Faster Than Light


Entirely by accident, I discovered a game called Faster Than Light (FTL) while I was making my weekly perusal through the library over at Great Old Games. Because I like spaceships and bright shiny stars, I was instantly intrigued. Without really taking the time to learn a whole lot about the game, I went ahead and made the purchase. At $9, I didn’t feel like I had to get much return on my investment. After having sunk roughly a billion hours into FTL since that purchase, I’ve subsequently learned that FTL was funded by Kickstarter (another rousing success story! Go Kickstarter!), is actually new, despite having been on Great Old Games, and there was some buzz before it came out that I literally can’t believe that I didn’t hear even a single whisper about. I guess I haven’t been reading enough blogs after all.

My embarrassment over this game being news to me is a side issue, however. I have played Faster Than Light. Extensively. Allow me to tell you how it is, so you can decide whether that daunting $9 price point is worth it for you.

It’s great! Go buy it!

Well, alright. Let’s start with the premise. FTL is a Roguelike that stars you as the commander of a lone Federation starship with vital intelligence on the Rebel armada which you need to hustle across seemingly the entire galaxy to return to the last Federation fleet before they’re stomped by the aforementioned Rebels. Going against space type, we’re not rooting for the Rebels this time, as they are brutal, corrupt, jerks. On your journey, your ship will pick up space scrap which is used as currency. You need as much of this currency as possible in order to upgrade your single cruiser’s capabilities (the possibilities for this are extensive, including eight main ship systems, three subsystems, up to four weapon slots and three drone slots, three ‘augmentation’ slots for special systems, and your crew itself which starts small but can be expanded and include powerful alien species. So yeah.) You will need to upgrade your systems if you want to survive the long trek to the Federation fleet, and even more so if you intend to successfully defeat the final boss located there.

Your advance across the galaxy is star by star across multiple ‘sectors’ of space, with the Rebel armada in pursuit all the while, seeking to bring you down before you can bring your vital information to the Federation. Each star contains a random event, which can range from absolutely nothing, to running laser gun battles in asteroid fields, nebulae, or near stars that are experiencing solar flares. Suffice to say, given the random generation and the large range of customization options, no trek across the stars is ever exactly the same. Add in the fact that the game ultimately features about twenty unique ships each with its own unique interior layout and a unique starting loadout (some of which are much stronger than others) and you have a game that you can sink a great deal of time into.

The primary things that you, as a player, will need to do include managing your crew (crew members can be assigned to ‘man’ your ship systems. They can also be moved around to repair damaged systems, fight shipboard fires, repair hull breaches, board enemy craft, or repel boarders against your own), battling enemy ships with your craft’s weapons, drones, and boarding parties, and purchasing new upgrades and equipment to create a load-out that you feel like can go the distance. Finding combinations of weapons and special systems that work well for you is a big part of the game, and the only way that you will ultimately be able to experience any success against the final boss – an extremely difficult encounter, particularly if you are not prepared for it.

The downside for some players will be the difficulty. Faster Than Light is not an easy game. Not by a long shot. For those unfamiliar with Roguelikes, runs of horrific luck leading to catastrophe and death are incorporated by design. It is not a “problem” with the game that you might encounter a series of random events with no way out that lead to your ship exploding in the very first sector, or right before your confrontation with the boss. Death is deadly. There aren’t save points, folks, you’re back to the start if you go down in flames. This is, again, by design. It is not a “problem”, but it could be a reason why you would prefer not to play the game. So if the difficulty thing doesn’t appeal to you – and I didn’t even mention a learning curve that’s somewhat difficult to quantify – Faster Than Light may not be entirely to your liking. Of course, you may end up addicted anyway, and end up on a spiral of increasing frustration. I don’t personally recommend that path, but it’s your mouse to break, as they say.

The graphics “look like a flash game” as I’ve been told, which I suppose is true enough, but the game has spot-on sound effects and an excellent environmental music score that provides exactly the right touch of ambiance while you play. I found the graphics adequate, if nothing to rave about, and there’s something charming about the presentation, which is reminiscent of older video games and tugs at my nostalgia strings in a way that I find appealing. I definitely find myself recommending the game, even freely acknowledging that it may not be for everyone. After all, what game is?

For those who are interested, you can acquire FTL off of its official website or on Steam. You can also purchase the DRM-free version on GOG, but this version is only available for Windows platforms. Regardless, of where you get it, the game will be $9 until the sale price ends, after which it will price out at a whopping $10. So, act now, or whatever.

Which Way Forward For The “Batman” Movie Franchise ? Take Five : Should It Stay Or Should It Go? Part One

It’s funny how life works, isn’t it? Three weeks ago I said I’d be back here in a week to continue this series on how I think the Batman film franchise should be relaunched, and that week off became two, became three — anyway, I apologize, but I’m back. I could bore you with the usual litany of excuses as to why my absence was longer than expected, all of which are, in this case, true — busy at work, lots of shit going on outside of work, etc., but I’ll spare you all that (whoops!, guess I sort of subjected you to them in an off-handed manner already), and simply say for those of you who actually look forward to these little rants of mine, I sincerely apologize for the delay.

That being said, not all my time between posts has been wasted. For example, I had the good fortune to purchase, and subsequently read, an excellent little book by one Dr. Julian Darius, published under the auspices of his own imprint, Sequart Literacy & Research Organization, called Improving The Foundations : Batman Begins From Comics To Screen that’s set me to thinking about all this shit in a far more serious and cohesive manner than I had before.

Darius’ little tome essentially tracks back all the various threads that went into Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and while the whole book makes for some pretty fascinating reading, I have to admit that the stuff I found most interesting was in the section that covered the various version of Batman that didn’t make it to the big (and small) screens in the period between Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin debacle and Nolan’s first flick. I won’t rehash any of it here because I honestly want folks who are interested to read Darius’ book, as well as to support Sequart because they’re a fine bunch of folks, but I will say this much — reading through all that has given me a much better understanding of what won’t work when the time comes to relaunch Batman on celluloid and, more importantly perhaps, why it won’t work.

All of which brings me, rather neatly, full-circle in terms of where I’d been intending to take this series of posts anyway. I promised this next segment would deal with the elements I’d keep from the Nolan series, but before I delve into the nitty-gritty of the details, which I’ll do tomorrow, let me just state for the record the one overarching philosophical approach practiced by Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer that I would most definitely stick with : a “scattershot,” pick-n’-choose approach to adapting/borrowing material from the comics and reformulating all these disparate elements into a version that works best for cinema.

While a more literalist approach to translating the Dark Knight’s origins to the silver screen would have been to say “let’s just do a pretty faithful adaptation of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman : Year One” — an approach the studio even tried by bringing in Miller himself to write a treatment based on his comic — the Nolan/Goyer tandem was happy to borrow some of the best, or at least best-suited-for-cinematic-adaptation, elements not only from Year One, but from the old 1970s Batman stories by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, from the previously-discussed-in-these-parts Batman : The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, and even from Miller’s legendary, though-in-no-way-an-origin-story Batman : The Dark Knight Returns. And as the Nolan bat-series wore on, they continued this approach of borrowing liberally from disparate periods of the Caped Crusader’s history and adapting the stuff they were grabbing to better suit their overall vision (Bane certainly didn’t start out as a vigilante for the 99% crowd, for instance — he was just a typical 1990s ripped-on-‘roids villain in a wrestling mask).

So even more than any particular plot details, I think the most valuable lesson whoever Warners hires to helm the next chapter in the Caped Crusader’s cinematic exploits can take from Nolan is this overall “take what you want and put it all together in whatever way suits you best” approach. Details matter, to be sure, and we’ll delve into those a bit more tomorrow, but for the time being, since I promised to be almost painstakingly focused/ incremental here, I just wanted to set the stage beforehand by saying that approach is one that I think by and large served the last Bat-trilogy well, at least in terms of overall concept if not always in its execution, and that I can think of no coherent reason to chuck it overboard and go for a more “this must be just like the comics” approach that’s only going to make die-hard, long-time readers of Batman’s adventures on the printed page happy while alienating pretty much anyone and everyone else. And on that note, I’ll save the rest for tomorrow’s (I promise!) installment.

VGM Entry 52: Tim Follin’s Legacy

VGM Entry 52: Tim Follin’s Legacy
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The end of the NES era did not mark the end of the NES. Games would continue to appear on the system all the way up to February 1994, with Wario’s Woods (Nintendo) constituting the final licensed game for the system. Neil Baldwin was not the only classic chiptune artist to find refuge in the persistence of outdated systems. The underdog hero of my video game music series, Tim Follin, rode the third generation of gaming out to its end as well.

What’s more, the late transition of C64 chiptune artists to the NES brought out all kinds of amazing features on the system that were never realized during the system’s heyday. I did Tim Follin a terrible disservice by skipping over Silver Surfer (Arcadia Systems, 1990) for the Nintendo and Magic Johnson’s Basketball (Arcadia Systems, 1990) for the Commodore 64, having not really discovered either until it was too late to include them, but it’s not too late to touch on his 1991 masterpieces.

Treasure Master (American Softworks, December 1991) initially picks up right where Pictionary left off, and in this game you can really experience the climax of Follin’s NES pursuit, wherein groovy jam tracks took the place of progressive rock as a focal point. Just as Follin’s Commodore 64 works made a clean break from his original ZX Spectrum style, his NES compositions matured into a sound all of their own.

It’s not that prog elements were a thing of the past; Follin’s quintessential sound persists across every platform, and Treasure Master has its fair share. But on no two systems did he ever sound quite the same. He was ever and always a musician to place the system at the heart of the composition. It’s something I was criticizing other musicians for failing to do long before he was ever on my radar, and soundtracks like Treasure Master are vibrant proof of just how significant this sort of compositional mindset could be. This is the antithesis of Nobuo Uematsu’s eternally reinterpritable works; it is inconceivable in any other medium.

I don’t recall whether I actually made the observation before or simply thought it to myself, but I am inclined to believe that a lot of chiptune musicians struggled and faded away in the fourth generation because the lack of severe restrictions forced them to completely redefine their vision of what video game music should be. They were fundamentally musicians first and composers second, and the SNES, with its bountiful possibilities, simply could not function as an instrument. It was a means to an end, not an end itself, and that requires a whole different assortment of talents. Tim Follin struggled on the SNES, perhaps for the first time in his career. It’s no small triumph that he (and his brother Geoff, who likely contributed far more to the ‘Follin sound’ than I give him credit for) did ultimately overcome the challenge with Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge and Plok, which I will get to soon enough.

The majority of Tim Follin’s SNES works leave something to be desired however, and with the extraordinary exception of Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future (Sega, 2000) for the Dreamcast, he would never really thrive as a video game composer again after the mid-90s. Suffice to say Tim Follin’s real glory days ended in 1991.

At least he went out with a bang. Gauntlet III (US Gold, 1991) was to be his final Commodore 64 title. Composed in collaboration with Geoff, it carried on in the spirit of Ghouls’n Ghosts.

A history of the development of Follin’s sound would make for an interesting mini-series all of its own. There’s certainly no linear progression to it, and I couldn’t pretend to establish one without ignoring quite a few games which defy conformity. (Even the suggestion that his NES soundtracks were inseparable from the system he wrote them for was a minor stretch if we consider similarities between Pictionary and Magic Johnson’s Basketball.) But the title theme to Gauntlet III most certainly follows from “Level 5” in Ghouls’n Ghosts, and trace signs of this thematic approach can, I think, be heard in the in-game theme from Black Lamp (Firebird, 1988) and the title theme from ChesterField: Challenge to Dark Gor (Vic Tokai, 1988). I make the observation to establish that this sound was emerging prior to Follin’s direct interaction with the original Ghouls’n Ghosts score by Tamayo Kawamoto. His outstanding cover of Level 2 aside, the C64 port shares little in common with the arcade music.

At any rate, that was only the title screen. Gauntlet III was one of those rare exceptions to the Commodore 64 rule of putting your best effort on the loader. To that credit goes the character select screen.

Was Tim Follin’s final C64 composition also his best? It’s definitely a contender. Gauntlet III lacked the quantity delivered in Ghouls’n Ghosts–I gather the actual gameplay was silent, though I’ve not been able to confirm this–but the quality is impeccable.

Tim Follin spent 1989 through 1991 breaking every mold and defying every standard ever set for what may well be considered the finest system in the history of video game music, and in so doing made his name inseparable from the final pages of the Commodore 64 legacy. Having simultaneously done the same thing for the Nintendo, and having single-handedly defined the ZX Spectrum as a system capable of a unique sound independent from both powerhouse competitors, he may well be rightly regarded as the most accomplished musician of the third generation era.

It’s a shame his time with the Amiga 500 was so brief. Underwhelming in comparison to the Ghouls’n Ghosts port, Tim and Geoff’s Amiga Gauntlet III music suffers merely from a lack of sound quality. I have been unable to find any copy of this song that delivers with the depth and clarity of Ghouls’n Ghosts, but I suspect this is more a consequence of a low bit rate in its modern conversion than a flaw in its original form. The bagpipes do seem to clash with the rest of the song from 1:40 on, but I’d rather not pass judgement until I’ve heard a higher quality recording. In any case, Follin was showing no signs of relenting on the Commodore Amiga, and it was surely decisions beyond his control at Software Creations that ultimately tied him into a Super Nintendo track from 1992 on.