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!