Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Omega Race (c) 1982 Commodore / Midway

(thanks gamesdb)

Chuck:  Thanks for waiting!  After a long but necessary hiatus we're back with Omega Race, an in-house effort from Commodore themselves.  It's another good arcade port from the company you'd least expect.  Back in 1982, though, there werent many other publishers pumping out C64 software, and Commodore wanted to emphasize the entertainment aspects of the machine.

John:  Perhaps to lure in VIC-20 owners who mostly used their computers as fancy consoles?  VIC-20 users seem to go bonkers for Omega Race in particular.

Chuck:  Perhaps.  Omega Race began life in the arcades of 1981 as Midway's answer to Asteroids.  It was the first and last vector graphics game Midway would ever make.

John:  Faaaascinating...

Chuck:  Indeed.  It was programmed by Ron Haliburton who is an old, old, ooooold school game designer that began his career in the electromechanical era and went on to create Pong and Tank knockoffs, and some very early racers. He claims to have created the first skiing game.

His real claim to fame, though, is Omega Race.  Remembered by lots.  Fondly remembered by most. And almost completely removed from the modern (retro) gaming scene.

John:  I dont remember ever seeing it in a Midway collection, or in any sort of re-release.

Chuck:  That's because there are none and never were any.  Released for most PCs and consoles pre-console crash, it fell completely off the map afterward.  I have a feeling Ron or another company he worked for kept the rights to it.  Either that or the game just doesnt make sense in any other context beyond its' early 80s heyday.

John:  That's what I'm thinking.  The game is very strange.  I dont know if the general gaming population has an impression of Omega Race other than that it's an Asteroids knock off.  Or rip off.  Or "Midways' answer to Asteroids" if we're being diplomatic.  It lacks a cohesive theme.

For example:

ASTEROIDS -  You're stuck in an asteroid belt!  Shoot asteroids to survive!

OMEGA RACE - In a distant galaxy, a race of fierce warriors known as the Omegans have preserved their independence and won the respect of their enemies by developing their fighting skills to a deadly precision.  To train their warriors, the Omegans stage a challenge known as the "Omega Race".  Over the Omegan city of Komar, android-piloted fighters relentlessly pursue the best of the Omegan warriors and yadda yadda yadda, holy crap.  It goes on and on.

And it has a very odd gameplay hook.  It's all the fun of Asteroids with a big box in the middle of the screen.  Do you "race" around the box?  No, it's just a big obstacle.   I'm not sure how they came up with this.  It probably was supposed to be some sort of vector racing game, where you raced around the screen Rally-style, until they decided it would make more money as a shoot em up.  "Race" is right there in the title, there may even have been some drastic last-minute changes made.

Chuck:  Mmmm,.. perhaps Race is just referring to the fact that you're engaging in some sort of contest rather than an actual battle...?  Or it's referring to the race of the Omegan peoples, as in the definition of race as a social concept?  It's there in the documentation, "a race of fierce warriors".

John:  Oh that's deep. If it wasnt supposed to be an actual racing game then why is there one large obstacle that's so obviously the infield of a racing track?  Why not multiple, smaller boxes?  Why not long rectangles making corridors?  Why not change the layout on subsequent levels?  It is a fun game, for sure, but it feels like two different concepts being pulled in different directions.

What really annoys me though, and this goes for lots of games out there, not just this one, is that in the context or story of the game this is supposed to be a training mission, or some sort of simulation of combat.  Why do video games ever, ever do this?  You're already interacting with a metaphorical representation of reality, why cant you be fighting real enemies per the story?  Why's it gotta be a simulation of a simulation?

Chuck:  Just so we're all on the same page here, Omega Race, like Asteroids, has you piloting some sort of space ship, spinning it left and right and using a button to thrust and another to fire.  The enemies are numerous circular objects (Droids) that mostly move together either clockwise or counter around the big box in the middle of the screen.  One of the enemies (Commandos) will be faster, and smarter, and attempt to seek out and destroy you with lasers while at the same time dropping mines which you must avoid.

Your job is to clear out all enemies.  When you do this you will notice that enemies you do not shoot will take over for the "leader" when it is destroyed.  If you do not shoot the leader(s) or clear the level fast enough it will turn into a fast moving death machine (literally called the Death Ship) that will kill you quickly.  As the difficulty increases you will have to deal with multiple leaders at once, that move faster, drop more mines, etc.

So, basically you want to kill the slow guys first so they dont graduate to more dangerous forms.

Other gameplay elements include invisible walls on all sides of the screen which light up when shot or touched by your ship.  You will bounce off these walls and the square in the middle.  You only crash if you touch an enemy.  You and the enemies have the ability to fire rapidly in a very satisfying pew-pew video-gamey kind of way.

John:  That's what I enjoy about it.  It has these arcadey elements down to a science.  Great "music" (a few repeating notes) that get faster to ramp up tension.  Great arcadey sound effects.  It's a very well-done vector shooter.  This isnt a review of the arcade version, though!

Chuck:  Right.  The C64 version was programmed by Andy Finkel and Eric Cotton, who created the celebrated VIC-20 version, which is actually a bit better than this one.  They're responsible for the rest of these Commodore-branded Midway ports of this time period such as Gorf, Wizard of Wor and Lazarian.

The C64 version retains some of the great things about the arcade version while being easier, overall.  That's typical for a home translation and not necessarily a strike against it.  However, the reason it is easier is because there are changes to the way the enemies behave, and it's a bit of an issue.

Playing the C64 version feels very similar to the arcade, particularly the way you and the enemies fire at each other.  The difference comes in the way the enemies move toward you.  In the C64 version they tend to bounce their way toward you; off of the walls and the center box.  All of the enemies do this, but it's most noticeable in the Death Ship.  It falls a little flat when it languidly bounces its' way toward you, as opposed to the frightening way it quickly homes in on your in the arcade version.  In fact the entire experience is slowed down, perhaps to make it easier?

John:  What?

Chuck:  The game does gradually get more difficult but still feels slow.  I dont know though, if you arent overly familiar with the arcade version you may not even notice the difference.  If you're a big fan of the arcade version, or even the VIC version, you'll find the C64 version lacking in oomph.

John:  The Death Ship doesnt move like that at all.  Well, it does bounce around more but it's very fast and there's a blaring siren sound and... ?   What's going on here?

Marco:  **** Later that day ****

Chuck:  OK.  Permit me to blow you minds, readers:  There are two distinct versions of Omega Race for the C64.  We each played a different version without realizing it.  Not only that, but there is a third version!  It's the version for the Ultimax though, so that doesnt count as far as I'm concerned.

John:  Let's call them the Fast and Slow versions, since that's the most distinct feature that's different. The fast version's enemies move quicker, more fluidly and take a more direct path to reach you rather than haphazardly bouncing around.  But the easiest way to tell them apart?  Like this:

The Fast version has a very Omega-Race-looking font on the title screen and in the box during the game.

The Slow version has a bitmapped title and uses the default C64 font.

You can check out the differences here, on this wonderful website: http://c64preservation.com/ultimax

And here's a lot of gameplay footage of the slow version:  https://youtu.be/40LANg3m2pE  (note: you get a good glimpse at the Commodore paddle controller at the very beginning)

I still dont understand how these two versions came to be, but I am certain that the "slow" version with the default 64 font is worse.

Chuck:  I agree.  Although the slow version is good if you want a lesser challenge.  I'm having a hard time with the fast version.

John:  I'm not seeing any reason to play the slow version.  It's a shame that it's out there mixed into everyone's collections and libraries.  It really shouldnt exist.  And yet it's so ubiquitous it even made it into the C64 Wiki, which doesnt even mention that another version exists.  Even the CSDB has the slow version as the only version.

Chuck:  Well, we were unaware of it and we've played every game under the sun.  I'm sure we've played both versions in the past without even realizing it.  It took us both playing different versions, unaware, separately, for the different versions to be exposed.

John:  After that truth bomb I'm not even sure where we're at in the review.

Chuck:  Let's just say that the fast version is a very respectable arcade port.  Great gameplay and sound effects.  The controls work great.  Push up to thrust, left and right to spin.  Makes sense.  And it makes me wonder of the necessity of the accessory that comes with the Atari 2600 version of the game that gives you a second button to thrust with.

John:  The behavior of the Death Ship in the fast version really matters and is what truly sets it apart from the slow version.  In the slow version it's a joke.  In the fast version it's a real threat and the blaring alarm siren that accompanies it really gets you on your toes.  It's almost as if the slow version wasnt finished.

The graphics in the two versions are very similar.  I dont like that the shape of the player's ship is simplified to a triangle.  I always liked the original ship design.  Hell, it's even on the 64's box cover.

As I mentioned earlier, the VIC-20 version is venerated by VIC users.  I see praise for it almost everywhere VIC games are discussed.  You dont hear as much about the C64 version.  I suppose that could be the result of higher expectations.

Chuck:  It's certainly above average.  It's one of the first C64 games ever in addition to being a port of a game from 1980.  I have no problem giving it my recommendation.  So, Johnny, does Omega Race cross the finish line?

John:  Sure.

Chuck:  Well, with that hearty recommendation I pronounce Omega Race to be Good... Enough!

Big Bam Boom!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

C64 Review - Congo Bongo (C) 1983 Sega

{thanks Moby Games}

Chuck:  Today we have Sega's not-so-classic, not-such-a-big-arcade-hit Congo Bongo.  Long considered Sega's answer to Donkey Kong (and probably programmed by some of the same people), Congo Bongo is a graphically intense isometric platformer made to stand out in a crowded 1983 arcade market.  

The C-64 port was programmed by Beck Tech, another Berkely/Silicon Valley-type tech startup that sprang up like weeds in the late 70's and early 80's.  Beck Tech has a good track record with me.  Their version of Tapper for the Atari 2600 is an amazing technical achievement and one of the best port jobs in the 2600's library.  Hell, their 2600 version of Congo Bongo's pretty impressive too.  They ported Tapper to the C-64 as well and did a pretty good job of that; it could be because Sega at least let them put that on a disk.  Congo Bongo got squeezed onto a cart and according to one article I read it's cut down to 24k.  It's understandable.  The high cost of memory at the time, manufacturing costs, low C-64 user base... why take a chance?  Why invest time and resources into something that might not sell?

John:  I'll tell you why, because you're charging the same amount of money as you are for every other version of the game.   Let's put it plainly: the C64 got the shit end of the stick.  Regardless of the circumstances, Beck and Sega though this was good enough to release.  It's barely better than the 2600 version, which at least has the benefit of looking great considering the system's limitations.  The Apple II version is better, like a completely different game from this one.  Even the Colecovision port is better.  We got the same version the Atari 5200 did.  It's bad.  It's bad like cancer.

Chuck:  Yeah but I cant get too offended by it.  I think a big part of the problem is the game it's based on, not the technical shortcomings of the port.

John:  I admit I have a soft spot for this game.  I mean the real game, the arcade game.  The whole point of the game is to be a technical wonder.  A 1983 technical wonder, yes, but if you lived the arcade life like we did, when we did, you remember what it was like seeing this game for the first time.  It made a lot of other games look absolutely ancient.  A lot of the game's literature and ads describe it as "3-D" and it really did look that way at the time.  The way the player and enemies interact with the environment, the way the coconuts tumble down the hill on the first level, the way the water appears to flow.. it all adds up to a very cartoon-like, living environment with depth.  It still looks good today, particularly when it's in motion.  And not only was it a more evolved platformer, one of the levels was entirely based on Frogger as well.

Chuck: It's programmed by the same folks that did Zaxxon and uses the same "engine".  The isometric view did look pretty sharp at the time.  This was the era of Dragon's Lair and the Star Wars X-Wing cockpit game, so it was getting harder for traditional raster games to surprise you with graphical fidelity.  The gap between the arcade experience and the home experience was getting wider, also.  

You're right, no other game looked like this.  It was seemingly the next step in platform gaming.  It really looked the part and it was almost irresistably attractive.  That was the whole point.  Like Dragon's Lair it was meant to dazzle you into playing it.  Also like Dragon's Lair you quickly realized it wasnt as playable as you were accustomed to.

There's a trade-off to this perspective.  It's hard to judge where you're jumping to and how far.  So, of course, they make the game entirely about jumping and judging where you're going to land to the point where, as you pointed out, one of the levels is a Frogger-esque jump fest.  It's maddening.  It feels like the game isnt working properly.

Another thing that bothers me, and I feel is an example of another trade-off, is that the game is very short.  The elaborate graphics and environment leave you with little to actually do.  All the levels are very brief point-A to point-B affairs.  To the developer's credit there is variety between the levels but they dont leave much of an impression on their own.  I watched John play the arcade version and he must have rolled through all of the levels at least 5 times.  After the game was over I could have sworn there were only three levels in the game, not four.  The second level is so inconsequential that I didnt even remember it after seeing it multiple times!   The first level, the one that everyone remembers, only has two real jumps.  The level with stampeding wildebeasts and you ducking into holes is pretty well thought out, but lasts less than a minute.  The final Frogger stage is OK, but suffers thanks to the difficult controls.

It's obvious that they had a very cool-looking concept (freeze Zaxxon in place) and they grafted a game onto it the best they could.  It's not horrible or anything but it's more fun to watch than it is to play.

John:  I agree that it's not for everyone and it can definitely be unfair.  It certainly takes a lot of practice.  It's not as immediately accessible as Popeye or Mario Bros, and history shows that this concept was pretty much a dead end.  Mario Bros begat Super Mario Bros and platformers truly hit the next level.  The first 2.5D, axonometric platformer was also pretty much the last, in the arcade anyway.

Enough about the arcade version, let's discuss what we're all here for.  The pile of puke that is the C64 port.

Chuck:  Well, we're both making a point about how we approached the C-64 version.  I wasnt sold on Congo Bongo in the first place, so I wasnt surprised to find that the C-64 port was awful.  I know we played this a lot when we were kids and I honestly dont remember it being this bad.  If you arent at least a fan of Congo Bongo, there is nothing for you here.

John:  And my point is that this game was meant to be a state-of-the-art eye-popper and if you take that away, you arent left with much.  But the C64 version does much worse than simply have poor graphics.  The first thing you'll notice is that the perspective is wrong.  They've "turned" it further.  Merely cosmetic?  Nope, it negatively impacts gameplay.

They've completely botched the game's isometric perpective.  Instead of the nice axonometric Zaxxon view it just looks like a 2D platformer with an extremely poor attempt at field depth.  The perspective the arcade original uses allows you to understand where the coconuts are and where they are going.  The initial coconut volley is supposed to roll down the hill toward your entrypoint (bottom left) and you move left or right as you climb to avoid them.  This version is so screwy that you actually have to move up and down to avoid them.  Because the perspective is off the coconuts move right to left instead of down.   You have to judge if they are in front of you (toward the screen) or behind you (away from the screen).  It's awkward and unnatural.

 When you get to the top you cant really dodge them anymore because you have nowhere to move - they'll either hit your head or your feet.  So you just wait until Bongo's not throwing coconuts to rush up the final steps.  Congo Bongo doesnt make any sense with this perspective.  This isnt what the game is supposed to play like at all.

Imagine if they took Zaxxon and made it a 2D side-scroller but still pretended to be 3-D by trying to fool you into thinking you're moving into and out of the playfield by simply moving up and down.  That's the best way I can describe this mess.  Without sprite scaling there's no way you can have the illusion of going deeper into the screen.  Wouldnt it have been easier to just keep the game's original perspective?  I'm guessing that it wasnt.  I'm guessing that drawing the playfield with right angles was the easiest way to do it on the Atari 5200, and since this is a lazy port we got the same thing.

The coconuts move so slow and choppy it almost doesnt matter anyway, you could be half-way through the stage before the first one drops.  And do they have to be purple??  

Next up is the Hunter.  The player sprite looks awful and if you look closely you can see that he has no eyes, just empty spaces through which you can see the play field.  He's got the red nose but he's too tall and skinny.

The Hunter barely seems to be a part of, or interacting with, the environment and instead appears to awkwardly float over top.  The monkees and the coconuts fare a little better but the way they move reminds me of a Tiger LCD game.  Bongo looks absolutely nothing like he should.  What the heck, Beck-Tech?  I could swear the programmers read a description of the game and worked from that, having never played the arcade game before.  Even the Bongo in the 2600 version looks more like it should!

One moment that sums up the entire game for me can be seen if you move too far to the left while walking on the bridge.  Instead of falling you immediately make a "splat" pose and die right at the edge of the bridge.  That's just pure hackery.

Once you make it through the first level you skip right to the last level which is the arcade's final Frogger stage.  Not much to say about this one except that the horrible jump mechanic really rears it's ugly head here.  Once again the perspective is off but at least it's consistent with the first stage.  Jumping on the first lilly pad is hard to miss.  It doesnt seem to matter whether the lilly pad is large or shrunken.  You might make your second jump, it's pure luck.  Your player sprite is so clunky and blocky you cant tell where you're standing.  When you jump to the next little island it always LOOKS like you made it, but it's 50/50 whether the game give it to you or not.  If you do make that second jump it's very easy to make it to the end.  I dont know why you would try to take an alternate path through the level.

After this you go back to level one with more aggressive monkeys.  That's it.  That's the whole game.  It's a platform game with maybe six mandatory jumps.  

Chuck:  It's not really missing anything by not including the second level with the snakes since that one's a throwaway, but it really could have used the wildebeast stage.  There's no meat to this game.  Again, some of this is because of the original game, but this takes what little was there and cuts most of it out.

John:  And it doesnt even have pretty graphics to fall back on.  This really is a disaster.  Something to note is that a couple years later someone whipped up a new version of Congo Bongo that looks a million times better.  We cant comment on how it plays since we never played it but check this out:  http://youtu.be/A8O_uUwMZ5U

That looks a lot like the Apple II version which is what the C64 version should have been in the first place.

I'll say it again, we got the Atari 5200 version on the C64.  What a shame.  At least it doesnt crash or do anything out of the ordinary.  So at least it's a semi-competent, un-fun piece of crap.

Chuck:  Eh.  Early eighties isometric platforming isnt all it's cracked up to be on any system, but I can still appreciate what a kick in the crotch this game would be to a fan.  Isnt there anything good about Congo Bongo?  The color palette isnt too bad.

John:  The sounds are decent.  Um... the music isnt completely horrible.  Ugh.  Enough of this.  I'm going to fire up MAME and play the real Congo Bongo while listening to the real Oingo Boingo.

Chuck:  Sounds like a party.  A dead man's party, as it were.  Ugh.  Sorry folks.  For everything.