Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review: "Smithsonian Institution: Dinosaur Museum"

So, today I'm going to be reviewing something different. An old obscure educational game from the 90's that was an important part of my childhood. That game is "Smithsonian Institution: Dinosaur Museum" by Perspective Visuals, Inc.

I first got this game in the Topics Entertainment collection, "A World of Dinosaurs", which contained four other games as well. I used to play it all the time, but when my computer broke and got tossed, the game was still in the CD drive. It wasn't until almost 10 years later that I got the game again.

So, how does the game hold up today? Do I like it now as I did when I was younger?  Well, it's an enjoyable game, but it has some major flaws.

Since this game is so obscure that there's barely any information about it online, this review will  be longer then normal, and contain more images.

I should quickly point out that because the game was released in 1997, some of the information is out of date, so keep that in mind if you play it. However, besides some featherless dinosaurs, there's not too much inaccuracies.

When you start the game, you are greeted with three rooms, the Library, the Conservatory, and the Game Room. Let's start with the Library.

The Library is the main section of the game. Here there's info on 24 Dinosaurs, mainly the well known ones. The dinosaurs are split up by time periods, although most of them are from the Cretaceous period. At the library, you have a few different options. Most of them lead to photos, some in 3D.

The images used in the game are quite good, and there's several I haven't seen anywhere else. The dioramas are probably the best, as you get a reconstruction of what the dinosaurs may have  looked like when they were alive. There's photos from a ton of museums as well.

The two parts you'll be spending the most time in are the Museum and "(Insert time period here) Life". You click on a dinosaur name, and you are sent to an exhibit featuring that dinosaur. 

The leads to the first problem with the game. Let's play a game of spot the difference. These are the exhibits for Camarasaurus and Tyrannosaurus:

There's only three differences. The dinosaur model in the middle of the room, the Earth outside the window, and the name below the dinosaur model. Other then that, both exhibits are identical. While admittedly it's not a big issue, it's kind of lazy. 

Everything that is a hot spot is in color, while everything else, including the dinosaur model is in grey-scale. Clicking on a hot spot gives you information on the dinosaur in question.

Unfortunately, most of that info comes in massive walls of text. It's hard to read, and I don't understand why they couldn't have used paragraphs.

There's some interesting information there, but in my opinion, it's presented rather badly. The grey-scale makes the exhibit look rather creepy as well.

Clicking on the earth brings you to the "(Insert time period here) Life" part. This is where the grey-scale becomes a massive problem. It looks like an unfinished coloring book. Some of you may have noticed that is "Utahraptor" from "Dinosaur Comics" to the right of the picture. 

Ryan North, the author of "Dinosaur Comics" got the dinosaurs in the comic from clip-art software, evidently, so did this game.

Clicking on the hot spots here doesn't give you  walls of text, as the text boxes are normally only one or two paragraphs long.

The design of the "Life" sections, despite my hatred of the grey-scale, are much better then the bland museum. There's some reused backgrounds and dinosaurs, but for the most part, each dinosaur's area looks different. You can tell they put more effort into this part.

Moving on to the Conservatory, there's really not much to talk about. Most of the sections here are the same as the "Life" sections. Instead of focusing on one dinosaur, they focus on a specific dinosaur-related topic, like Dinosaur myths and extinction theories. Unfortunately, there's plenty of text walls.

The highlight of the Conservatory is the "Dinosaurs in the Movies" section. Here, you get to view a bunch of soundless clips from old dinosaur movies. The collection includes the only remaining footage from the cancelled movie "Creation".

Most of the clips are of dinosaurs fighting humans, or other dinosaurs. There's actually a clip of someone being impaled by a dinosaur, which is surprising in a kids game.

The only problem I have here is that I sometimes need to click on the reels several times to get the clips to start.

Finally, we have the Games Room, my favorite part of the game. Here you can play a trivia game, with three levels of difficulty. You can play by yourself or with another player. 

In the beginner level, you just have to answer questions. Answering these questions correctly uncovers a picture of a dinosaur. Once you've uncovered the picture, you win. I rarely play beginner because it's too easy for me.

In the intermediate level, you not only have to get the answers right, you have to guess which dinosaur is being uncovered. This is the difficulty I'd recommend, as it's the most fun. "T-rex" from "Dinosaur Comics" appears as the yes option.

The advanced level is way too hard. Unless you are very good at remembering names, dates, and numbers, you won't beat it. There's some really obscure stuff there. It's way too hard for a kids game.

Your reward for beating the trivia game is admittance to the "Hall of Fame", where you can see full-screen versions of the pictures used in the game. It's a pretty neat reward. You have a limited amount of clicks before it kicks you out of the hall. I don't know exactly how much clicks or if the amount varies with difficulty, but in the intermediate level, it's a pretty fair amount.

One more thing I'd like to bring up is the soundtrack, as it freaked me out when I first played it. Now, it's more of an annoyance. Whenever you enter a new section, a audio file lasting about six seconds plays. These mainly consist of jungle noises and bird calls. However, one of these is the sound of what I can only guess is an asteroid hitting the earth. It's loud and if you weren't expecting it, it's a jump scare.

"Dinosaur Museum" has quite a bit to offer, but compared to other dinosaur games, it's bare-bones. 
"I Can Be a Dinosaur Finder" came out the same year (1997), "Eyewitness Dinosaur Hunter" came out the previous year, and "Microsoft Dinosaurs" would come out only two years later. All of these games have a lot more content then "Dinosaur Museum".

"Dinosaur Museum" is so obscure, the aforementioned  "A World of Dinosaurs" collection is currently the only way to get it. That's not a bad thing, as the set also includes "3-D Dinosaur Adventure" and "I Can Be a Dinosaur Hunter", two very good games.

Despite the grey-scale, the short audio, and the walls of text, I enjoyed playing this. Part of this may be nostalgia, however. If you can get a hold of "A World of Dinosaurs", give this game a try, just don't expect too much.

5.5 out of 10

Note: According to this document, Perspective Visuals were planning on making more games in this series. It never happened, and this was the only game they ever released. You can see an archived version of their website here.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review: "Spiked!" (Casefiles #58)

This book took a bit longer to finish then I had planned, so that's there was no post Thursday. I had actually taken a break midway through the second chapter, and said break took longer then I had planned.

I'm not really that into to sports, and I don't know much about Volleyball. So, when the ten page first chapter consisted of a recap of a volleyball game, and Frank and Joe talking about how awesome 2 vs 2 volleyball is, I wasn't very interested in the book.

The first chapter does end with quite a disturbing death scene, as one of the players dies in the middle of a game. It's something that probably would freaked me out as a kid. Of course, the death turns out to be murder, and the way the killer does it is quite clever.

Joe has a one-book girlfriend named Chris, who is basically there so that Joe can have a feud with a volleyball player named George Ritt Jr. George Ritt Jr. is probably one of the most entertaining parts of the book. He's so cartoonish it's hilarious.

For most of the book, he's basically Bluto from Popeye. His father is just as cartoonish, and two spent most of the time yelling at people and starting fights.  However, it does strain suspension of disbelief that George Ritt Jr. is not kicked out of  the volleyball tournament for unsportsmanlike behavior.

The culprits of "Spiked!" were quite obvious, as they spent a lot of time twirling their mustaches and doing evil things in front of Frank and Joe. There was a surprise or two near the end, but for the most part I was able to guess the who and why of the mystery pretty early on.

Despite this, the action was rather good. The villains were quite dangerous, and Frank and Joe had a lot of close calls in this book. The volleyball aspect of the book takes the backstage for the second half of the book. While there are some sabotage attempts during games, most of the action happens away from the court.

Frank and Joe also have some good banter in the this book, and I found myself laughing quite a lot. This plus the cartoonish behavior of some of the suspects makes the book rather fun, although things do get more serious near the end. 

There's one cringe-worthy scene where one of the suspects falsely believes that Frank and Joe are detectives for INS, and attacks Frank with a knife to try to scare him. INS would later become ICE, which you've probably heard about. This scene dates the book by quite a bit, and had this book come out today, would have likely been seen as problematic.

"Spiked!" is an average but fun book, with the mystery element being a bit lacking. If you prefer books where it's a challenge to guess the culprit before Frank and Joe do, this isn't the book for you. If you are just looking for a fun Hardy Boys book, give this one a read.

6 out of 10

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Review: "Beyond the Law" (Casefiles #55)

The first time I read “Beyond the Law”, I thought it was ok, but too slow paced. Recently, I decided to read through “Casefiles Collector’s Edition #3”. That meant rereading this book. During my second readthrough, I discovered that the book was a whole lot then I remembered and is now one of my favorite in the Casefiles series.

Beyond the Law is considered by some fans to be book three in the “Bayport Corruption Storyline”. This unofficial trilogy consists of “See No Evil”, “Line of Fire”, and “Beyond the Law”.  All three books have Frank and Joe facing off against corrupt Bayport City Officials.
“Beyond the Law” does reference the events of “See No Evil” quite a bit at the start of the book. At one-point Frank mentions “The See No Evil” case, and the villain mentions it as well. However, you don’t have to read “See No Evil” to understand what happens in “Beyond the Law”.

As I said at the start of my review, I originally thought the book was too slow paced. And admittedly, it’s a lot slower then the earlier books in the Casefiles series. However, the writer still managed to make the book an entertaining read. It’s also 100 times better then the last two Casefiles I’ve read, “Poisoned Paradise” and “No Way Out”.

The start of the story is quite relevant with all the talk of fake news going around today. News reporter Rod Vernon reports that Chief Collig was fired from an earlier police job for collecting bribes. Despite him not citing a source, the people of Bayport (besides the Hardys and their friends) immediately believe the report.

Mark DeCampo, the new commissioner, uses this as an excuse to  get rid of Collig, and suspends him. Frank and Joe start an investigation, but Mark and Vernon end up being injured in a bomb blast, and soon Chief Collig is wanted for attempted murder.  

The book heavily focuses on Chief Collig, (who in the Adventures books has been replaced with the rather boring Chief Olaf.) a character who rarely gets the spotlight. Normally in the Casefiles, he’s just there to be an obstacle to Frank and Joe’s investigation.  Here, we get to learn a lot about his backstory as he, Frank, and Joe head Millerton in an attempt to clear Collig’s name. We also learn a bit about how police work has changed over the years, and how the police used to get away with a lot more then they do now. 

The book has most of the Hardy’s friends make appearances during the first half of the book, which is good to see. The scenes in Mr. Pizza where the customers discuss Collig’s suspension were my favorite parts of the book. Unfortunately, we don't get to see their reactions to Collig being accused of attempted murder, and after the second scene at Mr. Pizza's, the book doesn't go back there. 

Fenton Hardy also makes an appearance, but conveniently has to leave on a case a few chapters in. Well this is disappointing, he turns out to be a important part of the story, as Frank and Joe are trying to get to get some papers signed by the Chief so his license can be renewed.  The acting chief, Parker Lawrence, attempts to blackmail Frank and Joe by threatening not to sign the papers if they continue investigating the case. This creates a lot of suspense, as not only is Collig's career at stake, but so is Fenton's.

The action picks up quite a bit in the second half of the book, and the villain is probably one of my favorite Casefile villains. While I won't spoil anything, the final showdown is really exciting. My only issue is that the villain had a question and answer session with Frank and Joe that took a little longer then necessary, but that's a minor issue.  

To my knowledge, the events of this book are never referenced again, and  Chief Collig continued to be an obstacle. The book even lampshades this at the end, which I found rather hilarious. I really like Chief Collig as a character.

Unfortunately, a lot of the Casefiles after this book take place outside Bayport, so Collig didn’t appear that much. In fact, after this book, it would be 8 books until Frank and Joe solved another mystery in Bayport. 

I highly recommend this book.

8 out of 10

Thursday, March 8, 2018

My Reading List

Sorry about the short post, but I figured I’d post my current reading list, as I’ll be reviewing these books on my blog once I’m finished with them. I’ll be going through this list in order, although the list might change at some point. I’m also currently playing the Nancy Drew game, “The Captive Curse”, and that will be reviewed on my blog as well.

My Current Reading List:
-Beyond the Law (Casefiles #55)
-Spiked (Casefiles #58)
-Open Season (Casefiles #59)
-Danger for Hire (Files #52)
-Make No Mistake (Files #56)
-Poison Pen (Files #60)
-The Children of the Lost (UB #34)
-Lost Brother (UB #35)
-Forever Lost (UB #36)
-Danger Overseas (Super Mystery 07 #2)
-Gold Medal Murder (Super Mystery 07 #4)
-Bonfire Masquerade (Super Mystery 07 #5)
-The Betrayal (Fear Street Sega #1)
-The Secret (Fear Street Sega #2)
-The Burning (Fear Street Sega #3)
-The Shadow Killers (Hardy Boys Digests #92)
-The Serpent's Tooth Mystery (Hardy Boys Digests #93)
-Danger on the Air (Hardy Boys Digests #94)

There will two posts this weekend to make up for the shortness of this one.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Review: "No Way Out" (Hardy Boys Casefiles #75)

Casefile #75, “No Way Out” could have easily have been a Hardy Boys Digest. It doesn’t have much action, and much like most of the Digests published around the time this book was, the plot involves sabotage.

This time around, the target of the sabotage is Rob Niles, a champion orienteer. Much of the book focuses on his rivalry with his teammate Takashi Okira, and both characters acted like jerks to each other for most of the book. This got so annoying, I stopped caring about both characters, and started skimming through the parts where they got into arguments.

To make matters worse, something about Takashi brings out the worst in Joe, and for a few chapters, he starts acting like a jerk too. Early in the book, Rob breaks into Takashi’s hotel room to play a prank, and Frank and Joe follow him inside. When Takashi catches them, Joe gets angry at him for not listening to them, despite the fact he really has no reason to. After Takashi kicks them out, Joe says “I can’t believe we let that guy talk to us that way.”  

Later, Joe breaks into Takashi’s hotel room again, gets into a fistfight with him, and acts like it’s Takashi’s fault. I understand that Joe is more hotheaded in the Casefiles then he is in the other series, but the ghostwriter took it too far.  To be fair though, Joe does apologize for his behavior at the end of the book.

We are eventually introduced to a rival team, as a chapter ends with Rob noticing Takashi eating lunch with that team. This of course leads to another argument. It turns out that the rival team’s coach, Malika Morris, is pretty much a female version of Takashi, and I ended up doing even more skimming through pages. I actually considered not finishing the book, that’s how annoying the constant arguments got.

It really didn’t help that the plot is pretty dull.  There’s not much variety in the sabotage, and most of it is stuff I’ve seen countless times in other Hardy Boys books.

Frank and Joe don't do very much investigating, and most of the time they either watch Rob argue with Takashi or Malika, or rescue Rob from sabotage attempts. They barely try to question suspects, and when they do try to, the suspect just walks off in anger.

The cliff-hangers are rather dull as well. Four cliff-hangers involve Rob, Frank, or Joe falling down something. One of the chapters near the end of the book ends with Rob accusing Malika of giving people Australian compasses. I think the ghostwriter was having trouble with the “every chapter must end in a cliff-hanger” rule. *

Spoilers are below:
I instantly guessed that Jeremy Foote was the person trying to kill Rob because he was one of the only minor characters to act nice to Rob. Takashi and Malika were obvious red herrings, and the book tried way too hard to make them look suspicious.

I was surprised when it turned out that Takashi admitted to sending Rob threatening notes and leaving a Rattlesnake in Rob’s bed. I was even more surprised when he got away with this, with everyone treating it as a mean prank. Also, nobody points out to Takasahi that the snake would have killed Rob had Joe not noticed it.

On a positive note, it was nice that Liz Webling made an appearance. She and Callie join the Hardys on their trip, and actually help with the investigation a tiny bit. I'm always happy to see recurring  characters, and Liz was one of the best parts of the book. 

The final three chapters were rather exciting, and the showdown with the villain was good, if a bit short. The villain's motivation made sense, unlike in the last Casefile I read. (Poisoned Paradise **)  I also learned some stuff about orienteering, a sport that I knew nothing about. So the book has some educational value, I guess.

There are much worse Hardy Boys books out there, and I debated on giving this one a slightly higher rating. But in the end, the book had too many problems. I would not recommend this book to anyone, unless you have an interest in orienteering. Even then, there has to be something better you could read.

3 out of 10

*  "I was told the emphasis was on high action and suspense and there had to be a cliff-hanger ending to every chapter." -  Barbara Steiner, a Casefiles ghostwriter. 

** You can see my review of Poisoned Paradise here

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Review: Miss Clue: Formula for Danger

Before I start this review, I’ll admit that I’m not that good at adventure games. I’ve only ever beaten one Nancy Drew game out of the ten or so that I’ve played, and I needed the help of a walkthrough to do it. I needed the help of a walkthrough for this game as well. I’m hoping to get better at these types of games, and I’ve made it my goal to not use a walkthrough for the next game I play.

“Formula for Danger” is a fun clone of the Nancy Drew games. The game has you play as Jane Darcy, who is staying at her aunt’s lodge. One day, she hears a scream coming from the other side of a lake and decides to investigate it. It turns out that Jane’s friend Anne needs her help finding a formula hidden by her late father. Someone else is after the formula, and it’s up to Jane to find out who.

If you’ve played an Nancy Drew game, you’ll notice that “Formula for Danger” is extremely similar to the earlier games in the series. This isn’t a bad thing. With the next Nancy Drew game not scheduled to come out until 2019, it’s nice to have something to play while waiting. 

The puzzles are similar to the ones in the Nancy Drew games. I can’t really comment that much on the game’s difficulty due to me being genuinely bad at the game. * I will say that this probably is not the best game for beginners, as well there is a hint system at the start of the game, you lose access to it halfway through, when the puzzles start getting harder.

One problem I had with the puzzles was the amount of backtracking you had to do to solve them. To get from the lodge to Anne’s mansion, you have to walk for a bit, take a boat, then walk a bit more. In the early chapters, I had to do this multiple times. This got old fast. Fortunately, this stops being a problem in the later chapters.  

It doesn’t help that the game expects you to check everywhere to solve the puzzles. Even with the hint system early on, the location of some things wasn’t clear.  The fact that some things could only be clicked on in a specific spot didn’t help at all.

For example, I had to check Arglefumph’s playthrough to find the boathouse keys because they happened to be on the couch I checked several times without finding the hotspot. The area with the sofa was hard to navigate as well, and I had to go in circles a few times to get to the right spot.  I had the same problem with Jane’s room in the lodge.

Like in the Nancy Drew games, you can die or fail, and if you do, you can continue from where you left off. I only failed once near the end, and there appears to be only four points in the game where you can lose.

The first one didn’t happen until almost halfway through the game, when the lab I was in started filling up with gas. This caught me off guard, but I managed to stop the gas in time. This was a really suspenseful moment, and it kept me on my toes for the rest of the game.

There were also some creepy moments in the game. The scene where Jane gets woken up in the middle of the night by strange noises genuinely scared me.  There was also a moment involving a secret passage that made me jump. 

The game’s mystery was rather fun. Although the culprit’s identity was painfully obvious, there were still a few twists and turns along the way. You don’t spend as much time talking to suspects as you do in most Nancy Drew game, and one suspect you only talk to twice. The game is more focused on the puzzles then the story, but the puzzles are fun enough that it doesn’t matter. I will say that the voice acting could have used some work, but it was good enough. 

Unfortunately, I had some technical issues while playing the game. Flash crashed twice, forcing me to refresh the page. To the game’s credit, I didn’t lose any progress from this, as the game frequently autosaves. Occasionally, I saw stuff appear then randomly vanish. For example, for a split second, I saw the Macaw I had already dropped off at the lodge magically appear on my boat then disappear.  It’s not game breaking, but it’s still odd.

There were some more serious problems. Some areas that looked like hotspots (the magnifying glass would turn red) weren’t, causing me to waste time trying to click them. There were some missing sound files, as I would often see subtitles for an unsaid line. These problems weren’t that common, but they were still annoying.

There was also one time in Chapter 13 where the correct code refused to work on a code machine, forcing me to check a walkthrough again. I consider that almost game breaking. If someone insisted on not using a walkthrough, they would be stuck on that spot forever.

All in all, “Formula for Danger” is a good game. You can play it for free on the VFK website if you make an account, and I’d recommend it. It’s got its problems, but hey, it’s free. There’s a few other games in the series to check out as well, and all but one of them are free to play.

6.5 out of 10

* At one point in the game, I got stuck because I forgot how to spell the word “Mongoose”. Another time, I counted the wrong number of chess pieces, and initially thought it was glitch when my answer turned out to be wrong.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Review: At All Costs (SuperMystery #33)

I’ve had this book on my reading list for a while, but never got around to reading it until recently. This is for two reasons. The first reason is that don’t like Hardy Boys books that have an environmental theme. This is because those books tend to be incredibly dull, and the villains’ identities tend to be obvious. (It’s almost always an evil businessman)

The second reason is that “At All Costs” is pretty much a sequel to my least favorite Hardy Boys Casefile, “Survival of the Fittest”. If you’ve never read “Survival of the Fittest”, it basically consists of Frank and Joe body-guarding a kid, then wandering through the desert while the reader is bored to death. Kip Cole appears in both books, and the events of “Survival of the Fittest” are mentioned several times in “At All Costs”.

Fortunately, “At All Costs” is much better then “Survival of the Fittest”. For starters, the pacing is a lot better. There’s a good balance between action and mystery, and there’s some good cliff-hangers. The last half of the book is really fast paced, and unlike in “Survival of the Fittest”, the villains actually know how to use guns.

Unlike some of the more recent Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, clues don’t appear out of nowhere (save for an incident at the start of the book), and Frank, Joe, and Nancy have to put some effort into their investigation.

The book does a good of giving Frank, Joe, and Nancy equal time to shine, unlike a few SuperMysteries where Nancy takes center stage.

I’m don’t really remember how much Kip appeared in “Survival of the Fittest”, but in “At All Costs”, he’s a major character. We get to meet some of his family, including his sister, Shana, and he joins Frank and Joe for most of their investigation. I can’t help but wonder if there was plans for him to make a third appearance somewhere, as he’s one of the few Casefiles characters to appear in a SuperMystery. *

“At All Costs” does have a few problems.

Nancy knew who one of the villains was by the third chapter, as he just happened to walk into Taylor’s apartment while Nancy and Allison were inside. In the book’s defense, this is handled quite well, with Nancy spending a lot of the book trying to prove that he’s the villain.

However, said villain only appears in person once in the entire book. Nancy doesn’t even talk to him, and all we really know about him is that he is corrupt and that he’s a liar. We know a lot of this because of monologues given by Allison and Kip about his actions, breaking the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule.

There are some twists near the end, but one of them near the end seems to come out of nowhere, and involves a character who never appeared until then, and Frank and Joe only briefly investigated. While his motives make sense, it still felt like a Diabolus Ex Machina.**

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Earth At All Costs, the group the book is named after. That’s because there isn’t much to talk about. They appear a bit in the first half of the book, then vanish. They are mentioned as suspects a few times after that, but they don’t appear again.

I think the main problem is that the book has too many villains. There’s several of them and one of them working independently from the others. There’s also a few unnamed henchmen as well.

Then you have Kip and his family, Allison, and the other people that Frank, Joe, and Nancy meet along the way. It felt like the writer had a really hard time dealing with all the minor characters and villains, so you have characters that should be important vanish for most of the book.

Also, I take issue with Joe and Shana dating in this book, as the ghostwriter never mentions the fact that Joe already has a girlfriend. Either the writer didn’t know about Vanessa or didn’t care. To me at least, Vanessa not being mentioned counts as either an error or lazy writing, and I'm deducting 0.2 points off the book's score for it.

“At All Costs” is an enjoyable SuperMystery, despite having too many characters. I would recommend giving it a read.

6.8 out of 10

*Fenton Hardy and the Grey Man made appearances in some of the other SuperMysteries.

** Major Spoilers below:
It was interesting that Frank and Joe actually failed to stop the bomber from blowing up the ski jump, although no one died.  Speaking of deaths, three people died in this book. That’s the most people I’ve seen die in a SuperMystery.

Review: "Smithsonian Institution: Dinosaur Museum"

So, today I'm going to be reviewing something different. An old obscure educational game from the 90's that was an important part of...