Blog 816: RoX

I’ve been meaning to write properly about Safrosoft RoX because I’ve mentioned it obliquely a few times since I built my Windows XP machine — it’s one of the straws that broke the camel’s back, which, along with the inability to play Age of Empires II and Atrox on my real PC, made me take the olde worlde plunge.

I mean, this will be a mostly academic discussion, because you can’t play RoX anymore — it’s a hoary old piece of 32-bit Visual Basic shareware, and while it might be possible to rig it up on a modern OS with some decidedly unseemly DLL registry shenanigans, nobody’s realistically going to take that risk. Which is a shame because RoX is a fantastically compelling little game.

Safrosoft RoX

I stumbled across RoX on a PC Gamer cover disk waaay back. Along with the usual crop of demos and mods that I was actually interested in, odd bits and pieces like this sometimes worked their way through anyway. A cool-looking screenshot and a fun-sounding description? Why not!

RoX is a strange hybrid of action and puzzle. You drive Thresher, a spiky blue ball, around a vertical grid trying to eat up all the “unids” to open the exit and let you escape. Thresher’s primary abilities are to eat through “matter” blocks and push things around, most commonly bombs and rocks. While you get to ignore gravity, rocks and such do not, so pushing a bomb off a ledge or dropping a rock onto a bomb are crucial ways to break through to the tasty unids (or even the exit itself).

This is complicated by how unids are themselves vulnerable to destruction by bomb or by falling off the level — lose one and you have to start over. Luckily the grid-based universe means that you know exactly how big a bomb’s blast radius is so you can position it just right to blow up that wall but not the unids on the other side…

There’s also a high score awarded based on your time to complete a level, but… well… there’s only one player on this machine.

Rocks make beautifully relaxing noises when they clunk around.

It’s a deceptively simple formula, but as with all such formulae, you can go a long, long way with it. The base game includes something like 50 levels, which I can barely get halfway through because I am terrible at puzzles and often sketchy at skill challenges too. As an action-puzzle hybrid, it’s one thing to know what place you need to get yourself/that bomb to, but quite another to actually manage it — though the opposite is also true, where it can be easy to push things around but hard to discern just where they need to go. Being just one column off on your path through the solid matter blocks is enough to ruin a good plan.

While it is important not to lose any unids, it’s also important not to let Thresher die — if a rock falls onto him, or he’s touched by a marauding insect, or hit by a cannon shell or caught in a bomb blast, he explodes horribly and you have to restart the level. There are no hit points or second chances. Believe me, there is no more exquisite pain than when you’ve lined up most of a larger level, you’re one unid away from opening the exit, and then you carelessly eat one more tile than you intended and drop a rock on yourself. But it’s fine — the level resets instantaneously (without even interrupting the music!) so you can do it all over again and get it right this time.

Round objects roll off round corners (and each other) so you really have to pay attention to level geometry to win.

There is one bit of respite, in that when you clear a level the next few are unlocked, so you can skip over and come back to the most troublesome ones later (or never, if you continually fail). Of course every skipped level means one less in your look-ahead buffer, so failures eventually pile up and you’ll find your limit.

Luckily there’s also a level editor. I don’t have anything left of the noodlings I did when I played it the first time around (they were probably awful anyway), but I found a fan site in a dead corner of the internet with heaps of user-made level “collections”. I downloaded all of them.

… Obviously most are super-hard (because who else would make obscure puzzle game levels but absolute fucking pros?) but they do frequently exercise features of the game I never came across before, such as missiles, invulnerability power-ups and glorious save points. Even if I can’t get past the first five levels in each pack, the first five levels of a heap of collections is still a lot of levels to explore. And then I can always feel super-smug by making a few of my own and beating them in record time — ha!

Many levels are deceptively simple but utterly fiendish… thank goodness the soundtrack is so brilliant.

Besides, it’s not a “big” game you sink into and burn through and never touch again for another few years. I usually do a little RoX session when I’ve just finished reached a convenient stopping point in an actual game, but maybe have ten or twenty minutes still to wait until the bath runs or something… though that’s a dangerous approach, because it’s easy to lose track of time in the cycle of exploring a level and restarting and restarting and restarting and restarting until you converge on the solution and finally achieve it. (I have not yet let the bath overflow but there have been… uh… a few near misses.)

Okay, fine, a puzzle game you’re a bit crap at is probably not worth building a whole old PC to play. But as a little treat to sit on that old PC alongside all the tentpole classics, that can fill in those little time-gaps where you’d traditionally check your social media? Absolutely — this game rox!

And you tell me...

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