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:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

C64 Review - Over the Rainbow (C) 1983 Renegade Software

Chuck:  Today we have "Over the Rainbow" from Renegade Software, programmed by James O'Keane.  From the wonderful year of 1983.

John:  Eight years old, we were.  Do you remember this one?

Chuck:  Very vaguely.  And so does everyone else, apparently.   Couldnt find much on the web, except for one thing we'll get to in a second.  It's in the CSDB, and although it's not the crack that we have it's definitely the same game.  Should we be archiving this??  Ours says "BROKEN BY THE BANDIT"

John:  Focus, Chuck.

Chuck: This is another Q-Bert clone.  Wait readers, dont run away!  This is a good one.  In fact this was on the flipside of the same disk we have Q-Bopper on.  And it truly is the flip side of Q-Bopper.  It rights nearly every wrong.

(You'll have to excuse us if we get a little flowery when discussing this one.  After Q-Bopper it was such a breath of fresh air...)

John:  To put one issue right to bed:  The game uses the proper Q-Bert controls (see the Q-Bopper review).  So high-five for that.

Chuck:  Go Team Venture!

John: The controls work, the game is colorful and has some cool characters and ideas that branch off of Q-Bert, but dont ape it.  There's good variation and progression in the levels.  After a game over you immediately want to try it again.  It's actually addictive.  It's like playing a real video game!

Chuck:  Yes, thank you Renegade Software!

John:  Thank you James O'Keane!

Chuck:  Did you know, old James is still making video games?

John:  You're kidding.

Chuck:  Nope, I found him working for Raven software as late as 2002.  His bio even mentions Over the Rainbow!  And he seems to be most famous for... Soldier of Fortune 2??

John:  Nooooooo!  A first person shooter?  From Over the Rainbow to Rainbow Six?  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Chuck:  Come back from the dark side, Jim.  We're waiting for you with Atari 2600 joysticks in hand.

John:  We want a sequel to Over the Rainbow.  We want music and sound effects this time!

Chuck:  OK dont jump too far ahead.

John:  Well before I get into the not-so-good, let's stick to the good.  I like what he did with the Q-Bert color-changing concept.  Over the Rainbow is named so because it uses the C-64's color palette to great effect.

Just like Q-Bert you jump from square to square, changing its' color.  However, the object is not to change all the squares to a single color.  The top square, or group of squares in later levels, turn red.  As you jump down the level you change the descending squares to orange, yellow, green, blue, darker blue and violet.  And there's your Rainbow.

Your enemies are colored balls (gumdrops) that rain down from the top and fall off the bottom, edging toward you if you are close.  It has the requisite color-reversal enemy (The Rabbit) and enemy you stomp for points (Raindrop).  Eventually a green ball appears, and it contains a Coily-like Witch character that will chase you.  You have to get to an escape disc (grey cloud) to escape.  When you do, the cloud moves above the Witch.  It rains on her and melts her.  Fantastic!

Chuck:  Bravo, Jim!

John:  Like I said, it's like a real video game.  I think, obviously, he was going for a Wizard of Oz theme, but there's the clouds, the Raindrop, Rabbit, Frog and Bat characters, and whatever you're supposed to be playing as as well.  So there's weather, nature and clown(?) elements mixed in also.  He didnt really nail a theme too well here but it sort-of fits together anyway.

Chuck:  The level design is very good.  The layouts are symmetrical, for one thing.  They're eye-catching and actually make sense from a gameplay standpoint.  There are usually holes in the board that you have to jump around but the enemies can be led to fall in (except the Witch, she's flying).  Some levels are small, not giving you a lot of room to avoid danger and will have your pulse racing as you rush to finish coloring in all the squares before you're killed.  Just like a real video game!

The Frog enemy is well thought out.  He sometimes jumps and lands so hard that he breaks through a block, leaving a hole in an unexpected place on the board, accompanied by a good screen-shaking effect.  It's touches like this that make this game special.  There are ideas here that would have worked really well in an actual sequel or spinoff to Q-Bert, even.

John:  I agree.  I like how eventually you have to touch the squares multiple times, like Q-Bert, except here you're a little more confused because there are so many colors on the screen.  By the fourth level or so you will find that you've turned the top two rows of squares red, and you'll have to hit the second row again to turn them orange.  You have to remember you're working on a rainbow here, and think about which row isnt the right color yet.  I like that little extra dimension, a little extra something for your brain to chew on.

Chuck:  I dont know about that.  I think it gets a little too confusing.    I'll give it a pass, though, because it sure as hell is better than Q-Bopper.

John:  Yeah I mean the game isnt perfect or anything, it shows its' age a bit.  It's a little stiff.   Alex, the Player Character, is a little drab.  I think he's supposed to be a harlequin but he's a little grey and uninteresting and he doesnt have precisely the right weight to him.  It gets a little repetitive after a while (that's normal for these types of games, they were meant for short bursts of play anyway) and the levels repeat themselves quickly.  But my main beef is with the sound design.  There's no music and the SFX are practically non-existent.   Really, this is a quiet game, with very little fanfare or audio cues.  When Alex dies it's a little... less than dramatic.  There's not even any noise when you jump!  I'll give it a pass though, because it sure as hell is better than Q-Bopper.

Chuck:  Seriously though, the good very much outweighs the bad.  So congratulations Jim, you have conquered Q-Bopper and proven your worth as a C-64 Gamesmaker Extraordinaire!

John:  OK let's not get carried away here, I mean it's not like he came up with a whole new concept or-

Chuck:  You shut your filthy mouth!  The sweet gameplay and great ideas of Over the Rainbow have cleansed our souls of Q-Bopper forever, and we have Mr. O'Keane to thank.  He should get the first seal of approval.

John:  You're right.  We love you, Jim.  Please come back to gaming platforms that matter, thank you.  Over the Rainbow gets our first:

(thank you for the image)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

C64 Review - Q-Bopper (C) 1983 Accelerated Software

John: Ooh another "classic" from 1983. Q-Bopper by Accelerated Software, Inc, who would later go on to release Dungeons of Ba, which is way, way, way, way better than Q-Bopper.

Chuck:  This one's painful.  But you know, I really love this era of C64 games, so I think we're going to stick with reviewing games from this era for awhile.

John:  It has an air of innocence about it.

Chuck:  And an air of discovery.  Lots of no-name software developers selling software in plastic bags.  A few future big names just beginning to get their sea-legs.  Console developers who were fearful of the future were only just beginning to turn towards the home computer market.  So, we've got a lot of, I guess you would say, independent developers making computer games in 1983.

John:  This one fills quite a few early C64 cheapie checkboxes:

Public Domain music - Check.

No-name developer - Check.

Terrible graphics and sound - Check.

Ripoff of a famous arcade title - Check.

Probably came in a plastic bag with a one-sheet "manual" - Check.

Uses the default C64 font for all text and scores - Check.

Title screen and/or game elements done using PETSCII - Check.

I love this era too.  So please know dear reader that when we say harsh things about a game from this era, we do it with love.  If you love the C64 then there's an undeniable charm to games from this era.  Even the crappy ones.  And speaking of crap...

Chuck:  Q-Bopper bursts out of the gate blaring Dixie at you while the title fills the screen.  Then it switches to some ear-splitting, out of tune piano roll kind of thing that wouldnt sound good coming out of an Odyssey 2.  Right away you know what you're in for.

John:  Why Dixie??

Chuck:  Let me state this up front.  If you're going to blatantly rip off a brilliant game like Q-Bert, right down to the name of the game, then by God you will be judged by that standard.  If you're going to go down this road then you could at least do it properly, or take it in a unique direction like Pogo Joe.  Speaking of, that is also from 1983 although you would never believe it if you only played crap like this.

John:  "As close to the Arcade feeling as you'll ever get".  Just let that sink in.

Chuck:  Let's just get right down to the big problem.  The Angry Video Game Nerd always says you cant explain bad controls, you must experience them yourself.  Well, I'm going to give it a shot.  Look at this:

This is from the Q-Bert 2600 version manual.  This is how Q-Bert was meant to be played at home.  Now, I'm not saying we held our joysticks like this; we just held them normally with the fire-button at top-left.  But the controls just feel right and work extremely well, especially when you need to change direction quickly.

Q-Bopper immediately shits the bed by making you move the joystick diagonally to jump in the four directions.  There is a reason why no home version of Q-Bert controls this way.  It's because IT.  DOESNT.  WORK.

John:  You'd think that it would.  You would think that it actually makes more sense, since you are moving diagonally on the screen.  But it doesnt.  On our dear departed mother's soul I swear that it doesnt.

Chuck:  She'd completely understand.

If you try to change direction, especially the opposite direction, he may just sit there and do nothing.  Why?  Am I not pushing the stick exactly diagonal?  Is the game just ignoring me?  Also, Q-Bopper moves at lighting speed.  So not only can you not direct him but he just whizzes across the board and usually right off the side before you know it.  He has a tendency to move two blocks when you only wanted to move one.  He does not move deliberately, like Q-Bert does.  He does not have any feel of substance or weight, he just kind of floats around.

So, right away you have a game that's a total pain in the ass to play.  There's just no coming back from that.  Everything else could be amazing and this would kill it   We could just wrap this up right now.

John:  Oh no. Full autopsy.  The level design is atrocious.  Instead of just copying the Q-Bert pyramid they haphazardly splayed blocks all over the screen.  It looks and feels random.  I'm pretty sure no thought went into it other than "uh oh we better not make this look too much like Q-Bert, but it needs to look enough like it so suckers will know what they're buying".  If you're going to just make a random shape at least make the shape change on subsequent levels.

The flying discs that Q-Bert uses to escape the bad guys are completely stationary in this game.  When you hop onto one it just sits there and doesnt move.  So you're supposed to hop on and wait for the bad guys to move to another part of the level then you jump back off.  Zzzzz...

Chuck:  Well, making the discs fly you to another part of the level would have taken, you know, effort.

John:  Look, if you are missing features that the Atari 2600 version of Q-Bert has then you have failed.  Failed.  The enemies just kind of randomly bounce around the screen so I suppose they wouldnt be able to follow you when you escape, anyway.  

Chuck:  That's the best part of Q-Bert!  Coily is so single-minded in his pursuit of Q-Bert that he just leaps off of the pyramid to oblivion.  Q-Bopper has none of this.  The enemies have no personality.  They're just colored balls.  And a square that changes the color of the blocks (the substitute for Slick/Sam).

Q-Bopper himself is just another ball with poorly defined feet and.. I think he's wearing sunglasses?  An eye-patch?  Seriously, what's wrong with his face?

And there seems to be another character named Chancer?

John:  Oh, when you push your button you warp to an escape disc and you lose one "chancer".

Chuck:  So it's an "oh shit" button.  Chancer, though?

John:  Because you're taking a chance by doing something that immediately removes you from all danger?

The sound effects are terrible.  There's a bad laser sound whenever you start the game.  Very unceremonious.  You clear a level then a new one immediately starts, no fanfare.  The laser sound does not count as fanfare.  This is not how video games work, people.  You are to be rewarded with pleasing sounds, flashing colors, something.  How about a brief pause in the action, at least?

Chuck:  When Q-Bopper dies it plays this weird bird warble (or "malfunctioning computer" noise?) and he disintegrates.  When you fall off the "pyramid" it does the same thing.  But when the game is over it plays a falling bomb sound with a crash.  Why did they not use that when you fall off the board?   This is iconic Q-Bert stuff and they are dropping the ball at every opportunity.  Did they even play Q-Bert before making this?  Maybe we're wrong.  Maybe this is a wholly original idea and Gottllieb ripped it off.

John:  Except Q-Bert came out in 1982. And if Jeff Lee saw this he would have dropped the concept immediately.

Chuck:  It really makes you appreciate how great Q-Bert is, let's give it credit for that.

I hope we're not being too unfair.  If this were 1983, and dad picked this up from the computer store for a few bucks, we may have squeezed a little fun out of this one?

John:  Nope.  Trainwreck.  If you cant at least be as good as the Atari 2600 version then you should not bother.  If this were typed in from a magazine then it might be acceptable.  And we did play this one back in the day, we're playing our original (copied) disk as we speak (yes it still works).  We copied and played everything.   I'm sure we played this once and forgot about it.

Chuck:  Can we forget it again please?

Update:  It appears one of our playtesters loves Q-Bopper and cant get enough.  We believe in spirited debate here at WOB75, so here you go:

Friday, June 13, 2014

Commodore 64 review - Wavy Navy by Sirius Software (1983)

Chuck: Alrighty John, today we're going to be talking about the C64, um, "classic", Wavy Navy.

John: Oh this one's alright.  Definitely not in the upper echelons of the 64 library.

Chuck: It suffers a bit from port-weariness.

John:  Please explain your clumsy wordsmithing to the audience.

Chuck:  What I mean is it was ported to every system under the sun.  Hard as it is to believe, the 64 wasnt the dominant platform in its' early days.  It had to make do with Atari and Apple ports.

John:  Right, even today one would prefer that the game they're playing be developed on the system that they're playing it on.  Designed specifically for that system's strengths and weaknesses.

Chuck:  A lot of these early 64 games look like Atari 400/800 games.

John:  I'd say Wavy Navy is indistinguishable from the Atari version, and we'll get a chance to talk about a lot of other games like that, I'm sure.

Chuck:  Like the godawful Atari port of Pac Man...

John:  OK let's' focus.  Wavy Navy suffers from port-itis, port-weariness, whatever you want to call it.  It's slow, choppy...

Chuck: It's practically monochrome, and you're wrong about it being indistinguishable from the Atari version.  The Atari version actually looks better, slightly more colorful.  The Apple II version at least has a splash of color, what with having multicolored sprites.  This game looks like an Atari game and plays like an Apple II shootemup, it's the worst of both worlds.

John:  Sirius didnt bring their A-game to this one.  I think their Bandits game came out the same year.  Similar shootemup style, except Bandits looks like a proper C64 game.  Multicolored "chunky" sprites, fluid animation...

Chuck:  Bandits makes Wavy Navy look incredibly bland.  It does have those Sirius-esque sound effects though.  Nice and arcadey.

John:  They're a little annoying, not reaching the psychedelic heights they would get to down the road with games like Zodiac.

Chuck:  The only other thing I like about it are the hovering helicopters.  Maybe it's reminding me of better games like Fort Apocalypse or Choplifter.

John:  As I said, it's "alright".  It has some ideas that I like.  It's a good Galaxian clone for systems that didnt get a proper Galaxian port.

Chuck:  We did get a Galaxian port, and it sucked.  I think you mean Galaga.

John:  Right, for whatever reason Galaga didnt come home until the NES days, I believe.  So, Wavy Navy is a decent enough clone of that, but it's not a straight-up ripoff, it has some original ideas that I'm surprised didnt get ripped off in other games.

Chuck:  You mean the titular wave.

John:  Right.  Similar to Centipede, the player can move up and down and not just left and right like your usual Invaders game.  Unlike Centipede your movement is limited by the crests and troughs of the wave.   You'll move to the left to kill an enemy and find that you're also moving up or down. The playfield is continually changing, giving your brain more to deal with.

The enemies cant shoot you through the wave, so you can use them to hide.  Or the wave can spell your doom by forcing you to move when you dont want to.  You feel exposed at the crest of a wave, but it gets you a little closer to the enemies and allows you to clear them out quicker.  At the trough you're better protected from the hovering helicopters but the trough is always moving, so...

Chuck:  To me it's a little unfair.  You're just trying to get a little shootemup action and the game keeps pushing you around.

John:  Eh, somewhat.  I think you're insinuating that it's bad design but when you die it usually feels like it's your fault, like you werent planning ahead.  It's the least of this game's problems, anyway.  I mean, it is what it is, it IS the game.  

Chuck:  Yeah, otherwise it would be a pretty ordinary Galaga clone.  Are you sure the wave isnt just a cheap gimmick that doesnt really work all that well?

John:  It works good enough.  Like I said, the problem with the game isnt the wave, it's the graphics, the choppiness, the collision detection..  The wave makes the game special, it gives it a dimension that Galaga doesnt have.

Chuck:  I know you arent saying Wavy Navy is better than Galaga.

John:  Galaga is pure magic.  If Wavy Navy had some more polish... nah it still wouldnt hold a candle to Galaga, but it sure does need more polish.

Chuck:  I hate the monochrome explosions and I hate how they obscure your vision.

John:  I get a bit of a Missile Command vibe from the explosions.  Eh, a little extra challenge for the gamer.

Chuck:  Or a little extra foot to the crotch area...

John: I like the progression in rank as you clear the levels.  You'd think the highest rank would be admiral but you eventually get to be the president!

Chuck:  Makes sense, the president is the Commander In Chief so I guess he's the highest ranking officer.  Kind of anti-democratic though.

John:  But even when you're the president they keep sending you back into the field.  Maybe you're just giving the orders and the ship has a regular crew, but still, doesnt the president have better things to do?

Chuck:  Better things than taking on an entire first-world country's air force single-handedly with some kind of weird little tugboat that shoots missiles?

John:  The box art makes it look like a battleship.

Chuck:  Yeah, not even.  I love how it leaps in the air when you die.

John:  It does give you the feeling that it doesnt have much "weight" to it.  OK, tugboat it is.

Overall, Wavy Navy is a bit of a clinker.  It's got some neat ideas, though, and it's worth a play or two.  What do you say, Chuck?  Does Wavy Navy sink or swim?

Chuck:  It sinks!

John:  Oh, good John Lovitz impression there.