What better way to start the new year (well, we’re several days into the new year really so “start” is a bit wrong but let’s not be pedantic) than an article about another game you’ve probably never heard of. This time around, it’s a title which was released very recently (in December 2008, in fact) for a very old platform. It’s Albatrossity by Jonathan Cauldwell for the ZX Spectrum.
One of the most interesting things about the Spectrum is that, despite being a relatively primitive British-made machine which only really took-off in a big way in a handful of European countries, it seems to be one of the main machines people are still programming games for. I mean, according to the excellent ZX Spectrum resource/fansite World of Spectrum, there were 68 new Spectrum titles released in 2008 alone – that’s 68 games for a machine that hasn’t been manufactured since 1991!
And one of these games was Albatrossity. Programmer Jonathan Cauldwell has become something of a celebrity amongst the (admittedly rather specialist) 8-bit retrogaming fraternity. Best-known for his long-running Egghead platformer series, Cauldwell has also received acclaim for his other Spectrum titles such as Gamex and Quantum Gardening (both of which are sold through the tiny retro-gaming retailer Cronosoft) and the announcement of a new game by Jonathan (many of which are released as freeware) is always more than welcome. So you can imagine my excitement when he posted a message to the World of Spectrum forums last month announcing the release of a new game – Albatrossity.
So, what’s it all about? Well, as with many of Cauldwell’s games the scenario is rather odd. Essentially, Albatrossity is a sort-of game of crazy golf with the player required to get their ball from the starting position into a hole to progress. However, unlike actual crazy golf the ball doesn’t need to be putted up and down slopes and through windmills so much as rebounded around platforms and off walls until the player manages to get it into the hole (helpfully indicated with a flagpole) at which point they advance to the next level to do it all again with a different screen. The player is given a limited number of three different types of ball in order to achieve this all of which perform differently: the rubber balls bounce a lot, as you might imagine; the steel balls hardly bounce at all and have a “heavy” feel, they can also break through some obstacles; the sticky balls are the most useful, they stick to any surface they hit making them good for precision shots. The player only has a limited number of “uses” of each ball type per level and once they run out of these it’s game over.
Whilst the first few screens are merely platforms that need to be negotiated with the occasional water hazard (landing in which sends the player back to the start) later screens bring additional problems including moving nasties which the player will need to hit the ball past and “locks” which the ball needs to collide with to remove doors giving access to other parts of the level and the hole itself.
Control is extremely simple: left and right for the angle of shot (indicated by a dotted line protruding from the player’s ball), another key for adjusting shot strength and another for changing the ball type. But whilst this game is very easy to pick-up and play learning to use the different balls and negotiate the levels is more tricky, especially later on when more and more hazards are brought into play. Sound consists of a selection of jolly tunes for 128K machines (although, sadly, nothing in the way of effects) and the graphics, whilst rather plain, are perfectly clear and functional.
More importantly, though, is that this game is enormous fun to play and highly addictive in the way that all good puzzle games are (and whilst this is a platform game in many ways I can’t help but feel that, on balance, this is more of a puzzle title – it’s my blog and I’m sticking to that). On my first few games I found myself cursing when the ball bounced where I didn’t want it to or teetered on the edge of a platform before falling down into the area below; and completing a level is always satisfying – I think I might have even punched the air slightly when I completed a few of the trickier levels. Probably shouldn’t mention that. But it demonstrates how much this game draws you in, how much you want to beat it and how pleased with yourself you feel when you do. That’s always the sign of a good game, nothing makes me feel more disappointed at a title when I couldn’t care less whether I progress in it or not.
This isn’t a flawless game. It would have been nice to have some sort of password system every five levels or so, the graphics could have been a bit better and some in-game effects (especially for when the player’s ball is “killed” and sent back to the start) would have been a big plus. Nonetheless, Albatrossity is a fine addition to Cauldwell’s own output and the ZX Spectrum software catalogue and, given that it’s free, there’s no excuse not to download it and play with it for a couple of hour.