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.