Posts Tagged ‘retrogames’

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 – ZX Spectrum

21 April, 2010

Dan confronts a Treen. Note that the Treen doesn't look like a man with pipes for arms and a goldfish bowl for a head this time around.

And so we come to the third, and final, Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, the one that runs on that little book-sized computer with daft rubber keys; the one that runs on the ZX Spectrum.

Now, whilst it’s true that the three 8-bit versions of this title are all different it’s clear from the moment you start playing that the Spectrum version has a great deal in common with the Amstrad CPC version and almost nothing in common with the Commodore 64 incarnation. As with the CPC game, we have Dan dropped into the asteroid with a gun and engaging in platform-and-ladders gameplay. However, there are many things that make this distinct from the CPC title and they are more than worth noting, because they’re the reason that it’s far, far better.

For a start, the graphics look great. In fact, even today Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future is held up as an example of How To Do Spectrum Graphics With Colour And Stuff. Dan, the Treens and other sprites are green, the backgrounds are dark blue and foreground and impassable objects like pillars, doorways are drawn in detailed colour. There’s even some background animation with lights flashing and up/down arrows scrolling on the transporters. There is next to no colour clash and the game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The CPC’s bright colour scheme was shunned for a dark and dingy look and the C64 version used the usual naturalistic-but-drab palette of that computer but here everything looks colourful and bright without taking anything from the atmosphere.

The Mekon stupidly lets you know you're on the way to beating him. Notice how ace he looks.

Also to be commended is the way the game has been set-out. There is no Digby to rescue (he stays on the ship in this version, sensible fellow) and instead Dan searches through the asteroid’s interior, using some kind of up/down gravity transport things instead of stairs, shooting Treens (which run around carrying guns and shooting Dan – no flying or fisticuffs here) looking for self-destruct keys to grab and take to a room where they make big globe things go all glowy. Seems if you do this with enough of them the asteroid is destroyed and the Mekon’s plans are thoroughly foiled. Each time a key is brought to this room a door will slide open somewhere opening-up new areas of the asteroid to explore to find more keys in a literal unlocking of the whole of the gaming area. These areas have little graphical differences but the programmers have used clever techniques to make them seem completely different. For example, Area 2 has a more “open” environment than Area 1with jumps Dan must perform or fall into the floor below and Area 3 has slightly “fatter” gravity transport things (that’s the best description I can muster, alright? They look quite good) and flying droid enemies which can’t be destroyed and instead are only stopped moving by Dan’s laser shots meaning he can never clear the level of them.

Like the CPC version, Dan is sent to a useless “prison” without a door if he’s captured. Unlike the CPC version, Dan doesn’t have lives. Instead the game is played against a time limit. If Dan runs out of energy, falls too far or is captured by a “super Treen” in the later areas (at the start Treens who touch Dan just drain his energy) then he is knocked out for ten minutes before waking up in the prison and carrying-on with his mission. It’s only game over when the time runs out. This is an excellent system and creates a game that’s tense and challenging rather than frustrating.

In fact, in this version of Dan Dare, everything works. The game plays fast and never really gets dull with the challenge constantly evolving, the player has a more solid control over the smooth-moving main character as opposed to the all-over-the-place feel of the Amstrad CPC version, and it looks gorgeous and (more importantly) Dan looks like Dan, the Treens look like Treens and the Mekon (who appears, as far as I’ve seen anyway, in a communicator screen in the bottom right of the display) looks fantastic. The only thing that lets it down is the sound which is extremely basic but that really doesn’t matter.

So, in the end, I have to say the Spectrum version is easily the best Dare for me. The Commodore version is something different and probably more worthwhile if you prefer a more leisurely pace and something a little more cerebral whilst the CPC version, to be honest, can’t be recommended at all unless you really hate Dare and have always fantasised about him being a little fat man in an ugly game.

And that’s that. I wrote this last review with a stinking cold so I hope you’re all happy. Join me next time when I play something old on an archaic platform and then write about it. See youse.

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’.

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.

Manic Miner the Lost Levels

28 October, 2009

MMLLIt’s here! Manic Miner the Lost Levels is a collaborative project by coders Headsoft and journalist and videogame historian Stuart Campbell which came about after the latter wrote an article in Retro Gamer magazine about the “missing” Manic Miner levels: platform-specific extra stages which appeared when Matthew Smith’s 1983 ZX Spectrum classic was ported to various other home computers. The short of it is, these various levels (50 in total – more that double the number of screens in the original game) were hunted-down, documented and then used to create a whole “new” Manic Miner game for the DS with tarted-up modern (well, more-modern) graphics and sound.

Whilst it can be played on emulator, it really wants to be played on a proper DS. Download it from its website here.

I’ve not played it yet, but when I do expect a review to appear on this ‘ere blog o’ mine.

EDIT: I made an error (how unlike me, ahem)! Apparently, the number of “lost” Manic Miner levels actually comes to 20, the same as the number of stages in the original game. The 50 levels in the DS game includes new levels by the programmers. So there.

Poly-Play – Wasserrohrbruch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poly-Play – Merkspiel

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more to go…

Poly-Play – Autorennen

2 September, 2009
Not so much as a Martin Brundle gridwalk...

Not so much as a Martin Brundle gridwalk...

This won’t come as a shock to anyone but I’m really getting sick of these East German games; I’ve probably had my fill of crude graphics and derivative, unimaginative gameplay by now and I’m itching to get back to reviewing proper videogames. But, you know what, I’m going to finish these reviews, go right to the bitter end. That’s how much I care. Well, it’s a rough approximation of how much I care. Kind of.

But enough grumbling, let’s get back of Poly Play. Where are we now? Oh, that’s right, we’ve reached Autorennen known in English as “Motor Race”. That’s right, just as Hase und Wolf was VEB Polytechnik’s attempt at a Pac-Man game and Schmetterlinge was their attempt at wasting everyone’s time, this is those wacky Ost-lander’s attempt at something like Super Sprint (and, yes, Poly Play came first but the two were still contemporous so the comparison stands, pedants!). God help us…

And it is like Super Sprint in the most elementary way in that it’s got a track, seen from above, and cars racing on it. So what are the differences? Well, let me list them in handy bullet form.

  • There are only two cars
  • The cars move directionally rather than rotation and accelerate so up moves up, right moves right etc
  • There are no pick-ups or hazards on the road
  • There’s a middle “bridge” bit which keeps changing and messes up the route of the track, sometimes even preventing the cars from progressing meaning they have to wait until it changes!
  • The computer-controlled opponent is piss-poor and only seems to accelerate when you do.
  • It’s fucking crap.

Really, a couple of games of this and were all I ever wanted to see. Less Michael Schumacher and more Luca Badoer.

I give Autorennen one Karl Marx out of five.

Next, please…

Poly-Play – Schiessbude

1 September, 2009

All the "fun" of the "carnival".

All the "fun" of the "carnival".

Yes, yes, I know. I was supposed to write up one of these yesterday and I forgot. This probably will happen again.

Anyway what is yester.. I mean today’s Poly-Play game? Why, I’m glad you asked me that, it’s none other than Schiessbude which means “Super Lenin Brothers”!

Not really, it means “Shooting Gallery”.

So, from the name alone you can probably work out what gameplay entails (that and a quick glance at the picture at the top right of this review). The player controls a gun at the bottom of the screen and has to shoot the various objects (ducks, flowers, balloons) which scroll along an invisible conveyor belt. Bullets are limited and can be replenished by shooting the big blue box at the top left of the screen but only when it displays bullets with a “+” sign next to them; shoot it when it has a “-” sign next to them and you lose the number of bullets displayed. There also seems to be some kind of “multiplyer” boxes at the top right of the screen behind some scrolling green walls with numbers above them which increase when they’re shot. I wasn’t able to determine exactly what these do but I assume they effect scoring in some way.

Oh, I should mention that there’s an excellent feature where the ducks sometimes stop sitting there on the conveyor belt waiting to be shot and come to life on the bottom conveyor and fly around moving downwards as they do so. If they’re not shot quickly then they eat some of your bullets. This feature is the best thing in Poly Play so far by a mile.

As for sound, there’s a completely unnecessary and unwanted (not to mention inexplicable) return of the horrible “siren” from Abfahrtslauf as the “game starting” sound effect, simply in-game effects and a beepy rendition of a “carnival” theme for game over.

Unfortunately, this game is somewhat sunk by the fact it doesn’t seem to progress properly. Shoot all the targets and rather than progress to another (more difficult) level the targets just keep on scrolling from the top-left only not too numerously and, curiously, only as ducks. Since by this time it’s easy to hit the blue box to keep ammunition levels up it soon becomes boring and rather pointless. A shame because, up until then, it’s a reasonably entertaining little game.

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

Poly-Play – Schmetterling

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

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

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

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

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

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