Archive for the ‘Retro-indie games’ Category

New retro-games site

2 March, 2009

One of the annoying things about being a fan of independent games for old systems is that there are so few sites catering for them. There are many sites which list games and provide downloads (some of them even do it legally) but they tend to concentrate on the commercial releases.

So it’s with a great deal of happy happy joy joy that I can tell you all that a new site has appeared with a large number of Amiga “Public Domain” (ie freeware) releases available to download along with some commercial titles (which the site maintainer claims to have obtained permission to host) and C64 games. The site is called The Games Coffer. I suggest you clicky on over there and check it out.


12 January, 2009
Yeah, explore that dungeon! Grab that scroll! Pull that lever!

Yeah, explore that dungeon! Grab that scroll! Pull that lever!

I bring you some exciting news (cue ‘exciting news’ music which probably involves a pounding drumbeat and maybe some trumpets). A long time ago (well, 1994) an indie title was released for the Amiga called Knights; not the most inspiring name, I know, but bear with me. This was a two-player game whereby each player took control of a knight in armour and a brightly-coloured cloak (the colour of which could be determined before the game started) and explored a randomly-created dungeon attempting to beat the other player. How the aforementioned beating occured was decided before the game: it could involve just killing the other knight a set number of times, or escaping the dungeon, or retrieving an ancient book written by gnomes or something. There were loads of settings that allowed changes in dungeon size, quest-type, zombie and bat activity (oh, yes, our knightly friends were not alone down there if so desired) and several other things. It was hugely configurable and hugely fun.

There was only one real problem which is that the nature of the game meant that it helped to be unable to see what the other player was doing. The programmer’s solution to this was to split the display down the middle and suggest to the player that they tape a piece of cardboard to their tv/monitor to act as a divider with each player on their respective side of it. This worked, but it wasn’t exactly practical.

But now comes something new, now comes a remake of Knights which, excellently, features network and internet play meaning no more fiddly dividers. This is the best thing, if not ever, then certainly this week. All it really needs is the ability to set up dedicated servers a la many other freeware online games but I’m hoping that will arrive eventually if this takes off. And even if you’re not willing to play online the old two-player option is still in the remake, just find yourself a bit of cardboard and a chum and get, erm, knighting.

Albatrossity – no seabirds, just balls

7 January, 2009
Yes, yes. I know it looks like something off Cassette 50, but this game rocks. Trust me.

Yes, yes. I know it looks like something off "Cassette 50", but this game rocks. Trust me.

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.

tis the season to play a platform-based version of crazy golf, la-la-la-la-la la-la-la-laa

"'tis the season to play a platform-based version of crazy golf, la-la-la-la-la la-la-la-laa"

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.

Heartland – since when did an egg need a pack of cards?

11 December, 2008
Therell be none of this, sadly

There'll be none of this, sadly

I have to admit that I was looking forward to this game because the only other Heartland I’ve heard of is the 1986 8-bit game by Odin Computer Graphics and it’s great not least because you get to kill bad guys with a top hat. So, part of me was hoping that this was going to be some kind of remake of that and, even though most 8 to 16-bit remakes from the 1980s and ’90s were rubbish (I still recall the dreadful Amiga version of Atic Atac I bought from a PD library where the player was a big red ball with no animation: really) I was still looking forward to the prospect of throwing my top hat at villains and collecting pages of a book, even if the graphics maybe did look like they’d been drawn by a five year old.

Dont get excited - thats not a mobile enemy; that snail just sits there

Don't get excited - that's not a mobile enemy; that snail just sits there

It wasn’t to be, though. Heartland, an Atari ST indie game from 1996 doesn’t bear any resemblance to Odin’s classic but it does bear more than a passing resemblance to another famous 8-bit game; or rather series of games (see the screenshots in this article). There’s nothing wrong with having an anthropomorphic egg as a main character, of course (see the Egghead series) but they should, y’know, be reasonably distinct from what used to be the most famous sentient egg until Mark Lawson appeared on our TV screens, rather than looking almost exactly the same.

So what’s the plot? Well, Sassy (the one who looks almost the same as Dizzy) and Sissy (who looks the same but is a girl (I think)) were planning to play cards but all the cards in the hearts suite were missing. So it’s up to the player to guide one of them around a fairly-large map looking for the missing cards.

The game itself takes place over one very-large scrolling landscape. Around this landscape, the Heartland of the game’s title, the missing cards can be found either lying around waiting to be collected or behind doorways. Those cards behind doorways are only collected on entering the door which also causes the player-character to be deposited elsewhere on the map. There are also a large number of coins lying around which can be collected although these seem to have no function other than boosting the player’s score.

Wahey, eggrolling! Its just like Easter only not as much fun.

Wahey, eggrolling! It's just like Easter only not as much fun.

And that’s pretty-much it. Despite this being a platform game there don’t seem to be any enemies beyond spikes which occasionally pop out of the ground and sap Sassy’s energy (which can be replenished from potion bottles dotted around Heartland) and the challenge of the game is more about negotiating the platforms and exploring the whole word. In fact, more than anything else, it reminds me of those “exploratory” indie titles for the PC with minimalist graphics and which inexplicably need 25MB of harddisk space and a P1000 to run; and, like them, it’s diverting for a moment before it all becomes a bit boring. If you’re really into “explore-em-ups” then this might hold some kind of appeal but I prefer my platform games with a bit more to do and a lot more trying to stop me.

And with a throwable top-hat.

Grandad: Quest for the Holey Vest

3 December, 2008
Thems some shiny wheels, old timer!

Them’s some shiny wheels, old timer!

Old people aren’t very often chosen to be the heroes of video games. I mean, video games need athletic heroes, not bald people with walking sticks. The elderly can’t pull-on
powersuits and fly through space shooting aliens, they can’t leap from platform to platform dodging the evil wibbly-wobbly sprites and they’re not especially good at diving around a room with a gun in each hand whilst the player curses the rubbish camera. Well, they can do all of these things but you suspect their doctor would tut at them. And that they’d die.

This 1992 Atari ST indie game, though, features an old man as its main protagonist. It’s called Grandad: Quest for the Holey Vest and as the name more than suggests it’s about an old bloke looking for his missing vest. Let’s get that out of the way first of all: this is not a game with a thunderously exciting plot but then, as I’ll bang on about to anyone who’ll listen, plots are usually irrelevant to gameplay which is why I get so annoyed when a lot of modern reviewers treat the “story” like it’s as important as the action in a shoot-em-up. But I digress.

Grandad is, basically, a very traditional graphic adventure. The player controls Grandad, in his electric wheelchair (which appears to have a limited battery life making this a race – if you can call it that – against time), as he rolls around his house and the surrounding gardens solving puzzles and being mean to kids. Whilst moving the old grouch is all done by joystick, the commands which allow him to interact with his environment (look, use, and suchlike) are all accessed via a drop down menu. So Grandad might examine a bit of wall and see a key sticking out but he can’t reach it because he’s too old so he has to use the bit of wire he found in the garden to hook it out and then he can open a door leading to more of the house. It’s these sorts of puzzles we’re talking about.

too busy with their crack-knives and Playingstations

This is the room you start off in. Note lack of concerned relatives. Tsk, young people today: too busy with their crack-knives and Playingstations

Despite being, essentially, an extremely simple adventure game with animated (well, slightly animated) graphics and having none of the richness and depth of something like Beneath A Steel Sky this is fairly engaging to play. Like all of these types of games, there’s something undeniably satisfying about solving the puzzles and there’s a desire to see more albeit not all that much: the game’s shameless mundanity means that it lacks the fascination that superior titles do – it’s not so exciting when the new room you’ve accessed isn’t a glittering diamond cave but some old git’s kitchen. Nonetheless, for an indie title this isn’t too bad. The graphics are pretty good and grandad himself manages to convey character even if it’s just that of a grumpy old fogie in a wheelchair and the puzzles are generally logical without being insultingly easy. This isn’t worth disengaging yourself from superb commercial graphic adventures like Sam and Max or Monkey Island (doubtless being ignored in a charity shop near you) for but if you’ve got a spare couple of hours you might like to try spending it with Grandad. Just don’t expect to be bowled-over.

#Ive been sitting here all day, drinking...

“#I’ve been sitting here all day, drinking…”

As those of you who peer carefully at the screenshots might have noticed from the title screen up at the very top-right of the article there, this game seems to have been some sort of shareware/licenseware scheme whereby only a portion of the game was playable from the start with the player needing to enter a license key to access a lift and explore further reaches of Grandad’s house (I’ve not got this far yet because I’m rubbish). Where you’d get this I’ve no idea; perhaps the programmer is still selling it or perhaps it’s been released somewhere in full as freeware. Whatever, I’ll try and find out and unpdate accordingly.

Grav – not to be confused with “Guv”

12 November, 2008

Like Pacman on E’s, today’s game, Grav (date of publishing unknown but I’d guess somewhere between 1987 and 1992) is a variation on a very well-worn theme; this time that of controlling a small triangle-shaped spacecraft and piloting it through caverns whilst shooting at bad guys. Oh, and here’s the important thing, your craft is affected by gravity with the player turning the ship and “thrusting” to make it move. Yes, this game is based on the perennial favourite Thrust.

Now, this would be a good time to mention that I never really played Superior/Firebird’s original Thrust back in the day nor did I really play any of its many clones very much. The one that sticks in my mind most is the Amiga indie title Gravity Force 2 which does-away with the single-player missions of the original game and is instead a two-player dogfight-style game so the whole fly through caverns and shoot gun-turrets whilst occasionally picking something up and taking it to a mothership/base on a sort of elastic string, that sort of thing doesn’t cause my brain to go into nostalgic wibbles the same way it might with other men of my age.

That sparkly thing is a generator, apparently. BUT NOT FOR LONG!!

My superb skillz are in evidence in this screenshot as I spectacularly fail to hit that sparkly blue generator-thing.

So I can’t really tell you how Grav measures up to the original game, all I can tell you is what it felt like to play in the here and now, over twenty years after its inspiration was published. And the answer is that it’s not too bad. The plot is some guff about an evil alien that needs to be stopped before it does terrible things to planet Earth. The game offers a couple of training missions (non-compulsory, thank f*ck, unlike a lot of modern games which force you to play through an hour’s training before you’re actually given permission to do anything) which allow you to get a feel for the game before taking on the main missions themselves. These missions are based around two planets (you can play them in any order, chosen before the game commences) of four levels each. Before commencing on a mission the player can review “intelligence” about the enemies they will face and even adjust the engine power and spin speed of their ship. From what I could gather, the missions consist of guiding the triangular spaceship through various caverns laying waste to gun turrets, generators (which refuel you if you land next to them although you’re often asked to trash them anyway) and the irritating attracting/repelling enemy thingybobs which do exactly what they say on the tin and push or pull the player’s ship to a background of torrents of foul language. There are also some simply “switch” puzzles whereby shooting a certain block will cause doors to open allowing access to more of the level.

As with any game of this type, the main enjoyment is derived from the difficulty of guiding the ship through the caverns without slamming it into the walls or wandering into an enemy bullet. In many ways, the Thrust varients were the videogame equivalent of those carnival games where you have to maouvere a loop along a wire without touching it – they are all about careful skill and manouvering through tight corners only with added shooting and being shot at (well, I say added, there are some very rough carnivals out there, you never know…). Grav is a very simple game – it doesn’t rank up there with superb takes on this genre such as Oids or the aforementioned Gravity Force 2 but it’s pleasant enough if you want to try your hand at a very old-fashioned form of physics-based gaming. Just try not to swear too much when you get “repelled” into a wall.

Pacman on E’s

3 November, 2008
Its not Space Invaders.

It's not Space Invaders.

It’s time to kick-off this Atari ST PD series (in fact I’m rather late with this since I’ve been busy recently) and the first game out of the hat of suggestions is Pacman on E’s from 1994. This is the first sign that this game isn’t a commercial release – a shop-shelf game blatantly mentioning teh drugs would have caused the Daily Mail to explode back in the mid-90s. Release such a thing as an indie title, though, and no one pays the blindest bit of attention.

So, we all know what Pacman‘s like (well, I’d hope do, and if you don’t then commisserations and I hope you escape from your cave very soon) so is this game particularly different? Well, at first glance not really. This follows the basics of pretty-much every Pacman game ever. The player controls the eponymous yellow pill-chomper and has to clear all the pills on each level whilst avoiding the variously-coloured ghosts (yes, yes, I know they were officially “monsters” but they’ll always be ghosts to some of us) and grabbing bonuses.

Pacman rushes around the maze, gobbling pills. Notice one of the ghosts is brown; either that or it was white and came to close to Pacman post-powerpill

Pacman rushes around the maze, gobbling pills. Notice one of the ghosts is brown; either that or it was white and came too close to Pacman post-powerpill

So, what makes this game stand out? Well, the main thing is the presentation which is excellent. The graphics are well-drawn and colourful and full of character: a particular favourite for me are the fruits and various other bonuses which are animated (a banana cheekily peels and “zips” back up whilst waiting for Pacman to grab it). The music is also excellent with a variety of “techno” tunes (as I seem to recall they were known back then) playing in the background and on top of that there’s speech and various other sampled sound effects. It’s all lovely stuff.

Unfortunately, where this game falls down is in the gameplay. There’s been several changes made from the Pacman template which effect gameplay. The most notable is that when Pacman grabs a power pill not only is he now able to eat the ghosts for bonus points but he actually moves twice as fast. This unbalances the difficulty level. The fact that the ghosts don’t seem as devious as their arcade-original counterparts also doesn’t help, as does the fact they don’t turn into eyes and rush back to the centre when eaten but instead disappear and rematerialise in their lair immediately. The worst thing, though, is that several levels into the game I had that dreaded feeling that I wished the game would try harder against me and cause me to lose a life at some point. As soon as a game stops being a challenge it stops being fun and that’s what happened to this one all too quickly. In fact, whilst playing one game and having reached level twelve or thereabouts without breaking into a sweat I simply got bored and allowed the ghosts to get our round yellow hero. That’s not a good sign.

Remember, kids, Pacman has a prescription (probably)

Remember, kids, Pacman has a prescription (probably)

If you love Pacman but are terrible at it, or if you just want to see how to get the look of a Pacman clone just right then take a look at this game. But if you’re seeking out a challenge then I’d suggest looking elsewhere. I’ll leave the last word, though, to Keith Merriwell, the made-up Drugs Kaiser.