Archive for the ‘retrogames’ Category

Dan Dare – Amstrad CPC

2 April, 2010

Yes, that is a Treen on the far-right. Believe it or not, he'll basically float around the screen like that plastic bag in "American Beauty" only more deadly.

Right – Amstrad CPC, let’s do this motherfunker! The first thing I noticed on booting up the CPC Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future disk in my virtual Amstrad was that Dan has green skin in the loading screen. I don’t know either, maybe he’s trying to get in touch with his Treen side. Anyway, the game loaded up and politely requested that I press fire to play so I did.

This is the rather undignified way the game renders Digby. He looks like a chunky Trumpton character!

Now, the Amstrad didn’t have the most fantastic graphics in the world (none of the 8-bit machines popular in Europe did, really) but they could sometimes look brilliant (see the CPC versions of Head over Heels, Gryzor and Combat School for details) however the Dan Dare graphics looks, frankly, awful. The CPC had a nice, bright palette but the artists here seem to have gone for a “dark and dingy” look and it means we end up with a blocky mixture of greens and greys with Dan’s orange skin being one of the few bright spots. Dan lands on an artificial asteroid controlled by the evil Mekon and, from what I can gather, needs to save Digby (unflatteringly rendered in-game as a bit plump, although to be honest so is Dan) who has been trapped on the other side of a chasm by finding things to bridge the chasm and take them to the room Digby is trapped in (and I mean “things”; that’s what Digby calls them “Find more things, Dan!” he says). Find a “thing” and add it to the makeshift bridge and previously-closed doors open (why this is, I’ve no idea) meaning Dan has access to more of the meteorite. Trying to stop Dare doing all this are Treens (all of whom float around, more on this later) and gun emplacements – some static and some moving.

Because of where I shot this gun, Dan will find it difficult to jump that gap. Nice thinking, guys.

Now, the graphics aren’t too hot but the CPC version of Dan Dare really falls down when it comes to gameplay. At the most basic level, this is actually quite a good game – Dan runs from room to room shooting things up and looking for “things” to use to make a bridge to Digby (who is a bit restless, maybe the Mekon won’t let him go to the toilet; that evil Mekon!) but the controls is all wrong. Everything is a bit too sensitive and Dan goes whizzing off like Linford Christie trying to catch a bus if the player nudges left or right. It doesn’t help that the designers filled the game with gaps for Dan to jump and it’s all to easy for the player to accidentally drop Dan down a gap in his haste.

It also doesn’t help that many of the moving gun emplacements are in the ceiling and, when shot, can end up immobile and hanging over a gap. The reason this is such a pain in the arse is that they are “solid”, so to speak, and if Dan hits his head off them he goes straight down. In a game with a lot of pits to drop where the player isn’t always going to take care and shoot the enemy when it’s not in an “inconventient” place, you can see the trouble this can cause.

And the Treens are all wrong. For starters, rather than running around and chasing Dare they all fly around the place like ghosts with goldfish bowls on their heads firing lasers here there and everywhere. If Dan touches a Treen then they take him to prison and he loses a life (this also happens if he falls down a hole). Infuriatingly, Treens often “materialise” behind a large pillar or other bit of scenery and have a bad habit of sometimes hanging around the top of the screen (where they’re also obscured) meaning the player can’t even see them a lot of time. So you need to be prepared for Dan running past a pillar and then being told he’s been captured and sent back to the prison (by the way the “prison” has an open door and isn’t guarded, someone needs to have a chat with the Treens about that) because it’s going to happen quite a lot.

Although, to be honest, not that much because I imagine most people are going to get sick of this flawed, ill-designed game quite quickly. A bit of tweaking the gameplay here and there and it might have been quite good. As it stands, it’s too flawed to be worth spending much time with.

Poly-Play – Wasserrohrbruch

4 September, 2009
Notice how he seems to be wearing skinny jeans, the trendy sod.

Notice how he seems to be wearing skinny jeans, the trendy sod.

So, finally, we’ve reached the end of this East German trek through generally awful games and my own personal Berlin Wall can come crashing down on Poly-Play and gaming from behind the iron curtain in general. For now anyway…

So, what’s the last game from the list of shame on Poly Play’s spartan and functional selection screen, a sight that’s greeted me far more than I’d care for over the last week or so? Which is this final explosion of badly-drawn graphics, beepy sound and ill-thought-through gameplay? What is it I have to play through and write something about before I can go back to playing proper videogames again? Why, ’tis none other than Wasserrohrbruch (Water Pipe Burst).

In this game, the player controls an inappropriately upbeat-looking man with a gigantic glass in his hand who runs about an enormous and yet empty room (perhaps one designed to hold that wealth of high-grade consumer goods the Communist states were always promising to get around to building one day) trying to catch drops of water (which scores points, natch) which are dripping from the leaky ceiling (at last, social realism). When the glass gets full the man has to run up a set of steps on the left and pitch it out of the door, presumably for someone else to deal with which isn’t really in the spirit of socialism.

And that’s about it, the ceiling keeps leaking, the wee man keeps trying to pitch the water out of the door and eventually the leaky ceiling wins and the whole place floods. I’d like to think that the whole thing is a clever political metaphor for Marxist-Leninist economics that VEB Polytechnik slipped past the Stasi but the truth is it’s probably just a rather shitty game. It certainly plays like one although it is better than Hirschjagd and yesterday’s Stalin Says.

I give Wasserrohrbruch two Karl Marx’s out of five.

So, what have I learned from my week or so of playing these games? Well, for all the bad things it’s given us (adverts, irritating branding, corporate-speak, Rupert Murdoch, the worst recession since the war) capitalism has at least given us lots and lots of really good videogames. Except for Rise of the Robots, of course.

"They've opened the Wall! "Ghosts and Goblins" for all!"

"They've opened the Wall! "Ghosts and Goblins" for all!"

To finish with, here’s a picture of an East German authority figure of some sort in shiny jackboots kicking a Poly-Play machine into a river in Berlin as beautifully rendered in MS Paint. Ta-ra for now.

Poly-Play – Merkspiel

3 September, 2009
This game's crap, let's slash the controllers!

This game's crap, let's slash the controllers!

Today’s game from the jaws of East Germany is Merkspiel which means “Memory Game”. It’s basically “Simon Says” with  colourful bloody shapes and bleepy bloody sounds and it’s about as much fun as you can imagine that sort of thing being. I want my first world games back now, dammit!

So, because there’s pretty-much nothing to say about this stupid game I’m going to go off on one a bit about what annoys me so much about bloody Comrade Poly-Play. Obviously, the Eastern Bloc was never going to match the West for hardware but that’s not the problem; the ZX Spectrum was an incredibly primitive bit of kit – no graphics hardware, beepy sound, tape drive etc etc, but it still had lots of terrific games written for it. What’s so annoying about Poly-Play is that there’s been no attempts to create anything worthwhile, no imagination, no basic understanding of how to make a good videogame. It’s just a succession of feeble knock-offs of Western games that completely fails to appreciate what made those games actually work in the first place. There’s nothing, from what I’ve seen of it, that prevented Poly-Play’s hardware from creating a cut-down version of something like Commando, Jet-Pac or Donkey Kong but the good people at VEB Polytechnik just didn’t seem to have had the slightest interest in what they were doing, just knocking stuff out that they hoped would keep the Young Pioneers happy when they weren’t dressing-up in silly blue uniforms and saluting red flags.

Therein we have the main obstacle that stopped Poly-Play from being some kind of forgotten classic waiting to be dusted-off and turned-on: there’s no sense of passion, no evidence of creativity and no apparent interest in what was being made. I doubt the programmer(s) of Hirschjagd felt a strong sense of pride when they ran it the first time, doubtless more “that’ll do” and then off to the canteen for pink lumps in a thin gravy with potatoes. And it’s not even like people in the Eastern Bloc were incapable of creating something worthwhile with the (admittedly limited) artistic tools and budgets available to them – Andrei Tarkovsky was a Soviet film director after all. It just seems that, one of the very few times the Communist world commissioned people to write video games they didn’t even choose people who had any real interest in the whole thing. A shame, if not a surprise.

And I give Merkspiel one Karl Marx out of five hundred.

One more to go…

Poly-Play – Schmetterling

30 August, 2009
Years ago there was an anti-drugs advert which showed some kid meeting his "alternative" self who got into heroin. If Mario were that kid then this daft mole would be his alternative self. Or something. Erm.

Years ago there was an anti-drugs advert which showed some kid meeting his "alternative" self who got into heroin. If Mario were that kid then this daft mole would be his alternative self. I think.

So what’s next out of the East German box of tricks? A game called Schmetterling which means “butterflies”. The name doesn’t inspire confidence, does it? And, to be honest, neither should it.

Because this game is really really terrible. It’s probably even more terrible than Hirschjagd because at least in that game you got to shoot things. In this you play some sort of idiotic mole (called “Mole” according to Wonkypedia and the star of his own Soviet Bloc TV show; that must have been exciting stuff!) with a net who has to catch a variety of butterflies within a time limit. You score points according to what colour of butterflies you catch and when the time runs out it’s game over.

Of course, just because this game sounds a bit poncy doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be bad, I mean in Bubbles you play a bubble gliding around in a sink and it’s pretty good; but the problem with this game is that it’s horribly simplistic and really really boring. I was sick of it after about a minute of playing and felt no desire to go back to it whatsoever. At least it didn’t have a black background, though, which makes it stand out from the Poly Play games I’ve looked at so far.

So, Schmetterling is super-shit; or, in the scoring system I’ve decided to use, I give it one Karl Marx out of five.

Poly-Play – Abfahrtslauf

29 August, 2009
Abfahrtslauf - never mind the gameplay, it sounds like it has "fart" in the middle of its name. Hur hur hur.

Abfahrtslauf - never mind the gameplay, it sounds like it has "fart" in the middle of its name. Hur hur hur.

Right, onto the third game in this series. This time we have Abfahrtslauf (Downhill Run) which is basically a downhill skiing game.

After being given an option which seems to be whether or not I want to use a control stick (?!) we get to the game itself. The player controls a man with a very red nose (I hope that doesn’t mean he’s been at the schnapps!) in a garish purple skiing outfit who has to slalom downhill (leaving a blue trail behind him as he goes – a nice touch even if the graphics don’t line up perfectly as the screenshot shows) between dots which, I suppose, represent the flags. Despite this being a skiiing game the background is completely black, perhaps too much white would have burnt-out the East German television sets this was originally designed to be played on.

Gameplay is pretty simple. Left and right make you ski in the direction you’d expect them to whilst facing forwards makes the skiier speed up (and he can reach some pretty terrifying speeds if you don’t shilly left and right a bit), if you miss going through any of the dots then you are disqualified. If you’re a silly bugger and ski into the sides of the screen then you crash and a tiny ambulance around half the size of the skiier comes on to take you away; the noise the ambulance makes is horrendous, like someone going “eee-oo-eee-oo” into a broken microphone. If you make it to the end of the stage your time is noted and you progress to the next level where the dots are closer together meaning, you’ll doubtless be astounded to hear, that things are a little trickier.

And that’s really all there is to it. Abfahrtslauf isn’t a very complicated game but it’s reasonably enjoyable for a couple of shots and building up a ridiculous speed and then shooting off to the side is a great laugh (well, the first couple of times anyway).

I give Abfahrtslauf two Karl Marx’s out of five.

EDIT: Looking at the screenshot again I’ve just noticed that the skiier actually has see-through feet! No, I don’t understand it either.

Poly-Play – Hirschjagd

26 August, 2009

East Germany! What do you think of when East Germany is mentioned? Probably Trabants, political repression, That Wall and athletes using steroids.

Do you think of games, though? You probably don’t because, let’s face it, apart from Tetris the old Eastern Bloc wasn’t that well known for videogames. But is that fair? Was the German Democratic Republic and the like actually churning out great games that we in the West simply ignored because they were designed to play on 1Mhz computers the size of a casio keyboard which needed to warm-up for ten minutes first? Some good films came out of the Communist world after all (I’m thinking of the likes of Solaris rather than all those ones about the grain harvest).

There’s one way to tell, play Poly-Play, the popular [citation needed] video game system created in East Germany by a company called VEB Polytechnik and installed in the youth clubs and sports centres of the GDR so that gamers on the other side of the iron curtain, with their Pac-Mans and their Ghosts & Goblins, could no longer look down on their Eastern brothers. Or at least that was the idea.

For those who don’t know (and that’s probably most of you) Poly-Play was an arcade cabinet which took tokens and allowed the spotty youth of the GDR to play a selection of games which represented a variety of different gaming styles. I’ve decided to play these games over the coming days and review them at the rate of one per day. And we’ll start with the first one which is:

Hirschjagd (Deer Hunt)

I was disappointed that this first title is about hunting deer, what’s wrong with hunting capitalists? Their top hats would make them easy to spot and we all know they’d spill coins when you shot them, like some kind of Super Mario baddy.

Anyway, for whatever reason the comrade programmers at VEB Polytechnik decided to have the player hunt deer instead. Gameplay consists of moving a wee gun-toting man in a stupid hat around the screen and shooting at a deer. The player has ten bullets and around ten seconds to fire each one or they lose it (I’ve no idea why this is, maybe GDR-built ammunition really was that perishable, shame they didn’t built Trabant bodywork out of the same stuff). The deer “runs” around the screen like, well, a really f**king stupid deer and only changes direction when it hits a tree.The player is not animated as he runs around but the programmers thankfully took the time to give the deer sprite a whole two frames of animation.

This is about as exciting as things get. I'm not kidding.

This is about as exciting as things get. I'm not kidding.

If you shoot a deer (not a great challenge, all considered) you score a point and get the lost bullet back which I presume means that comrade hunter goes up to the dead deer and pulls the bullet out of its hide before sticking it back into his rifle; he’ll also be happy to find that being in the deer’s arse has restored the bullets longevity. So you just keep shooting the deer (which, incidentally never seem to get any faster or more numerous). When all the bullets have run out (which will probably only happen because the you get bored of shooting the same easy target over and over again with no challenge and just unload all your bullets into the air), it’s endes des spiels.

Hirschjagd is rubbish. It’s really rubbish. It’s not even particularly entertaining as a piece of Eastern Bloc kitsch; I mean, East German fridges and the like weren’t up to the standard of the West’s but at least they’d keep your cold food, at least they basically did what they were supposed to. Hirschjagd just doesn’t seem to work as a game at all, there’s hardly anything to play. Wikipedia, in its article about Poly Play describes this game as being “similar to Robotron 2024 , a statement astoundingly untrue even for Wikipedia. I really hope the rest of Poly-Play is better than this.

I give Hirschjagd one Karl Marx out of five.

Tour de Force – like Tour de France but silly

7 July, 2009
Riding through the horrendously-stereotypical streets of Japan in the Spectrum version.

Riding through the horrendously-stereotypical (Sumo-wrestlers and bowls of noodles left in the road just offscreen) streets of Japan in the Spectrum version.

Since it’s Tour De France time, I thought I’d take a wee look at an old cycling game from 1988 – Gremlin’s Tour De Force to be precise.

Unlike now when sports simulations are limited to motor-racing, football and golf back in the golden age ™ of videogaming just about every sport under the sun received a simulation at some point, even judo and squash got their own home-computer versions. Cycling doesn’t get a look-in these days but back in the ’80s there were a couple of cycling games published one of which (funnily enough) is this one.

Now, because the sport of cycling involves peddling along a road somewhere and very occasionally overtaking (or being overtaken by) a sweating man in very tight shorts it doesn’t have much to grip the typical gamer. For this reason Tour De Force relegates the “cycle race” part to just the core of the game and adds all sorts of things around it that you wouldn’t get in the actual Tour de France that this is so very very thinly based on. So, as well as just having to overtake the other cyclists the player also has to dodge roadworks, occasionally jump over them using a ramp, collect food and drink to boost points and keep heat levels down and avoid obstacles placed in the road both living and inert.

The Amstrad CPC version: like the Spectrum version but less colourful (a common complaint amongst CPC users in the '80s - damn those lazy ports indeed)

The Amstrad CPC version: like the Spectrum version but less colourful (a common complaint amongst CPC users in the '80s - damn those lazy ports indeed)

Actually, come to think of it, most of those things probably are encountered on the average Tour de France.

Tour de Force also takes place over a number of levels with races in a number of different countries, starting in Japan (that well-known home of the long-distance cycle race, there) although I wasn’t able to get much further than level two (France, which should have been level one or something).

This isn’t a bad wee game. The graphics are okay, have plenty of character and aren’t too messy or confusing and although there’s some frustration (such as crashing into an obstacle and then making the same mistake with the start of your next life and an inability to cycle backwards meaning no way of getting out of a pickle you’ve managed to cycle into) it’s quite good fun to play. There’s just one thing about it that really, really annoys me, though. When you finish a race the wee bloke doesn’t cycle across the finish line, he stops with the front wheel right on top of it whilst all his opponents cycle across it and then he has the termacity to raise his arms up as if he thinks doing so makes him look good rather than a tit. Whoever signed off that little detail at Gremlin Graphics wants a strongly-worded letter, I tells thee.

I played both the Spectrum and Amstrad CPC versions (Speccy has better graphics, Amstrad better sound). You can find both of them here.

Rasterscan – in space no one can see your confusion

12 June, 2009
This is the screen that appears on starting. Yes, MSB is balanced on a giant finger sculpture; nice of someone to put that on board the Rasterscan

This is the screen that appears on starting. Yes, MSB is balanced on a giant finger sculpture; nice of someone to put that on board the Rasterscan

Like a lot of ’80s games, Rasterscan (a game published in 1987 by budget house Mastertronic and written by Steve Pickford, John Pickford and Steve Huges) is probably best described as “quirky”. This deeply-odd little game has the player take control of a “droid” called MSB (I’m not sure what MSB stands for – Mega Silly Billy or summat – and I’m sure it doesn’t matter) who needs to repair a stricken spaceship called “Rasterscan” (hence the name o’ the game). That scenario sounds very straightforward, and it is, it’s the gameplay itself that’s just plain odd.

You see, for starters the “droid” in question is a ball which (on the Spectrum and Amstrad versions at least) has lines drawn from top to bottom which, when it moves, make it resemble “3D” balls in a lot of early computer animation. It also moves in a gravity-free environment with the only inertia being provided by the player’s controls; realistic considering it’s in a spaceship I suppose but it feels a bit strange for a videogame. In fact, if there were a great deal of nasties, spikes and the like to avoid then this method of control would be downright annoying but, luckily there’s none of that.

This all means something or other, I'm not sure what.

This all means something or other, I'm not sure what.

Instead, the player has to move MSB around the spaceship, bouncing off the walls (some of which are offscreen and only “visible” on the onscreen minimap, meaning that MSB sometimes bounces off what seems to be a perfectly-valid exit) and trying to manouver the hapless droid into upturned spanner heads (?) in order to activate them.

This is where things get a bit dodgy, and a bit odd. You see, according to the instructions MSB is broken and needs to be repaired before it has any idea how to fly a spaceship; I can only assume this is the reason that most of the spannerheads I encountered ended up killing MSB if I tried to activate them (really) because the instructions claim that they all “have a function” but presumably MSB isn’t capable of using them yet.

As to how to repair MSB, I’m not sure. Some of the spanner heads (you really have find which ones largely by trial and error) activate logic puzzles which open doors. I say “logic puzzles” but it seemed to be a case of swapping colours on some kind of colour wheel until the door opened. Or didn’t. In several cases I found logic puzzles I was unable to complete and the game won’t let MSB out of his spannerhead until the puzzle is completed meaning I had to reset the game and go and do something less confusing, like re-create the gordian knot.

Just one of this games' "logic puzzles'. Keep changing the colours until the door opens, from what I can gather.

Just one of this games' "logic puzzles'. Keep changing the colours until the door opens, from what I can gather.

Really, everything suggests there’s possibly an intriguing, even clever little arcade-adventure/puzzler hidden in there somewhere (there’s even an onscreen display for objects carried, presumably MSB picks them up at some point) but, in spite of that, I’ve never quite managed to get past all the weird doors so I can’t find it. Like Dark Sceptre, this game leaves me scratching my head.

It’s a shame, because technically this is quite nice. It looks like something that grew out of a tech demo – as I said the droid has a pleasantly “3D” look to it, there’s a nice use of colour in the various pipes which criss-cross the Rasterscan (and which doubtless mean something) and the use of digitised graphics for the spannerheads and the occasional oddity such as a giant cassette player (?!) give the game a suitably surreal feel. Oh and there’s also a rather-good tune on the title screen whose relentlessness suggests manically running down corridors – actual gameplay may vary. Rasterscan is a brave attempt at something different and I’m sure that for someone out there there’s a clever little puzzle game in here. But, for the moment at least, not me.

(The version I played (or at least tried to play) was the ZX Spectrum one because of my incurable Spectrum bias. It’s possible that the Amstrad, C64 and MSX versions might make more sense but I doubt it.)

Happy Birthday Falling Shapes!

2 June, 2009
How Tetris looked over here, before the more famous and more yellow version took over the world

How Tetris looked over here, before the more famous and more yellow version took over the world

As this article points out Alexey Pajitnov’s world-conquering puzzle game Tetris, programmed in the then-Soviet Union in 1984, is 25 years old (I’m unsure whether today is it’s exact birthday or whether it was finished at around roughly this time in ’84). Annoyingly, that article completely fails to mention that the first official appearance of Pajitnov’s game on these shores was its publication for a number of popular home computers by Mirrorsoft in the Spring of 1988, well before the Nintendo Gameboy version appeared in 1989 (there’s also mention of a 1985 PC version but I don’t think it was released in Europe). Tsk.

Anyway, happy birthday to Tetris. May you continue to cause people to go to sleep at night dreaming of falling bricks for many years to come!

New Retroaction

11 May, 2009

RetroactionA quick (but not dirty) post to let you all know that the summer edition of quarterly retro-gaming magazine Retroaction has arrived and is full of excellent features, including reviews some of which have been written by your’s truly. Rather than tell you which ones, I’ll let you all download the magazine and read it to find out, although anyone who reads this blog regularly won’t be entirely surprised to find out which venerable gaming platform they’re all for. Ha.