Tag Archives: dungeons & dragons

FGC #480 Three Dirty Dwarves

DWARVES!We judge videogames by many criteria. Graphics? Inevitably important. Sound & Music? That is a must. Story? That has become vital in much of today’s gaming scene (except when it’s a fighting game). Presentation? Sheer volume of glitches? And, of course, gameplay is the king, as, if you can’t enjoy playing the game, why is it even a game at all? Without even checking the latest Gamepro ranking scale (that’s still a thing, right?), you can easily envision a hundred criteria for “what makes a good game”.

So where does “personality” fit in there? How much should we weigh a game’s personality against its other flaws?

Today’s featured title is Three Dirty Dwarves for the Sega Saturn. Never heard of it? It was also ported to Windows PC and… nothing else. Does that help? No? Okay, we’re talking about a beat ‘em up that was released for the Sega Saturn the same year we saw the likes of Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64. Yes, it seems other games stole Three Dirty Dwarves’ spotlight, and, if we’re being honest, people probably only remember a maximum of four unique titles from the Sega Saturn on a good day. Three Dirty Dwarves was not an arcade port, it did not star Sonic the Hedgehog or Sarah Bryant, and it wasn’t a game that saw every other system of the era. This was a game that was (almost) exclusive to the Sega Saturn from the same company that gave us Ecco the Dolphin and Kolibri. Let’s face it: Three Dirty Dwarves was never going to be as remembered as Tiny Tank: Up Your Arsenal.

This sucksAnd the gameplay of Three Dirty Dwarves doesn’t do the title any favors, either. It’s a beat ‘em up, but with a very unusual health/failure system. Venturing through a mutated version of The Bronx, you control one of the titular Three Dirty Dwarves. And, while 3DD firmly belongs to a genre that traditionally requires things like health bars and variations on the concept of “chip damage”, these dwarves all “die” after one hit. It doesn’t matter if it was a bite from a rat, a punch from a random mook, or some manner of meteoric fireball: everything will knock out your dwarf du jour with a single tap. But there’s still hope! As long as one dwarf remains, he can hit an unconscious dwarf with his melee attack, and we’re back in business! This means you simultaneously are constantly vulnerable and have infinite lives (in all modes save hard mode, incidentally). When you’re halfway through a level and have two dwarves down, the raw panic and drive in attempting to save your fellow warriors leaves an impression, and is an interesting spin on typical beat ‘em up formulas (a distinctive health system similar to another Sega hero). Unfortunately, that revive panic is mostly caused because your dwarves fall way too quickly, and a new monster on the screen often has equal odds on being surmountable or instantly vaporizing your entire party with the cheapest deaths possible. Did I mention you barely have any invincibility frames after losing a dwarf? Because that can lead to more than a few game overs.

And the basic beat ‘em up gameplay isn’t all that amazing here, either. You’ve got your dwarves, and they all have a melee attack, or a long-range attack that (depending on the dwarf involved) either has a long windup or cool-down period. There are also screen-clearing attacks that… clear… the screen… yeah… but require found consumables to use. Ultimately, the gameplay winds up being pretty similar to what you’d find in another game featuring at least one dwarf, and, as far as the level-to-level of battling, there isn’t much of an improvement here over a game that was released at the tail end of the 80s.

The pit bossOn a basic, “is this game good” level, an initial review would be very negative. It’s a beat ‘em up with extremely fragile beat ‘em uppers, and the occasional platforming or puzzle-esque segment is rarely welcome. It’s not a very good game, even by the more lenient standards of the late 20th century. This is not a game that should have ever come before Mario Kart 64, Super Mario RPG, or some other 1996 videogame that probably includes Mario.

But, when you get past the gameplay having its share of issues, the sheer volume of personality exuding Three Dirty Dwarves is immeasurable.

First of all, for a beat ‘em up, there is a seriously bonkers story happening here. Long (very long!) story short: a quartet of kids were grown in a lab for the express purpose of becoming genius military weapons. Or creating military weapons with their genius? Small distinction there, I suppose. Regardless, the kids are not happy with their test tube origins and eternal imprisonment, so they decided to put their amazing brainpower toward escaping. Rather than create some manner of bad key machine, the children looked toward interdimensional/interfictional travel. See, the four children play a D&D-esque game, and the dungeon master (dungeon mistress, in this case) figures out a way to pull the three other children’s roleplay avatars into the real world. Now the three dirty dwarves that were previously imaginary are in the real world and ready to save the moppets that created them. But oh no! The process also sucked all the orcs and dragons that existed in the game to the real world, too, so it’s not like the dwarves are going to have an easy time making it to the evil military’s child prison. And, of course, the military has its own collection of other, generally malevolent science experiments. And this all happens in The Bronx for some reason, so maybe watch out for some of the more malicious New Yorkers of the late 90s. Rudy Giuliani was mayor. It wasn’t a great time.

Ninja!And, while we’re talking about the monsters the dwarves have to face, let’s note that the bestiary of Three Dirty Dwarves is large and in charge. Even the best beat ‘em ups seem to collect three or five archetype characters (fat guy, skinny guy, medium guy, robot), and then repaint them across seven levels. There is variety in how some opponents may block or gain new weapons, but you’re still obviously fighting the same Two P. sprites. Three Dirty Dwarves still has standard mooks, but it offers new and interesting monsters with practically every level. The junkyard stage includes gigantic scrap mechs, while the military industrial complex offers psychic babies. And the general streets of New York may include everything from unruly police officers to naked ninja. Come to think of it, the ninja may be cops, too, it’s just hard to tell without the uniforms…

And the whole thing, from the dwarfs to their opponents to animated cutscenes, is tied together with a very unique art style. It seems like the greatest influence here would have to be Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and his iconic Rat Fink, but the whole affair gives the vibe that tattoo artists decided to make their own videogame. Could you describe the graphics as “good” in the traditional sense? Probably not, as much of what’s on display looks like it originated MS Paint, and not the console that was meant to defeat the Playstation. But it oozes personality, and I can safely say it doesn’t look like a single other game on the Sega Saturn (and not just because there are like six other Saturn games). And while we’re being superficial, the music is also wholly unique. It might not sound like anything else from this era of gaming (it leans surprisingly heavily on hip hop beats), but it slaps. It slaps but good.

Oh, and there’s a level where you fight a dragon with a wrecking ball. That’s rarely seen elsewhere, too.

Let's go!But personality or no, Three Dirty Dwarves comes down to one basic truth: it’s not all that fun to play. You might relish seeing a lady wielding duct tape as a weapon, or an inexplicable minecart level that is equally inexplicably passable, but it all works out to a game that feels more like a chore than a fun time. You’re interested in seeing what crazy thing happens next, but actually getting through a level is a stressful task.

So how should we rank personality when grading a game? It’s hard to say, but it is easy to say that Three Dirty Dwarves needs a better gameplay score to balance its personality score.

And, hey, if it had as much fun gameplay as it did personality, it might actually have been more remembered than Mario.

… Or at least it would be remembered at all.

FGC #480 Three Dirty Dwarves

  • System: Sega Saturn and a Windows version that I’m sure exists somewhere, forgotten, in the back room of a former Electronics Boutique.
  • Number of players: Three! There was apparently a Sega Saturn multitap! It was probably intended for Bomberman!
  • Favorite Dwarf: Of Corthag, Taconic, and Greg, I choose Corthag, as he’s apparently the only dwarf that decided to pick up a firearm. Greg has baseballs! Baseballs! At least Taconic went with a bowling ball. That worked out for The Simpsons.
  • Favorite Boss: Man of a Thousand Swords was “once a mild-mannered salesman from Jersey City” who collected one sword too many. Considering I always feared that would be my fate if I got into weapon collecting, I’m going to sympathetically give him the nod.
  • Tank policeIt’s All a Game: The fact that the dwarves are just the RPG avatars of the kidnapped kids rarely comes up (you can collect dice, at least), save during the ending, when the children have to roll to “control” the dwarves’ inclination toward following the bad guy for wealth and power. Considering that tabletop gaming was still extremely niche back in the late 90’s, saving this bit of nerdity for the ending seems apropos.
  • Did you know? Corthag’s favorite movie is listed as Porky in Wackyland. That’s a seven minute short! That’s not a movie! You stupid dwarf!
  • Would I play again: Maybe if there were some revised version that made everything less… stressful. The way the dwarves die so quickly is terrible on some of the longer levels, and I have no time nowadays to deal with a game where I could lose valuable minutes of my life. Unfortunately, I don’t see a remake anytime soon…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mega Man ZX Advent! It’s time for the reign of the Mega Men! Please look forward to it!

This looks familiar
This looks like a 70’s Garfield Special, and I am here for it.

FGC #169 Venetica

hardcoreIt seems like Dungeons and Dragons is making a comeback of sorts in modern pop culture. Maybe my outlook is just skewed because of my recent viewing habits, but both Stranger Things (with a group of kids playing D&D as the story’s quasi-framing device) and Harmon Quest (featuring Dan Harmon and friends live playing a game of legally not-D&D) made the table-top RPG an indispensible part of their narratives. Combine this with many different shows (not only ones helmed by Harmon) making chance references to Gygax’s brainchild as casually as one might mention a football game, and I want to say that D&D has finally begun to occupy the same cultural subconscious space as the Olympics or… I’m sorry, I’ve run out of sports-I-know. Soccer? Isn’t that just football again?

But while D&D might be reclaiming its space in the national consciousness, it has always been a part of videogame DNA. Final Fantasy 1 clearly owes a lot to the TRPG, up to and including at least one copyright blurring Beholder. I don’t need to remind everyone that Final Fantasy somehow became one of the most resilient pillars of the videogame coliseum, and that all started when a rote D&D campaign comingled with some Miyazaki imagery. And maybe some time travel? That franchise has always disguised plagiarism with convolution. Given games like Final Fantasy and Ultima inspired their own generation(s) of imitators, it’s not hard to draw a line from Wild Arms, Lunar, or even Mass Effect straight back to the days of dual-wielding elf wizards rolling for initiative.

Screw Tolkien, Gygax is the true father of Fantasy Europe.

But this isn’t a blog extolling the virtues of tabletop gaming, it’s a videogaming blog (and, besides, if I wanted to talk about good TRPGs, I’d hit Shadowrun or Paranoia, because I like to watch insanity happen). As such, I’m a lot more likely to elucidate how gaming has greatly diverged from its table top origins, and calling something like Fable a “digital D&D campaign” is reductive at best and outright wrong at worst. In any given videogame there are so many moving parts, so many options for interesting storytelling, and a million flags/tricks that no dungeon master could ever hope to so masterfully control. Even going back to Final Fantasy 1, YOU R DEADthe sheer volume of random encounters (which many consider to be the true meat of a JRPG) in that game could never be possible outside of a twenty year D&D campaign. So go ahead and toss that whole job system if you think Final Fantasy 5 could be done justice with pencil and paper. In short, D&D and its ilk likes to imagine itself as some be-all, end-all originator of the JRPG and WRPG market, but, in truth, it’s just a springboard, the Neanderthal to (video)gaming’s Modern Man.

Well, except Venetica. Venetica is a D&D campaign. And not a very good one.

Like a lot of lame D&D campaigns, Venetica has a deceptively interesting hook. You play the part of Scarlett, a typical medieval villager who experiences one bad night when raiders burn her hometown to the ground, murder her fiancée, and slightly tear her nightdress. The next morning, she grabs an S&M outfit from the local blacksmith, and sets off to avenge or maybe revive her lost love. Along the way, she finds out she’s the daughter of Death, which is apparently an inherited position, and it’s her job to wield the Venetica blade of doom and save the world from a necromancer that is up to no good. Oh! And she can enter the Realm of the Dead, which… is just an easy way to pass through walls. I mean, it looks kinda cool…

Unfortunately, the cool ends right about there. I purchased Venetica for a whole five bucks at a close-out sale, and I’m pretty sure that price was more than double the budget for this game. Alright, look, I try to be fair with any given videogame that came out past about 1996, because I know nothing happens by accident in the videogame world, and it takes gaggles of people just to get three human models out the door… but… geez this game is bad. Like, the opening cinematic, the first thing you see, involves voice acting and animation that wouldn’t score a passing grade in an Introduction to Game Design course. I mean, a crazy cult leader or whatever shouts, “Silence!” and the previous speaker just goes on gabbing before haphazardly cutting off. YuckIt’s… sad. This continues right through the introduction of the game, which involves some of the stiffest animation this side of a retirement home, and sieging soldiers that seem to be only capable of light shuffling. Our heroine can perform limited swordplay and dodge-rolling, but, other than that, she’s stuck in this same brittle-boned world as everyone else, so don’t expect any amazing cartwheels or (God forbid) jumping.

But it’s the clumsy plotting and dialogue that really gets my attention. It’s a game like Venetica that really shows how much effort goes into a Final Fantasy or Fable. Like in those (good) games, there are a number of townspeople milling about, and they’ve got problems and sidequests galore. That’s typical, but what’s atypical is how every sidequest person is… obvious. Even going back to earlier days of JRPGs, you might encounter some fellow who is walking around complaining about a dragon eating his pants or some such thing, and, lo and behold, he’ll give you his last angora sweater if you go and slay that flying lizard. In Venetica land, however, we’ve got that same guy milling about, and he’s just like, “Yo, girl or whatever, you wanna slay a dragon?” like some kind of medieval themed drug dealer. Multiply that by entire towns of the same thing, and, well, I have a hard time saying Venetica is immersive.

And what’s more, there’s a morality system. Now, we’ve all joked about “save the baby or eat the baby” choices in games like Bioshock, but, like the sidequest mechanisms, it’s about as subtle as a 2×4 to the brainpan here. The literal first choice you’re given in this game is “I want to revive my boyfriend” or “I want vengeance.” This continues almost to the point of parody, complete with a choice between giving a house to a man who wants to turn the place into an orphanage, and another man who is going to sell the house for liquor ‘n whores (incidentally, I chose the liquor/whores guy, he had better hair). With nonsense like that, I’d think this game was a farce from moment one (or maybe a deliberate videogame equivalent of a poorly acted/funded school play), but Venetica seems to take its absolute absurdity completely seriously, despite the fact that (presumably) actual human beings made this game. Was this game made on a dare? Was it coded single handedly by some Make a Wish kid? I’m going to feel really bad if that’s the answer!

DIE IN A FIRE

But, in my head, it all comes back to D&D. I’ve seen this before. I’ve actively participated in this before. Ever play D&D? Okay, ever play D&D with that one friend, and he’s the dungeon master, and he doesn’t care about people having fun in his basement (inevitably his basement), all he cares about are the stats, and the rolls, and making sure the party stays “on point” and doesn’t wander off from this important quest that he put together? And anyone that tries to “distract” from the plan, like, say, by playing an ever-singing bard dwarf who can’t swing his mighty axe (mjwang) without tossing off a little ditty first, is immediately chastised for trying to disturb this grand event? We are fighting for to restore the glory of Death here, people, there’s no time to have stupid little conversations with people that don’t exist! Fight those bugbears, if you want to actually try this “role playing” thing, go play a game with less D20s!

Venetica is the videogame version of that lousy dungeon master. All that matters is that “main quest”, and everything else is just there because it’s gotta be. Gotta have villagers. Gotta have boar monsters. Oh boy, mushroomsGotta have random treasure. None of it appears to have been thought out beyond “gotta have it”, and, thus, the seams of the adventure show almost immediately. Venetica is a lousy game because it completely ignores the R & P. It’s just G.

D&D may have influenced a lot of games, but some game designers didn’t learn what’s actually fun about raiding dungeons and slaying dragons. I’d explain this more, but I have to get back to being a transsexual albino elf now, because these orcs aren’t going to slay themselves.

FGC #169 Venetica

  • System: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC. I want to say I’ve only ever seen the Xbox 360 box…
  • Number of players: Solitary RP’ing with one player.
  • Lonely at the bottom: This is one of the few games I’ve ever reviewed that has absolutely nothing on Gamefaqs. No FAQs, no cheats, nothing. Mary-Kate and Ashley: Magical Mystery Mall had a damn FAQ!
  • So, did you beat it? No. I apologize if this game “gets good” toward the end, but I am not holding my breath.
  • Did you know? Venetica was released in America over a full year after its European release. Wait… this is European? Is this, like, the “modern” version of the weird European platformers of the 16-bit days? Hm…
  • Would I play again: Not ever.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania! Yay!… Wait… No… Castlevania Adventure. Dammit. Please look forward to it, so one of us will be!

It's uncanny