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!