Matt Chat 37: Bullfrog's Syndicate

Matt Barton's picture

Here it is, folks, the new Matt Chat--this time on one of my favorite Amiga/DOS games, Syndicate!

Note that I didn't get to show all the ports of this game, but invite you to make a response video if you'd like to show of that footage. I'm very curious about the Sega CD version in particular, since it has a unique soundtrack. I'd also like to know more about Power Monger. Much like Populous, it looks like a game that you can't easily figure out without a manual (a rarity these days and perhaps even when it came out). I've heard there's some connection to Dungeon Keeper there somewhere.

At any rate, I played Syndicate through about three times on my Amiga. There was just so much to love about this game, from the micromanagement to the intense action sequences. The pleasures are very much like a role-playing game in that you build your characters up with better armor (or mods), equipment, and so on. I also loved the graphics and overall ambiance of the game. I was shocked to see how much better the DOS version looked, though. I had wrongly assumed that the Amiga version had the best graphics, but it actually lagged far behind. This is particularly noticeable in the opening cut scene, which on the Amiga is comparatively tiny and lacks most of the color. I'm not sure if that was a technical limitation of the Amiga or just a lack of coding skill on the part of the porters. Then again, I know the Amiga's lack of a hard drive was a decisive issue. Sad to say, I don't see any reason outside of nostalgia to bother with the Amiga version of this game today; makes far more sense to go DOS.

I also wasn't at all impressed with the SNES or Genesis ports. The graphics look too "cutesy" and they seem to have lightened up on the evil bits. You can still shoot people and so on, but I got the impression that these versions were less objectionable from a moral sense. The first mission had you blowing up out of control robots rather than assassinating a treacherous colonel in cold blood, for instance. I don't really know much else about these ports or the rationale behind the changes, so feel free to discuss.

Anyway, hope you enjoy the video! I'm open to suggestions for future episodes, of course. A few that I'm thinking about in the near future: Ocarina of Time (N64), Rogue, Shenmue (DS), Metal Gear Solid (PSX), The Bard's Tale, Might and Magic 7 (or World of Xeen), King of Chicago, It Came from the Desert, The Dig, The Longest Journey, Zork, and Diablo. I've also been asked to cover Ambermoon and Legacy of the Ancients.

Comments

Chris Kennedy
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Syndicate (and a bit more, I suppose)

Hey Matt -

Really enjoyed this one. I love Syndicate. I bought it new for PC in 1993. With Syndicate comes a short story.

I was running what I believe was a 486 at the time. That isn't as important as the fact I had 4 MB of RAM. Syndicate needed 3 MB of EMS memory, or it would not run. It was frustrating because no matter how many modifications I made to config.sys, I could not squeeze out the full 3 MB of EMS. A friend down the street also had 4 MB of RAM, but he could pull off the 3 MB of EMS. That was quite frustrating. It was because of this that I actually upgraded my computer to 8 MB of RAM. Wow! Double the RAM just to play Syndicate! SIMM RAM was banked in 4s. I had 8 total slots - 4 had 1 MB modules and the remaining 4 were empty. Add 4 more 1 MB modules, and Syndicate was kicking.

Syndicate certainly has its share of violence. That said, the people are so small (especially on a 14 inch monitor), it didn't really seem to be that graphic. There was one particular thing you could do in the game that I found quite amusing despite how morbid it was. One of the weapons you could acquire was a flamethrower. It wasn't really that functional due to the short range it had, but it was fun to use. When you used it on another human, he would light up in this plume of fire & run around screaming. Eventually the fire would go out, and the charred, skeletal remains would drop to its knees and then fall into a pile. To someone that hasn't played the game, this probably sounds quite disturbing. Heck - it probably is. However again - the graphics were so small, this particular situation was actually rather funny. Sadistic? Perhaps. I would probably pull the "it's just a game" card to explain myself. Others in 1993 might feel the game needs to be banned. I believe it had a rating on the box. It was before the ESRB, I believe.

Syndicate had a few missions that were difficult, but these were abolutely NOTHING when compared to the expansion "American Revolt." If you really wanted a challenge, you had to play the expansion. I remember loading that thing up and immediately having to sit up in my chair and think through the missions. Sometimes I would load, fail, and re-load a mission over and over just to figure out how I wanted to plan for it. When I finally finished American Revolt, I felt quite a sense of accomplishment.

I should probably mention the sequel - Syndicate Wars. I almost used the phrase "took advantage of 3D" to begin to describe the game, however it looked terrible. Gameplay was quite boring. I believe it came out in 1996. I remember playing a demo and thinking, "this is horrible." I never acquired the full game, and I still do not have an interest in picking it up. I would like to see another Syndicate game. I wonder what platforms would be used. I would have to vote PC on this one. I have played the game on my 3DO and was skeptical before I put it in the system. This is a mouse-based game. Period. I can't see it any other way. RTS games are pretty much a computer-based affair. I see no reason why an action-based strategy game ("RTAS?") could make it as a gamepad game.

Syndicate is supposedly either close to having a new game or there is one in the works. It sounds like there have been several in-house demos over the years, but nobody has really nailed down the essence of the original game. I hope that if (or when) they do finally get a game together that they feel is workable that it will have the same pacing and feel of the original game. I think one thing that Syndicate had that really helped it was the music. Not an award-winning orchestral theme set or something like that - just a synthesized, bassy type of sound that kept your heart going.

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As for future Matt Chats - I think you have a good list there, Matt.
1:Shenmue deserves mention (I think you meant "Dreamcast" instead of DS) as it created quite a fun atmosphere.
2:Metal Gear Solid for PSX is great - I only first played it nearly 10 years after its release, and I absolutely loved it. The character development was excellent, and I think the best STYLE points have to go to the character development and voice acting that came to the gamer via the codec screen. There was just something cozy about it. The 2D artwork that was animated helped enhance it, and the move to a 3D codec in MGS2 took away from the codec conversations (although MGS2 is a different beast)
3:Zork seems like an obvious one that everyone should know about. I haven't played it all the way through, but I own it along with Zork II and III for C64
4: Diablo is a no-brainer.
5: I am currently playing Legacy of the Ancients for the first time on real C64 hardware. Hearing about this would be relevant (so long as their are no spoilers). Haha.

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Gashead
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Joined: 05/12/2009
Syndicate

Hi Matt

I loved this video.

I recently got my hands on an Amiga emulator and the first game I loaded was Syndicate. Like you the Amiga version was the first one I played and it has such great memories for me. The scenario and atmosphere were terrific. As you and Chris have mentioned it contained more than enough violence to get the moral minority into a frenzy! Back then though games were still quite a niche pastime so no-one really noticed. I can still remember the thrill of getting my first minigun!

Bullfrog issued some brilliant and innovative games. Popolous was fantastic, Popolous 2 even more so. Magic Carpet was good fun too.

In terms your suggestions Bards Tale would be really good, particularly if you expanded it to talk about the games that influenced it and the games that it inspired. I'm risking sounding like a broken record (surely this phrase should be updated to a stuck CD! Actually even that's out of date. Is there a mp3 equivalent?) I would love to see a Matt Chat that is based on any Ultima game (I know you've done VII but you cant get too much of a good thing!).

Anyway as ending with a quote is cool.

'I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.'

Rowdy Rob
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Joined: 09/04/2006
Great video as always!

Matt, I haven't heaped praise on your videos in a while, but your videos are definitely one of the things I look forward to each week! They are addictive! And in your recent videos, you seem like you're really animated and having fun, and it is infectious! This is easily my favorite series on Youtube! I'm glad to see that you're still doing these videos, because judging from the comments your videos receive, I know I'm not the only one addicted to Matt Chat!

Matt Barton wrote:

I also loved the graphics and overall ambiance of the game. I was shocked to see how much better the DOS version looked, though. I had wrongly assumed that the Amiga version had the best graphics, but it actually lagged far behind. This is particularly noticeable in the opening cut scene, which on the Amiga is comparatively tiny and lacks most of the color. I'm not sure if that was a technical limitation of the Amiga or just a lack of coding skill on the part of the porters.

The thing about DOS back in those days.... It didn't have sprites, blitter, or copper lists like the Amiga had, but DOS machines were generally VGA or SVGA, which supported a native 256-color mode, and DOS PC's generally had much faster processors. Until AGA graphics chips came out for the Amiga, Amiga graphics were generally limited to a 32-color palette in standard games (unless the programmer pulled out some tricks, using copper lists and half-brite mode). So yes, the Amiga, ironically, was realistically limited to 32-color palettes in games, meaning it had a disadvantage to SVGA when it came to games such as Syndicate, which didn't rely on sprites or smooth-scrolling, high-speed action/arcade stuff. This affected many ports from DOS, such as Kings Quest and such.

Matt Barton wrote:

Anyway, hope you enjoy the video! I'm open to suggestions for future episodes, of course. A few that I'm thinking about in the near future: Ocarina of Time (N64), Rogue, Shenmue (DS), Metal Gear Solid (PSX), The Bard's Tale, Might and Magic 7 (or World of Xeen), King of Chicago, It Came from the Desert, The Dig, The Longest Journey, Zork, and Diablo. I've also been asked to cover Ambermoon and Legacy of the Ancients.

All of these games sound like winners. Heck, I'm convinced you could make a video on the most obscure, cruddy game and make me want to play it! That having been said, I wouldn't mind seeing you visit a Dreamcast game, such as Shenmue (a game I really didn't care for, BTW, but perhaps I gave up too easily). I also wouldn't mind seeing you revisit a classic C-64 game, hopefully one that really shows off what the C-64 could do audio-visually. I also greatly enjoyed the Cinemaware games like King of Chicago, although the game was very clunky to play off of floppies, which is what I had when I purchased the game.

But whatever, I haven't been disappointed yet in your choice of games. You seem to know what you're doing in that department.

You also seem to be enamored with realistic war-oriented games as of late. Perhaps a video on one of your favorites there. Personally, I greatly enjoyed Call of Duty for it's gritty, thought-provoking, "you are there" portrayal of war, while still being easily playable by people like me.

qoj hpmoj o+ 6uo73q 3Jv 3svq jnoh 77V

Mark Vergeer
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Excellent!

Syndicate - oh how I remember the first couple sound effects and the music from this game. Played this a LOT - and I mean a lot. On the Amiga, the PC and the? consoles. :P

Actually didn't know it was by Peter Molyneux. This gives it an even greater edge. Populous being also by Molyneux blows me away.

Excellent Matt chat as always.

PS3: MarkVergeer | Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

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Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Thanks for the comments,

Thanks for the comments, guys! I always appreciate feedback; otherwise, why bother doing something this? :P

I think the "immoral" nature of this game is what makes it so memorable. To my mind, it represents the logical end of a "business" mind that puts profits above all else, including basic human rights. If you read into the story, you uncover the thing about "The Chip," or a neural implant type deal that became the new drug. It worked like "Better than Life" if you watch Red Dwarf--i.e., the synthetic world is so much better than the real world that people give up on the real world altogether, content to live in a virtual paradise. Thus, they really get what they deserve--such a complacent people can hardly be said to deserve freedom or even basic human rights (since they've in effect sold their own humanity for endless pleasure!). I don't know if you could get off this from just playing the game, but it does put a new spin on it--if you elect to become sheep, don't be surprised when the wolf shows up.

I'm not quite sure what I want to cover next. Truth be told, I've only scratched the surface of Shenmue and Metal Gear Solid, so there'd be quite a bit of "research" to do before I could cover one of them. It doesn't help that Dragon Age Origins has gotten its fangs deeply embedded in my neck. Holy #$@ this is a great game--an absolute no-brainer if you're at all interested in role-playing games. They really nailed the formula for success I outlined in my Dungeons & Desktops book for single-player RPGs:

1. Big, epic storyline in which your character's decisions are very important (and not at all easy!)
2. Well-developed, intriguing, and complex characters (and OMG, one of them is going to have your eyeballs glued to the screen!)
3. Versatile leveling/character system with many pivotal choices and lots of different ways to specialize that impact the way you play
4. Incredible audiovisuals (the "easy" thing to get right IMO)

The only part of the game that hasn't blown my socks off is the combat, which is similar to KOTOR. You can hit the space bar to pause the game and issue one order to each party member (4 total), but the AI is a tad disappointing, even if you tweak the tactics and so on. What seems to happen (I'm playing a mage) is that all the monsters chase me around the battlefield, oblivious to the rest of my party hacking at them or shooting arrows. I'm convinced I could win most battles just by kiting the mobs around and letting the rest of my party wheedle them down with ranged attacks. Another problem is that the battlefields are often small, so the big-area of effect spells like (AOE) like fireball and so on tend to be useless. I really wish this game had offered some kind of true turn-based combat, but I know Bioware's never been willing to go that route.

I get the impression that you'd have a lot more fun with this game playing as a rogue or warrior than a mage. If I weren't so far into the game I'd definitely re-roll as a warrior "tank" type of character. Again, the problem isn't better or worse than it was in Baldur's Gate II, NWN, or KOTOR, but damn, I wish they had made some big strides in this department. At least you don't have to deal with random encounters.

In any case, though, the game is still fantastic and these are just nitpicks. Get this game!

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Gashead
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Joined: 05/12/2009
Dragon Age

Hi Matt

It's great to hear your comments on DA and you have also saved me time because now I know to roll a melee character! There are so many great games coming out at the moment I haven't got to DA yet. I have such little time I'll probably wait to Xmas holidays before starting DA. I am currently playing Borderlands which is great fun (if a little brainless).

Shame about the combat in DA. I will bow to your greater knowledge on this but I think that Ultima 7 Black Gate has a lot to answer for! Whilst the game is excellent in all other respects it was the first Ultima to have real-time combat and started a new trend in other games.

As a matter of interest have you played the Witcher? I heard great things about it but I have to admit I found it a little underwhelming. DA has uniform excellent reviews so I hope I am not dissappointed when I eventually get to it.

LOTA fan (not verified)
Future episode

Glad to hear you are considering Legacy of the Ancients for a future 'Chat. Legacy of the Ancients is an under-appreciated classic. The C64 version had amazing atmosphere thanks to the short bursts of music and sound effects very distinctive of the SID chip. I have fond memories of exploring the land, hearing the ocean waves and the *ding* when a creature approaches. And of course wandering around the museum in search of the next quest. The unique concept of framed portals on the walls would go mainstream years later in Mario 64. Yes, I just connected Legacy of the Ancients with Mario 64.

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