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!