Thursday, March 16, 2017

Shooting Gallery (c) 1983 Rensoft

Chuck:  Good morrow everyone.  Today we're discussing Shooting Gallery, published in 1983 by Rensoft Software Systems and coded by Pete Lobl and Vin InGrao.  Why the name Rensoft, I wonder?  And why call it Rensoft Software, when Software is implied by the "soft" in Rensoft?

John:  They're big Renny Harlin fans, most likely.

Chuck:  Mmmmm.. OK.  Who isnt, really?

John:  Actually there are about a hundred companies called Rensoft.  There's even one that made some public-domain-looking PC games in the early nineties but it had nothing to do with Pete and Vinny.  They dont seem to have made any other commercial software for the C64, although Lobl did have a stint writing programs for the magazines at the time.

Chuck:  Well look at you doing some research. Apparently Pete was the president of the Long Island VIC users club, so he was probably a VIC20 man before the C64 came along.  I imagine he was an early adopter and had a head start on how to program the C64.  The bi-directional scrolling in Shooting Gallery is certainly a neat trick for a game this early.

 It's easy to be cynical and say that Rensoft was one of these no-name, no-budget software companies that ripped off other people's ideas, made quickie cash-in garbageware and sold it through the mail.  And maybe Rensoft truly was some flash-in-the-pan, here-today-gone-tomorrow, fly-by-night-away-from-here type of operation.  But look closelier and you will see something more.  Rensoft was the dream of 15-year-old Pete and Vinny.  From the looks of it they were starting their own software publishing company.  At 15!  These kids were real go-getters.  They managed to get an ad in Compute! and everything.  WE DONT CLAIM ARCADE, WE ARE ARCADE.

This is the dawn of the C64 era and very close to the dawn of home computing as a whole.  That's why they can claim "written in 100%" assembler as a feature.  And GOOD PLAY ABILITY, that's always nice.

John:  Yeah this ad is great.  Unfortunately every other game in the ad seems to have been lost.  They arent in any archive that we have and there's no info on the net.  You've got Pogo, the Q-Bert ripoff.  Not to be confused with Pogo Joe, certainly.  Kooky Climber is Crazy Climber, obviously.  That's interesting, that one didnt get a lot of ports or ripoffs of any kind.

Chuck:  Oh are you sure?  Let's look.

John:  LOL - Wow.  That's.. that's something.  That cant be our Kooky Climber could it?

Chuck:  No.  That's a type-in from COMPUTE! and not one from our subject Pete. (ed's note: not sure which issue).

John:  Oh yeah, you can tell by how it has to load all the data at the beginning.  Also on offer is Star Slayer.  Destroy all the enemy bases... avoid asteroids... I'm guessing this is a Starmaster clone.  They've got all the bases covered except for a Pac Man clone, or Frogger.

Chuck:  The only one of these games we can find is the one we have, Shooting Gallery.  We're not sure if the rest of them were ever released.  I'm assuming Shooting Gallery made a few sales, which is why we have a pirated copy at all.

John:  Notice it's the only one of their games available on disk OR tape.  Still, even Shooting Gallery is very obscure.  No gameplay videos except for a SID one that we'll discuss later.  It's got a Gamebase entry and that's about it.  Lobl and InGrao are credited but only on this one game.  I'm assuming they made the other games in the catalog so, if they exist, they are incredibly rare.  The only thing we know for sure is that these games most likely blow.

Chuck:  Hey, hey, hey, let's be fair.  It may be that only the programmer's themselves know what these games are like.

John:  Uh huh.  What are the chances that these are good games?

Chuck:  There are two chances.  Slim, and none.  I'll bet Pogo is better than Q-Bopper, though.

John:  I'll bet you're 100% right about that.  The prices on these games are pretty surprising.  Spoiler alert for this review:  Shooting Gallery aint that great.  And it's $27.99.  They top out at $36.95.  That means Shooting Gallery was sold for about 70 God Damned dollars in today's currency.  Holy Jeebus.  Maybe the reason these games are obscure is staring us right in the face.

I think these games were  released, though.  Somebody has them somewhere.  This looks like a pretty legit advert, and somebody must have bought Shooting Gallery for us to have been able to get a pirated copy of it.  Either that or the programmers just decided to set it loose in the wild one day after they folded up this company, which probably happened pretty quick.

Chuck:  Sure, they could exist and just not be archived.  I'm always finding games in our collection that are variations of what exists in the CSDB, for example.  So these databases are by no means complete.  Well, if you, the reader have these games please know that they havent been archived properly.

John:  OK so let's get to talking about Carnival.  I mean Shooting Gallery.

Chuck:  Shooting Gallery is obviously a port of Carnival by Sega/Gremlin.  Released in arcades in 1980, it is a fun and strikingly high-tech Space Invaders type shooter with Galaxian elements with enemies that break formation and fly towards you.  It was programmed by Medo Moreno, Murphy Bivens (who also programmed the excellent Space Fury) and Helene Schlein.  I'm not surprised this needed a team of progammers, there's a lot going on here.  The music in particular is far ahead of its' time.  Carnival is a true classic that got some good home ports including a very respectable and fun Atari 2600 port.  The C64 never got one though.

John:  We are ALWAYS talking about Sega games around here.  And we're not even big Sega freaks or anything.

Chuck:  Well they kicked a lot of ass back then.  Sega had been in the game business already long before video games came about.  They obviously know what they're doing arcade-wise and the influence of their game design is very far-reaching.  Carnival is unfortunately a bit overlooked today, probably due to its' age and similarity to other shooting games from that era.  People mostly want to play Galaxian, Galaga or Space Invaders these days.  Something like Carnival, which was a very well made cousin to these games, is never going to be as well known or renowned because these days there isnt as much space available for it to exist in.

Carnival is an example of early video game design that mimicked the electro-mechanical games of the previous era.  Target shooting games are among the oldest mechanical games featuring moving targets, some of them are even steam powered.  These games featured real firearms with specially made bullets that had real report and bell mechanisms to indicate a hit or simply had the sound of the bullet hitting iron or steel.

Carnival really understands what it's based on and plays it to the hilt.  Instead of a simple Galaxian ripoff it has limited ammunition that can be resupplied by shooting the correct targets.  There are targets of varying color and size and plenty of ways to earn bonuses.  The coup-de-grace is the music and sound effects.  The clanging of the target bells and the soundtrack are fantastic.  Bravo.

John:  I love how the ducks spring to life and fly toward you.  If they reach the bottom they'll eat your ammunition.  This absolutely freaked me out as a kid.  And speaking of the soundtrack, "Vals Sobre las Olas" is the featured track, which is the most recognizable carnival theme there is.  It's one of the most famous Latin American works worldwide, keep that nugget of information in your brain for later.

Chuck:  So, it's a great game, and a good candidate for a clone.  That's where Shooting Gallery comes in.  First, let's examine this wonderful title screen.

John:  Amazing.  This one really is great.  There's two screens, let's tackle them one at a time.

Chuck:  OK, first of all you get to hear a monophonic SID version of Chopsticks, which you can find on youtube right here.  And the first thing you see is the Rensoft title.  And.. and I cant wrap my mind around what we are looking at here.

John:  There's a TV sitting in a football field.  It appears to be connected to and apparently receiving power from a goal post or perhaps a soccer net.  The TV appears not to have rabbit ear antennae, maybe it's a menorah?  All drawn in wonderful PETSCII with what appears to be a sprite pasted on the TV.

Chuck:  Next we have the game title and the programmers.  This is fantastic.  This combined with the loping Chopsticks rhythm might make this the most quaint title screen of all time.  Look at the lettering; this looks like vintage embroidery.  This could just as easily say GOD BLESS OUR HOME.  Listen to the music along with this, this feels like we're going to play a game from 1908.

John:  It's amazing.  This was made by teenage boys.  This is 1983.  Arcade culture is in full swing.  The confluence of video games, arcades, new wave music, 80's fashion, it's all peaking or about to peak.. and this is Little House on the Prairie.

Chuck:  It's fantastic.  And screenshots dont do it justice, you have to have the music to get the full effect.  What kills me is SO MANY of these early C64 games have this same vibe.  Home computing of this era just has such an old-fashioned bent to it.  Perhaps due to the environment of total independence, this is video games as folk art?  Now I realize we're talking about a privileged few that own computers at this point in computing history.  But!  The C64 was hitting middle-and-lower-middle classes with their pricing and there's a good chance mom and dad didnt go to college but could still afford one of these things.  There's an even better chance the person writing this sofware didnt go to college, and in this particular case it's 100% true, this was made by kids.  How many games from this era were made by high school students?  This was the computer for the masses, not the classes.

John:  Yeah, maybe you're on to something.  There's a ton of non-commercial software for the 64, and I include the entire demo scene in this, as well as "trash" like  Smurf Massacre, that I would definitely consider to be folk art.  Shooting Gallery is ostensibly commercial software, but so much of this early commercial software is so naive and obviously unprofessional that I think it qualifies anyway.  It's debatable, because folk art is fundamentally non-commercial, non-professional.  Stuff like this rides the line.

Chuck:  This title sequence just says to me "OK , here's our little computer game here.  Just a dash of color and music, something to make you feel nice and cozy.  OK now you just wait a little bit for the game to load, it'll be right up.  Nice day today isnt it?  OK, on to the game with you, go on now.  Dont worry, it's nothing too loud or exciting.  Maybe get a cup of coffee first.  That would be nice."  It's the most staid, unassuming thing ever.  This is the furthest thing from "woo hoo let's play some vidjer games!!".


I think a lot of this could be Lobl trying to give this an old-timey shooting gallery vibe.  Chopsticks doesnt fit into that though.  Remember also, we're always saying that these games use music like this becuase it's public domain and easy to get the sheet music.

Chuck:  What I'm saying is that so many C64 games have this vibe that it's gotta be more than that.  It's not just that it's folky in the sense that it feels old-fashioned, it's a sense that it's completely divorced from mainstream video gaming of the time.  This is like homemade vs store-bought food.  It's like coming home and saying you played this great game at the arcade and then your parents whip up something similar for you on the computer that evening.

John:  I cant quite get to where you are on this, but I will say that the only thing that looks remotely like what you expect from a commercial video game in 1983 is their magazine ad.   Maybe Star Slayer has a different vibe, very hard to see that one coming up with a Chopsticks-backed title screen.

Chuck:  OK, on to the game itself.

John:  Finally.

Chuck:  Let's talk about the layout of the play screen.  Your score is in the top right, number of lives left,  There's an analog clock face on the bottom right.  Level/Round indicators at the bottom.  The game assumes you're going to press fire to start.  And when you do you hear this strange music.  It sounds so familiar but you cant quite put your finger on it.

 Dont give it away just yet.

Chuck:  OK.  When the game starts there are six alternately-scrolling lines at the top of the screen.  All are targets except for the second line from the top which are unbreakable barriers.  There are gaps between the barriers that allow you to shoot the targets at the very top of the screen.

All of the targets and wall blocks are character set graphics and each is as big as a single character.  The targets in the first stage are your usual ducks and rabbits.  Eventually you get to other stuff like little TV sets, little stick figures, bananas, Pac-Men(?), aliens and many various indecipherables.  Your gun at the bottom is a small sprite, very similar to the one used in arcade Carnival.

When you fire you'll notice that your bullets are very large, as large as the targets themselves.  It's not a smooth travelling bullet either, it sort of hiccup-jumps up the screen.  Similarly, some of the targets scroll smoothly across the screen where some are extremely jerky.  Perhaps this was intentional, to make them more difficult to shoot?

Not all targets are desirable.  There are hash blocks that will reduce your score when shot by 50 points and there are minus signs which take time off the clock.  Desirable targets include addition signs which add time to the clock and the letters B O N U S that gives you 100 points for shooting all the letters in order.  The targets themselves are worth more the higher up they are, with the bottom row being 1 point each, second row 2 points, etc.  That's a huge scoring discrepancy that we'll get to in a bit.

There is a time limit to each round represented by a wall clock face.  If you do not hit all desirable targets by the time the clock runs out the clock turns to garbage pixels and you lose a Rifle.  Sometimes the game lets you by with one target remaining.  If you lose all rifles the screen cyles colors and plays a long cymbal crash sound that I guess is meant to be the entire world exploding because you lost.

If you clear all the targets then you earn bonus time based on the amount of tick lines left on the clock, 100 points each.  Before the next round starts there is a "shoot the bear" sequence, which is a bonus round just like in arcade Carnival.  Except I dont think this thing is a bear.  Also he has something.. hanging down.  There's something going on down there if you know what I'm saying.

John:  Oh I know and it's sexy.  Actually I think this thing is an aardvark.

Chuck:  In case you havent played Carnival, the shoot the bear sequence works by having the bear run across the screen  and when you shoot it the bear turns around a moves in the opposite direction and speeds up.  Your job is to shoot it as many times as possible until it gets too fast and gets to the edge of the screen, escaping.

When a new round starts there will be a different set of targets and everything will move slightly faster.  There are several sets of targets, not rolling back over to the first set from the first round until round 14.

John:  There are also "red zones" in the first two and fourth rows.  When a target passes through this red zone it turns red and shooting it takes away points instead of earning them.  I like the way the color of the target smoothly transitions when it passes through the zone.  It reminds me of the old color overlays used in ancient black and white video games to add color.

Chuck:   In the first round the clock takes about 3 minutes and 33 seconds to time out.  With each subsequent round the clock moves faster.  Each line on the clock face represents about 13 seconds and when the round is over the game gives you 50 points for each line the hand didnt get to. You'll notice that as the rounds pass by the clock gets faster and faster.

John:  Well the game's secret is that the whole game gets faster, not just the clock, or the enemies.  The targets move faster, your gun moves and shoots faster.  What's happening with subsequent levels is just the speed of the entire game gradually increasing.  This is why the game's clock isnt digital, so you cant see behind the curtain as easily.

Chuck:  Right.  The game pulls the same trick with its' "shoot the bear" sequence.  You'll notice that as the bear gets faster your gun moves faster and you shoot faster also.  It's the entire game that's being sped up instead of a single aspect.

OK, now you can talk about the game's music.

John:  This game features much more than Chopsticks during the title sequence, even though that's the only SID that's been archived from this game.  Unfortunately, the archivists missed something.  Something huge.  Something mind-blowing.  And no wise man has the power to reason it away.

This Carnival clone features a monophonic SID rendition of What a Fool Believes.  It plays this while you shoot the little ducks and rabbits.  Chuck, it plays What a Fool Believes by the Doobie Brothers.  I'm serious.

Chuck:  Oh, I'm well aware.

John:  It's the most completely out of left field song choice imaginable.  Remember, Carnival has Over the Waves, which is perfect.  Shooting Gallery has WHAT A FOOL BELIEVES by the Doobie Brothers.  A Micheal McDonald sung hit from 1978.  Co-written by Kenny Loggins.  A yacht rock masterpiece.  It's this game's soundtrack!  And that's not all.

Chuck:  Nope.

John:  We also have "Jarabe Tapatio" otherwise known as the Mexican Hat Dance.  So, this song begins right after Fool ends.  These two songs play back-to-back in this game.  In glorious monophonic SID.  If you still have time left when Jarabe Tapatio is over then you just hear silence until the time runs out.

Chuck:  If this isnt the most bizarre, incongruent soundtrack any C64 game has, I'll eat my Hat.

John:  Friday the 13th's soundtrack is pretty bananas.

Chuck:  Ah, you're right.  Cant wait to get to that one.

John:  We'll have to get a gameplay video of this up.  It's probably very hard to imagine playing a game like this with mono-SID What a Fool Believes playing in the background.  If I didnt hear it for myself I wouldnt Believe it.

Chuck:  It's not even sped up to match the game, it kind of floats there.  Jarabe Tapatio itself wouldnt turn any heads, there's probably 100 C64 games that have that in it.  But Micheal McDonald?  What a strange design choice.  Kudos to Pete and Vinny, I really appreciate ignoring sense and reason once in a while.  So, kudos to you.

John:  As far as the sound effects go, it's far less special.  You mentioned the bells you would shoot in original shooting galleries, and the sound effects Carnival uses.  Pow - ding!  That's what a shooting gallery sounds like.  Unfortunately this game has none of that.  There's no feedback at all for hitting the targets.  For shame!

Chuck:  LOL - Hey we dont name and shame around here-

John:  SHAME.  There has got to be video game Commandments, and one of them has to be that shooting your target has feedback.  Almost anything is better than nothing.  At least your gun makes a firing noise.

Chuck:  Well, while we're shaming, let's talk about the game's other problems.  When you first play the game you'll find that the tiny amounts of points you get for hitting targets is practically meaningless.  The hash boxes that take away points are almost always right in front of a target you have to shoot to complete the round, so you just end up shooting them anyway.  So, what little points you get usually get erased.  Targets on the bottom row are 1 point.  If you shoot the target within the red zone it takes away 1 point.  Second row is 2 points, etc.  OK, and when you shoot a hash block it takes away FIFTY points.  That erases like 20 good targets you hit, potentially.

John:  Well you could try to make that up by shooting the B O N U S characters.

Chuck:  It's almost impossible to hit those in order.  There are so many tightly-packed targets that you almost always  accidentally shoot the letters out of order.  So you might find your score climbing up only to get knocked back down to zero multiple times during a round.

You might say that I'm being a crybaby complaining about the game difficulty, but then when you complete the round you get a huge time bonus.  You quickly realize that the best way to score is to not worry so much about what you're hitting, just clear the screen as fast as you can and get the big time bonus.  Since the targets are so close together, and there's so many of them, this is just a turkey shoot.  There's barely any thought involved.  Only the targets at the top are hard to hit and most of the time it's because there are hash blocks "following" them across the screen.  If you dont care about avoiding the hash blocks they're a lot easier to hit and you end up with more points anyway.

While playtesting this and wanting to see the higher rounds I barely had to look at the screen while I was playing, firing blind worked fine for most of the round.

Let me give a concrete example:

Case 1:  I start playing Level 1 Round 1.  I carefully  shoot around the hash blocks and avoid the minus sign that takes away a unit of time.  After the time bonus I have 482 points total.

Case 2:  I start playing Level 1 Round 1.  I shoot everything on the screen as fast as I can.  After the time bonus I have 591 points total.

John:  OK, I want to make sure we're meeting this game on its' own terms.  If you play the game carefully and skillfully you can avoid the hashblocks and pull of some pretty cool trick shots by shooting around them.  For the most part, this game is fair with target placement.  Sometimes you get bit by wonky collision detection.

And playing the game this way is the most enjoyable way to do it.  Yes, on Level 1 you can just shoot everything indiscriminately and never die and get a good score.  On higher levels the time limit actually matters and with no time bonus your only way to score or even survive is to avoid the undesirable targets.

If you hit F3 before starting a game you can change the Level number.  There's no way to advance levels while playing the game, at least not that I know of.  I managed to get to Round 15 before I had to quit because I couldnt stand playing anymore.

So, while in your current game the game gets faster with each Round.

Each Level, on the other hand, adds more minus symbols and hash blocks.  On Level 9 there are tons of em.

Chuck:  Yeah but then the game rewards you even more for wild shooting, you just get a lower score.  You only "die" if the time runs out and there's no chance of that happening on the lower levels.  On the higher levels you usually run out of time because the targets at the very top become almost impossible to hit due to the walls getting much larger.. and the walls are linked together with hash blocks.  Ouch!

That's how the game manages difficulty.  It tries to strike a balance between losing lives because the clock ran out and getting a good score, and I feel like they didnt find that balance.

John:  Even though this whole thing doesnt bother me as much as it does you, the real problem is that this isnt the way to manage difficulty in a game like this.  The game is trying to reward you for hitting and avoiding targets in  the shortest amount of time possible.  That sounds fine on paper, but in practice you have to carefully manage the game clock vs the amount of time the average player takes to complete a level, etc., and it doesnt punish you at all for wild shooting.  It just makes so much more sense to have Sega Carnival's ammunition mechanic where you have to watch your ammo count.  That way you are naturally punished for wild shooting and every shot really means something.

I find that I cant play this game for any great length of time.  Fatigue sets in early, usually before I've lost my first life.  It's not nearly as much fun to play as it is to talk about.  The targets are sometimes charming but they're just too small and they all look the same after a while.  Carnival has a variety of ways to get bonuses, bigger targets, better music and sound effects and better mechanics.  Shooting Gallery loses nearly all the good stuff and is pretty dull to boot.

Chuck:  It is, and it's not an unfair to compare it to Carnival, or even Mastertronic's Duck Shoot.  Look at Shooting Gallery's "shoot the bear" sequence and it's obvious this is meant to be a Carnvial clone.  But the Atari 2600 version of Carnival is so much more fun than this.  It's impossible for me to recommend this as a fun game, but the mystery, history and other epherma behind this game is fascinating.  It's folk art man, I'm telling you.

John:  It's not a complete disaster or anything, there's certainly been some thought put into it.   I had some brief moments of enjoyment trying to avoid shooting the obstacles on Level 9, in particular.  Overall though it's just not fun.  I had a hard time willing myself to play it for our discussion.  It's got the right amount of kooky weirdness for an early 64 title, though!  I hope the rest of Rensoft's library is discovered.  Someday, I believe they will be.

Chuck:  That's what a fool believes, John!  I want to make it clear that EVERY C64 game is worthy of archival, comprehensive research and discussion.  This game is awesome, Rensoft is awesome, and Pete and Vinny are totally awesome.

With that, I'd like to leave you with some words of wisdom from Pete Lobl, as seen in Commodore Power Play in the fall of 83:

"When the Commodore 64 was introduced, it drew comments from knowledgeable computer experts that shook the entire industry. By the time that you read this, there will be tons of quality programs available for the 64. But as I write, there isn't much out there in the way of 64 software, so my attitude is: why wait if I can do it myself? You can too, only don't be discouraged if everything doesn't make sense at first; in time it will all drop into place."

Friday, October 14, 2016

Gumshoe (c) 1984 A&F Software

Chuck:  Hello and welcome to our review of A&F software's Gumshoe.  Programmed by Sean Townshend and released in 1984.  1984, while including some mega-classics like Bruce Lee, still sees the C64 in its' early stages of development.  There are still Colecovision ports here and there, Atari and Apple ports are abundant, and most games do not feature the kind of music that would make the C64 and its' SID chip legendary.

John:  Most?  I'd say all.  Pitfall II has great music, but it's not much different than the 2600's music.  There's nothing like..

Chuck:  Let me stop you right there, because Alligata's Loco (1984) has a Ben Daglish tune, and it even plays throughout the game.  (link:

John:  I stand corrected!  Wow, that's very futuristic for a game of this year.  The game we're looking at is much more typical of the music of this period, in that there's barely any at all.

Chuck:  This is a very British affair.  A&F (Anderson & Fitzgerald) software is a pioneering British software house of some repute.  They're responsible for publishing Chuckie Egg, a BBC Micro game that got a C64 port thanks to the same Sean that programmed Gumshoe.  They loomed large in the BBC Micro scene, not so much on the C64.  Gumshoe is one of their few C64 exclusives, probably owing to Sean Townshend himself who seems to have focused primarily on the C64 with some good games like Max Headroom and the port of Atari's Road Runner.  He's also responsible for an unreleased Charlie Chaplin game which just got posted to the CSDb and Games that Weren't..

John:  Yes, Max Headroom is a particularly interesting, complex, almost Last Ninja-esque espionage game from 1986, probably programmed about two years later than this one.  What a difference two years makes!  I mentioned this in the Zaxxon review but I usually dont care about who programmed what, and now that I'm starting to pay attention it's been eye opening.

They say when you're a a Jazz newbie and you're trying to figure out who and what you like, they say you should find out who played what instrument on a song or album you really enjoy and then go find more from that particular individual.  You really liked the drums?  That drummer also played on this, and that and so on, so go listen to that also.  When you apply this logic to the C64 it's not so cut and dried.

Chuck:  I've always taken note of the publisher and the names in the credits.  It's not always good for digging up a hidden gem of a game, I agree, but sometimes there's an interesting individual or story behind this stuff.  I bring these things up because I expect our readers to do further reading and study - A&F software, in this case, has an interesting story I'd recommend reading up on.  And that unreleased Charlie Chaplin game is worth looking into.

John:  Of course, earlier games are less likely to be as spectacular as newer games, but there's still some head-scratching WTF type scenarios.

Chuck:  I feel like we're kind of dancing around the subject.  To be more straightforward:  Sean Townshend has made, or has had a hand in making some good, interesting games, and Gumshoe is not quite one of them.  This doesnt reflect badly on him as a programmer or as a person, though.  LOL.

John:  Of course.  We're not naming and shaming here.  But Chuckie Egg to Gumshoe to Max Headroom is a huge leap.

So what's interesting, historically, about Gumshoe?

Chuck:  Not much.  I think it would be completely forgotten if not for being included in a charity compilation that was popular in the UK called Soft Aid that was targeted at African hunger relief.  So if you played Gumshoe back in the day you probably have Bob Geldof to thank.

John:  And we had the Commodore Convicts to thank.

Chuck:  Which is strange, because they're a US cracking group and this is clearly not an NTSC version of this game nor is there any evidence whatsoever that it was published in the US.  They must have imported it via modem.  And how do we keep finding cracks that arent in the CSDb?

John:  You're asking me?  You were the dirty software pirate, I just lived in the same house.

Chuck:  Right, you're completely innocent.  I'm definitely obsessive about who-cracked-what-and-when but I dont want to get into that here.  I dont want the cracking group stuff to overshadow the games.  This is about the games and the hard working people that made them, not how they were stolen.  Maybe someday in a different blog, though, we can dig into that side of things.

But it's important to bring up that this is a PAL game.  We arent playing this on an emulator, we're playing on an NTSC C64.  There are some sprite issues where you see ghost bad guys once in a while but other than that it is very playable.  We've compared our game experience to on-line videos and we dont seem to be having our play experience adversely affected but you (the reader) can take this entire review with a grain of salt if this bothers you.

Gumshoe is what you might call a platform shooter, a free-scrolling version of Taito's Elevator
Action.  Elevator Action was very popular in 83/84 and has fans to this day.  It's the first platform shooter that I know of and inspired several decent to good C64 games.  Mission Elevator is probably the best and the actual C64 port of Elevator Action is definitely the worst.  Gumshoe is somewhere in the middle.

John:  It reminds me of Persian Gulf Inferno, except that Gumshoe features Fisher Price Little People instead of terrorists.

Chuck:  Wow I havent thought of that game in years.  Persian Gulf  Inferno with the graphics of The Heist.  Here's the difference between this and all those other games, though.  In Gumshoe you have nothing to do but shoot the bad guys.  No collecting.  No jumping.  No entering rooms.  Nothing.

A Gumshoe is a North American term for a private investigator and features prominently in the noir film genre.  Noir features hard bitten detectives solving crimes in bleak urban environments with plenty of moral ambiguity.   Dark, cynical stuff.

John:  Gumshoe the game does seem to star a private detective.  According to the cover art he appears to be preoccupied with thoughts of angry, shouting women, shadowy figures running up escalators and shooting a pistol.  All while smoking, of course.  This is actually a some really nice cover art, reminds me of Alan Parsons' Dont Answer Me video.  It definitely sets the mood for some detective work.

Chuck:  Yes, except Gumshoe features exactly no amount of sleuthing.  The events in Gumshoe seem to be taking place at the end of the story.  You've managed to locate where the client's kidnapped daughter or whomever is located and then you move in for the rescue.  Of course, if the building your hostage was being kept in was under guard by, like, a MILLION armed goons, like the ones in Gumshoe, then you might want to let a SWAT team take over at this point.

John:  Also, by "rescue", I think you actually mean "wander around aimlessly before stumbling on the kidnapping victim".

Chuck:  Right, finding the correct path through the level is part of the game.  The layout of the building makes no logical sense.  The floors are not arranged in stories.   There are tiny, partial floors that hang in the air and are unreachable.  There are escalators that lead to nowhere and change direction every 15 seconds or so.  Floors that dont have doors.  Garbage chutes that dont lead straight down to the trash room, but that transport you somewhere seemingly random.  It's more like the Winchester Mystery Mansion that an apartment complex, or whatever the heck this is supposed to be.

John:  It's a tower block, so yes, apartments.  A block of flats, if you will.

Chuck:  Are there ladders everywhere in most tower blocks?  OK, so there are ten of these apartment buildings each with a millionaire's daughter you must rescue.  Are we talking about the same millionaire here, or is it 10 different millionaires?  Are you a private eye who specializes in rescuing wealthy victims of kidnapping, or is it the same woman over and over again?

John:  LOL.  OK, I think you might be over-analyzing here.  The detective bits are just there to add some context to the proceedings.  It's just a very, very simple platform shooter.

Chuck:  A very simple platform shooter it is.  You enter at the bottom left of the tower, you wander around, up and down escalators and elevators while dodging hailstorms of gunfire from bad guys that randomly pop out of random doors.  Find the victim, on to the next tower.

John:  And you were expecting what?

Chuck:  Right on the title screen it says that it's not just a game, it's an EXPERIENCE.  I thought we were going to play a real detective game.  Then it turned out to be just an arcade game.  And that's fine, and that doesnt mean you cant feel like you're having a "detective" experience.  But Gumshoe does not deliver that.

Consider Mission Elevator (1986), same genre, and you play as a spy, same as Elevator Action.  Makes sense, since you get the idea that you're sneaking around, gathering intelligence and shooting to kill because that's what spies do in pop culture.  In Gumshoe it's a total free-for-all shootout with absolutely nothing else going on except for the maze-like level layout.  You cant even duck into a room.

Gumshoe doesn't even rise to the barely-there conceit of Elevator Action, where it actually felt like you were a spy, you could shoot the lights out, you had to go into rooms and grab secret documents, etc.  Replacing Spy with Private Eye is perfectly fine.  The term "gumshoe" comes from the sneakers that detectives wore, to sneak around.  But Gumshoe isn't about sneaking around.  It's practically Contra.  Gumshoe should be the name of a detective game, and this game we're playing here should be called SWAT Rescue.

John:  Ha, well, you gotta review the game that is, not the game that you wanted.

Chuck:  I see "experience" and I think, OK, this isn't going to be some simple Colecovision game or average arcade experience, this is a sophisticated Commodore 64 computer here and we're gonna play something meaty and complex.  It feels wrong that you cant enter rooms to find clues, get keys to unlock doors, etc.

John:  I think you're getting way too hung up on the whole experience thing.  But there is one aspect of the game that does make it seem like Sean, or whomever, wanted to squeeze more out of the detective concept, or maybe wanted the game to be more elaborate than it turned out.  It's time to discuss the real wack-factor of this game.

Chuck:  Oh yeah, the scoring.  Instead of scoring this simple action game in the usual way, you have a budget.  You earn money by killing the bad guys, who have a whopping $10 bounty you can collect from each kill.  You start with $500 in your account and go from there.  OK, so to digress..

John:  LOL

Chuck:  I mean is $10 really a proper value to put on a life?  I know these guys are probably violent criminals, so that's why there's a price on their heads, but TEN DOLLARS?  What did they do, what could they possibly be wanted for, that dragging in their dead corpse earns you a measly ten dollars?  I cant even comprehend this.  Who would bother?  Who would trade in piles of bloody corpses for $10 a pop?

John:  LOL

Chuck:   Either they are dangerous murderers who are not expected to be taken in alive, for which the bounty should be a lot higher, or they're wanted for maybe skipping bail on a DUI in which case you cant just murder them and drag their body into the police station and expect to be rewarded.  And these guys are legion, there's an entire army of them.  Bullets in the game cost $2 a piece.  You are risking your life for a profit of exactly $8 per kill.  Now, if you rescue the kidnapped woman you earn a lot more, but the chances of you getting shot are extremely high.  No one is going to go for this deal.

John:  If you accidentally touch a bad guy you get into a cartoon-style fight with him (shades of the Dont Answer Me video, again) in which you have a 50/50 chance of being victorious.  Even if you win, I believe you incur a $150 penalty, so getting into a fight is never a good idea.

Chuck:  This is all presented to you as a balance sheet you see at the end of a round.   I'm not sure why it strikes me as so goofy.  It's a good idea to make your score reflect how many times you hit rather than missed a shot, and to penalize you for shooting wildly.  But at 8 points a kill it doesn't matter much in your overall score.  You have to miss 4 times to negate one good shot and you are CONSTANTLY killing bad guys.  If you're really that bad at hitting the targets then you wont last long in this game anyway.  So unless you just stay in one place and shoot at a wall this is not really going to affect your score.  The only way it would matter is if you upped the price of bullets to at least $5.  Sure, it wouldnt make sense economically, but nothing about this makes sense anyway.

You start the game with a $500 credit, but again there's nothing to spend it on besides bullets and fighting.  If you just want money you can sit in the bottom left corner at the beginning of the game and have yourself a turkey shoot with the bad guys streaming out of the nearby door and down the nearby ladder.  You pay for ammunition but you dont actually buy it nor can you ever run out.  There's also no time limit, so you can rack up the money as high as you want without effort.

Getting into a fight might as well just kill you, I think the score penalty is only there to add another row to the balance sheet, which is pretty sparse.

John:  Maybe there should have been other costs, like gas for driving to the tower?  Lunch?  Taxes?

Chuck:  Ha, yeah why not?  It almost seems like they were reaching in that direction, like maybe you were supposed to have some sort of "running a business" aspect to the game, like in David Crane's Ghostbusters, that didn't get fleshed out.  Maybe you were supposed to be able to purchase things, etc.  As it is it's just another weird aspect of this game.  What's this doing in a paper-thin shooter?

John:  But that's what makes it notable, like a lot of these more obscure C64 games, they are quirky and that's what we love about them.

Go ahead and talk about the graphics and the presentation.

Chuck:  Well there's a nice title screen based on the box (or rather, cassette case) art, except here there's a woman emerging from a trapdoor(?) which doesn't feature in the game.  The attract screen that also shows the high scores is nothing special but notably looks a lot like Chuckie Egg's title screen with the same high score table.  And speaking of Chuckie Egg, the characters all look like the Chuckie Egg player character, who himself looks like Bounty Bob.

John:  So this game is Miner 2049'er III: Bounty Bob Massacre?

Chuck:  Sure.  All the characters have those dead-eyed doll faces with permanent grins that were most common in early platformers on graphically-challenged systems.  This is where Donkey Kong really succeeded, giving Mario a mustache instead of a stupid grin.  Or an expressionless face like Miner Willy's.  Or a mask like HERO's Roderick.  Oh my God, do I hate this weird permanent grin look.  It's disturbing, frankly.  It gives me the heebie jeebies.

John:  You'll be alright.

Chuck:  The level graphics are purely functional.  There's lots of colorful doors, but instead of adding flair they just look haphazard and strange, which I admit has its' own kitschy kind of appeal.  The structure is made up entirely of red brick walls and floors, which is fine, but every tower looks exactly the same.  It's a jarring lack of variety when the game relies on maze navigation. If the navigation were straightforward then it wouldn't be as noticeable.

The elevators look OK but it's weird not having cables on them.  I don't like the look of the escalators and it adds to the "cheap" look of the game.  Even the escalators in Keystone Kapers had railings.  The ladders look fine.

The character animation is alright.  The characters die very similarly to Elevator Action.  Same with the door animation.  The scrolling is smooth enough but it doesnt match the speed of the shooting action.  All the characters on-screen make their "ladder climbing" animation when you rescue the hostage.  It's weird.

If you sum everything up the game just has an unappealing look to it.  It makes the game look and feel worse than it really is.

John:  As far as the sound goes, wow, this game is something else. Why you need to hear the doors opening is baffling, and the fart noise it makes is annoying.  Bad guys constantly pour out of all of the doors surrounding you so you gain no play advantage in them making a sound.  And that's all you're going to hear, forever and ever, is the percussive sounds of the guns shooting and the low "zip" of the doors opening, constantly.  It sounds like an unfinished Autechre tune.

Chuck:  What?

John:  No, I'm serious.  Listen.

Chuck:  Well..  Well I'll be damned.  OK.  First C64 game with an IDM soundtrack.  Sure.

John:  LOL

The game has a little jingle that plays when you complete a level.  It's nice enough.  Very short.  Nothing that I recognize.

Chuck:  Sounds like we're wrapping it up?

There is one area where the game does deliver, and that's frantic shooting action.  It doesn't gel with the theme or the graphics but there's a challenging shooter in here somewhere.  You have to constantly scan the screen for bad guys, duck their bullets and return fire very quickly.  The kooky environment makes hiding all but impossible so there is rarely if ever a break in the action.  The problem for me is that the game looks disturbingly weird, sounds annoying, doesn't match up with it's theme and feels too much like you're wandering around aimlessly.

John:  Yeah,  I agree, but the bizarro look and nature of the game are more appealing to me.  In fact, the game could use more quirky weirdness.  As it is, the game doesn't really stand out in such a dense game library as the 64's, either as a curiosity or otherwise.

I know you've asked something like this before, do you think we might be being too hard on a game from 1984?  A game that may have been a budget release?

Chuck:  Maybe?  I feel like we try to compare games with their contemporaries, earlier games and with a game like this, the arcade game it's based on.  It's not a disaster or anything, it's typical of games of this period.  I cant recommend seeking it out and playing it, though, and that's the real test we put our games to.

John:  Right, I cant either.  I'd definitely recommend Chuckie Egg, Max Headroom and Road Runner though.  Good night all you amateur detectives out there!

Smoke if you got em!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Zaxxon (c) 1984 Synapse

Chuck:  Welcome to our Zaxxon review.  As is tradition with arcade ports, we will begin by analyzing the arcade version.  Zaxxon was released by Sega into arcades in 1982, the first game to have an isometric (axonometric projection) perspective along with the first to have a television commercial.  As we mentioned in our Congo Bongo review, Zaxxon may have been created by the same team of programmers responsible for Radar Scope / Donkey Kong, which is a strong lineage.  As Donkey Kong brought life and vibrancy to platformers, Zaxxon brought a new perspective and a serious jolt of technological wizardry to the space shooter genre.  No one had seen anything like this.

John:  Being arcade rats in 1982 this game was like a bucket of cold water being thrown on you.  It's very hard to get it across to the under 40 crowd what this was like.  You never knew what you were going to run into when you went to the arcade.  You'd walk in in 1982 and see Moon Patrol, Bump n Jump, Jungle Hunt.. then BAM, suddenly there's the most awesome graphics you've ever seen with a play style that you've never experienced before.  It felt like stepping into the future.  This would happen a lot at the arcade, there was always something more advanced to blow your mind, but it seems like Zaxxon is the first time I remember it happening.

Chuck:  For me that game was Donkey Kong, how appropriate that these games are related.  Obviously there is enormous programming talent involved in Kong and Zaxxon, I really wish we knew more about who made these games.

The arcade environment did wonders for video game development and evolution.  In 1982 there was already a crowded game market and the pressure to have something stand out was enormous.  Some were adding voice to spice things up, like in Sinistar, and some were using visuals to rock your world.  You're right, it always felt like you were on the crest of a wave, always at the bleeding edge of technology.  It's still like that in some ways but games that are tent-poles, as it were, are much more rare.  Zaxxon is one of them, a technological masterpiece.

John:  Buuuuuut...

Chuck:  Oh yeah there's a big but.  We cannot lie.  Zaxxon's unique perspective makes it very difficult to play and its' skill set that doesnt translate from or to other games of its' era.  This is one of those graphics vs gameplay situations.  Zaxxon still looks great today, but modern gamers may not want to stick with it long enough to get good at it.  It's definitely still a name that means something to gamers of a certain age but nostalgia glasses will only take you so far with this game.  You've been warned.

Zaxxon imagines you are flying through two fortresses floating on islands in space.  This could have very well been set on land or over a river (which Sega would later do in the spiritual sequel called Future Spy) and it would have made much more logical sense, but having it set in space really worked toward the hi tech / space crazed environment we were living in at the time.

John:  Well, "space games" were all the rage at the time and that's not the only reason.  I feel like a big part of this was that early games had little to no background graphics capability and using a background color other than black could make things hard to see so... most games were set in space by default really.

Chuck:  The fortresses appear to be made from concrete blocks and are replete with dangers such as surface to air missiles (very Scramble-esque), gun turrets which can only hit you when you're skimming the surface, fuel tanks you shoot a-la River Raid to get more fuel and the "boss" character Zaxxon, who is some sort of hovering robot that shoots missiles.   Zaxxon is the only "character" in the game.  There is no story or marketable cartoony hero, the pilot you play as is completely anonymous and frankly your space craft is entirely uninteresting.  The star of the game is the beauty of the setting.  It really is gorgeous and it still looks great today.  I love the high-tech look of the fortress, the walls the floors with their circuit-like designs.  The colorful gun turrets and fuel tanks.  The hexagon-patterned floor that Zaxxon floats over.  The perfect angle at which you view it all from.  Fantastic.  If it looks this good today can you imagine how it looked in 82?

For such an elaborate presentation the game is actually very simple.   Owing to this game's perspective you are granted an altimeter of sorts.  Although you cannot fly too low and crash into the ground, the altimeter gives you a visual reference of where you were when you flew through a gap in a wall or when you blew up an enemy allowing you to plan ahead in the future.  So the game is mainly trial and error, knowing which position to be in at the right time.  Because it's so visually elaborate the game is very short without much variation save for a middle section between the two fortresses that is a free-flying dogfight vs several other spacecraft which I venomously hate, hate, hate with all of my being.  Still, it adds very much needed variety to the proceedings.

John:  The sound design is very cool.  It seems like your ship has some sort of exhaust sound that is ever-present and sounds really good.

Chuck:  In Zaxxon's literature they call it the sound of "space wind".

John:  The zaps of your laser fire, the pulse of the force field gates, the launching of the surface-to-air missiles, the explosions all sound great.  And I agree that after you get over Zaxxon's presentation the game lacks meat.  Can you imagine if Scramble was as short as Zaxxon?  I also agree that the design of your spacecraft is pretty dull.  It's just a regular airplane or space shuttle, which doesnt match up with the shoot em up nature of the game.  However it does match up with the flight stick used to control the game in the arcade.  So does the "space wind", come to think of it.  They're really pushing the flight aspect of it.

Chuck:  In the literature they push the game as a flight simulation, basically.  It wouldnt surprise me at all to find out the game wasnt originally space-based.  It seems like the design of the ship is made to assist the player with the (at the time, brand-new) controls and also to make it a more simple shape for scaling purposes.

John:  Right, it does look good when it's pitching and yaw-ing.  So, what we have here is a graphical powerhouse that controls pretty effectively for what it is and is short on content and variety.  Par for the course for a game like this.

Chuck:  It depends on if you "get" this kind of game design.  Some folks will play this and pick up on the subtleties with the altitude quickly and have a blast playing it.  Some will be way too frustrated.  It's like a more-playable Congo Bongo.

John:  Well it was made to eat quarters.  It's amazing how many people bought this game for the Colecovision (which is a fine port) who couldnt play it at all.  How many parties did we go to as kids where people were sitting around a TV playing Zaxxon, dying over and over and over again?   Just seeing Zaxxon himself felt like such a huge accomplishment.  The game never felt too short because nobody could play it well enough.

Chuck:  Yes but it's no fun constantly dying either.  I'm content to be bad at Zaxxon because I can usually see what the game has to offer in about 10 minutes or so.  I marvel at the graphics and design and then set it aside, satisfied.  You're better at it than me, what do you think?

John:  Like you said, it's trial and error, figuring out what altitude to be at and when.  You really gotta love the game to get good at it, you have to play it a LOT.  Most wont put that effort into it, especially not in 2016.

Chuck:  I love the idea and the spirit of Zaxxon more than the game itself.  And that middle dogfighting section.  What they were thinking with that I have no idea.

John:  It's the real test of your Zaxxon depth perception, you have to innately know your position on the altimeter by the size of your aircraft and that of the enemy's.

Chuck:  It's unbelievably annoying.

John:  So how about that C64 version?

Chuck:  Oh yes!  Our reason for the season.  Welcome, welcome to the fold, Synapse.  I thought Fort Apocalypse would be our first Synapse game but here we are.

John:  Well Zaxxon ties into our Congo Bongo review very neatly.  It tying into Synapse is just icing on the cake.

Chuck:  Synapse software is a giant among early C64 publishers.  Active until 1984 they provided much-needed quality to the early C64 lineup.  They were mostly Atari ports and although that usually gets under my skin they're mostly good games so it doesnt matter.  I love how they advertise other Synapse games on Zaxxon's title screen: coming soon - pharoh's curse - drelbs - zeppelin - necromancer and many many more!  Yes, they mis-spelled pharoah.

John:  So how did Synapse get to make such a high-profile arcade port?

Chuck:  Dealings with a shady lawyer working for Sega at the time.  Seriously.

John:  Wow.  OK.

Chuck:  Zaxxon here was programmed by Peter Adams, who programmed the C64 port of Blue Max right before this.  He's also responsible for Panther which was released by Mastertronic in 1988 and is also an isometric shooter.  This genre is definitely his bag, baby.

John:  Clearly.

Chuck:  Zaxxon was released in 1984 near the end of what I consider to be the C64's early years.  It had already made a big splash at home with the Colecovision version, but the C64 version is certainly not unwelcome.  However, coming after Blue Max it seems like a bit of a step backwards.  Blue Max is arguably better, with more gameplay elements, etc.  But if you're looking for your isometric shooter to be set in space rather than WWI, Zaxxon is the better way to go.

John:  Zaxxon for the C64 is a very sturdy port.  Smooth scrolling.  Responsive controls.  The skills you build playing the arcade game apply well and the game scores the same as the arcade.  You'll notice that the scores on the C64 version match those of the arcade version if you play it the same way.  Pretty impressive.  It's a little easier because it's a little slower but I wont count that against it.

Chuck:  Yes, please dont because that's definitely a huge plus in my book.  I can enjoy playing it on the 64 even if it doesnt wow me with its' presentation like the arcade version does.

John:  They definitely paid attention to the arcade version when creating the port.  Notice how you can shoot the cannons on the ground by flying slightly higher so that you hit the red spot on top while at the same time avoiding their shots.  That's attention to detail you dont find in other versions.

There are two major differences between the 64 and arcade version:

1.  The controls.  The arcade versions controls are floaty.  The spacecraft has momentum and pushing the stick to the left and then stopping will cause the ship to tilt (bank) left then continue to travel in that direction briefly before straightening out after you've stopped moving the stick.  In the C64 version the craft does not bank left or right but rather strafes left and right and stops immediately when you stop moving the joystick.  It's not a problem, necessarily, but if you're used to the arcade version you will definitely notice the difference and have to adjust your play accordingly.  In the end I believe you'll find it's easier to control the 64 version.

2.  The perspective has changed.  In the arcade version of Zaxxon you can move left and right along the entire length of the fortress.  In the 64 version you seem to have a zoomed-in perspective of the left side of the fortress and you can only fly to the right to what feels like the middle of the screen.  It's strange but not a dealbreaker, the game feels very much like the arcade game anyway.  And it's not because of the aspect ratio difference between home TV vs the arcade, the C64 version is the only version like this that I could find.  All the other major versions have a "right side".

Chuck:  The graphics in the C64 version are just average.  I miss the arcade version's colors.  The blues of the surface and the white lines drawn overtop look so much more "futuristic" than the C64's.  The surface in the C64 version is actually made up of alternating lines, it's actually a pattern of grey and blue, and there's too much of this same gray color on everything.  It looks too dark and I'll dare say it - ugly.  There are bright spots though, the dreaded dogfight section has a cool space background with color shifting planets and galaxies.  It's good stuff.

John:  Compared to other versions the 64's looks very good.  The explosions are very well done.

Chuck:  They are but they also reveal "seams" in the background's character set graphics.

John:  Getting a little nit-picky there.

Chuck:  Wanna pick nits?  Go ahead and talk about the sound design.

John:  OK.  Well it kind of sucks.

Chuck:  I said pick!

John:  It's very early-period C64 sounding.  Lots of taps, ticks, wooshes, dirty cymbal hits.  There should be zaps when you fire your laser, dammit.  Not this tippy-tap-tap crap.  It's completely missing the background noise of the arcade game also, which makes the game feel very quiet, which is also a common feature of this era of 64 games.

Chuck:   As a side note there is also a different port than the Synapse version, from Datasoft(?).  The background graphics are definitely better but in videos the gameplay looks choppy (we have not played this version).  My conclusion is that Zaxxon is best played on an arcade cabinet.  The C64 version is very competent but doesnt have the wow factor.  I'd go with Blue Max instead.

John:  Well, sometimes you want to play Zaxxon, and this is one of the best, if not THE best ports of it.  I give it a thumbs up.  So Zaxxon gets a half-recommend.  I'd say that's about right.

Chuck:  But dont go yet dear readers because it's time for a ** BONUS REVIEW ** !!

John:  Oh, be still my beating heart.

Chuck:  Up next is SUPER Zaxxon.  Because we just cant get enough punishment.

John:  Punishment is correct.  The arcade version of Super Zaxxon came out very quickly.  It is NOT a sequel.  It's meant to be a cheap conversion kit for existing Zaxxon cabinets that provides an extra hit of adrenaline for Zaxxon junkies by making the screen scroll unbelievably fast.  It is a "hard mode" for players getting bored with the original Zaxxon.

Chuck:  It's ridiculous.  It's literally impossible to play.

John:  This was a good move on Sega's part.  Strike while the iron is hot, as they say.

Chuck:  I like the tunnels instead of the space dogfights even though they dont add much variety to the game.  I really like how the tunnels look, with the road and the TUNNEL IN!! flashing message.  It's got the same future-cool look as Zaxxon but everything is lime green instead of blue.

Super Zaxxon (arcade) mixes things up by making the playfield green instead of blue.

John:  The tunnels are there, I think, because the speed of the game wouldnt make any sense regarding the dogfights.  And instead of facing Zaxxon you face a mighty, fearsome space dragon!

Chuck:  LOL

John:  LOL

Chuck:  Yeah it's about as fearsome as Barney the dinosaur.  It looks like a parade float.  It looks NOTHING like the dragon in the game's literature.  It literally looks like a Muppet Babies version of the dragon on the cabinet.

Drogon, this aint.

John:  It looks like a Disney mascot costume you'd see walking around the Magic Kingdom.  I will admit when I played this game on the C64 many years ago I thought it was some kind of joke or hack or something.  Nope, it's real.

The C64's terrifying dragon.

Chuck:  So, Synapse had nothing to do with this C64 port.  It was programmed by Micheal Cranford and Lawrence Holland for Hesware (who published many of Jeff Minter's games).

There is also another version of Super Zaxxon which does maintain the green color of the arcade version and was published by US Gold.  It looks and sounds pretty awful according to this video right here.

John:  That is one of the most annoying games I have EVER heard.

Normally I'm not big on who programmed what and when.  That's more your department.  But I have to say I was surprised to find out that this was (at least partly) programmed by the guy responsible for The Bard's Tale.  What a big leap in genres.

Chuck:  That's Micheal Cranford.  He also designed Dark Seed, so yeah he did a lot of genre hopping.  I'm more surprised that Lawrence Holland also programmed Spike's Peak for the 2600.  Not sure why I'm surprised, it's just such an odd (and technically advanced) 2600 title, it's unexpected to see it mentioned anywhere for any reason.

John:  It's probably the C64 version of Spike's Peak, not the 2600 version.

Chuck:  There's a C64 version??

John:  Yes.

And I think you might be brushing right by his huge involvement in the Star Wars X-Wing and TIE Fighter series?  Some of the most renowned games of ALL TIME?

Chuck:  Damn, this stupid Super Zaxxon port has some serious genes.

John: Stupid, I can agree with.  It's as slow as the arcade version is fast.  The only reason Super Zaxxon exists is to be a lure for Zaxxon freaks who are too good at the game.  The 64 version removes that reason.  So now it has no reason to exist.

Chuck:  They completely ignored the arcade version's art style.  There's no green to be found.  It's all grey and blue like the first Zaxxon.

John:  At least it has decent sound effects.  An actual laser sound, a nice siren to warn of the Dragon approaching.  Oh and it has a nice little title tune that the aracde version lacks.  I actually think it would be interesting to have a real home port of Super Zaxxon but this isnt it.  Super Zaxxon is supposed to be very fast, period.

Chuck:  The most interesting thing about Super Zaxxon is its' heavy-hitting programming lineage.  Two mighty game franchise creators have such humble beginnings.  Who knew?

Chuck:  OK, so we both agree that one can pass on Super Zaxxon.  Overall, though, Zaxxon in any incarnation is one of the more playable of the "graphical flash vs. gameplay" designs, with a unique and beautiful backdrop.  I imagine it will be remembered for years to come.  By old people.  Like us.

John:  Synapse's 64 port is very playable but lackluster in the audiovisual department.  Super Zaxxon is a bit brighter but is too slow to be considered an actual port of the arcade game.  Stay away from the US Gold (or whomever) versions of the games we didnt cover here and Zaxx off everyone, good night!

Chuck:  Sigh.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Yes we're still alive

Howdy folks, this is blendo75 here with an update as to what's going on.

We've gotten a lot of nice correspondence from our readership that we surely do not deserve on account of our lack of updates and replies, but I do have time to address most of your questions right now.  Hopefully this covers a lot of ground.

Yes, we're all alive here.  Yes, it sucks that there were major life upheavals right as we were finding a groove.  Yes, we're going to get back to it ASAP.

We are a very close group.  We are related.  Chuck and John are brothers.  No we are not on Facebook under any names you see on this page.  We value our privacy so we arent going to say much more.  As for the picture of "us", is it really us.. there's hints to this whole thing all around you and more clues on our twitter (blendo75).

Our experience, both unique and combined, covers a broad spectrum of games both old and new, from systems previous to the C64 and post.. The focus here is Commodore 64 games but they are approached from the perspective of 40 years of gaming, beginning with the Odyssey 2 (with a brief experience with the Odyssey 1 beforehand).  The Commodore 64 is definitely our favorite system and the one with the most impact on us, and certainly not just because of games but for the world that it opened for us with regards to all aspects of computing - BBSs, hacking/phreaking/cracking, etc.

We're all familiar with the 64's capabilities and have played more games for this system than any other platform and that will probably stand until the day we all die.  We absolutely love all of them, even the very rotten ones, as they all have something to teach you about the system and about how C64 games and games in general should be designed.  But more importantly, they all have a bit of magic and mystery to them that is granted to them by the unique hardware capabilities of a system created in 1982 and by the fact that they are usually the vision of one individual or a small team.  The C64 is a system with uniquely crafted hardware that does so much with so little that it very nearly IS magic.  Only the Atari 2600 and Amiga 500 can compare, in our estimation.

Yes we do want to review games for other systems, the aforementioned 2600 and Amiga.  Maybe a modern one once in a while.  But we want the content of the blog to be mostly C64 and we dont have a lot of C64 content at all, yet.
No we do not enjoy hating on games.  Reviewing these C64 games is about more for us than just giving thumbs up or down.  It's about cataloging our experiences with them.  It's about conveying to others, to strangers from all over the world, those experiences.  We'd like to think that our perspective is uniquely our own and is, hopefully, valuable to the Commodore community and to those who also love and want to further understand what makes games fun or not fun, what makes them important or throwaways  What makes them an art form.  Sometimes we do take bad games personally.  Our time is limited and precious, and games that are mediocre and/or that were made to trick you into buying them are stealing that time.

We realize that most of our readers are either exclusively C64 gamers or exclusively 8-bit.  But if you're insterested in modern games, yes, we do play them.  Not as many as we'd like to.  Some recent ones we hold in high esteem are Civ 5, Skyrim, Minecraft, Resident Evil 4, Guitar Hero, Boom Blox, Final Fantasy X / XII / XIII, Luigi's Mansion and Katamari Damacy.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Omega Race (c) 1982 Commodore / Midway

(thanks gamesdb)

Chuck:  Thanks for waiting!  After a long but necessary hiatus we're back with Omega Race, an in-house effort from Commodore themselves.  It's another good arcade port from the company you'd least expect.  Back in 1982, though, there werent many other publishers pumping out C64 software, and Commodore wanted to emphasize the entertainment aspects of the machine.

John:  Perhaps to lure in VIC-20 owners who mostly used their computers as fancy consoles?  VIC-20 users seem to go bonkers for Omega Race in particular.

Chuck:  Perhaps.  Omega Race began life in the arcades of 1981 as Midway's answer to Asteroids.  It was the first and last vector graphics game Midway would ever make.

John:  Faaaascinating...

Chuck:  Indeed.  It was programmed by Ron Haliburton who is an old, old, ooooold school game designer that began his career in the electromechanical era and went on to create Pong and Tank knockoffs, and some very early racers. He claims to have created the first skiing game.

His real claim to fame, though, is Omega Race.  Remembered by lots.  Fondly remembered by most. And almost completely removed from the modern (retro) gaming scene.

John:  I dont remember ever seeing it in a Midway collection, or in any sort of re-release.

Chuck:  That's because there are none and never were any.  Released for most PCs and consoles pre-console crash, it fell completely off the map afterward.  I have a feeling Ron or another company he worked for kept the rights to it.  Either that or the game just doesnt make sense in any other context beyond its' early 80s heyday.

John:  That's what I'm thinking.  The game is very strange.  I dont know if the general gaming population has an impression of Omega Race other than that it's an Asteroids knock off.  Or rip off.  Or "Midways' answer to Asteroids" if we're being diplomatic.  It lacks a cohesive theme.

For example:

ASTEROIDS -  You're stuck in an asteroid belt!  Shoot asteroids to survive!

OMEGA RACE - In a distant galaxy, a race of fierce warriors known as the Omegans have preserved their independence and won the respect of their enemies by developing their fighting skills to a deadly precision.  To train their warriors, the Omegans stage a challenge known as the "Omega Race".  Over the Omegan city of Komar, android-piloted fighters relentlessly pursue the best of the Omegan warriors and yadda yadda yadda, holy crap.  It goes on and on.

And it has a very odd gameplay hook.  It's all the fun of Asteroids with a big box in the middle of the screen.  Do you "race" around the box?  No, it's just a big obstacle.   I'm not sure how they came up with this.  It probably was supposed to be some sort of vector racing game, where you raced around the screen Rally-style, until they decided it would make more money as a shoot em up.  "Race" is right there in the title, there may even have been some drastic last-minute changes made.

Chuck:  Mmmm,.. perhaps Race is just referring to the fact that you're engaging in some sort of contest rather than an actual battle...?  Or it's referring to the race of the Omegan peoples, as in the definition of race as a social concept?  It's there in the documentation, "a race of fierce warriors".

John:  Oh that's deep. If it wasnt supposed to be an actual racing game then why is there one large obstacle that's so obviously the infield of a racing track?  Why not multiple, smaller boxes?  Why not long rectangles making corridors?  Why not change the layout on subsequent levels?  It is a fun game, for sure, but it feels like two different concepts being pulled in different directions.

What really annoys me though, and this goes for lots of games out there, not just this one, is that in the context or story of the game this is supposed to be a training mission, or some sort of simulation of combat.  Why do video games ever, ever do this?  You're already interacting with a metaphorical representation of reality, why cant you be fighting real enemies per the story?  Why's it gotta be a simulation of a simulation?

Chuck:  Just so we're all on the same page here, Omega Race, like Asteroids, has you piloting some sort of space ship, spinning it left and right and using a button to thrust and another to fire.  The enemies are numerous circular objects (Droids) that mostly move together either clockwise or counter around the big box in the middle of the screen.  One of the enemies (Commandos) will be faster, and smarter, and attempt to seek out and destroy you with lasers while at the same time dropping mines which you must avoid.

Your job is to clear out all enemies.  When you do this you will notice that enemies you do not shoot will take over for the "leader" when it is destroyed.  If you do not shoot the leader(s) or clear the level fast enough it will turn into a fast moving death machine (literally called the Death Ship) that will kill you quickly.  As the difficulty increases you will have to deal with multiple leaders at once, that move faster, drop more mines, etc.

So, basically you want to kill the slow guys first so they dont graduate to more dangerous forms.

Other gameplay elements include invisible walls on all sides of the screen which light up when shot or touched by your ship.  You will bounce off these walls and the square in the middle.  You only crash if you touch an enemy.  You and the enemies have the ability to fire rapidly in a very satisfying pew-pew video-gamey kind of way.

John:  That's what I enjoy about it.  It has these arcadey elements down to a science.  Great "music" (a few repeating notes) that get faster to ramp up tension.  Great arcadey sound effects.  It's a very well-done vector shooter.  This isnt a review of the arcade version, though!

Chuck:  Right.  The C64 version was programmed by Andy Finkel and Eric Cotton, who created the celebrated VIC-20 version, which is actually a bit better than this one.  They're responsible for the rest of these Commodore-branded Midway ports of this time period such as Gorf, Wizard of Wor and Lazarian.

The C64 version retains some of the great things about the arcade version while being easier, overall.  That's typical for a home translation and not necessarily a strike against it.  However, the reason it is easier is because there are changes to the way the enemies behave, and it's a bit of an issue.

Playing the C64 version feels very similar to the arcade, particularly the way you and the enemies fire at each other.  The difference comes in the way the enemies move toward you.  In the C64 version they tend to bounce their way toward you; off of the walls and the center box.  All of the enemies do this, but it's most noticeable in the Death Ship.  It falls a little flat when it languidly bounces its' way toward you, as opposed to the frightening way it quickly homes in on your in the arcade version.  In fact the entire experience is slowed down, perhaps to make it easier?

John:  What?

Chuck:  The game does gradually get more difficult but still feels slow.  I dont know though, if you arent overly familiar with the arcade version you may not even notice the difference.  If you're a big fan of the arcade version, or even the VIC version, you'll find the C64 version lacking in oomph.

John:  The Death Ship doesnt move like that at all.  Well, it does bounce around more but it's very fast and there's a blaring siren sound and... ?   What's going on here?

Marco:  **** Later that day ****

Chuck:  OK.  Permit me to blow you minds, readers:  There are two distinct versions of Omega Race for the C64.  We each played a different version without realizing it.  Not only that, but there is a third version!  It's the version for the Ultimax though, so that doesnt count as far as I'm concerned.

John:  Let's call them the Fast and Slow versions, since that's the most distinct feature that's different. The fast version's enemies move quicker, more fluidly and take a more direct path to reach you rather than haphazardly bouncing around.  But the easiest way to tell them apart?  Like this:

The Fast version has a very Omega-Race-looking font on the title screen and in the box during the game.

The Slow version has a bitmapped title and uses the default C64 font.

You can check out the differences here, on this wonderful website:

And here's a lot of gameplay footage of the slow version:  (note: you get a good glimpse at the Commodore paddle controller at the very beginning)

I still dont understand how these two versions came to be, but I am certain that the "slow" version with the default 64 font is worse.

Chuck:  I agree.  Although the slow version is good if you want a lesser challenge.  I'm having a hard time with the fast version.

John:  I'm not seeing any reason to play the slow version.  It's a shame that it's out there mixed into everyone's collections and libraries.  It really shouldnt exist.  And yet it's so ubiquitous it even made it into the C64 Wiki, which doesnt even mention that another version exists.  Even the CSDB has the slow version as the only version.

Chuck:  Well, we were unaware of it and we've played every game under the sun.  I'm sure we've played both versions in the past without even realizing it.  It took us both playing different versions, unaware, separately, for the different versions to be exposed.

John:  After that truth bomb I'm not even sure where we're at in the review.

Chuck:  Let's just say that the fast version is a very respectable arcade port.  Great gameplay and sound effects.  The controls work great.  Push up to thrust, left and right to spin.  Makes sense.  And it makes me wonder of the necessity of the accessory that comes with the Atari 2600 version of the game that gives you a second button to thrust with.

John:  The behavior of the Death Ship in the fast version really matters and is what truly sets it apart from the slow version.  In the slow version it's a joke.  In the fast version it's a real threat and the blaring alarm siren that accompanies it really gets you on your toes.  It's almost as if the slow version wasnt finished.

The graphics in the two versions are very similar.  I dont like that the shape of the player's ship is simplified to a triangle.  I always liked the original ship design.  Hell, it's even on the 64's box cover.

As I mentioned earlier, the VIC-20 version is venerated by VIC users.  I see praise for it almost everywhere VIC games are discussed.  You dont hear as much about the C64 version.  I suppose that could be the result of higher expectations.

Chuck:  It's certainly above average.  It's one of the first C64 games ever in addition to being a port of a game from 1980.  I have no problem giving it my recommendation.  So, Johnny, does Omega Race cross the finish line?

John:  Sure.

Chuck:  Well, with that hearty recommendation I pronounce Omega Race to be Good... Enough!

Big Bam Boom!