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:

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