Friday, October 14, 2016

Gumshoe (c) 1984 A&F Software

Chuck:  Hello and welcome to our review of A&F software's Gumshoe.  Programmed by Sean Townshend and released in 1984.  1984, while including some mega-classics like Bruce Lee, still sees the C64 in its' early stages of development.  There are still Colecovision ports here and there, Atari and Apple ports are abundant, and most games do not feature the kind of music that would make the C64 and its' SID chip legendary.

John:  Most?  I'd say all.  Pitfall II has great music, but it's not much different than the 2600's music.  There's nothing like..

Chuck:  Let me stop you right there, because Alligata's Loco (1984) has a Ben Daglish tune, and it even plays throughout the game.  (link:

John:  I stand corrected!  Wow, that's very futuristic for a game of this year.  The game we're looking at is much more typical of the music of this period, in that there's barely any at all.

Chuck:  This is a very British affair.  A&F (Anderson & Fitzgerald) software is a pioneering British software house of some repute.  They're responsible for publishing Chuckie Egg, a BBC Micro game that got a C64 port thanks to the same Sean that programmed Gumshoe.  They loomed large in the BBC Micro scene, not so much on the C64.  Gumshoe is one of their few C64 exclusives, probably owing to Sean Townshend himself who seems to have focused primarily on the C64 with some good games like Max Headroom and the port of Atari's Road Runner.  He's also responsible for an unreleased Charlie Chaplin game which just got posted to the CSDb and Games that Weren't..

John:  Yes, Max Headroom is a particularly interesting, complex, almost Last Ninja-esque espionage game from 1986, probably programmed about two years later than this one.  What a difference two years makes!  I mentioned this in the Zaxxon review but I usually dont care about who programmed what, and now that I'm starting to pay attention it's been eye opening.

They say when you're a a Jazz newbie and you're trying to figure out who and what you like, they say you should find out who played what instrument on a song or album you really enjoy and then go find more from that particular individual.  You really liked the drums?  That drummer also played on this, and that and so on, so go listen to that also.  When you apply this logic to the C64 it's not so cut and dried.

Chuck:  I've always taken note of the publisher and the names in the credits.  It's not always good for digging up a hidden gem of a game, I agree, but sometimes there's an interesting individual or story behind this stuff.  I bring these things up because I expect our readers to do further reading and study - A&F software, in this case, has an interesting story I'd recommend reading up on.  And that unreleased Charlie Chaplin game is worth looking into.

John:  Of course, earlier games are less likely to be as spectacular as newer games, but there's still some head-scratching WTF type scenarios.

Chuck:  I feel like we're kind of dancing around the subject.  To be more straightforward:  Sean Townshend has made, or has had a hand in making some good, interesting games, and Gumshoe is not quite one of them.  This doesnt reflect badly on him as a programmer or as a person, though.  LOL.

John:  Of course.  We're not naming and shaming here.  But Chuckie Egg to Gumshoe to Max Headroom is a huge leap.

So what's interesting, historically, about Gumshoe?

Chuck:  Not much.  I think it would be completely forgotten if not for being included in a charity compilation that was popular in the UK called Soft Aid that was targeted at African hunger relief.  So if you played Gumshoe back in the day you probably have Bob Geldof to thank.

John:  And we had the Commodore Convicts to thank.

Chuck:  Which is strange, because they're a US cracking group and this is clearly not an NTSC version of this game nor is there any evidence whatsoever that it was published in the US.  They must have imported it via modem.  And how do we keep finding cracks that arent in the CSDb?

John:  You're asking me?  You were the dirty software pirate, I just lived in the same house.

Chuck:  Right, you're completely innocent.  I'm definitely obsessive about who-cracked-what-and-when but I dont want to get into that here.  I dont want the cracking group stuff to overshadow the games.  This is about the games and the hard working people that made them, not how they were stolen.  Maybe someday in a different blog, though, we can dig into that side of things.

But it's important to bring up that this is a PAL game.  We arent playing this on an emulator, we're playing on an NTSC C64.  There are some sprite issues where you see ghost bad guys once in a while but other than that it is very playable.  We've compared our game experience to on-line videos and we dont seem to be having our play experience adversely affected but you (the reader) can take this entire review with a grain of salt if this bothers you.

Gumshoe is what you might call a platform shooter, a free-scrolling version of Taito's Elevator
Action.  Elevator Action was very popular in 83/84 and has fans to this day.  It's the first platform shooter that I know of and inspired several decent to good C64 games.  Mission Elevator is probably the best and the actual C64 port of Elevator Action is definitely the worst.  Gumshoe is somewhere in the middle.

John:  It reminds me of Persian Gulf Inferno, except that Gumshoe features Fisher Price Little People instead of terrorists.

Chuck:  Wow I havent thought of that game in years.  Persian Gulf  Inferno with the graphics of The Heist.  Here's the difference between this and all those other games, though.  In Gumshoe you have nothing to do but shoot the bad guys.  No collecting.  No jumping.  No entering rooms.  Nothing.

A Gumshoe is a North American term for a private investigator and features prominently in the noir film genre.  Noir features hard bitten detectives solving crimes in bleak urban environments with plenty of moral ambiguity.   Dark, cynical stuff.

John:  Gumshoe the game does seem to star a private detective.  According to the cover art he appears to be preoccupied with thoughts of angry, shouting women, shadowy figures running up escalators and shooting a pistol.  All while smoking, of course.  This is actually a some really nice cover art, reminds me of Alan Parsons' Dont Answer Me video.  It definitely sets the mood for some detective work.

Chuck:  Yes, except Gumshoe features exactly no amount of sleuthing.  The events in Gumshoe seem to be taking place at the end of the story.  You've managed to locate where the client's kidnapped daughter or whomever is located and then you move in for the rescue.  Of course, if the building your hostage was being kept in was under guard by, like, a MILLION armed goons, like the ones in Gumshoe, then you might want to let a SWAT team take over at this point.

John:  Also, by "rescue", I think you actually mean "wander around aimlessly before stumbling on the kidnapping victim".

Chuck:  Right, finding the correct path through the level is part of the game.  The layout of the building makes no logical sense.  The floors are not arranged in stories.   There are tiny, partial floors that hang in the air and are unreachable.  There are escalators that lead to nowhere and change direction every 15 seconds or so.  Floors that dont have doors.  Garbage chutes that dont lead straight down to the trash room, but that transport you somewhere seemingly random.  It's more like the Winchester Mystery Mansion that an apartment complex, or whatever the heck this is supposed to be.

John:  It's a tower block, so yes, apartments.  A block of flats, if you will.

Chuck:  Are there ladders everywhere in most tower blocks?  OK, so there are ten of these apartment buildings each with a millionaire's daughter you must rescue.  Are we talking about the same millionaire here, or is it 10 different millionaires?  Are you a private eye who specializes in rescuing wealthy victims of kidnapping, or is it the same woman over and over again?

John:  LOL.  OK, I think you might be over-analyzing here.  The detective bits are just there to add some context to the proceedings.  It's just a very, very simple platform shooter.

Chuck:  A very simple platform shooter it is.  You enter at the bottom left of the tower, you wander around, up and down escalators and elevators while dodging hailstorms of gunfire from bad guys that randomly pop out of random doors.  Find the victim, on to the next tower.

John:  And you were expecting what?

Chuck:  Right on the title screen it says that it's not just a game, it's an EXPERIENCE.  I thought we were going to play a real detective game.  Then it turned out to be just an arcade game.  And that's fine, and that doesnt mean you cant feel like you're having a "detective" experience.  But Gumshoe does not deliver that.

Consider Mission Elevator (1986), same genre, and you play as a spy, same as Elevator Action.  Makes sense, since you get the idea that you're sneaking around, gathering intelligence and shooting to kill because that's what spies do in pop culture.  In Gumshoe it's a total free-for-all shootout with absolutely nothing else going on except for the maze-like level layout.  You cant even duck into a room.

Gumshoe doesn't even rise to the barely-there conceit of Elevator Action, where it actually felt like you were a spy, you could shoot the lights out, you had to go into rooms and grab secret documents, etc.  Replacing Spy with Private Eye is perfectly fine.  The term "gumshoe" comes from the sneakers that detectives wore, to sneak around.  But Gumshoe isn't about sneaking around.  It's practically Contra.  Gumshoe should be the name of a detective game, and this game we're playing here should be called SWAT Rescue.

John:  Ha, well, you gotta review the game that is, not the game that you wanted.

Chuck:  I see "experience" and I think, OK, this isn't going to be some simple Colecovision game or average arcade experience, this is a sophisticated Commodore 64 computer here and we're gonna play something meaty and complex.  It feels wrong that you cant enter rooms to find clues, get keys to unlock doors, etc.

John:  I think you're getting way too hung up on the whole experience thing.  But there is one aspect of the game that does make it seem like Sean, or whomever, wanted to squeeze more out of the detective concept, or maybe wanted the game to be more elaborate than it turned out.  It's time to discuss the real wack-factor of this game.

Chuck:  Oh yeah, the scoring.  Instead of scoring this simple action game in the usual way, you have a budget.  You earn money by killing the bad guys, who have a whopping $10 bounty you can collect from each kill.  You start with $500 in your account and go from there.  OK, so to digress..

John:  LOL

Chuck:  I mean is $10 really a proper value to put on a life?  I know these guys are probably violent criminals, so that's why there's a price on their heads, but TEN DOLLARS?  What did they do, what could they possibly be wanted for, that dragging in their dead corpse earns you a measly ten dollars?  I cant even comprehend this.  Who would bother?  Who would trade in piles of bloody corpses for $10 a pop?

John:  LOL

Chuck:   Either they are dangerous murderers who are not expected to be taken in alive, for which the bounty should be a lot higher, or they're wanted for maybe skipping bail on a DUI in which case you cant just murder them and drag their body into the police station and expect to be rewarded.  And these guys are legion, there's an entire army of them.  Bullets in the game cost $2 a piece.  You are risking your life for a profit of exactly $8 per kill.  Now, if you rescue the kidnapped woman you earn a lot more, but the chances of you getting shot are extremely high.  No one is going to go for this deal.

John:  If you accidentally touch a bad guy you get into a cartoon-style fight with him (shades of the Dont Answer Me video, again) in which you have a 50/50 chance of being victorious.  Even if you win, I believe you incur a $150 penalty, so getting into a fight is never a good idea.

Chuck:  This is all presented to you as a balance sheet you see at the end of a round.   I'm not sure why it strikes me as so goofy.  It's a good idea to make your score reflect how many times you hit rather than missed a shot, and to penalize you for shooting wildly.  But at 8 points a kill it doesn't matter much in your overall score.  You have to miss 4 times to negate one good shot and you are CONSTANTLY killing bad guys.  If you're really that bad at hitting the targets then you wont last long in this game anyway.  So unless you just stay in one place and shoot at a wall this is not really going to affect your score.  The only way it would matter is if you upped the price of bullets to at least $5.  Sure, it wouldnt make sense economically, but nothing about this makes sense anyway.

You start the game with a $500 credit, but again there's nothing to spend it on besides bullets and fighting.  If you just want money you can sit in the bottom left corner at the beginning of the game and have yourself a turkey shoot with the bad guys streaming out of the nearby door and down the nearby ladder.  You pay for ammunition but you dont actually buy it nor can you ever run out.  There's also no time limit, so you can rack up the money as high as you want without effort.

Getting into a fight might as well just kill you, I think the score penalty is only there to add another row to the balance sheet, which is pretty sparse.

John:  Maybe there should have been other costs, like gas for driving to the tower?  Lunch?  Taxes?

Chuck:  Ha, yeah why not?  It almost seems like they were reaching in that direction, like maybe you were supposed to have some sort of "running a business" aspect to the game, like in David Crane's Ghostbusters, that didn't get fleshed out.  Maybe you were supposed to be able to purchase things, etc.  As it is it's just another weird aspect of this game.  What's this doing in a paper-thin shooter?

John:  But that's what makes it notable, like a lot of these more obscure C64 games, they are quirky and that's what we love about them.

Go ahead and talk about the graphics and the presentation.

Chuck:  Well there's a nice title screen based on the box (or rather, cassette case) art, except here there's a woman emerging from a trapdoor(?) which doesn't feature in the game.  The attract screen that also shows the high scores is nothing special but notably looks a lot like Chuckie Egg's title screen with the same high score table.  And speaking of Chuckie Egg, the characters all look like the Chuckie Egg player character, who himself looks like Bounty Bob.

John:  So this game is Miner 2049'er III: Bounty Bob Massacre?

Chuck:  Sure.  All the characters have those dead-eyed doll faces with permanent grins that were most common in early platformers on graphically-challenged systems.  This is where Donkey Kong really succeeded, giving Mario a mustache instead of a stupid grin.  Or an expressionless face like Miner Willy's.  Or a mask like HERO's Roderick.  Oh my God, do I hate this weird permanent grin look.  It's disturbing, frankly.  It gives me the heebie jeebies.

John:  You'll be alright.

Chuck:  The level graphics are purely functional.  There's lots of colorful doors, but instead of adding flair they just look haphazard and strange, which I admit has its' own kitschy kind of appeal.  The structure is made up entirely of red brick walls and floors, which is fine, but every tower looks exactly the same.  It's a jarring lack of variety when the game relies on maze navigation. If the navigation were straightforward then it wouldn't be as noticeable.

The elevators look OK but it's weird not having cables on them.  I don't like the look of the escalators and it adds to the "cheap" look of the game.  Even the escalators in Keystone Kapers had railings.  The ladders look fine.

The character animation is alright.  The characters die very similarly to Elevator Action.  Same with the door animation.  The scrolling is smooth enough but it doesnt match the speed of the shooting action.  All the characters on-screen make their "ladder climbing" animation when you rescue the hostage.  It's weird.

If you sum everything up the game just has an unappealing look to it.  It makes the game look and feel worse than it really is.

John:  As far as the sound goes, wow, this game is something else. Why you need to hear the doors opening is baffling, and the fart noise it makes is annoying.  Bad guys constantly pour out of all of the doors surrounding you so you gain no play advantage in them making a sound.  And that's all you're going to hear, forever and ever, is the percussive sounds of the guns shooting and the low "zip" of the doors opening, constantly.  It sounds like an unfinished Autechre tune.

Chuck:  What?

John:  No, I'm serious.  Listen.

Chuck:  Well..  Well I'll be damned.  OK.  First C64 game with an IDM soundtrack.  Sure.

John:  LOL

The game has a little jingle that plays when you complete a level.  It's nice enough.  Very short.  Nothing that I recognize.

Chuck:  Sounds like we're wrapping it up?

There is one area where the game does deliver, and that's frantic shooting action.  It doesn't gel with the theme or the graphics but there's a challenging shooter in here somewhere.  You have to constantly scan the screen for bad guys, duck their bullets and return fire very quickly.  The kooky environment makes hiding all but impossible so there is rarely if ever a break in the action.  The problem for me is that the game looks disturbingly weird, sounds annoying, doesn't match up with it's theme and feels too much like you're wandering around aimlessly.

John:  Yeah,  I agree, but the bizarro look and nature of the game are more appealing to me.  In fact, the game could use more quirky weirdness.  As it is, the game doesn't really stand out in such a dense game library as the 64's, either as a curiosity or otherwise.

I know you've asked something like this before, do you think we might be being too hard on a game from 1984?  A game that may have been a budget release?

Chuck:  Maybe?  I feel like we try to compare games with their contemporaries, earlier games and with a game like this, the arcade game it's based on.  It's not a disaster or anything, it's typical of games of this period.  I cant recommend seeking it out and playing it, though, and that's the real test we put our games to.

John:  Right, I cant either.  I'd definitely recommend Chuckie Egg, Max Headroom and Road Runner though.  Good night all you amateur detectives out there!

Smoke if you got em!