Posts Tagged ‘commodore 64’

Ghastly covers

18 May, 2014

Here’s a question for you – what’s the worst cover art ever to grace a videogame? I reckon most people would go for something bland and inconsequential, or maybe just something that’s poorly drawn like this cover art for the 1985 ZX Spectrum game Antteroo.


“I dun a jump. Yay!”

But I think that would be to miss the point. A truly bad piece of cover art has to offend the mind as well as the eyes: it ought to be clear what it was trying to do whilst failing miserably, and it has to really, really insult the actual game it’s purporting to promote and illustrate.

And taking all of that into regard, ladies and gentlemen I give you the image that graces this article, the cover art for the (American?) Commodore 64 conversion of the (brilliant) arcade game Metro-Cross.

There’s so, so much wrong with this. For a start there’s the guy on the skateboard: he looks dazed and he’s scrawny, he’s the opposite of “cool” or aspirational. Then there’s the way that the central figure is a photograph which has been cut and pasted onto a crudely-designed backdrop like someone doing their first paid collage work. But what makes it even worse is the way it manages to combine several aspects of the real game (a sporty, skateboarding hero; a chequered background; a racing track) and manages to present them all in a way which bears no real relation to the game itself. It’s really quite an achievement and I can’t help but think that the designer was given the order “skateboarder, chessboard, some kind of road” and then found his work the subject of some kind of bet to get everything completely off.

And if you’re wondering why I’ve put “American?” in brackets earlier on, it’s because in the UK the home versions of Metro-Cross were published with the cover art below which manages to be everything that C64 art isn’t: representative of the game, futuristic in an “’80s” way and kind-of nice.


And if you’ve never heard of Metro-Cross and don’t understand just why it’s shameful to give it such a poor cover, find out more here (where you’ll also find some arcade flier art that doesn’t have a gangly bloke looking like he’s about to sneeze either).

Overrated Old Games No.1 – The Muncher

7 June, 2011


I’m going to tell you something unusual: I like to blether on here about games that I like, about games that gave me a nice surprise. But this time, as a bit of a change, I’m going to moan about a game I’ve always fancied trying that I thought was shit.

Back in the ’80s there were two things: the first was sweeties called “chewits” which were advertised on telly by a parody of Japanese monster movies which, for some reason, featured Americans including one called “Chuck” who saved a city from being destroyed by driving a huge chewit delivery truck near the hungry monster who promptly ate the container on the back as though it were a packet of chewits (nothing has to make the remotest sense in advertland). The second was an 8-bit videogame from Gremlin which was called T-Wrecks and featured a huge monster emerging from the sea onto the islands of Japan and wrecking havock in order to get some of its monster eggs back from thieving scientists.

Reader, the marketing men married them.

The Muncher (basically T-Wrecks as-was but with a different name and the monstrous star of the sweetie advert on the box) was released in 1988 for Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. Now, I like the Spectrum but this game has really BIG graphics and moves a bit slow on the British machine so I decided to give it a proper go on the American breadbox instead, it having sprite-handling hardware and all of that.

It should be excellent: thematically it’s basically a single-player Rampagewhich takes place across scrolling levels and features huge buildings to trash and loads of enemies to eat, chomp and punch as well as, apparently, other giant monsters to battle later on.

This looks way more exciting than it actually is

So why doesn’t the damn thing play as well as it sounds? Because, even with the C64’s hardware-based nippiness it’s still too bloody slow; I’m surprised, in fact, at how sedate a game where you play a huge monster trashing a city and fighting off helicopters can be. The controls are also shite: I found myself “roaring” (an attack which releases one of a limited number of fireballs which could be used strategically and effectively if they weren’t so damn easy to use-up accidentally) without trying to, working out the punches and kicks needed to attack enemies and (especially) buildings was frustrating and occasionally counter-intuitive and, unlike Rampage, I found jumping-onto and climbing buildings a bit of a struggle. I also disliked the way the monster wrecked buildings with his tail if I changed direction: that might be realistic but it also simply added to the impression that I had limited control over the monster. And whereas in the Rampage games bringing-down buildings is a joy, here it’s actually a chore – more like work than playing a game as you smash up a bit here and a bit there and wish the bloody thing would fall down so you can see if there’s an egg in there.

I didn’t enjoy The Muncher. I think it’s not only a game that’s aged badly but an example of an older game with very modern problems: it looks nice and it appeals to gamers’ instincts, content-wise and I can’t help but think this, and a huge dollop of nostalgia, explains why there’s such a lot of love out there for both versions of this game. You’re wrong, the internet. You just bloody are.

Tai Pan – buy buy! sail sail!

15 July, 2010

The player character (in white) wanders the streets of a port in the Far East, passing a drunk who seems to be miming a flute. How odd.

Oh, where to start with Tai Pan? Ocean Software, the once-mighty Manchester-based British software house, released this game in 1987 for Atari ST, Commodore 64 and 128K ZX Spectrum. I’m playing the Commodore version, as you’ve probably already guessed.

Tai Pan is loosely based on the 1960s novel of the same name (in fact it was the, as far as I know, last of several trading games inspired by that novel) and is concerned with profiteering by trading in the markets of the Far East in the mid 19th century with the aim of making so much moolah that you become the ‘Tai Pan’, the Supreme Trader. The player character starts off in a Chinese port called Guangzhou with pretty-much nothing to his name. Wandering around you eventually come across a restaurant and, being taken into the back room, you do a deal with a moneylender – he gives you $300,000 and half a medalion and you promise to pay him back within six months (blimey) or you get killed. Them was tough times.

I like that opening, actually, because it’s exactly as much plot as a trading game ought to have. We get given the start of a story and the rest is up to us. Admirable. So, how to play? Well, when you’re in port the game plays like a maze game. The player character wanders around the, rather samey, streets of the city passing various other characters and sword-wielding policemen along the way. There are also icons at the bottom of the screen allowing you to buy, sell, pick up (quick! pick up the rubber truncheon you’ll find lying around, you’ll need that for later!) and load and save game. On some screens there are entrances to various shops and establishments (including, rather racily, a brothel; or “ladies house” as the game has it in it’s PG-cert way). First thing you need to do is head to the bank and buy a ship (I’ve no idea why it’s the bank and not a ship merchant selling this) then to the supplies store to pick up a map and telescope and some food. Then onto the Inn to hire some sailors.

Now, there’s also the warehouse which sells goods which can be sold at a profit at the right ports but this was my second time playing the game and, on my first, I made the mistake of buying up goods in the starting town without knowing if they were cheap or not. So, I left the goods and instead bought some contraband from one of the many dodgy characters hanging around some of the streets offering it. It’s never made clear what the contraband is but I assume it’s supposed to be illicit drugs of some kind. Anyway, having picked-up my package I made my way to the dock and set-sail.

Ah, the open sea. Insert joke about salty seamen here.

The sailing section is shown from above with the player given the option of raising/lowering sails as well as checking maps or entering combat mode (to fend of pirates or even pirate yourself) and using the telescope to check for ships on the horizon. I raised the sails and headed East and towards what I hoped would be start of my trading career. Oh, there’s another icon – one which lets you distribute food rations. To be honest, I wasn’t keen on this level of micromanagement and wished the game would do it automatically as, for example, Sid Meier’s Pirates does. It’s easy to forget about it. For some stupid reason your box of food only lasts one voyage too and needs replacing when you enter a port.

The first port I entered was quite close to my starting one but I found the prices were roughly the same (unsurprisingly) so I set off again, having had to buy some food again (grr) and decided to sail much, much further this time. I pointed the ship roughly in the direction of what is modern-day Taiwan and raised the sails. The game claims that leaving the “shipping lanes” (which seem to be white lines on your map) is risky due to pirates but I had no problems and reached a port called “Qingdao” on the island. Here I managed to flog the contraband for a small profit (around $4000) and picked up two boxes of tea which was quite a bit cheaper than the home port. Having loaded up with another (sigh) box of food (did I mention they cost an absurd $2000 a box? What the flippety flop is in them? Pickled venison and caviar?) , I made for home hoping my tea would raise around $3000 a box.

The journey back was very slow, though, owing to the wind now opposing me more than it was behind me and I ended up dropping-in on a “midway” port. The tea would make no profit here, I discovered so I headed back to the ship and sailed off.

Oops, forgot to replace the food. Silly me. Nothing to give the crew on the journey home leading to one of them dying of scurvy just before we entered port. Oh, cruel fate! Anyway, got off at a port (Shenzhen, a word I associated with nom-able chicken) very close to the one we started at (I thought it was the actual port but it wasn’t) and managed to flog the tea for a measly $1000 profit per box. Not happy with this but noted jade was cheaper here than out in Qingdao so I bought a box of that and some more contraband and having used the truncheon I mentioned earlier (if you thought it was for doing something dirty you lose ten points!) to cosh a wandering drunk and press-gang him into replacing the dead crewmember (you can do that, you know, it’s very naughty and the police don’t like it) I set sail for Taiwan again and, I hoped, more profit.

Except, only a couple of days into the voyage, my ship sunk without explanation and I was told I’d drowned. Oh, cruel fate! I had $0 in assets (I still owed the moneylender) and the status of “slave”. So, rather abruptly, endeth my game of Tai Pan.

In conclusion, there seems to be a lot to this game. It’s got a great atmosphere and the C64 graphics are pretty good although the constantly playing music gets a bit annoying. I found the trading harder than in any other game of this type I’ve played, though, and barely managed to find goods that could turn much of a profit – it also doesn’t help that there are essentially only four things to trade: tea, jade, silk and the aforementioned mysterious contraband. I’m sure spending more time on the game or having suitable maps/charts to hand might make things easier. I also thought that the sailing part was needlessly slow (the instructions claim that it speeds time up to avoid slowness but I didn’t see this) and the need to manually issue rations was annoying. Oh, and having to buy fresh rations for each journey is both expensive and unrealistic. And don’t get me started on the ship suddenly sinking, I really hope there was a reason for that (perhaps because I didn’t use the brothel, maybe the player character sails badly if he’s too horny, I dunno) and it wasn’t just random.

So, overall, maybe worth a look if you like the whole trading/pirating genre (although I didn’t get to do any pirating or combat because my bloody ship sank) and admirably atmospheric, but when it comes to an enjoyable game you’d be better off plumping for Sid Meier’s vastly superior Pirates instead.

Encounter with Encounter

24 May, 2010

See that blue thing? That's a saucer that is. Shoot that and you're a wee bit closer to completing the level. But not much.

There are two things which strike you when you play Encounter. The first is that it is very, very of its time: straightforward arcade shooter with gameplay which, at its heart, is only a little more complex than Space Invaders. The next is that it’s a clearly influenced by Atari’s 1980 classic Battlezone.

But Encounter is not a straight-down-the-line Battlezone clone. For a start, Atari’s pioneering 3D shooter was designed to be a semi-realistic simulation of driving a tank, right down to different controls for left and right “tank tracks” as in the real-life war machines. It was also, especially early on, rather slow-going with neither the enemy tanks nor the player exactly zipping around.

This is the in-between-levels fly-through-the-void bit. See those spheres? Hit one of those and you have to do the level again. So don't.

In fact, if Encounter is going to be compared directly to anything called Battlezone then it’s not the arcade machine that draws the closest comparison but instead the Atari 2600 version of the same. That version (available, alongside the original arcade game, on the excellent Atari Anthology) took the same basic gameplay as the arcade cabinet but made it more fast-moving and frantic, not to mention a lot more colourful even if the 3D was nowhere near as impressive.

Encounter doesn’t really have a storyline to speak of: you’re on a planet somewhere and you have to defend yourself against marauding saucers and missiles. The view, as with Battlezone, is first-person and the playing area is basically a huge arena with cylindrical “obelisks” dotted around which serve as some kind of barrier against enemy fire (or a nuisance if you’re trying to move quickly). The “saucers”, the most numerous enemy you’ll encounter in my experience, is actually more like a diamond shape and appears from a square which briefly materialise in the arena before “creating” a saucer which proceeds to weave around at random firing at the player. Like I said, this game is similar to Battlezone but in many ways so very different – the enemies here couldn’t be further away from that game’s slow-moving tanks. The missiles, the other enemy in the game, are less numerous in number and you are warned of their coming by a siren. They move very quickly and home in on your position so the player needs to respond with lightning reflexes in order to shoot them in time.

The game is split into levels – eight in all – with an opening to the next level appearing when you’ve successfully cleared the current one of marauding enemies. Enter the opening and the player enters some kind of “witch space” filled with spheres which need to be avoided (a la Deathchase’s trees, only you can’t slow down!); manage this, and you get to the next level, fail and you go back to the previous one.

Encounter is undoubtably of its time. The gameplay is unsophisticated, clearly owes a lot to the popular games console titles of the late ’70s/early ’80s (not just the Atari 2600 Battlezone similarities but the whole way the game looks and feels – chunky, colourful, full of blips and bloops, even selectable difficulty levels) and it’s very tough with a few things feeling a little unfair: for example, your chances against the missiles are largely down to whether you’re roughly facing them when they appear, and the whole “do the level again because you crashed into some stupid sphere” aspect is sloppy design – what’s wrong with a bonus stage instead? Having said all that, it’s quite fun to play and the frantic nature of the gameplay means it never actually gets boring, even though it does get repetitive. Not bad, then, but the sort of game left behind by the more sophisticated games just around the corner which made much more use of the C64’s abilities.

Die! Lazy Programming

10 May, 2010

Our hero prepares to take on... erm... coloured popcorn? self-propelling sphincters?

It’s a bloody shame when, given a fairly straightforward idea and, more to the point, given an idea which works that sometimes game programmers just can’t get it right.

Because that, in a nutshell, sums up what I think about Die! Alien Slime. Anyone with a reasonably-good knowledge of ’80s videogames will recognise more than a shade of Alien Syndrome in the screenshots you can see around this article and that definitely seems to be the game that had the biggest influence on Die! Alien Slime so… well, why not just give us a clone?

Sure, a clone very rarely lives up to the inspiration, let alone surpasses it. But sometimes things work out okay – Who Dares Wins 2, which I wrote about ages ago, is a good case in point.

And yet, D!AS (that’s quite the shorthand) doesn’t seem to want to be Alien Syndrome, at least not that much. There’s wandering around a maze-like ship, there’s shooting blobby alien thingies and there’s a cartoonish-looking protagonist with a big gun. There, though, the similarities seem to end.

See this? This is basically all I saw in about 40 minutes of play. Pretty-much everything's there - man, aliens, walls.

When you play AS, you know pretty-much from the off what needs to be done. Those aliens? They need to be shot. Those little waving characters? They need to be rescued. When the game says “get to the exit” you run for the exit (or rescue extra men for extra points if you’re that way inclined). In D!AS I had no idea what I was doing. I shot the aliens (who don’t even explode and just dissappear, extremely lazy stuff from the designers), wandered around looking for things and… erm… that was it really. Now, I have to admit that I couldn’t find instructions but I’ve no idea what they would have told me to do because there didn’t really seem to be much to do other than shoot aliens, collect some kind of power-ups (they appear as letters on the ground, more laziness, would icons have been so hard?), shoot more aliens, stand shooting for about 20 seconds at some green stuff to open more of the ship, explore, explore, get very bored, turn off, do something else. The ship is made up of corridors and lot of rooms which, on first glance, look interesting but turn out to be basically empty. The aliens are unimaginative blobs of goo and brown brain-things and have pretty-much no variety. And when I found a different weapon (which looked like a couple of letters, natch) all it did was made a different noise and killed aliens slightly quicker. Zzzz.

It seems someone wanted to write an AS “homage”, got to far and then decided they could do something vaster, more sprawling, more maze-like, less-fun. They should have ran with their original idea. Might have been worthwhile, which Die! Alien Slime really isn’t.

Out of interest, I also tried the Spectrum version (which I did find some instructions for) and it seems to have more to do but plays equally badly and has far worse graphics (you think the aliens in the Commodore version are bad? You ain’t seen nowt, lad!). Not a good start, C64; I hope the next game I pick out of the hat is rather better than this.

Dan Dare – Commodore 64

12 April, 2010

Dan does his best Kenneth Williams impression. "Closed Hatch"? Ooh, stop messin' about!

The Commodore 64 version of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future bears little resemblance to the Amstrad CPC incarnation. The plot is the same – Dan still lands on an asteroid which the Mekon is planning to use to destroy the Earth – but the game is completely different. This time around, we have an arcade adventure where Dan, accompanied by a dog-ish pet-thing called “Stripey”, wanders around inside the asteroid looking for the Mekon’s lair and trying to save Digby who’s been kidnapped (and presumably not placed on the other side of a chasm this time) along with someone called “Professor Peabody”. I don’t know much about the original strip, but I’m assuming that Professor Peabody doesn’t have an actual pea for a body.

Anyway, the player controls Dan as he wanders around looking for things to do. And I mean that, because for the first twenty minutes or so that’s exactly what playing this game feels like. Unlike a lot of games in this genre, you won’t find yourself catapulted into distinctive rooms filled with useful-looking objects to grab and ponder the use of. Instead you’ll find a lot of empty, grey, caverns and your first task is to find where the exits are in the edges of many screens because they’re not obvious much of the time. I’m not kidding.

In between exploring, Dan has the occasional fisticuffs with Treens who are patrolling the caverns, presumably having drawn the short straw in the guard’s barracks. Unlike the previous Amstrad CPC incarnation I wrote about, there don’t seem to be any guns in this game and so when Dan runs into a Treen (who walk around rather than floating, thanks be to fuck) he engages them in gentlemanly fisticuffs. This would be rather fun if the “fighting” mechanism wasn’t so utterly inept. Essentially, the player pushes ”fire” and then “up” to have Dan raise his arms and “down” to have him move them to roughly the middle of his body. Pressing “fire” and the direction of the enemy make him punch at whatever height his arms are (ie in the enemy’s head or their body). Generally, I fought by holding down “fire” and the relevant direction causing Dan to punch over and over until the enemy was defeated because that’s the most complicated and involving it gets and that’s all the skill it takes; although the Treen is likely to get a few punches in reducing Dan’s energy (if he runs out it’s game over). Essentially, each fight is a foregone conclusion which will take a bit of your strength until you’ve so little left that the Treen wins. Dan also has some grenades which he can lob at Treens if the player can’t be arsed fighting but, apparently, they should be reserved for fighting the Mekon. So don’t. Much.

Dan encounters a massive laser. "If only I'd brought a hand-sized one", he ponders.

The rest of the game is standard arcade-adventure puzzles, although the system used is extremely simplistic. Basically, if Dan encounters something which can be manipulated (a hanging vine, say) the game will flash-up an alert in the form of a text box designed to look, appropriately, like something from a cartoon strip. The player then pushs “fire” and uses “up” and “down” to scroll through the options of what Dan can do with the object, which might be just “pick up” or might be some other kind of manipulation. The whole arcade-adventure aspect of the game works like this, there are no complicated commands to remember but there also seems to be no inventory to check-up on. Depending on your viewpoint this is either a pleasingly no-nonsense and stripped-back interface or overly-simplistic.

So, taking all that into account, how does the game shape-up overall? Well, I’m pleased to say that this is certainly better than the Amstrad CPC version. The graphics are marginally better for a start – Dare and the Treens look rubbish but the backgrounds are quite nice and atmospheric – and the gameplay, despite initial unfriendliness (especially stomping around looking for exits) and frustration becomes quite involving later on with some smart puzzles to solve (such as directing the beam from a massive laser). This is worth playing, even today, but its faults – notably the woeful fighting system – drag it down quite a bit.

And (I’m going to put this here because I couldn’t think of anywhere better off-hand, sorry) I’m still not sure what “Stripey” is supposed to do beyond hang around Dare’s feet and make stupid noises. I’m sure there must be a purpose for him somewhere…

As well as the original C64 version, this game has also been the subject of a remake for Windows by Ovine by Design. You can get it here. Dan looks rather more like Dan Dare in that version and less like a blocky hunchback. The Treens still look a bit daft, tho’.

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!

Games of the decade – Joe Gunn

3 January, 2010

Joe meets some kind of ninja-mummy thing deep within the Crocodile King's pyramid

And after Egghead Round the Med here comes another new game for an old platform which has made it into my top ten games of the noughties. Joe Gunn, an indie title by Endurion published for the Commodore 64 in 2007, is a brilliant retro-style platform arcade-adventure and the first Commodore game in a long time to make fans of other 8-bit machines green with envy.

The player takes control of the eponymous hero who must explore the 70 rooms of the pyramid tomb of the Crocodile King which he has happened to stumble across (oh yeah, Joe’s the accidental Indiana Jones!) and whose puzzles he must solve in order to escape alive. Gameplay is a mixture of platform gaming and puzzle-solving. Our hero can make running jumps, grab and clamber-onto platforms, search skeletons (there are a lot of skeletons lying around the tomb which can hardly be doing much for Joe’s morale) and other background objects for useful items and use these items elsewhere or manipulate features to try and solve the various conundrums the Crocodile King has protected his pyramid with. Despite the fact that Joe can perform quite a few actions these are all cleverly and easily carried-out using a standard one-button joystick.

Presentation is well above-par with the designers opting to use a sensible mixture of high-resolution attribute-based graphics for the backgrounds and low-resolution full-colour mode for the sprites. The general look and feel of the game has drawn favourable comparisons with the MSX classic King’s Valley (the new Spectrum conversion of which I wrote about earlier) – egyptian theme, small sprites, platforms and ladders. There’s a lack of in-game sound effects (a problem which Egghead Round the Med also suffered from) although this is compensated for by a good title tune and excellent and very atmospheric in-game music.

When Joe Gunn first appeared it received widespread acclaim (and created some very pissed-off Spectrum fans, believe me, “right, who’s going to do a 128K version of this?”) and remains not only the best Commodore 64 title to have emerged in recent years but also, for me, one of the best games released in the last decade. It’s quite a tough game – the player is only given three lives and some of the monsters are pretty hard to avoid – and whilst the control setup works pretty well there will still be times when, in the heat of the action, Joe doesn’t do quite what is wanted of him, especially if playing with a joypad. Despite all that, this is an excellent title that shamelessly feels like it’s stepped out of the mid 1980s and well worth playing. The basic game is available as freeware although an enhanced commercial version for use on an original Commodore 64 has also been published on disk and cassette. Really, if you like platform games, puzzle-solving and have a soft spot for King’s Valley, the Rick Dangerous series and/or the Indian Jones films then I think it’s fair to say you’ll like this. And if, for some reason, you hate all those things then there’s still a good chance that you’ll like Joe Gunn anyway. Wotcha waiting for?

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.)

Who Dares Wins 2

29 March, 2009
Take that, soldier from an unnamed country which is almost certainly Germany in the 1940s!

"Take that, soldier from an unnamed country which is almost certainly Germany in the 1940s!"

As Doctor Who might say “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”. I really do try to get at least one article up on here per week but sometimes I just don’t manage it. Feel free to point and look annoyed if you like, I probably deserve it!

Anyway, I was a bit stuck for what to write about this time around. There’s some new Spectrum games that have been released recently but I’m writing about them for an online fanzine so to find out what I think you’ll have to download the next issue and read them there (was that a plug? I think it might just have been!).

This game is a Spectrum game (and a Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, MSX and a whole host of other platforms one) but it’s rather older than the games I alluded to above. The original C64 version was published in 1985 whilst the Spectrum conversion came out in 1986. Because I like the Speccy and the C64 computers (I know, I know; it’s like liking Oasis and Blur or something) I decided to play these versions both to get a feel for the game and to see which of them is better.

So, what about the game itself? Where did the name come from? Well, in the early 1980s there was a hostage-taking situation at the Iranian Embassy in the UK which was ended by the SAS (whose motto is “Who Dares Wins”). This seems to have created a surge of interest in the special forces unit which lead to a (fairly-rubbish, from what I’ve seen of it) film called Who Dares Wins and, seemingly unrelated to the film, a C64 game of the same name a few years later. Who Dares Wins 2, the sequel to this game, and the subject of this article, was released not long afterwards and unlike the first game recieved a Spectrum conversion.

Now, at the time, WDW2 didn’t exactly set the gaming press alight and it didn’t help that it was widely seen as a cheap knock-off of Capcom’s Commando arcade game which had been converted to home computers to much acclaim at roughly the same time as the release of WDW2. My own memories of it, though, are as a reasonably-entertaining shooter and this, combined with a few good words for it on the World of Spectrum forums, made me decide to re-visit the game.

Despite the title, the SAS aren’t mentioned at all in the paper-thin plot which seems to be a straightforward “storm the enemy base and rescue your comrades” storyline. Combine this with the cover art (see above) and you’ve got a WWII setting little different from that of Commando making this game look like even more of a shameless coat-tail-grabbing effort to chase the popularity of Elite’s conversion. And yet, that’s not really fair because despite the obvious similarities the surprising thing is that WDW2 is actually a pretty good game in its own right.

Despite what it might look like, I am most certainly not running away in this C64 shot

Despite what it might look like, I am most certainly not running away in this C64 shot. Instead I am making a "tactical retreat" with the aim of striking-back soon. Yes.

Start playing the game and you’ll wonder where the difference is between this game and its arcade inspiration: you play a blue soldier who must make his way through a scrolling (flick-screen on the Specrum) level shooting the bad guys and dodging their bullets. As with Commando, the player also carries a limited number of grenades which are unleashed by holding down the fire button and more of which can be collected from boxes handily parachuted in by allies (I’m not sure parachuting boxes of grenades over an active and confusing warzone is an especially good tactic but hey). Even the end of level screens are similar with our hero having to dispatch dozens of soldiers who pour out of a commando outpost before he can capture it. Even a certain Mr Price might point and laugh.

And yet what actually made Commando work was that it was a fun game and, by following closely in its footsteps, this game manages to be fun too; weaving around shooting the soldiers, lobbing grenades at troops behind barriers and dodging the bullets is entertaining regardless of how derivative it all is. It’s not as good as Commando or as fun (not least because it all feels a bit slower and a lot less slick) but it’s still entertaining enough

In this screenshot from the Spectrum version, we can clearly see that the bad guys have painted their outpost bright purple, the international colour of machismo.

In this screenshot from the Spectrum version, we can clearly see that the bad guys have painted their outpost bright pink, the international colour of warlike machismo.

WDW2 even adds little touches all of its own: as well as fighting footsoldiers our hero will also find himself faced with marauding tanks, enemy aircraft and even runaway trains. Commando had a few vehicles to deal with, of course, but WDW2 chucks even more into the fray which all need different ways of dealing with them. Low-flying planes which spray the ground with machine-gun fire or drop bombs need to be avoided whilst the tanks can be taken-out with a well-placed grenade and the trains can be grenaded whilst rushing down the tracks for extra points.

The more you play it and the further you get the more WDW2 breaks out from the mould a little, as though the programmers having fulfilled their remit of creating a Commando clone decided to throw in a couple of things of their own, and it all adds up to something which, whilst not as good as its excellent arcade inspiration or the home computer versions which followed it, is nonetheless a surprisingly-worthy rival. Back in the day it would have been foolhardly to choose this over the excellent Commando; now, more than twenty years later, this is worth a look-in and doesn’t deserve to be thrown onto the pile labelled “shameless cash-ins” and forgotten about.

Oh, and which was better, the Spectrum or C64 version? That’s a tough one. I wish I could be decisive and stand here with my (metaphorical) hands on my (metaphorical) hips and tell you “Spectrum” or “Commodore 64” but I really can’t and I have to admit that it probably comes down to personal taste. Some people are going to favour the Spectrum’s flick-screen and slightly-easier gameplay whilst others will prefer the scrolling, lack of flicker and better sound (the Spectrum version makes it seem like the computer is full of angry bees) on the C64. Me, personally, I think the C64 version nudges out in front but I suggest playing both versions and finding out which one you prefer. Them’s the way with these things.

Information about the Commodore 64 version here.

Information about the Spectrum version here.