Posts Tagged ‘atari st’

Does the “D” stand for “Derek”?

22 July, 2015

“In the footure, we all wear red jumpsuits with grey patches”

A friend of mine recently punted me in the direction of indie cyberpunk-ish isometric game DataJack which is very nice and all that and I’ll maybe write something about it here in the next month or so.

But what I wanted to talk about was what DataJack immediately reminded me of – the largely-forgotten 1991 arcade-adventure D-Generation.

When it came out, D-Generation won plenty of praise from the press for its gameplay but was criticised for its visuals which had an outdated, even amateurish look to them. This was a couple of years after Shadow of the Beast and only two years before Doom; 16-bit software was expected to look impressive. D-Generation didn’t and for that reason largely passed an awful lot of people by.

But discovering it again, what’s notable apart from the still-brilliant gameplay (a mixture of action and puzzle-solving) and unintrusive, Bioshock-style plot development (found largely via messages and through conversations rather than cut-scenes and exposition) is how little its “primitive” looks actually matter today and, in fact, how in the modern era of deliberately retro and visually spartan indie software D-Generation weirdly now looks more modern than a lot of its contemporaries.

Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any digital distribution retailers selling this game, so I can only link to its Abandonia page here. Note that the PC version doesn’t seem to have any joystick support, so playing or emulating the Amiga or ST version may be the best option for most people; there’s also a CD32 version if you can be bothered hunting-down/emulating that.


4 May, 2014

Oh dear, how the memory can play tricks on you, and the recent memory at that. I thought I’d have a go of Prehistorik on the Amiga (originally available in Atari ST flavour) because, in my recollections at least, it was a fun platform game with a slightly-novel premise and good graphics.

You can kind of see where this is going, but rather than cut to the chase I think a little background is worthwhile. I get a weird Proustian rush from Prehistorik anyway because it came out around the time I first got an Amiga and it was reviewed in one of the first (perhaps even the first) copies of the (frankly terrible) Amiga magazine Amiga Action I bought before I had the sense to defect to the “better but not Amiga Power” Amiga Format. I seem to recall it got a reasonably good review in said rag (not all that difficult from what I remember) and, years and years later, I actually got to play it and “quite enjoyed it”. You run around a scrolling level bonking monsters on the head, collecting power ups and building up a “food” bar before completing the level and taking on some seriously massive boss monsters before progressing.


Rather than go to the shops like any decent (prehistoric) human being, Rik thieves from peoples’ caves.

Prehistorik was actually just one of a small rash of “caveman” games that came out in the 1990s. Chuck Rock (featuring a villain who was the near namesake of, erm, Gary Glitter) is probably the best known one but there was also Ugh! (a clone of Space Taxi), the indie title Trog, BC Kid and the bizarre “mash-up” Joe and Mac: Caveman Ninja.

Looking at a still screen of Prehistorik it’s easy to see where the warm fuzzy memories come from. It looks colourful and attractive with nice, chunky, cartoon graphics. The end of level bosses in particular look absolutely smashing. Amiga and Atari ST games of the time generally looked a bit “flat” compared to the arcade-quality Manga-like pixel art the Japanese artists were creating for the console games but now, with everything from the era frankly looking inevitably dated, the European stuff has a certain charm. It’s a good-looking game, I’ll give it that. The sound is good too with a jolly, upbeat tune playing throughout and nice sampled sound effects (it’s particularly nice to hear both at the same time, something that was rare with the Amiga for reasons I’ve never quite fathomed but which I suspect involved Amiga musicians always insisting on using all four sound channels when composing leaving the game with a “my music or his sound effects!” stand-off for the player to resolve).

The problem is when you start playing. For a start, it “scrolls” in name only. It’s actually closer to a flick-screen title with the screen quickly jumping from right to left or vice versa as the player reaches the edge of the screen. This may be in large part because it was originally written for the popular but limiting Atari ST programming package STOS. ST ports were notorious for not taking advantage of the Amiga hardware anyway so you can just imagine how much clunkier one written using a BASIC package feels. Another problem is the collision detection which is really shonky with Rik constantly being “hit” by obstacles you could swear he’d avoided. But on top of these problems is the overall feel of the game, it’s probably a legacy of STOS but it feels very… 8-bit. There’s a lack of smoothness to gameplay with the absence of proper scrolling and some really irritating problems such as the aforementioned poor collision detection, the lack of precision in jumping and moving (Rik feels like he’s moving about eight pixels a time) and some shonky design (for example the monkeys throwing coconuts who always throw again once the first one hits rather than at set time delays meaning when Rik gets close he’s greeted by a flurry of missiles).


“I’m gonna knock you out, Rik said knock you out”

Unfortunately, and I hate to say this, but Prehistorik just plain plays poorly; it feels amateurish and unpolished, something that was unfortunately a lot more common around 1991. Considering that at the time there were so many platform games for the 16 bits with half-decent scrolling and tight control the clunkiness of Prehistorik feels unforgivable. Still, at least they got the opportunity to put things right with Prehistorik 2 a couple of years later, at least let’s hope they will because that’s the next game I’m going to play for a couple of hours and then grumble about here.

Time Bandit: no dwarves, no David Warner, lots of shooting

10 October, 2011

Mister Bandit goes wandering around a mystical cod-medieval landscape. Later he'll probably visit Ancient Rome, or starship.

Chances are you haven’t heard of Time Bandit. You’ve probably heard of Time Bandits, of course, because it’s the brilliant 1981 fantasy flick directed by “the American Python” Terry Gilliam, everyone’s heard of that except boring bastards. But Time Bandit is completely unrelated, sharing nothing but a similar name. And it’s a shame that you’ve probably not heard of it, because Time Bandit is in its own way just as brilliant.

If I’m being honest the reason that I’ve heard of it is because of the aforementioned link: I came across a game called Time Bandit on the Amiga, wondered if it had anything to do with the film, loaded it up and realised that it didn’t. But after a couple of hours worth of play I realised that that’s not important because Time Bandit is a brilliant mixture of videogame styles with an ingenious non-linear progression.

Originally appearing on the relatively obscure TRS-80 home computer in 1983, Time Bandit was later ported to the Amiga and Atari ST in ’88 and it is these versions which were most popular (and which I am concentrating on). The easiest way to describe Time Bandit is to say that it’s a Gauntlet-style top-down game which borrows elements from other games including Pac-Man and Bomberman as well as text adventures (yes, really!). The player travels through time visiting different worlds (and a signpost which gives information about progress so far and the option to save the game) via a main Mario/JRPG-style scrolling play area; these various worlds, all of which can be accessed from the start, are split into 16 stages and in each stage the basic goal is to open the exit and escape at which point the player is returned to the level selection area and has the choice of either re-entering the world just visited and attempting the next level which will be more difficult or of tackling a different world and returning to the next level of previous worlds later on. Whilst playing a level of a world, which uses the same top-down scrolling display as the main selection stage, the player can simply concentrate on reaching the exit, take time out to grab as much treasure as possible dotted around the world (score for treasure in a level increases for each treasure taken so the first will be 100 “cubits”, the second 200 etc) or even take a quest or solve puzzles that can be found in the level. The worlds themselves are very diverse covering various time zones (hence the game’s name) and include an Enterprise-style starship, medieval castles and even a Pac-Man-style maze. They’re also full of ‘orrible things which spawn from (apparently indestructable) points on the floor and patrol the rooms and corridors. Our hero can dispatch them with his laser/plasma/whateveritis gun earning cubits as he does so; and depending on skill and bravery in doing so, earnings for beastie-shooting increase, reducing again if the player shows a lapse in heroism.

If the above description confuses the hell out of you (and I don’t blame you) try watching this YooToob vid of someone playing the Atari ST version and you might get the idea.

Like many great videogames, it’s better to discover Time Bandit and its wealth of features and surprises (barely scratched in the above description) for yourself. It’s not perfect – a time limit on levels would have stopped score-scumming and the text-adventure aspect, whilst a nice touch, would have worked better as some kind of icon-based arcade-adventure instead. Nonetheless, this game is great fun, addictive, and pleasingly barmy and despite the mixture of game styles sounding utterly bloody absurd on paper it somehow works. They really don’t make them like this anymore, although to be honest they didn’t really make them like this back then either.

Oh, and there’s a two player simultaneous option as well…


How much does r0x rock (if a rockr0x could rockr0x)?

13 July, 2009
"Rocks to the left of my, nothing to the right, here I am stuck in the middle(ish) with a bonus (erm)"

"#Rocks to the left of me, nothing to the right, here I am stuck in the middle(ish) with a bonus (erm)"

Something I find a little disappointing about the current retro-gaming scene is the lack of new titles being released for the 16-bit platforms. Whilst the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 have a healthy turnover of new indie releases each year fans of the Atari ST, Amiga, SNES, Sega Megadrive et al are usually left standing around wondering why no one wants to write anything new for their platforms at quite the same rate. Given that the Amiga and ST had huge numbers of freeware games published for them each year in their heyday I’ve always found this a little puzzling.

Still, every so often you get what you want (as the Rolling Stones never sang) and so it is that a brand new title for the Atari ST has recently come to light calling itself r0x.

Now, despite what a cursory glance at any screenshots of this game might suggest (see the one top-right) r0x is not a shoot-em-up. It is, for want of a better term, an avoid-em-up. The player takes control of a spaceship and has to fly through asteroid fields and avoid the many rocks that hurtle towards you; as the level proceeds, a timer ticks down and as it reaches closer to zero the rocks start to move faster meaning that the last few “ticks” of a level can get a bit hectic.

Whilst the ship doesn’t have any weapons of the sort you’d expect in a game featuring a player-controlled ship flying through space it isn’t completely unarmed. It carries a form of smart bomb which, when activated with the fire button, will destroy all rocks on screen. These are very limited in number but a good way of getting out of a tight spot.

Whilst most of the things flying through space towards the players doughty little spaceship have no other effect than to smash it into tiny pieces some space debris is useful. Certain rocks can be collected for bonus score (identified by crystals sticking out of them but also by their worth in points helpfully written across their sides) and extra lives, extra smart bombs and letters spelling “E X T R A” (giving, unsurprisingly, an extra life) can also be grabbed from bonus pods. There are a couple of those notorious things known as power-downs to also be found, though, namely “death” pods which destroy the ship and “reverse” pods which reverse the controls. The instructions and intro screen also, respectively, describe and show cosmonauts who can be collected for a bonus although I’ve not come across these yet (I must be too rubbish)*.

r0x (I started a sentence with a small letter because I had to, please don’t tut!) is, at heart, a high-score title and the scoring mechanism is one of this game’s clever features. Whilst the score slowly ticks up as the timer ticks down, bonus points can be achieved by “skimming” the rocks with the ship’s wings adding a strong element of risk/reward to gameplay as you end up trying to scrape the ‘roids in order to grab a few hundred or thousand extra points.

It looks even better animated; you could toast your marshmallows in it

It looks even better animated; you could toast your marshmallows in it

So, I’ve given you the basic overview and the big question now hangs over this review like a friendly white cloud (can cloud’s be friendly? They can now!): is it any good? Well, we’ll go over the answer to that bit by bit shall we? Let’s start with presentation: everything looks and sounds excellent. Amiga and Megadrive owners tended to look down at the ST for its 16-colour display capabilities but in the right hands 16 colours could be used to create bitmaps of beauty and that’s very true here with an excellent blue/yellow metallic/rocky look to everything (and superb fire when the ship thrusts upwards – see the pic for details). As for sound, there’s a rolicking in-game tune which brings to mind Buck Rogers and other pulp sci-fi. This is a game whose visuals and audio are nigh-on perfect and very atmospheric.

As for gameplay, we have something of a mixed bag (albeit one with much more liquorice allsorts than fluffy boiled sweets). Generally, r0x is brilliant stuff with play never being boring and the scoring mechanism making things very often exciting. There are some problems, though; gameplay is a bit repetitive after a while and I thought some audio/visual feedback for when your ship is skimming a rock for points would have been a good idea. I also had some problems with the power ups/downs – first, the “extra life” power up made collecting the “E X T R A” letters feel a bit superflous and tokenistic rather than as vital as they should have been; secondly since the “kill” power-down had the same effect as a rock I felt it might as well have been, well, a rock; finally, the temporary “reverse controls” power-down continues to effect the player after losing a life which is really shitty. I also noticed it was possible to skim rocks for points whilst the player was indestructable during the first few seconds of a new life although whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable. In addition to these, I came across a couple of bugs namely a “score” rock killing me when I flew into it (although I’ve only had this happen once so far) and the high scores sometimes apparently being lost (or at least not appearing in the table).

Speaking of this last problem, this brings me to what was r0x‘s only major downer which was that, in the earlier version I played, the high score table didn’t save to disc on exiting. A new version (1.0) has since been released, though, which includes highscore saving as well as ironing out some bugs (hopefully those mentioned above).

I know that the small number of moans I described earlier might put some people off but they really, really shouldn’t. r0x is a great game: fun, addictive, beautifully presented; it’s easily one of the best indie titles that I’ve played so far this year and now that it has highscore saving its only major negative has been sorted-out. If you’ve a real ST with over 2MB of memory (you’ll need that, forgot to mention) or you’ve got an emulator then there’s no real reason not to download this terrific, if imperfect, little game.

And I’ve not even had a shot of the two-player option yet!

r0x can be downloaded from its website here which now provides the game in various formats for ease of use.

Thanks to Stickhead for making me aware of this game on his blog; Stickhead’s take on r0x can be found here

*EDIT: I’ve since encountered one, they seem to be very rare

Treasure Trap

10 February, 2009
Id like to be, under the sea, in an octopuss garden in the shade. Collecting gold.

"I'd like to be, under the sea, in an octopus's garden in the shade. Collecting gold."

Oh, woe is me! There’s two games that I really want to write articles about (Times of Lore and the silhouette-based Blade Warrior) but they’re going to have to wait because both games are proving more complex to play than I expected. But let’s not worry about them right now, let’s worry about the forgotten game of yesteryear I’ve decided to dig-out and talk to you all about instead: that would be Electronic Zoo’s  Treasure Trap (1989) for the Amiga, Atari ST and DOS (I’m playing the Amiga version for the purposes of this review).

The plot is very straightforward – you’re a treasure hunter in an old-fashioned diving-suit who’s been lowered into the wreck of a ship called the Esmerelda and have to explore it and loot all the gold on board. That’s it: no “emotional journey”, no cut-scenes, no “moral choices” to make, no sub-B-Movie plotline written by hacks to get in the way of the game. Modern game developers take note! (rant over).

Anyway, enough about my personal issues with the current gaming scene, what does Treasure Trap play like? Well, if you glance around the couple of screenshots I’ve provided around the screen you’ll notice that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Knight Lore, Head over Heels and other 8-bit isometric; and, unsurprisingly, it plays a bit like them as well. The player character can perform the usual moves in four directions plus a jump; he can also collect keys (which come in the form of various shapes) and carry three at at time for the purposes of unlocking doors. The gold bars are collected automatically on contact and on many of the screens can only be reached by solving basic puzzles in order to reach them – usually of the “push this box here, use it to reach that platform” variety that will be familiar to anyone who’s played this type of game before. Of course, our hero isn’t alone in the depths of the ship and there are various underwater menaces which take one of his lives on contact. These include crabs, eels, stingrays and some really really annoying mines which home in on you. The only thing the player has to combat these are ‘smart fish’, friendly fishies which eat hostile creatures; you start with two of them and get more if you collect lots of gold bars (presumably they’re attracted to shiny things, like some kind of aquatic magpie). So, in the main, the player has to avoid the nasties and use smart fish sparingly. Treasure Trap came at the end of a decade which had seen its fair share of isometric arcade-adventures and it seemed to be attempting some kind of minor evolution. It all moves faster and smoother with the more powerful sprite-shifting powers of the 16-bit machines and shadows, much-missed from older titles and necessary to identify where a lot of blocks/monsters actually are in relation to other things, are actually present in this game. It’s also possible to save the game each 50 bars of gold you collect – there’s none of the play-it-all-through-in-one-load problems that we had in Head over Heels and the like. It even has a map which is fills in as the player progresses in surprising detail – this is (as far as I know) unique in isometric adventure games like this and a quite welcome feature.

This screen is a bastard. Trust me.

This screen is a bastard. Trust me.

But despite all that, it doesn’t succeed in beating these older games. The puzzles and screen designs in Head over Heels and Hydrofool (an older aquatic underwater title where you played a robot that looked like Stan Laurel who had to pull plugs out of a giant aquarium – I’m not making this up) were much more devious and well-thought-out than in this game; and it’s not just that the puzzles aren’t as good, some rooms just seemed generally ill-thought-out with enemies that were too hard to avoid and gold that was hidden away from view (although the letter “G” on the gold indicator on-screen does flash if there is gold on a screen still to be collected). There’s also less of a sense of progression; the older titles had considerable freedom of movement, as does this, and weren’t linear but Treasure Trap feels like just one big maze of rooms rather than smaller, individual groups of rooms that need to be beaten and passed. It also has some ill-thought-out features like the “whirlpool” monsters who deposit the player in a random room on the Esmerdela; imagine if Head over Heels had had something like that! Players should have to persevere to see these later screens and work-up to their greater challenges gradually, not just be deposited in them at random!

Ultimately, isometric gaming didn’t die in the 1990s but it left behind the old room-by-room platforming arcade-adventure of the 8-bit entries in the genre and tended more towards RPGs (like Legend) or scrolling action games (like Skeleton Krew). Treasure Trap feels like a last hurrah of a type of game that was dying out in 1989 and, sadly, it’s more of a whimper than a bang. Worth a shot if you like this kind of game but you’d be better off playing some of the classic 8-bit games in the genre.

Metal Mutant – the threefold tin-man

1 February, 2009
Look in the box, see what you got!

"Look in the box, see what you got!"

Ah, February; the month of cold winds and not-as-short-as-in-January daylight hours. Sorry I’ve take a wee while posting a new article, I generally hope to get one posted per week but I get easily sidetracked and, erm, become easily lazy. Now, where were we? Ah, that’s right: games.

I had hoped that this next article would be about the “action RPG” Times of Lore but, unfortunately, it’s taking longer to play and assess that game than I’d expected (ie it’s not a quick pick-me-up-and-play game) so instead I’m going to take a wee look at the 1991 Atari ST, Amiga and MS-DOS title Metal Mutant from Silmarils software.

When this game was published eighteen years ago (michty!) it completely failed to set the world alight. Reviews, it’s fair to say, weren’t terribly positive and it didn’t exactly jump out of the magazine pages at anyone doing a spot of browsing. I mean, the robots look nice and all of that but it’s all so green and drab looking; hardly the sort of thing that was going to inspire the average gamer to fork-out when there was Lemmings and Speedball 2 to buy instead. So, as a result, Metal Mutant is one of those games that was largely forgotten about; exactly the sort of game, in fact, that tends to attract me…

So, what’s it all about? Well, the plot seems to be some nonsense about a bunch of cyborgs being all uppity and turning against humanity. So, humanity decides to deal with this by, erm, building a cyborg and then sending it into battle against the rebel cyborgs. That’s sure to be good…

The player takes control of the cyborg in question. But – and here’s the almost-unique selling point of this game – this cyborg can transform into two other things. Namely a robot dinosaur thing and a, well, a sort-of robbie-the-robot-on-track tank-robot thing. It’s not exactly a T1000 but it’s fit for purpose, I suppose.

Your feeble dinosaur-thing skills are now match for the power of the mutant side!

Your feeble swamp monster skills are no match for the power of the mutant side!

Gameplay takes place over a number of levels and completing these levels seems to consist of ridding the various screens of horrible nasties and collecting add-ons for the cyborg. These add-ons allow the three different forms the metal mutant (ah, you see where the title came from?) takes on to access additional abilities. For example, at the start the “original” cyborg form can’t use it’s axe-attack, an attack that involves it making its arm into an axe and twatting anything nearby, but it can do this once it picks up the necessary add-on. The monsters and hazards that confront our threefold hero are numerous and varied and the different forms and abilities need to be used to progress through the game. As an example, on some screens the player is attacked by a swarm of horrible wasp-like insects. Tank-things bullets are useless (nobody can actually shoot bees with bullets except that bloke in Save The Green Planet) as is cyborg’s axe; but dino-thing’s firey breath is great for turning them into roast wasps (a possible future-delicacy in these times of crunchy credit – you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face when you’re tucking into a bag of roasted wasps outside the local nightclub two years from now).

Everybody do the (robot) dinosaur!

Everybody do the (robot) dinosaur!

And it’s this working-out-what-ability-to-use-to-get-further aspect that drives this game. When you enter a new screen you are often faced with a puzzle or a nasty whose defeat requires a little thought as well as some rudimentary joystick skills. This arcade-puzzle feel means you have to engage your brain to some extent as well as your reactions and makes Metal Mutant… well… actually rather fun to play.

You see, despite all the “this is pretty shit” reviews that this got around the time (except from a positive review from the rubbish Amiga Action whose positive reviews were often the equivalent of a crap review) this game is actually pretty good and, for me, something of a neglected classic.

It’s not perfect: the graphics, as I’ve said are a bit “plain” in the old colour department, the sound isn’t great and I’m really annoyed that the player-controlled cyborg doesn’t transform in a spectacular animation but instead turns into some stupid stars before re-appearing in his next form. But, in spite of all that, this is way better than the reviews around the time it was released suggest and for that reason I recommend a casual look if you get the chance. You might well agree with contemporary reviewers but you also just might like it and want to spend some time with it. And, hey, it’s that sort of thing that this blog is all about. That and rubbish jokes.

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.