Posts Tagged ‘amstrad cpc’

“Torpedo – You’re Fired!”

10 March, 2011

Alright, it's only three levels of Parallax, it just FEELS like bloody loads on an 8-bit.

Yes, I know, it’s been ages since I put a post up here. To be honest I’ve just been a little bit stuck for something to write about and pondering another “themed” sequence of articles rather than just grabbing something a bit retro and indie and writing about it. Perhaps a few mini-essays on BBC Micro games, perhaps those write-ups of Amiga indie titles of the ’90s I keep meaning to do.

In the meantime, here’s something which grabbed my attention. I’m a bit fond of Sub Hunter, an indie title for the C64 with ridiculous Shadow of the Beast parallax scrolling and rather enjoyable arcade action in a coin-op-from-1984 stylee. Well, now it’s been converted to the CPC as well so if you like your computers less brown and built by a grumpy Peer of the Realm who points at people on telly and says “your fired!” you ought to be happy. I’m guessing a Speccy version isn’t going to arrive since this is the sort of game more suited to the C64 and CPC with their chucky multicoloured graphics. Sob!

Anyhoo, if you fancy downloading the CPC version head over here; and if you fancy buying an actual physical copy to use in Lord Sirallan’s bulky old ’80 beast clicky here. That is all. For now.

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.

Best. Dare. Ever?

23 March, 2010

Dare! Dare! Dare! But which of you is best? There's only one way to find out... FIGHT!

I was wondering what to write about next when, whilst reading a friend’s blog about board gaming, I idly followed a link to an online ZX Spectrum emulator (the point of this completely eludes me – I have three Speccy emulators on this PC which is, to be honest, three more than most people would ever want) and idly scrolled through the list of games available before settling on Virgin Games’ Dan Dare license from 1986.

Then it struck me – a series of articles about those first Dan Dare games.

Dan Dare, for those who don’t know, is a British sci-fi comic book character (kind of like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, only with tea and crumpets) who spent his time fighting aliens from Venus called “treens” assisted by his plucky Lancastrian sidekick Digby. A game based on Dan Dare (called Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future) was released by Virgin Games for all the major home computer formats in 1986 – ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC. Nothing unusual about that, of course, licensed games were a big thing at the time. What’s interesting about this game, though, is that it was noticeably different game on each format. In fact, in the case of the Commodore release, it was a different genre.

This kind of thing still happens to some extent – witness the wildly different “cut down” or “re-imagined” versions of next Gen console or PC games converted to relatively underpowered handhelds, for instance – but the idea of a game (and a licensed game at that) being developed separately and differently on three machines whose abilities weren’t all that different and were more than capable of playing the same kind of game is rather odd. Different times, folks, different times.

Dan Dare spawned two sequels – predictably called Dan Dare II and Dan Dare 3. By the time these games were released, the usual conformity had returned and the different platforms basically got the same game. Whatever crazy notion or sheer neglect had lead to Virgin allowing three distinct versions of the Dare licensed game to be released on separate formats had been righted (or, perhaps, wronged).

What I’ll be doing is playing each conversion for an hour or so and then writing what I think of them, what works and what doesn’t and, most importantly, which platform had the best Dan Dare game. I’m going to be utterly non-partisan about this, incidentally, I’ll have to beat down my childhood-nostalgia-based prejudices. The only ones I ever played in the heyday of 8-bit machines was the Spectrum version and (very briefly) the Amstrad CPC version (on a green monitor, I seem to recall, naff-tastic!) but I’ll be trying to approach them as-new, sternly assessing each and every aspect of gameplay like a humourless government inspector with his clipboard and toothbrush moustache, eventually sticking a “best Dare” rosette to one of them whilst a crowd stands and applauds. Let’s see what one it’s going to be shall we? I almost can’t wait!

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.)

Eternal Light – go forth old man and find those lanterns!

12 March, 2009
The title screen that greets you as the game loads. This is lovely stuff, actually.

The title screen that greets you as the game loads. This is lovely stuff, actually.

What do I have? What’s this in my big box of magical things underneath the Great Suprendo’s glasses? Why it’s a new indie game for the Amstrad CPC called Eternal Light!

Now, first off I should tell you that this game has been written in BASIC with a bit of help from something called the “Sprites Alive” which, I presume, makes sprites move around the screen. Secondly, that it’s by someone called Morrisoft and it apparently took six months to write.

So, what do we do in this game? What’s it all about (they scream and then they shout)? Well, to be honest I’m not sure. None of the stuff I found on this game online said much about a plot, all I know is that the player controls a bloke with long white hair and a beard of similar hue dressed in blue robes (probably a wizard of some kind although it could just be someone’s mad old

Watch out for that black ball-shaped... thingy, grandad!

"Watch out for that black ball-shaped... thingy, grandad!"

grandad wandering around in his dressing-gown) who explores a maze of screens looking for lanterns. I’m not sure why he’s looking for lanterns but they surround him on the title screen so they must be quite important to him. Maybe they’re those Chinese lanterns people release into the air and that people keep mistaking for flying saucers and that have come down to land and our hero has to fetch them all back because the company that sells them is really cheap; maybe he just really really likes lanterns and has a house full of them, that and cats. Anyway, why blokey is wandering around in his gown hunting down lanterns is unimportant, it’s what he does and why he does it isn’t really any of our business! What matters, as ever, is how this game plays.

From what I’ve described of the game you’re probably thinking that it’s a little like Sabre Wulf or Project Future and, yes, at its most basic the gameplay is like that. But it’s nothing like those games to actually play, and the main reason for this is one of speed. Yes, this game is slow. It’s very slow. It’s probably slower than Magic Pockets and that’s jolly slow.

Now, the programmer says this game is written in BASIC and, assuming Amstrad CPC BASIC is a bit like Speccy BASIC I assume that means that it stops things running at a fair old rate. If this is the case then that’s understandable but it doesn’t actually change the fact that this game is fairly boring to play as a result. It takes ages to have grandpa lantern-lover wander from one side of the screen to the other and when you enter the next screen there’s a wait of about a second and a half until the next one shows up. That’s making a slow game even slower!

Help me please! I move slower than the Bitmap Kid!

"Help me please! I move slower than the Bitmap Kid!"

Most of the game consists of wandering around the maze-like play area looking for the lanterns. Some are easy to reach, some are behind “puzzle” obstacles like women who won’t budge until you find their missing brother. So there’s a very slight arcade-adventure element to gameplay as well.

There’s not really much to fight. The only enemy I encountered was some kind of little black ball things which bounce around the screen. They can be dispatched by a magical blast/stale roll fired by our magical/geriatric hero but it never gets either especially challenging or exciting. Energy is represented onscreen by a row of hearts (or are these lives, again I don’t know and I suppose it doesn’t matter). When our hero is touched by an evil ball-thing one of these hearts is lost and when they’re all lost it’s game over.

One thing I really did like about this game, though, is the presentation. Things open with an excellent high-resolution loading screen and the in-game graphics are, in the main, pleasantly chunky and colourful. I particularly liked the background graphics which had a nice Zela-esque feel and represented paths, forests, rivers and mountains nicely. It’s a shame the bad guys look so naff, though. Sound’s pretty good as well – no tune but lots of pleasant blips and blops as whitebeard goes about his business. This game isn’t exactly packed with great art but it’s above-average for something that’s been knocked-out by an independent developer.

Overall, though, this is just too slow and unexciting to grab the player. It looks nice and I think there’s definitely something there that can be expanded on but currently all we have here is a slow, rather boring maze game with some nice graphics. Speed this up, add a few more nasties (which are a bit more threatening) and maybe a bit more variety to the maze and a smattering of bonus pick-ups and you’re heading into the realms of proper old-school maze game. At the moment what we’ve got feels like nothing so much as a work in progress to show the boss, let him know you’re getting on with that Sabre Wulf beater but that you’ve not finished yet. Because there’s still much to do. And that’s a shame.

Theatre Europe – Go on, blow the whole world up

27 October, 2008
Lets not blow each other up, Mr Reagan! Gee, thats a good idea, Mr Gorbachev!

"Let's not blow each other up, Mr Reagan!" "Gee, that's a good idea, Mr Gorbachev!"

Righty-ho, this is going to be the last of this batch of strategy game lookbacks because, as I might have intimated here before, I find writing strategy titles up an enormous rectal discomfort. This is because so damn few games in this genre are simple and straightforward and the articles always end-up being about the various features and rules of the games rather than what they feel like to play, whether they’ve weathered time well, and any crude jokes I can wrangle out of them. The next batch of games are going to be straightforward action games; oh yes.

Luckily, this last strategy title is a bit simpler than the others. Theatre Europe is not, as the title might suggest to some, about putting on a Continental performance of As You Like It (although I imagine some boring bastard has written just such a game) but about the balloon going up and the military juggernauts of NATO and the Warsaw Pact going at it tooth and claw in the mid 1980s. This jolly, upbeat little game was published in 1985 by PSS (which stands for Personal Software Services which can’t help but remind me of a film called Personal Services which was all about prostitution, but anyway…) for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64. Because of my appalling Spectrum bias so far I’ve decided to play the C64 version for the purposes of this article, although all versions of the game are very similar from what I’ve seen.

This is how things look at the start with the Soviets aiming to be chomping sausages in Bonn within weeks and NATO, erm, hoping to protect their sausages (er...)

This is how things look at the start with the Soviets aiming to be chomping sausages in Bonn within weeks and NATO, erm, hoping to protect their sausages (er...)

The plot is built-on Cold War politics of the mid-80s. A conventional war has started between the superpowers and their allies; essentially the Warsaw Pact is trying to secure control of West Germany and NATO is trying to prevent them from doing the same with the player being able to choose either side (I plumped for NATO). There are also neutral armies which will defend their respective countries from invasion by either side. Both sides have a number of different armies (represented with blue and red blobs on the strategic map) which, over a number of different phases per turn, can be moved, ordered to attack and “rebuilt” (ie resupplied with equipment and air support). After these orders have been given the player is shown a screen detailing Special Missions which mean ordering either a chemical or nuclear strategic attack.

This is the arcade section. Im not sure this was terribly realistic even in 1985.

This is the "arcade section". I'm not sure this was terribly realistic even in 1985.

The game has “arcade screens” and the player can opt to have these turned on or off at the options screen before starting a game. These appear when the orders to attack have been given (by either side) with the player choosing an in-combat army to represent at which point the game displays a backdrop of countryside (if fighting outside a city) or a city (if fighting… well… in a city). The player controls a target and must fire missiles at the enemy which is represented by little tank-things rolling from the horizon to the middle of the screen whilst protecting friendly vehicles which roll along from side to side at the bottom of the screen. Additionally enemy aircraft fly overhead. This arcade section is, to be blunt, a bit confusing. According to the instructions I’m supposed to fire my missiles and then keep the target aimed on enemy vehicles in order to destroy them but it doesn’t seem to work like that at all and the best way (as far as I could see) way of blowing up the Soviet army seemed to be to fire a missile and then arrange for it to fly into the side of the approaching T72s (or whatever they’re supposed to be). Aircraft can be destroyed by the player as well according to the instructions but from my experience they simply exploded by themselves every so often (or was that down to my vehicles occasionally throwing into the air what looked like bunches of white dots, I’m not sure). Apparently, how you fare in this one fight will have a knock-on effect on all the battles your troops are involved in that turn so destroying as many enemy as possible is important. This is all reasonably entertaining at first but you’ll soon grow tired or it and turn it off in favour of proper strategy.

The proper strategy, as it happens, is mostly pretty straightforward. You move armies, order them to attack (or leave them to defend) and replenish what you can during the “rebuild” stage. There’s also some stuff about air power which involves prioritising air superiority, counter air (ie attacking airstrips and the like), interdict (trashing the supply lines of the enemy) and reconnaissance. Apparently, these affect the chances of the ground troops you control directly, I’m told it’s an important part of the strategy that can turn the tide of the war if used correctly but I can’t say I noticed it making much difference.

The Special Missions is the most dramatic part of the game. There are three types of attack you can order: chemical weapon attack (the computer chooses the target for you, Moscow in the case of the game I was playing), strategic single nuclear strike (nuke a city in other words) and a full nuclear strike which basically blows the entire world up. In order to use nuclear weapons, the player originally had to call a real-life phone number to obtain the authorisation code (“Midnight Sun” as wikipedia kindly told me). My game ended with a full nuclear strike; what a silly sausage I am. Still, at least I didn’t end-up having to spend my days in a re-education camp carving a marble bust of Marx and composing Das Kapital: The Musical, eh readers?

Strategic Gas Attack is nothing to do with farting. Really. Dammit, this is deadly serious!

"Strategic Gas Attack" is nothing to do with farting. Really. Dammit, this is deadly serious!

It’s clear from the manual that the programmers put a lot of thought and detail into this game with the two power blocs represented roughly accurately and the various war options open to the players roughly what was available to commanders at the time, even the suicidal Mutually Assured Destruction option of a full nuclear strike. The instructions list a bibliography used to inform the game including various books on (then contemporary) NATO/Warsaw Pact capabilities, leaflets from the American and Soviet embassies and documentation from CND. Playing the game itself feels like a simulation of the basics of a European Western/Soviet face-off as well. There’s no exciting dashes for Moscow for NATO troops or marching into Paris if you’re playing as the Soviets, it’s all purely about control of West Germany and much of the strategic map doesn’t even get used.

Oh noes!!

Oh noes!!

So how does it all come together? Is it a magnificent piece of wargaming or a pile of poo? Well, neither to be honest. It’s all well-detailed without being confusing or full of tedious minutae and playing it is certainly fairly interesting but limitations in gameplay really put a dampner on a lot of things. For example, the manual mentions some “assumptions” the game made which effect how the war plays out such as: that the Warsaw Pact won’t start the war with a nuclear bombardment, that NATO will control the Atlantic, that the French will enter the war immediately. It would have been better to either let the player decide or randomise these factors making for a more realistic scenario. The “action” sequences are also very crude, poorly-implemented and don’t seem to add much to the game. I thought having “closeup” representations of the battle was a good idea but it should have been done in a way other than a confusing shooting-gallery. The strategic part of the game isn’t too bad and works quite well but the player only really has control of ground forces and can only really tell them to move and attack; things like air support/warfare and naval engagements are taken care of by the computer offscreen and it’s all a bit vague as to how they effect gameplay. The Special Missions also seem to be a bit limited with any nuclear or chemical strike being immediately responded to in kind and with one option basically ending the game. I suppose there’s a strong real-world point being made here about what happens when one nuclear power attacks another nuclear power but, from the point of just playing a strategic game, it doesn’t really add much.

Theatre Europe isn’t a bad piece of software at all, it’s certainly interesting for a couple of games, but it all looks a bit primitive and limited to modern eyes. A shame, since it’s the only game I can think of off-hand that’s a strategic simulation of a cold war superpower confrontation on this sort of scale. When thinking of other cold war videogames I can only really think of Steel Panthers which simulates things at the individual battle scale rather than an overall war and the realist FPS Operation Flashpoint which again takes place at a small scale and is also somewhat hampered by a very silly plot and (sigh) being set for no good reason in a made-up country. The Red Alert games, I think we can safely say, don’t really count. Theatre Europe is an interesting title in an under-represented sub-genre and it’s worth a look but it really hasn’t aged that well.

Election – get yer oversized rosette on

18 October, 2008
Mmmm, bold primary colours; very 80s

Mmmm, bold primary colours; very '80s

“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, out, out!”, “The lady’s not for turning”. Ah, British politics in the 1980s; thank f*ck those days are behind us. Anyway, I’m not just bursting out a couple of quotes for no good reason, today’s game is all about British politics in the ’80s. It’s Mastertronic’s 1984 release Election in which the player must contest a parliamentary seat in a general election and run a campaign to win that seat. This game was published on the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC from what I can gather but it’s the Speccy version I’ll be playing for this review.

First, the player chooses their political party from between Conservative, Labour and the Alliance (now known as the Liberal Democrats) and from there chooses a number of manifesto commitments to focus on; the opposition candidates then do the same. Choosing the manifesto commitments is quite interesting as regards how things have changed since 1984 with Labour wanting to leave the EEC and unilateral disarmament whilst the Conservatives focus on encouraging private healthcare and controlling the trade unions with ne’er a word about recycling. The Liberals, bless them, hardly seem to have changed at all.

Fight the power!

Fight the power!

Anyway, you chooses your party and your manifesto commitments and then we get a graphical display representing streets in the constituency (called Pendel) and their voting intentions which, surprise surprise, are fairly evenly-split between the three parties. Essentially, your campaign focuses on canvassing voters on a street-by-street basis.

Starting with campaign funds of £4000, the player decides how the money must be spent over the course of ten days after which the election will take place. Each day is split into several sections. First, the player will be offered the opportunity to rent billboard space on a street (they have no choice which one, it’s announced by the computer) and must place a higher bid than the other candidates; this is done “blind” meaning the player has no idea what the other candidates are bidding, the winner gets the billboard and presumably more votes.

Next comes the opportunity to buy a newspaper advert. This time it’s all about how much you spend on the advert and this affects the candidates general popularity in the constituency.

After this comes the chance to speak at a meeting in a street. Residents will bring up issues and the player has 25 “points” to distribute in their replies and can allocate as many as they like to a single issue. The number of issues brought up is random and so allocating points can be a gamble. Manifesto commitments also affect how replies go down – if it concerns an issue on your manifesto you score extra, if it concerns an issue on an opponent’s manifesto you lose points. If your points are in the positive after the meeting then you gain votes on that street; presumably based on how many points you have.

This represents streets in the constituency; in my first game I managed to turn Tory Way into a red stronghold. Ha!

This represents streets in the constituency; in my first game I managed to turn Tory Way into a red stronghold. Ha!

Following this comes the main part of the campaign – the player is shown the streets in Pendel again and asked to choose how many and which streets to canvas. Once the streets have been chosen the player is then asked to decide how much they want to spend on canvassing and this will affect their number of votes in that street.

After this, the whole process starts again with a new billboard opportunity for the next day. In addition to this there are random events which can affect your popularity or campaign funds. After day ten the election takes place and the votes are counted on a street by street basis until they are all in and the winner is declared.

So, how does all this play? Well, not too badly. The game is in basic so it runs a bit slow but thinking about which streets to canvas and how to allocate meeting points is quite good fun and the election at the end is genuinely quite gripping as the votes pour in and (occasionally) predictions are turned on their heads.

However, I had some issues with this game. The main ones are about realism. The voters in Pendel don’t seem to be terribly ideological and can be won over far too easily. For example, I concentrated on canvassing the true-blue Tory Way in my first game and managed to turn it into a Labour stronghold. The thing is, Tory Way was clearly a well-off area full of blue rinsers and in the real 1984 some Labour candidate could spend £10,000 canvassing such an area and be lucky to pick-up a handful of votes. The way the random events affect gameplay is also clumsy. If bakers lose jobs then your candidate loses popularity but there’s no indication that you are the incumbent so… erm… why do I get all the shit for it? On an even more absurd note I once lost popularity for something the population were blaming on the government despite being a Labour candidate; say what now? The “meetings” system is similarly flawed; you gain extra points for answering a question that links to your manifesto in some way but again there’s no ideological basis for how this works. For example, if I am the Labour candidate and I have a manifesto including a commitment to control the police and I’m holding a meeting in a Conservative street and someone brings up a question regarding the police then I score well for banging on about my manifesto point despite the fact that it simply would not go down well in such an area, indeed quite the opposite. Again, this whole aspect of the game feels unrealistic. It’s also pretty easy; I played this game twice to write this article and won both times despite not having a very carefully-planned (indeed some might say utterly bloody slapdash) campaign strategy and despite having a general popularity in the negative figures.

So, overall this might be worth a game or two just out of interest but it is repetitive, easy and you shouldn’t expect anything remotely like a real mid-’80s general election campaign. Now, where’s my donkey jacket?