(To celebrate this terrific game, I think I'll switch gears and provide links to direct disk images of all games I rated as 4 stars and up, though I'm going to have to go back to the previous picks)
Crossroads - Steve Harter
interviewed the author via e-mail in 2006. (I got his contact info from indie game maker Anna Anthropy who made her own tribute page to this game.)
Anyway, onto the game... it's one of the few that stands up terrifically well as both a one player game and as a head to head game (like in Joust, you have the options to cooperate or compete.) Combining the creepy dungeons of Wizard of Wor with the fearsome crowds of Robotron, you play a gunner, roaming the halls... along with dozens of enemies, ranging from the nearly harmless Blue Fleas to the fellow shooting Red Human Mutants, the ravenous (and vaguely Pac-Man-ish) Yellow Lemonsharks to the perplexing Rubberheads.
A great feature of the game that, unlike many others of its ilk, is that the many of the monster types hate each other as well! It gives you a terrific feeling of being one monster among many, rather than the special character for whom the game world was created. Later, DOOM had a similar concept where you could get enemies enraged at each other, and here it suggests one of the primary strategies: when the level starts you can watch as the monsters zoom in, one wave type at a time, and that should inform your tactics... if one monster type is over-represented, you might want to focus on killing members of the breed and letting more of its enemies survive, so that the sparsely populated end game (that has the monsters tremendously sped-up, ala Space Invaders) isn't a death trap.
I've seen so few games of this era with such attention to detail...in general the more monsters there are the faster they go, but the player's speed is never affected. The game uses character graphics (allowing for a truly terrific number of enemies at once) but movement is handled in half-character steps, avoiding the coarse-grained movement that curses most character-based games. However explosions (and monster warp-in) are handled with beautiful sprites, splaying out over the neighboring characters, and again transcending the usual boundaries of this type of graphical system. There's emergent gameplay: a player might accidentally shoot themselves in the back, only to realize they can use the Pac-Man like wraparound corridors to lay traps of bullets that travel forever until they hit an unsuspecting beast. When a player starts the level or comes back after dying, a "cleansing bullet" flies out of the origin spot, thus preventing cheap deaths. Even the attract mode is lovely: besides the scrolling text with point values of the beasts, you can use the number keys to send in various gladiators and observe how they interact with the other monster types.
What more can I say? Rating: 5/5 (Download Crossroads)
Snake Pit - Michael L. Hall
Root Race - Sean D. Wagle
Animal Match - David Wright