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!

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.