play some adventure games in my far-gone youth, I didn’t actually play any of the Monkey Island games until a few years ago.

In Return to Monkey Island, Guybrush is finally going after the biggest scurvydog of them all: the secret itself. That old nemesis. Also going for the secret is the ghost-pirate LeChuck. That second old nemesis. But there’s a catch: Guybrush needs a ship, and LeChuck is readying a voyage of his own to that fabled shore.

As expected, the old favorites show up. The tale starts on Mêlée Island (after a brief but fun Gaming-101-plus-framing-tale that sets Guybrush relaying the deed to his young son). Elaine, The Scumm Bar, Stan, the Governor’s Mansion, the Lookout, that weird back alley on high street where you always go when you’re frustrated with a puzzle and need to stop and think, and even Murray the demonic skull.

Art-wise, it is a departure for the series (though if you really want to see a departure, go play the original in CGA-graphics mode). It’s a nice style, both clear and comic. The gameplay art fits the world and feels comfortable, but the closeups really pop. They remind me a bit of The Ren & Stimpy Show, the way they are often gross, exaggerated, but still really fun to look at. (See Ren & Stimpy Wiki: “Gruesome close-ups”.)

The Caribbean-style music and the voice acting are excellent. They really set the mood throughout the game, even if you don’t have any rum handy for grog. The pacing is solid (though you have the option of playing the easier version or the less-paced writer’s version (the latter through the options)). Even the hard version’s extra puzzles weren’t all that hard.

This is a game made by experienced professionals who know what they’re doing when it comes to adventure games, extending a known franchise they created decades ago. That’s the kind of proposition that goes one of two ways. Lucky for Guybrush, and for gamers, this one went the good way.

In all, it took me about 26 hours to beat the game and to get all 39 achievements (a good chunk of which was hunting for trivia cards only to get the questions wrong (How did I get the same question wrong five times when there are only four answers?)). I had a fun time playing, and I think this one is worth a look. (Also, I now know the real secret of Monkey Island. So that’s something.)

Review of EXAPUNKS

Ghast: I can confirm moss is alive.

EXAPUNKS by Zachtronics is a programming game. You play as Moss, an old hand forced to return to cybercrime to afford meds.

The game uses a limited assembly-style language with the ability to do read and write files, communicate with your other programs, navigate networks, and use special hardware registers, depending on the host.

The game provides you with a couple of zines that detail of some of the systems, and which serve as a manual for the language. They are in PDF form, either for printing or for reading on your computer.

Because you’re trespassing, you have to leave no trace in most levels. This means no files sitting around, no programs still running, no deleted files on foreign systems, and so on.

I’m not sure how the average non-programmer would take to this game. Some of the challenges are hard, even for someone like me who knows a bit of computer programming. I’d say that this is a game for programmers first. People who otherwise pick it up might need some help, but that’s okay. You can always learn.

But for a programmer, this is a fun game. Even for the easier levels, you can try to golf (solution with fewest lines of code), or you can try to use the least cycles. For the harder levels, I was happy to get a solution, even if I knew there were more optimal ways that eluded me. And on some of the hardest, I found myself with no choice but to golf to try to get the number of lines within the budget. (You can proceed if you have a working solution over the line budget, but I’m proud to say I was able to get every one under it, eventually.)

Sights and sounds.

As you load the game, a fast-paced techno beat plays, and as you go through the various levels and side games there are nice background loops keeping you company.

Cool music, nice GUI, a general 1990s cyber vibe complete with an IRC window where others talk about the goings on in the world while you lurk. It’s a nice interface that adds a lot of texture to the game. You’re not just doing programming challenges, you’re stepping into this game world and roleplaying as Moss.

The programming UI also has some nice features to it. You can move the coding panel around. Clicking on a file in the network will highlight it on the sidebar so you can see what it contains. The editor lets you select, copy, paste, and highlights a few errors, including jumps to labels that don’t exist.

You can also make copies of your solution to a level or start a new one without overwriting your previous work. That can be handy if you want to golf or you want to do some testing.

About the language and environment.

You have one general-purpose register, a test register (used for conditional jumps), a file register, and a messaging register (with two modes, one for global talk, the other for host-only talk). You can hold one file at a time.

It’s integers only (-9999–9999) and operations that would overflow simply stick at the maximum or minimum. You can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and take the modulus. You can also swiz. Swizzling is something I was unfamiliar with, but given you store four-digit numbers, swizzing is effectively the ability to address each digit:

copy 1776 x
swiz x 14 x    ; x= 61
addi x 200 x   ; x=261
swiz x 234 x   ; x=620

Note that zeros are implied in empty higher digits.

Swiz can let you do some interesting things, like packing four flags into one piece of data.

There are also strings that come into play, but you can never create strings, only copy them from files. Once copied, you can pass them around or test against them, but you can’t manipulate them.

The instructions and registers are limited but adequate. They make the challenge harder, but also make it more rewarding to figure out. (How many times did I want to have a jump-back type instruction, so I could have outright subroutines?!)

You can execute multiple programs (called exas) at once, either by writing separate code for them or by forking off from an existing one to a specific label. They can talk to each other, but only in a broadcast manner. If you want to have multiple conversations going at once, be prepared to write some complex code to manage it. (Mostly better to avoid this complexity!)

Sidegames.

You can make your own game, and you can also make your own programming levels (or play those from others). I made a simple game just to try it, where the screen would fill up one dot at a time, and you pressed the button to try to stop it at a peak. I only briefly looked at some of the levels of other players.

There’s a tetris-ish game called “Hack*Match” where you have to match four-or-more of a kind to clear them. This was fun for a bit, but it has a 100 000 points achievement associated with it. This took me many tries. My natural skill capped out where I could easily get around 40 000 without a sweat, and more if I pushed it or got luckier with the PRNG. I’d get the one-offs in the 70s, and then in the 90s, but 100K was elusive. (I don’t think I ever had a game end in the 80s, oddly.)

And there’s also a solitaire variant (you have to beat it 100 times for the achievement). It’s not that hard, it’s decently fun.

Achievements.

Aside from the five side-game achievements (two for Hack*Match and three for solitaire), there are a number of achievements requiring you to revisit the programming challenges with an eye to doing a different programming challenge in the same space. These weren’t too hard, but are fun little alternatives to do later in the game.


It took me about 100 hours to beat the whole game and get all 16 achievements. Without the solitaire and Hack*Match, I’d guess it was 85 hours. I really enjoyed the programming challenge, and I’d recommend you take a look if you’re decently familiar with coding and want to take on a challenge.

Note, if you’re on Linux you may have a problem running the game. I did. The fix is to add TERM=xterm %command% as the command-line so that it doesn’t try to use an incompatible version of terminfo. Github: Mono: Issue 6752 has some details.

Review: Shapez

Which way should I rotate them?!

I’ve been playing Shapez, a factory game where your raw resources are colors and shapes. There are three primary colors (red, green, and blue), and there are four shape-pieces (circle, square, star, and windmill). Colors are always pure, while some of the sources of shapes are a mixture of two or more quarters of different types (but always a four-quarter shape).

You start with minimal tools, and you unlock additional tools as you complete levels. You also get upgraded versions of tools by meeting delivery quotas for different shapes. But the goal of the game is to make shapes, paint them, and deliver them, all with conveyor belts and the machines you have and make.

As the game plays on, you get more ability and faster tools, but the complexity of the shapes grows with that, until a couple are downright puzzles to figure out how to build.

And after level 26, the shapes asked of you are random, requiring you to build an everything machine to build the shape without rebuilding your whole factory every time. While in the early levels you don’t need to do much wiring, building an everything machine requires a lot of wiring (signals and filters and booleans and inspectors to figure out which pieces are needed by the machine to make the layers and shapes).

As far as achievements go, most are simple enough and obtained through normal play. The hardest is likely to speedrun to level 12, which is a whole other (but probably equal) challenge to the everything machine. The everything machine requires a ton of building and wiring and checking and testing. The speedrun puts you back at the start of the game, and you have to figure out how to do things fast. Everything machines are zen gardening, speedrunning is a hotdog-eating contest.


My own modest tips for the everything machine (assuming the reader has looked into the task already):

  1. Four-color painters with four lanes of every possible color feeding it. You can run those lanes from afar, so that the rest of the factory can be closer to the goal.
  2. Trash filters before and after each step so you can clean up when the requested shape changes.
  3. You can find shape resources that contain all four parts. I used two different ones, but the maps vary. Throw them into four-way cutters and you have the raw materials. One full belt output will require 16 lanes of shape pieces (one per quarter makes four per layer, times four layers maximum).
  4. So you need seven colors times four quarters (28) times four layers: 112 color lanes total.

But it’s mostly a lot of wiring and shame that you didn’t build everything perfect the first time, reworking, figuring out you forgot to add that belt, and so on.


As for the speedrun, it’s tough. A lot of the trouble here is realizing you have to unlearn all those nice tools and upgrades you earned in the main game, because you only get some of them back as you progress through the run.

You need to get upgrades fast as you can, but you’re limited on how far you’ll get in the 30 minutes for the gold medal. You have to balance the immediate level goals with the amount of time they’ll take to complete.

My first attempt was just over an hour (so I only got bronze), but it took practice to keep my wits about me in the early game, staring blankly as I couldn’t copy-paste, couldn’t build how I’m used to. It was a fun challenge.

After maybe ten attempts I got down to just over a half hour, and on my final run I was done building with five minutes to spare. Enough, I thought until I realized I’d forgotten to let enough purple circles through for the next belt upgrade (47 short!), so I frantically tried to beg-borrow-steal them to upgrade as time ticked away, but it didn’t matter. I got there in just under 30 minutes.

A lot of runs fall to small things. Forgetting to set up stars at the start, or forgetting to connect a few belts here or there. Getting tangled up in rotations. But with enough practice, your brain figures all that out, you see what you can reuse, and you can become rather speedy.


I’d heard of factory games, but hadn’t really played them before. I played Spacechem years ago, but it’s a bit different from modern factory games and is more puzzle-oriented.

I’ve enjoyed playing. It takes some learning, but the level progression is good at teaching you step-by-step, and outside of the speedrun (and maybe the everything machine) it’s not too hard to get the hang of.

On the whole it took me about 74 hours to finish the game (through level 101) and get all 45 achievements. I enjoyed my time playing, so if you want to try a factory game, give this one a look.