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: http://c64preservation.com/ultimax

And here's a lot of gameplay footage of the slow version:  https://youtu.be/40LANg3m2pE  (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!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

C64 Review - Congo Bongo (C) 1983 Sega

{thanks Moby Games}

Chuck:  Today we have Sega's not-so-classic, not-such-a-big-arcade-hit Congo Bongo.  Long considered Sega's answer to Donkey Kong (and probably programmed by some of the same people), Congo Bongo is a graphically intense isometric platformer made to stand out in a crowded 1983 arcade market.  

The C-64 port was programmed by Beck Tech, another Berkely/Silicon Valley-type tech startup that sprang up like weeds in the late 70's and early 80's.  Beck Tech has a good track record with me.  Their version of Tapper for the Atari 2600 is an amazing technical achievement and one of the best port jobs in the 2600's library.  Hell, their 2600 version of Congo Bongo's pretty impressive too.  They ported Tapper to the C-64 as well and did a pretty good job of that; it could be because Sega at least let them put that on a disk.  Congo Bongo got squeezed onto a cart and according to one article I read it's cut down to 24k.  It's understandable.  The high cost of memory at the time, manufacturing costs, low C-64 user base... why take a chance?  Why invest time and resources into something that might not sell?

John:  I'll tell you why, because you're charging the same amount of money as you are for every other version of the game.   Let's put it plainly: the C64 got the shit end of the stick.  Regardless of the circumstances, Beck and Sega though this was good enough to release.  It's barely better than the 2600 version, which at least has the benefit of looking great considering the system's limitations.  The Apple II version is better, like a completely different game from this one.  Even the Colecovision port is better.  We got the same version the Atari 5200 did.  It's bad.  It's bad like cancer.

Chuck:  Yeah but I cant get too offended by it.  I think a big part of the problem is the game it's based on, not the technical shortcomings of the port.

John:  I admit I have a soft spot for this game.  I mean the real game, the arcade game.  The whole point of the game is to be a technical wonder.  A 1983 technical wonder, yes, but if you lived the arcade life like we did, when we did, you remember what it was like seeing this game for the first time.  It made a lot of other games look absolutely ancient.  A lot of the game's literature and ads describe it as "3-D" and it really did look that way at the time.  The way the player and enemies interact with the environment, the way the coconuts tumble down the hill on the first level, the way the water appears to flow.. it all adds up to a very cartoon-like, living environment with depth.  It still looks good today, particularly when it's in motion.  And not only was it a more evolved platformer, one of the levels was entirely based on Frogger as well.

Chuck: It's programmed by the same folks that did Zaxxon and uses the same "engine".  The isometric view did look pretty sharp at the time.  This was the era of Dragon's Lair and the Star Wars X-Wing cockpit game, so it was getting harder for traditional raster games to surprise you with graphical fidelity.  The gap between the arcade experience and the home experience was getting wider, also.  

You're right, no other game looked like this.  It was seemingly the next step in platform gaming.  It really looked the part and it was almost irresistably attractive.  That was the whole point.  Like Dragon's Lair it was meant to dazzle you into playing it.  Also like Dragon's Lair you quickly realized it wasnt as playable as you were accustomed to.

There's a trade-off to this perspective.  It's hard to judge where you're jumping to and how far.  So, of course, they make the game entirely about jumping and judging where you're going to land to the point where, as you pointed out, one of the levels is a Frogger-esque jump fest.  It's maddening.  It feels like the game isnt working properly.

Another thing that bothers me, and I feel is an example of another trade-off, is that the game is very short.  The elaborate graphics and environment leave you with little to actually do.  All the levels are very brief point-A to point-B affairs.  To the developer's credit there is variety between the levels but they dont leave much of an impression on their own.  I watched John play the arcade version and he must have rolled through all of the levels at least 5 times.  After the game was over I could have sworn there were only three levels in the game, not four.  The second level is so inconsequential that I didnt even remember it after seeing it multiple times!   The first level, the one that everyone remembers, only has two real jumps.  The level with stampeding wildebeasts and you ducking into holes is pretty well thought out, but lasts less than a minute.  The final Frogger stage is OK, but suffers thanks to the difficult controls.

It's obvious that they had a very cool-looking concept (freeze Zaxxon in place) and they grafted a game onto it the best they could.  It's not horrible or anything but it's more fun to watch than it is to play.

John:  I agree that it's not for everyone and it can definitely be unfair.  It certainly takes a lot of practice.  It's not as immediately accessible as Popeye or Mario Bros, and history shows that this concept was pretty much a dead end.  Mario Bros begat Super Mario Bros and platformers truly hit the next level.  The first 2.5D, axonometric platformer was also pretty much the last, in the arcade anyway.

Enough about the arcade version, let's discuss what we're all here for.  The pile of puke that is the C64 port.

Chuck:  Well, we're both making a point about how we approached the C-64 version.  I wasnt sold on Congo Bongo in the first place, so I wasnt surprised to find that the C-64 port was awful.  I know we played this a lot when we were kids and I honestly dont remember it being this bad.  If you arent at least a fan of Congo Bongo, there is nothing for you here.

John:  And my point is that this game was meant to be a state-of-the-art eye-popper and if you take that away, you arent left with much.  But the C64 version does much worse than simply have poor graphics.  The first thing you'll notice is that the perspective is wrong.  They've "turned" it further.  Merely cosmetic?  Nope, it negatively impacts gameplay.

They've completely botched the game's isometric perpective.  Instead of the nice axonometric Zaxxon view it just looks like a 2D platformer with an extremely poor attempt at field depth.  The perspective the arcade original uses allows you to understand where the coconuts are and where they are going.  The initial coconut volley is supposed to roll down the hill toward your entrypoint (bottom left) and you move left or right as you climb to avoid them.  This version is so screwy that you actually have to move up and down to avoid them.  Because the perspective is off the coconuts move right to left instead of down.   You have to judge if they are in front of you (toward the screen) or behind you (away from the screen).  It's awkward and unnatural.

 When you get to the top you cant really dodge them anymore because you have nowhere to move - they'll either hit your head or your feet.  So you just wait until Bongo's not throwing coconuts to rush up the final steps.  Congo Bongo doesnt make any sense with this perspective.  This isnt what the game is supposed to play like at all.

Imagine if they took Zaxxon and made it a 2D side-scroller but still pretended to be 3-D by trying to fool you into thinking you're moving into and out of the playfield by simply moving up and down.  That's the best way I can describe this mess.  Without sprite scaling there's no way you can have the illusion of going deeper into the screen.  Wouldnt it have been easier to just keep the game's original perspective?  I'm guessing that it wasnt.  I'm guessing that drawing the playfield with right angles was the easiest way to do it on the Atari 5200, and since this is a lazy port we got the same thing.

The coconuts move so slow and choppy it almost doesnt matter anyway, you could be half-way through the stage before the first one drops.  And do they have to be purple??  

Next up is the Hunter.  The player sprite looks awful and if you look closely you can see that he has no eyes, just empty spaces through which you can see the play field.  He's got the red nose but he's too tall and skinny.

The Hunter barely seems to be a part of, or interacting with, the environment and instead appears to awkwardly float over top.  The monkees and the coconuts fare a little better but the way they move reminds me of a Tiger LCD game.  Bongo looks absolutely nothing like he should.  What the heck, Beck-Tech?  I could swear the programmers read a description of the game and worked from that, having never played the arcade game before.  Even the Bongo in the 2600 version looks more like it should!

One moment that sums up the entire game for me can be seen if you move too far to the left while walking on the bridge.  Instead of falling you immediately make a "splat" pose and die right at the edge of the bridge.  That's just pure hackery.

Once you make it through the first level you skip right to the last level which is the arcade's final Frogger stage.  Not much to say about this one except that the horrible jump mechanic really rears it's ugly head here.  Once again the perspective is off but at least it's consistent with the first stage.  Jumping on the first lilly pad is hard to miss.  It doesnt seem to matter whether the lilly pad is large or shrunken.  You might make your second jump, it's pure luck.  Your player sprite is so clunky and blocky you cant tell where you're standing.  When you jump to the next little island it always LOOKS like you made it, but it's 50/50 whether the game give it to you or not.  If you do make that second jump it's very easy to make it to the end.  I dont know why you would try to take an alternate path through the level.

After this you go back to level one with more aggressive monkeys.  That's it.  That's the whole game.  It's a platform game with maybe six mandatory jumps.  

Chuck:  It's not really missing anything by not including the second level with the snakes since that one's a throwaway, but it really could have used the wildebeast stage.  There's no meat to this game.  Again, some of this is because of the original game, but this takes what little was there and cuts most of it out.

John:  And it doesnt even have pretty graphics to fall back on.  This really is a disaster.  Something to note is that a couple years later someone whipped up a new version of Congo Bongo that looks a million times better.  We cant comment on how it plays since we never played it but check this out:  http://youtu.be/A8O_uUwMZ5U

That looks a lot like the Apple II version which is what the C64 version should have been in the first place.

I'll say it again, we got the Atari 5200 version on the C64.  What a shame.  At least it doesnt crash or do anything out of the ordinary.  So at least it's a semi-competent, un-fun piece of crap.

Chuck:  Eh.  Early eighties isometric platforming isnt all it's cracked up to be on any system, but I can still appreciate what a kick in the crotch this game would be to a fan.  Isnt there anything good about Congo Bongo?  The color palette isnt too bad.

John:  The sounds are decent.  Um... the music isnt completely horrible.  Ugh.  Enough of this.  I'm going to fire up MAME and play the real Congo Bongo while listening to the real Oingo Boingo.

Chuck:  Sounds like a party.  A dead man's party, as it were.  Ugh.  Sorry folks.  For everything.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

C64 Review - Choplifter! (C) 1982 Br0derbund

(thanks Mayhem64)

Chuck: After a bit of a looong delay we're back with Choplifter!  Programmed in 1982 by Dan Gorlin (Apple) and Dane Bigham (C64).

John: Are we going to offer any explanation as to why we stepped back a year to 1982?

Chuck: Nope.  Honestly, though, I'm not 100% convinced that it didnt hit the C64 until 1983.

This is by far the most popular game we've reviewed yet, with sequels hitting consoles, remakes hitting arcades and popularity that continues nearly to this day.  Dan Gorlin struck gold with this idea.  Initially intended as a realistic simulation of helicopter controls, it was carved into a super-tight action game that PC players were decidedly unused to experiencing on their home computers.  This is straight out of the arcade.

John:  Aside from how it scores you, that is.

Chuck:  We'll get to that.  Dan Gorlin was obviously an ace programmer and animator.  My favorite game of his is the very unfortunately overlooked Typhoon Thompson for the Amiga.  Do yourself a favor and check that one out.

John:  Been there and done that.  It's a little too aggravating for me personally, but the graphics and animation are incredible.

Chuck:  I was talking to the readers, dummy.  One of these days we'll have to hash that out between us though.  Dane Bigham is probably best known as the programmer of Carmen Sandiego.  Br0derbund needs no introduction, surely!  This game may be the one that introduced us to Br0derbund's go-to bad guys, the Bungeling Empire of Raid on Bungeling Bay and Lode Runner lore.

It's hard to beat what these folks accomplished in 1982, especially on the C64.  Fort Apocalypse may have made it out in 1982 as well, though, so I'm not completely prepared to say this is the very best C64 game of 1982, but it's way up there.

John: Definitely top 3.  1982 is a bit of a...

Chuck:  Crap-fest?

John:  It definitely has some commercial releases that will make you question the sanity of all involved, including yourself.  But there's Axis Assassin, Zork... I think Omega Race turned out pretty good.

Chuck:  You're being extremely kind.  1982 is hell on the C64.  Choplifter was one of the few exceptions.  It's a AAA game among 100 other things that shouldnt have been saved to disk after they were programmed.

John:  And yet, it isnt perfect.  It's got a bit of that Apple-itis.  Maybe more than a bit.

Chuck:  I agree.  It's hard to get critical about it since this is 1982 and the power of the C64 is nearly entirely untapped.  Still, the color scheme definitely leaves something to be desired.  Red, white, blue and grey.  OK, it's almost ugly looking.

John:  I honestly think the palette is deliberately chosen to make the tiny little people animate better.  If you look closely at them they should be blobs of clashing colors, but they look perfect when they're waving, running, etc.  Their level of detail is fantastic when you consider how small they really are.  A nice big tube TV or a small CRT blends everything very well.

Chuck:  It is all about the animation.  This game looks and feels incredibly alive.  It's fun to just watch the helicopter fly around and turn in different directions.  The blue Jets look fantastic.  The little tank treads are animated.  The explosions have several frames.  The stars in the sky are always twinkling.  It's like watching a little living universe.

John:  Ha, I dont know if I would go that far but yes, the animation is top notch, the scrolling is very smooth, the rate of fire is excellent.  Things hardly ever slow down and when they do it's not bothersome.  The controls are extremely tight and finely-tuned.

Chuck:  The gameplay is nearly perfect.  I mean, this is what people really love about the game.  It's very basic in a way.  There could have been more going on in the game, a la Defender, but instead it is stripped back to a single objective: dont let your little dudes die.

John:  Right.  Take off, fly to the left, dont let the blue Jet kill you, bomb tanks that are too close to the hostages, pick them up and fly them back.

Chuck:  The Jets are a little annoying.  They fly extremely fast (duh) and sometimes shoot you down before you even know they're coming.  The tanks pose little threat to you unless you're loading hostages.  It's not worth it to shoot everything because there's no score.  You dont even really feel like you've accomplished much unless you rescue all 64 hostages, and they are pretty easy to lose.  The tanks pose the biggest threat to the hostages but you'll certainly kill a few of them yourself by landing too hard on them.

John:  The Jets are never worth shooting down.  Another one is always nearby.  They dont pose that much of a threat as long as you know where to land. The hostages, though, might be in danger from the Jet's missiles if the hostages are spread across the screen.   Basically you should stay low to avoid the jets and bomb the tanks closest to the hostages.  Learn how to land softly so you dont kill yourself or the hostages and get used to lifting off and landing rapidly, as if you are jumping up and down - dont wait for the hostages to come to you!  Leap over to where they are and pick them up fast, there's always another tank on the way.

As for the scoring, as you mentioned there are no points for shooting anything.  You get one point per hostage delivered to the base which adds to the number next to the heart at the top-right.  The number on the top-left counts dead hostages.  The middle number is the number of hostages on-board.  I think scoring the game this way was the right decision.  It makes every hostage's life count.  Getting points for shooting the Jets and Tanks would have created a distraction.

The helicopter controls are outstanding.  Very intuitive and fun.  You can fly forward and backward without turning the helicopter and there is a near-perfect weight to the vehicle.  When you stop pushing the stick the helicopter will keep moving in that direction in perfect proportion to how fast you were moving.  It's very easy to see how this started out as a simulator.

Chuck:   It's easy to under-state what a revelation this game was at the time.  Animation: A++.  Controls: A++.  Gameplay: A++.  All is not rosy in Choplifter-land though.  John, tell them about the sound.

John:  Ha, what sound?  Seriously, though, the sound was not improved from the Apple II version at all.  The whir of your blade in decent enough, and I like that it slows down when you're on the ground and speeds up when you're in the air.  Your gunfire makes a you-have-to-be-kidding me plinky-plink sound that sounds like every Apple II sound effect you've ever heard.  Everything else is almost as awful.

There are two, maybe three different chirps that indicate a hostage has made it into the copter or that a hostage has died.  They're distinguishable, but just barely.  If you are new to the game you'll be killing hostages left and right and not even know it, such as when you land in a big crowd of them.  There's no death animation for these guys (surprisingly), so the only indication that YOU killed one, as opposed to an explosion from a Tank shot which is more noticeable, is this slightly angrier-sounding chirp which sounds nearly identical to the hooray-you-rescued-me chirp.  So did you rescue them or kill them?  Better check the numbers at the top.

The enemies make no sounds at all.  The explosions make no sound.  There's no sound when you die.  I guess it goes without saying that there's no music.

You can certainly chalk all this up to the era and you can definitely blame it on the Apple II, but really they knew they had an awesome game here.. would it have killed them to have some real sound effects?

Chuck:  Another nit-pick would be your own death sequence.  Your helicopter gets stuck half-way in the ground?  It's almost like an afterthought.

Sorry to end on a sour note folks but that's how our autopsies go.  No stone un-turned and all that.  So does it get our seal of approval?  Does Choplifter soar as in Airwolf or crash and burn as in Twilight Zone: The Movie?

John:  Oh man did you have to go there?  Yes, of course Choplifter gets it.  This is a phenom that goes beyond the era that birthed it and beyond the C64 itself.  As classic as they get.

Monday, July 21, 2014

C64 Review - Rescue Squad (C) 1983 Muse Software

Chuck:  Today we have Rescue Squad from the fabled software house of Muse.  Actually I should say it's "from" John Kutcher and published by Muse.  John was a junior in high school when he programmed this and found Muse in a phonebook by happenstance when looking for a publisher.  John had never even heard of Muse.  Muse was knee-deep in the Apple II at the time and turned out to be looking for a C64 programmer.  If John's name rings a bell that's because he's much more well known as the esteemed programmer of Space Taxi, one of the all-time C64 classics.

John:  One of the all-time C64 classics is not how Rescue Squad is remembered.

Chuck:  If it's remembered at all.  It's a bit of a footnote in the Muse and C64 history books.

John:  It has a few fans.  This is 1983 so the bar was lower when it came to gameplay, especially at home.  That's why I remember having a good time with this one when we were kids.  The concept, the graphics and the great music would mask its' faults to a gamer in 1983.  Upon re-evaluation in 2014, though...

Chuck:  Still, for a Junior in high school at what is practically the birth of the C64 and home computing in general, it's a good effort.  There are three screens which are practically three different games.

There is fantastic music by Silas Warner.  Now there's a name that should ring a few bells!  If it doesnt then, dear reader, you have some research to do.  He's a pioneer in computer audio and quite a character.  Oh and he's unfortunately deceased.  We'll definitely be talking about him more when we get to Castle Wolfenstein.

Let's start with the game's first screen in which you control an ambulance racing toward a burning building. It's a top-down perspective that reminds me a little of the grid in Crossfire, but it reminds me even more of the city in David Crane's Ghostbusters.

So, you have to navigate this grid from the bottom left to the top right, avoiding psychotic motorists that come at you from every direction.  Seriously, why the hell wont anyone yield to the ambulance?

John:  Why the hell arent you driving a fire truck to a fire?

Chuck:  Some cars are faster than you, some are slower but they all have no sense of self-preservation.  They crash into each other as much as they crash into you.  It's an absolutely brutal obstacle course.  And, I'm sorry to say, it's completely unfair.  As in, the game itself does not play fair with you.

John:  I agree with you on this one.  When you drive at the bottom, top or sides you will get hit by an off-screen car without knowing it's coming or having any chance to avoid it.  You cant avoid the outer sides completely because you start and end there.  So, especially on later levels, this first screen is complete luck, no skill.  You might as well have the computer run a RNG to decide if you're going to make it through.  It is only an illusion of a video game, it is not the real thing.

Chuck:  Even in the middle of the grid you'll get slammed into by random lightning-fast cars that are practically unavoidable.  They drive right in the center of the road and you cannot shift from lane to lane.  You can only make 90' turns.  It's a very awkard control scheme, or at least it is with regard to what the game wants from you.

John:  Let me give an example.  You can make a split-second decision, a correct play decision, to round a corner into a clear lane to avoid an oncoming car, only to get hit in the rear by an unavoidably fast car that wasnt there when you made that decision just a second ago.  That is getting beaten by luck, not lack of skill.

It's do able, over all.  I mean, you'll get through it, it's not insurmountably hard or anything like that.  It's just rediculously unfair and you actually lose a life when you crash.  It wouldnt be so bad if this was a bonus round like the second screen, where you dont lose a life and are just going for points.  The fire you are attempting to reach has a 1000 point value that decreases with time.  So why not have a crash slow you down instead of kill you and have the points be the incentive to get through the level?

Chuck:  In the second level you are faced with a burning building.  Survivors are leaping to their doom, unless you can catch them first.  Before they jump, though, they make sure to accidentally (?) drop a potted plant on your head.  Every window has a plant and when a jumper appears the plant falls down, fast.  When the jumper goes, the plant is replaced.  So, you have to avoid the plants but catch the jumpers which potentially are right behind the plants.

John:  If the jumper appears at the bottom window of the row you happen to be standing in, you're guaranteed to be hit.

Chuck:  Right.  This is a bonus round, though, you can take three hits without dying.  On the third hit a fire truck comes along and extends a ladder which you proceed to climb up and into the building.

John:  This is the easiest stage and the one where you'll rack up the most points.  You cant catch people from the side, you have to be standing under them when they get to the right spot.  It works the same with the pots, and since you arent punished for missing jumpers, staying in motion works well here.

Chuck:  The third level has you navigating a top-down maze, picking up survivors and delivering them back to the window you came in from.  Two or more fireballs, depending on the difficulty, randomly roam around. Touch the fire and lose a life.  If you manage to get all the people back to the window you are treated to some very royal-sounding fanfare and cycling colors,  then it's back to the ambulance driving stage for another go with increased difficulty.  Again you're doing the job of a firefighter, and now you even look like a firefighter, but apparently you're still the ambulance driver, I think?

That's the "firefighter" at the bottom, by the blue window.

John:  This screen's a little tedious.  There are a lot of people to rescue and you can only rescue one at a time.  The fireballs provide an interesting challenge.  They dont seem random to me, just a little lackadaisical on the easier levels.  This part should be the game's coup de grace but it falls a little flat.  Compared to the near-manic action of the previous levels this one's nearly inert.  The scoring on this level feels off as well.  You get few points for picking up a survivor and even less for dropping them off.  It takes a lot of effort to play this level, even on the easier difficulties the fireballs can be difficult to avoid because it's such a long path to get to the last few survivors and back,  and this effort is not reflected in the points you earn.

There are asbestos coats laying around that give you protection from the flames but they last a very short time and never seem to have an effective use.

Chuck:  A better idea would have been to pick up fire extinguishers and fight the fires, temporarily putting them out and then new ones would take their place.

John:  Let's talk about the graphics and sound, shall we?

Chuck:  The graphics are pretty good.  On the first level I like the look of the Ghostbusters-style city grid.  It's simple but at least it's colorful.  I like the variation in the vehicle types.  The second screen is the standout.

John:  Yeah, by far.  This kind of reminds me of Ghostbusters also, when you're laying your trap in front of a building.

Chuck:  The building looks good.  The glowing windows look great.  The falling people look a little like falling bananas though.  The animation isnt anything special, but the ambulance that drives past, taking away the jumpers you catch, looks cute.  The little fire truck is cool too.

John:  And its' extending ladder is a nice touch.

Chuck:  The third level reminds me of Wasteland.  It's a little too basic and the animation here looks the worst.  Two-frame animation for the fireballs looks good, for the player character not so much.

Overall the graphics look pretty good and there's a good amount of color.  One thing that's noticeable though is that nothing is smooth. All sprite movement is jerky and aside from the exploding people and pots (yes, the people explode when they hit the ground) the sprite animation is usually two-frame.

John:  The sound effects throughout the game are pretty meh.  As is typical for games of this era the explosions and crashes just sound like dirty cymbal hits.  The music, on the other hand, is fantastic and perfectly fits the manic mood of the game.  It's the best on the first level where when you die every new life is greeted by a different song.  The songs are very short, though, and when they're done, they're done.  This is very noticeable on the long second and third levels which feel too quiet.  The great soundtrack is a bit of a tease when you get down to it.  What a shame!

It seems like there's a laundry-list of complaints we have for this game, so before we wheel Rescue Squad out on a gurney, let's consider that the game was made by a kid in high school on a computer that had been out less than a year, and then got pubished by freaking Muse before he even graduates.   In that light the game looks fantastic.

Chuck:  Yes.  It's a very cool historical footnote.  Is it fun to play?  Only in fits and starts.  Too much in the first stage depends on luck and the third stage is a little too dull.  It's not a surprise this one exists as a fond memory for some, but it's definitely not as good as you remember.  It's worth a play to hear Silas' score on a real C64 though.  No emulator or java sid player does it justice.

Congratulations, Rescuers!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

C64 Review: Crossfire (C) 1983 Sierra On-Line

John:  The Grid.  A digital frontier.

Chuck:  Wrong grid.  This is Crossfire by Sierra On-Line.  Sierra On-Line.  Quite a bit outside of Sierra's wheelhouse, this one.

John:  What did they look like?  Chips?  Motorcycles??

Chuck:  Sigh.  Programmed by Jay Sullivan, this is an early computer (as opposed to console or arcade) game that was developed when Sierra was still known as On-Line Systems.  I'll state this up-front, I understand this was designed in 1981.  This game was already a couple of years old when it showed up on the C64.

John:  Tell me more, o wise one.

Chuck:  Apparently Chuck Benton had something to do with this one as well.  He's much, much more well-known as the creator of Softporn Adventure.

John:  Well that's educational.

Chuck:  The game's grid style has roots in the arcade.  One of the pioneers of the video game industry, Exidy, was in love with top-down driving games since birth.  Most of these games feature two cars or spaceships and are usually directionless with no roads or paths.  You push things around or run over people.  Then someone got the bright idea to force the vehicles onto a grid, limiting your movement and opening up a new dimension of gameplay.  This idea brought us Targ, a fast-paced arcade title where you drive a car along a grid and shoot at enemies in the direction the car is facing. The enemies crawl all over the grid and come at you from all sides.

John:  And thus, Crossfire was born!

Chuck:  There's a slight twist though.  The enemies do not fire.  Exidy released Spectar right after Targ and it did feature enemies that fire, although not nearly to the degree and consequence that Crossfire does.  Another thing Spectar does is get rid of the dull blocky-looking grid and replace it with one that's animated and can change "shape" during the course of the game.  Also, you collect dots a-la Pac Man.  The fact that Exidy followed up on and refined this idea so quickly tells me that they recognized issues with the concept, which I'll get to later.  Either that or they felt like they had to jump on the Pac Man bandwagon really quick.

John:  Crossfire brought this experience to home gamers (that were lucky enough to own computers) and did a good job, for 1981.  The ability for enemies to shoot and how they do it makes it a frantic twitch reflex experience.  

Chuck:  Crossfire was ported to several systems and I believe it started as a monochrome DOS/Apple II game as the graphics and text on the earliest versions look a lot like other Sierra games of the time like Mystery House.

John:  I really like the concept of Crossfire.  There's nowhere you're safe, there are no breaks.  You are surrounded right from the start, with enemies on the left, right and top of the screen.  They are hiding directly behind the blocks on the grid where you cannot shoot them.  Soon they peek out and begin moving and firing.  Attempting to evade fire from one enemy will put you in the line of fire of another.  Constant motion is the order of the day.  You almost have to train yourself not to focus on your avatar, to see the entire screen at once.  Enemies will sometimes pause as they are moving from their starting positions allowing you a free shot, but only if you're paying attention and not occupied with too many other enemies.  This is a difficult game right from the very beginning.  You can and will get caught in the crossfire.

Chuck:  ...

John:  ....yes?

Chuck:  Go on.

John:  For an extra dimension you have limited ammunition that you must replenish by running over an item.  There are bonus items to collect for points but this one is critical for your survival.  I like that little extra thing to worry about.

Chuck:  ...

John:  Near the end of the level the enemies swarm and it's a fierce battle to the finish before you do it all over again the next round.  OK go ahead Chuck before you pop.

Chuck:  It's difficult right from the start because they didnt understand the concept of a gradual difficulty ramp.  Some arcade games I can understand why they smack you across the face right from the start.  That trial by fire, quarter eating quality can actually work in a game's favor.  An arcade game, in an actual arcade.  Home games should ramp up in difficulty.  It's just aggravating.  It's not fun.

John:  It has an easy mode.

Chuck:  It's just a slow mode that makes the game a total bore.   If there is a progression in difficulty I cant tell.  Every level seems to be the same.  And the ammunition mechanic, you never know how much you have.  There's no ammo counter!  What were they thinking?

John:  I'll give you that one, that's something I'd definitely like to have.

Chuck:   It doesnt matter anyway, have you ever run out of ammo?

John:  Uh...

Chuck:  Not likely.  You fire so slowly you'll never run out.  Or you'll game over first.  There seem to be two variations of this game.  One version features small bullets that look like dots and can be fired repeatedly, like the Atari 8-bit and VIC20 versions.  The other version, like the C64 version, has wider, rectangular shots that have to expire before they are fired again.  I hate that.

John:  It's just part of the strategy you have to bring to the game.  Maybe they decided to re-balance the game on the C64 version to make it have less worrying about ammo and more about forcing you to think about where and when you are firing.

Chuck:  Worrying about your ammo count would accomplish the same thing, wouldnt it?.  But you are correct, I think, when you say it's a balancing decision.  It's a valid design choice, I just dont like it.  It makes the game less fun for me.  They're just trying to make the game more difficult.  For instance, you cannot fire while sitting still, you have to begin moving in a direction to fire in that direction and if you stop moving you cant fire at all.   You should be able to hold the fire button and move the stick to fire in different directions while sitting still.  You cant do this because, I think, pure difficulty is what the designers were going for.

Just making a game difficult doesnt get a pat on the back from me, Al.  Double Dragon for the 2600 is hard too, let's give that a medal.

John:  Whoah ho there.  OK, Crossfire is hard but it is balanced, tuned and perfectly playable.

Chuck:  I'm not going to whine about the game being unfair.  But is it really enjoyable?  It's like the video game equivalent of doing pull ups.

John:  What does that even mean?

Chuck:  Think about it.

John:  How about instead we talk about the graphics and sound.

Chuck:  Hello PETSCII title screen!  How else would be know this was 1983?

The graphics arent completely horrible.  The grid itself looks cool but having everything else the same color takes something away from it.  Even the VIC20 version is more colorful.  It has a style that kind of works for it but it gets old looking at almost nothing but BLUE and RED after a while.  Even Atari 2600 games would change colors of the enemies and the level to indicate progression.  Here every level looks and plays exactly the same.

And as for the box layout of the grid itself; like I mentioned earlier, Exidy realized with Targ that this wasnt an interesting "look" for a game and changed things up considerably in the sequel, with eye-catching incidental animations and environmental changes that change how you move across across the grid.  Some of this extra vavoom would be extremely welcome here.    I get minimalist design but, I dont know...  There's flat and there's Flat with a capital F.  Crossfire is Flat.

I do like the placement and layout of the current and high scores.  I realize they are the way they are because of necessity, but they look good.  Nice font.

The enemies are lifeless and so is the player character.  They really could use some animation or at the very least some color cycling.  Some flashing, some blinking, anything.  The different types of enemies dont seem to behave in significantly different ways.  It's good that they dont all look the same but there's no personality.  And they can shoot multiple times, how unfair is that!

John:  Hey, you said you werent going to whine.  The graphics are the way they are because this was designed in 1981.  They did kind of blow the opportunity to spruce it up a little but then it wouldnt really be the same game.  I think the Peter Gunn-esque soundtrack is the big standout in the sound design.

Chuck:  Oh come on they could've animated the enemies.  As for the music, the programmers were definitely in love with it.  It starts on the title screen and keeps right on keepin on, repeating forever.

John:  True, but it doesnt get old as quickly as you'd think.  And it uses all three of the SID's voices!

Chuck:  It is pretty snappy.

John:  I hate to add to the criticisms here but I do have to comment on the sound effects.  They are the definition of "meh".

I do like how your "ship", or whatever it is, explodes, visually.  Nice big explosion animation.

Chuck:  Now let's wrap this turkey up.

Crossfire was made by talented programmers, no doubt, but it has the wrong sensibility, perhaps due to text adventure authors making an arcade game.  Something that stands out to me is that you cant start the game by pressing the fire button, even though you game-over every few minutes.  It's the kind of afterthought that someone who isnt used to playing challenging arcade games would miss if they were making a game like this.

This is an odd title in general coming from Sierra.  I dont think they were that serious about this kind of game, these simple arcade experiences.  I remember Jawbreaker being pretty good though.  We'll have to revisit that.

John:  It's obvious we're split down the middle on this one.  I do see some of what you're pointing out in the game but I genuinely enjoy it.

Chuck:  Well our audience can find out for themselves.  All you need to do is play it for a couple of minutes and you'll know whether you like it or not.  If you must play it, for God's sake dont play it on an emulator.  The music sounds terrible.

John:  We can agree on that.  Hell, dont play anything on a C64 emulator unless you have absolutely no other choice.  (For the record: We dont, and never will, review a game played on an emulator.)

As for Sierra, little projects like this financed their PC Jr. efforts and gave birth to King's Quest.  This new graphic adventure engine was a powerhouse and they were unwilling to sacrifice their graphical ambitions by porting down to the C64 and Atari.  Nobody was buying those beefy 128k games at first because nobody could afford the hardware.  They had to make it up somewhere.  In fact, I believe several C64 titles contributed to the graphic adventure assembly line Sierra would become a few years down the road.  And then... And then they abandoned us...  Why... they used us.  To hell with Sierra!

Chuck:  That's the spirit!

John:  So the verdict is Me: yay, Chuck: nay which means no Krusty stamp for Crossfire.

Chuck:  I just realized we made it through the whole review without referring to that awful marble shooting board game.  Kudos to us!  http://youtu.be/W9hW5gVaNJo

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

C64 Review: Pooyan (C) 1983 DataSoft

(thanks, Atarimania)

Chuck: Today we have Pooyan, published by DataSoft and programmed by Scott Spanburg.

Pooyan is part of DataSoft's early foray into arcade ports which they would quickly abandon in favor of movie licenses.  DataSoft is responsible for a few games that are considered classics and Scott Spanburg is frankly a giant in the world of the C64, who moved on to Microprose studios and is responsible for such greats as Airborne Ranger.

Scott Spanburg did as good a job as he could with the Atari 800 version, I'm sure.  DataSoft gave us an identical port of that. It wasnt designed with the 64's strengths in mind and it suffers for it.

John: Let's be fair. This is another one from 1983 and most every game didnt have the 64's strengths in mind.

Chuck:  It's a decent home version of Pooyan but not a good C64 version of Pooyan.

John: Not every classic arcade game could be re-done in 1988 to fit modern programming sensibilities, so this is what we have.

And let me remind you that this was the first game we ever played on the C64.  Our grade-school friend Bobby's family was one of the, if not the, first people to have a C64 in the entire Ohio valley.  At first they didnt have any games for it.

Chuck: Yep, and we spent all our time on it typing words in different colors and pretending we were Matthew Broderick (this was right after Wargames came out).  And then they picked up their first game, Pooyan.

John: Admit it, you were impressed.

Chuck: I was, for sure.  Up to that point the pinnacle of home gaming was the ColecoVision, which we also got to play a lot of thanks to Bobby, and I could immediately tell this was superior.  Of course, we would have been equally impressed by the Atari 800 version if we'd seen that.

John: Oh I knew you were going to say that.

Chuck: I'm not getting over the fact that this is a port.

John: Obviously!  Anyway, Pooyan for the C64 also introduced us to DataSoft.  And boy this game really has that DataSoft look to it.  Chunky DataSoft fonts, chunky sprites.  I really like the look of this one, but it's not going to be universally loved.

It's just a fact that the C64 wasnt quite off the ground at this point in its' life cycle.  Resources were conserved.  I for one am glad we simply have a good version of Pooyan to play on the 64.

Chuck: And I would be even happier if we had a version of Pooyan that wasnt slow and looked like an Atari 800 game.  But, I will concede, this is 1983 and this was sufficient for a home release.

OK, on to the autopsy.

The arcade version of Pooyan is a clever Konami title from 1982 with a unique gameplay style.  In the most basic sense it is a vertical shooter based on the Three Little Pigs.  It features great, but not atypical, graphics for 1982 with eye-catching pastel colors that I dont remember seeing much of in other games at the time.

You play as a mother pig defending her piglets from a LOT of marauding wolves.  As is typical of games of this time you are vastly outnumbered and it is only a matter of time until you are overrun and you and your family are consumed.  Very bleak stuff.

John: It's best not to get emotionally attached to the pigs.

Chuck: But while you live you can give it to the wolves with your bow and arrow.  What you have set up is a pulley system on top of a tree(?) or hill (?) with which your piglets will raise and lower you in an open cage that permits you to move up and down the length of the screen, delivering your arrows to the wolves from right to left.  Think of Hooper's shark cage in Jaws and you get the idea.  And like Hooper's shark cage, you are a sitting duck in this thing.  You can be bitten, hit with acorns and crushed by a falling boulder.

The wolves descend from the top of a tree carried by helium filled balloons which you can pop with your arrows, sending the wolves hurtling down to what is surely a painfully slow death or permanent disability. You cannot shoot the wolves with the arrows as they have shields which they use to protect themselves and that they sometimes raise up to defend their balloon.  You also have another weapon which is a slab of meat (hopefully not pork) that sometimes appears at the top of your rope.  You fire this in an arc which can hit multiple wolves at once although what is supposed to be happening is that the wolves are so desperate to get to the meat they let go of their balloons and fall.

If the wolves make it to the bottom they will climb your hill using conveniently (for them) placed ladders that give them a vantage point at which to snap at you.  This restricts your up and down movement and when enough wolves have taken up residence on these ladders you will most likely find it too difficult to shoot the wolves while you avoid being bitten.

To add to the difficulty the wolves will lob acorns at you which will send you falling out of your cage.  You can shoot them or cause them to bounce harmlessly off of the cage itself but it's best to avoid them altogether until you've mastered the game more.

Pooyan mixes it up a little bit on its' second stage where, instead of the wolves walking up to you and climbing your hill, use their balloons to float upward to the top of their tree where they will accumulate if not shot down.  They will line themselves up and eventually will be strong enough to push a boulder over the side and onto your cage.  This is accompanied by a neat little "drum roll" to build tension when there are almost enough wolves to push the boulder over the side.

There are also bonus stages where your life is not at risk and you can simply accumulate points, although it is made difficult by, in one stage, taking away your bow and arrow and forcing you to only use meat, which while it can hit multiple wolves at once is less than ideal as a main weapon.

Pooyan has other surprises in store, such as balloons that  pop only to reveal another balloon within, glass balloons which are more difficult to pop and several incidental animations that add a cartoon quality to the game.  It does a good job of building and sustaining tension and surrounding you with danger while still being playable.  It is a fast and frantic shooter with a unique perspective that is memorable to all who have played and enjoyed it and has not been replicated since.

John: On to the C64 version.  What makes a good arcade port?  As we know from many years playing Atari 2600 games, it's not as important to have arcade-perfect graphics as it is to capture the feel of the game.  DataSoft's port of Pooyan definitely looks, feels and sounds as if you are playing Pooyan.  It includes everything mentioned above with very little missing that is worth note.  Well there's one thing I miss, your piglets dont seem to be able to be stolen, giving you bonus points for remaining piglets at the end of a round.

DataSoft included several nice touches that add to the charm of the game.  The piglets that raise and lower your cage are animated.  The wolves have nice animations, wagging their tails as they float and doing a nice tumble in the air when they fall with a nice death splat.

The graphics are good for home computers at the time.  They are certainly not as detailed as the arcade game, which has wolves with actual eyes that bug out when they realize they're going to fall to their doom. The mama pig looks OK but is very static and a little lifeless.

Chuck: The baby pigs look like goat skulls.   This is one of those thankfully rare cases where the Apple II version looks better.  But of course no one could be bothered to draw original graphics for the C64 version.  The Wolves look pretty good to me, though.  The game is very RED and GREEN and WHITE.  The pastels of the arcade version are gone for good.  The C64 has other colors, you know.

John: The sounds are pretty good.  I like the thunk of the arrows, the pop of the balloons, the loopy music. The sound the wolves make when they snap at you from the ladders.  I even like the weird trampoline sound when the wolves hit the ground.

Chuck: I really dont have a problem with the presentation.  Its' biggest problem is that it's an exact copy of a game created on an inferior platform.  It's slow compared to the arcade version and has you firing arrows at a slower pace so that there are never too many objects on the screen, both due to the limitations of the system that birthed it.  Because the game cant allow too many objects on the screen it forced the programmer to make the wolves float in predictable patterns that repeat themselves over and over.  There are few to no surprises.  After playing a few levels I find myself on autopilot and pretty much keep playing until I dont feel like continuing.  Although the difficulty is moderate, there doesnt seem to be any progression in difficulty from stage to stage.

This is the polar opposite of the arcade version, which has far more oomph.  The quicker pace and randomization really do matter.  The C64 version version makes all your actions feel very deliberate.  So, even though it really isnt missing any physical elements from the arcade game that detract from the experience, the experience itself is slow, stiff and too much like a grind.

John: Maybe I like it more than you because I'm not as good at it as you are. I have no problem giving this game my recommendation but this isnt Siskel & Ebert, folks, we both have to turn our keys in order to launch the nukes.  This doesnt get a recommendation unless we both agree.  Is Pooyan a prize pig or does it roll around in its' own filth?

Chuck:  It looks passable until you play it for a while and realize that it doesnt have that spark.  This pig doesnt pass the sniff test.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

C64 Review - Trashman (C) 1983 Creative Software

Chuck:  Today we have a game from Creative Software, which in 1983 was in Silicon Valley.  Definitely an exciting time to be an unknown technology company.  They published a few good early games like Crisis Mountain, Save New York and Warp.   The game was programmed by Marc-Thomas Clifton, who doesnt seem to have had a long and storied programming career with the C-64.

Trashman is a Pac Man clone with a trash collection theme, in case you havent figured that out.  This review was inspired by Twitter's own @ausretrogamer.  By an amazing coincidence, we had been playing this game for about 20 minutes when he posted the game's beautiful box art.

John:  That sealed the deal.

Chuck:  And good thing, because this is surprisingly good.

John:  It has a surprising amount of charm.  And low expectations definitely helped.

Chuck:  As mentioned previously, if you are going to rip off a super-classic arcade game you'll be judged by that standard.  Here's what I like to see in a clone:

1.  Make it as fun as the game you're ripping off.

2.  Put your own spin on it (change the theme, etc).

3.  Have new ideas that branch off of the concept.

#1 is obviously the most critical.  #2 and #3 are nice but let's face it, in 1983 we would take what we could get.

Pac Man clones are a dime a dozen, but good Pac Man clones are rare.  Remember, actual ports of the real Pac Man game are often horrifically bad!

John:  It's got some of those great early-C64 features like public domain music and all text in the default C-64 font.

Chuck:  Those are more things that I can live with rather than "features", but they do have lot of charm.

John:  The whole game is charming, for some reason.

Chuck:    Referring to #2, Trashman does a decent job of making its' own theme.  Your avatar is a Garbage Truck that is continuously making what I believe to be a compacting-trash animation as you drive around.  It's very "cute".

The enemies are Flies that emerge from the City Dump at the center of the screen.  They are pretty well animated, with flapping wings and flashing eyes, although they bear no resemblance to actual flies at all.

The dots are, of course, Trash.  The power pellets are Trash Cans and, I'm assuming, there's so much trash everywhere that the flies are being attracted to it, and also are big enough to crush your trash compactor.

John:  And somehow picking up a trash can gives you the ability to trash-compact the flies?

Chuck:  I'm assuming you run over them.  It's very, very gross.  When you kill the Flies they, I swear to God, turn into maggots and go running back to the dump.

John:  It's best not to think about the implications of this nightmarish universe Marc-Thomas has created.

A game like this is going to live and die by the controls, the fluidity in the motion of the sprites, the "dance" that the monsters do with the player and the psychological reward gained by sweeping a level clean of dots.

Trashman pretty much gets it all right.  The Truck moves properly for the most part but you dont get a little slow-down when you're "eating pellets", so compacting the trash has no feedback beyond the squishy sound of the trash compactor (which does grow on you).  The Truck and the Flies are always moving at the same speed as eachother, except when you pick up a Trash Can, then the enemies slow down.  This makes the game feel a little more like Slot Racers than Pac Man, which isnt necessarily bad, it's just not what you might be expecting.

Since the Flies all move at the same speed, which is the same speed as the player, it's good that they have an intelligence that makes up for it.  The red and purple flies will target and attempt to surround you.  The yellow one will take its' time then eventually home in on you and the blue one is the Clyde of the bunch, hanging out in the center the longest and later not giving continuous chase.  There has been real thought put into the Fly behavior and it shows.

I'm not completely sold on the level progression, though. The Truck gets faster as the levels progress.  But, as the Truck gets faster the Flies all stay the same speed as the Truck, so if you're an impatient player like me and like the game nice and fast you'll actually find the game getting easier as you progress.

But not that easy.  The game has solid difficulty thanks to the Fly routines.  The overall effect is a nice, fun Pac Man clone that you can replay without getting bored.  I would say that Trashman pretty much nails #1.

Chuck:  The maze design is good.  It has the right amount of alleys, turns and death traps.  The bonus "fruit" is a little disappointing, though.  It's Trashman, so you'd think the bonus items would be cans, bottles, you know, garbage.  Instead it's... ?

John:  Placeholder graphics they didnt have time to replace?

Chuck:  There are six power pellets (Trashcans) instead of four, and the amount feels right for this game.  It never feels like there's too many or not enough.

The scoring is done properly, i.e. after you've played the game multiple times and compared your scores they make sense based on how you played.  I know this sounds obvious but trust me, we will be reviewing games that will screw this up royally.  This is a well-tuned game.

And I understand why the Trash you pick up is represented as dots but.. I dont know, shouldnt they at least be brown or something?

John:  The sound design... OK, it's not that good, but it is charming.  There's no background layer of sound, like Pac Man, so sometimes the game seems a little too quiet.  There's nothing special, but there's nothing annoying either.

It has a decent title tune that I dont recognize.  It plays "Buffalo Gals" when you clear a level, as the Truck makes it's way to the Dump, and a bar of "Maple Leaf Rag" when you earn an extra Truck.  If only I had a dime for every C64 game that used Maple Leaf Rag.

This era of games is virtually defined by having a single author, one that didnt always, or hardly ever, have musical chops.  Public Domain music doesnt need to be licensed, it's instantly recognizable and the sheet music is available everywhere.  It was very easy to use tunes like this to add a little spice to your game, and it was done to death.  It makes games from this era feel even older than they really are, like they're artifacts from the late 1800's.

Chuck:  So, Trashman gets #1 and #2 but falls short on #3, as it brings virtually nothing new to the table.  Putting my 1983 glasses on and looking around at what else is available, though...

John:  Trashman is better than the Atari version of Pac Man.  And I dont mean the 2600 version, I mean Atarisoft's C-64 port, which is worse than the Atari 5200 version.  At least Trashman has multi-colored sprites.

Chuck:  Let's not review Atarisoft's Pac Man quite yet.  But, yes, Trashman holds its' own, especially here in 1983.  So, does Trashman get taken to the dump along with the muffin stumps?

John:  Nope, Trashman gets a: