Thursday, March 16, 2017

Shooting Gallery (c) 1983 Rensoft

Chuck:  Good morrow everyone.  Today we're discussing Shooting Gallery, published in 1983 by Rensoft Software Systems and coded by Pete Lobl and Vin InGrao.  Why the name Rensoft, I wonder?  And why call it Rensoft Software, when Software is implied by the "soft" in Rensoft?

John:  They're big Renny Harlin fans, most likely.

Chuck:  Mmmmm.. OK.  Who isnt, really?

John:  Actually there are about a hundred companies called Rensoft.  There's even one that made some public-domain-looking PC games in the early nineties but it had nothing to do with Pete and Vinny.  They dont seem to have made any other commercial software for the C64, although Lobl did have a stint writing programs for the magazines at the time.

Chuck:  Well look at you doing some research. Apparently Pete was the president of the Long Island VIC users club, so he was probably a VIC20 man before the C64 came along.  I imagine he was an early adopter and had a head start on how to program the C64.  The bi-directional scrolling in Shooting Gallery is certainly a neat trick for a game this early.

 It's easy to be cynical and say that Rensoft was one of these no-name, no-budget software companies that ripped off other people's ideas, made quickie cash-in garbageware and sold it through the mail.  And maybe Rensoft truly was some flash-in-the-pan, here-today-gone-tomorrow, fly-by-night-away-from-here type of operation.  But look closelier and you will see something more.  Rensoft was the dream of 15-year-old Pete and Vinny.  From the looks of it they were starting their own software publishing company.  At 15!  These kids were real go-getters.  They managed to get an ad in Compute! and everything.  WE DONT CLAIM ARCADE, WE ARE ARCADE.

This is the dawn of the C64 era and very close to the dawn of home computing as a whole.  That's why they can claim "written in 100%" assembler as a feature.  And GOOD PLAY ABILITY, that's always nice.

John:  Yeah this ad is great.  Unfortunately every other game in the ad seems to have been lost.  They arent in any archive that we have and there's no info on the net.  You've got Pogo, the Q-Bert ripoff.  Not to be confused with Pogo Joe, certainly.  Kooky Climber is Crazy Climber, obviously.  That's interesting, that one didnt get a lot of ports or ripoffs of any kind.

Chuck:  Oh are you sure?  Let's look.

John:  LOL - Wow.  That's.. that's something.  That cant be our Kooky Climber could it?

Chuck:  No.  That's a type-in from COMPUTE! and not one from our subject Pete. (ed's note: not sure which issue).

John:  Oh yeah, you can tell by how it has to load all the data at the beginning.  Also on offer is Star Slayer.  Destroy all the enemy bases... avoid asteroids... I'm guessing this is a Starmaster clone.  They've got all the bases covered except for a Pac Man clone, or Frogger.

Chuck:  The only one of these games we can find is the one we have, Shooting Gallery.  We're not sure if the rest of them were ever released.  I'm assuming Shooting Gallery made a few sales, which is why we have a pirated copy at all.

John:  Notice it's the only one of their games available on disk OR tape.  Still, even Shooting Gallery is very obscure.  No gameplay videos except for a SID one that we'll discuss later.  It's got a Gamebase entry and that's about it.  Lobl and InGrao are credited but only on this one game.  I'm assuming they made the other games in the catalog so, if they exist, they are incredibly rare.  The only thing we know for sure is that these games most likely blow.

Chuck:  Hey, hey, hey, let's be fair.  It may be that only the programmer's themselves know what these games are like.

John:  Uh huh.  What are the chances that these are good games?

Chuck:  There are two chances.  Slim, and none.  I'll bet Pogo is better than Q-Bopper, though.

John:  I'll bet you're 100% right about that.  The prices on these games are pretty surprising.  Spoiler alert for this review:  Shooting Gallery aint that great.  And it's $27.99.  They top out at $36.95.  That means Shooting Gallery was sold for about 70 God Damned dollars in today's currency.  Holy Jeebus.  Maybe the reason these games are obscure is staring us right in the face.

I think these games were  released, though.  Somebody has them somewhere.  This looks like a pretty legit advert, and somebody must have bought Shooting Gallery for us to have been able to get a pirated copy of it.  Either that or the programmers just decided to set it loose in the wild one day after they folded up this company, which probably happened pretty quick.

Chuck:  Sure, they could exist and just not be archived.  I'm always finding games in our collection that are variations of what exists in the CSDB, for example.  So these databases are by no means complete.  Well, if you, the reader have these games please know that they havent been archived properly.

John:  OK so let's get to talking about Carnival.  I mean Shooting Gallery.

Chuck:  Shooting Gallery is obviously a port of Carnival by Sega/Gremlin.  Released in arcades in 1980, it is a fun and strikingly high-tech Space Invaders type shooter with Galaxian elements with enemies that break formation and fly towards you.  It was programmed by Medo Moreno, Murphy Bivens (who also programmed the excellent Space Fury) and Helene Schlein.  I'm not surprised this needed a team of progammers, there's a lot going on here.  The music in particular is far ahead of its' time.  Carnival is a true classic that got some good home ports including a very respectable and fun Atari 2600 port.  The C64 never got one though.

John:  We are ALWAYS talking about Sega games around here.  And we're not even big Sega freaks or anything.

Chuck:  Well they kicked a lot of ass back then.  Sega had been in the game business already long before video games came about.  They obviously know what they're doing arcade-wise and the influence of their game design is very far-reaching.  Carnival is unfortunately a bit overlooked today, probably due to its' age and similarity to other shooting games from that era.  People mostly want to play Galaxian, Galaga or Space Invaders these days.  Something like Carnival, which was a very well made cousin to these games, is never going to be as well known or renowned because these days there isnt as much space available for it to exist in.

Carnival is an example of early video game design that mimicked the electro-mechanical games of the previous era.  Target shooting games are among the oldest mechanical games featuring moving targets, some of them are even steam powered.  These games featured real firearms with specially made bullets that had real report and bell mechanisms to indicate a hit or simply had the sound of the bullet hitting iron or steel.

Carnival really understands what it's based on and plays it to the hilt.  Instead of a simple Galaxian ripoff it has limited ammunition that can be resupplied by shooting the correct targets.  There are targets of varying color and size and plenty of ways to earn bonuses.  The coup-de-grace is the music and sound effects.  The clanging of the target bells and the soundtrack are fantastic.  Bravo.

John:  I love how the ducks spring to life and fly toward you.  If they reach the bottom they'll eat your ammunition.  This absolutely freaked me out as a kid.  And speaking of the soundtrack, "Vals Sobre las Olas" is the featured track, which is the most recognizable carnival theme there is.  It's one of the most famous Latin American works worldwide, keep that nugget of information in your brain for later.

Chuck:  So, it's a great game, and a good candidate for a clone.  That's where Shooting Gallery comes in.  First, let's examine this wonderful title screen.

John:  Amazing.  This one really is great.  There's two screens, let's tackle them one at a time.

Chuck:  OK, first of all you get to hear a monophonic SID version of Chopsticks, which you can find on youtube right here.  And the first thing you see is the Rensoft title.  And.. and I cant wrap my mind around what we are looking at here.

John:  There's a TV sitting in a football field.  It appears to be connected to and apparently receiving power from a goal post or perhaps a soccer net.  The TV appears not to have rabbit ear antennae, maybe it's a menorah?  All drawn in wonderful PETSCII with what appears to be a sprite pasted on the TV.

Chuck:  Next we have the game title and the programmers.  This is fantastic.  This combined with the loping Chopsticks rhythm might make this the most quaint title screen of all time.  Look at the lettering; this looks like vintage embroidery.  This could just as easily say GOD BLESS OUR HOME.  Listen to the music along with this, this feels like we're going to play a game from 1908.

John:  It's amazing.  This was made by teenage boys.  This is 1983.  Arcade culture is in full swing.  The confluence of video games, arcades, new wave music, 80's fashion, it's all peaking or about to peak.. and this is Little House on the Prairie.

Chuck:  It's fantastic.  And screenshots dont do it justice, you have to have the music to get the full effect.  What kills me is SO MANY of these early C64 games have this same vibe.  Home computing of this era just has such an old-fashioned bent to it.  Perhaps due to the environment of total independence, this is video games as folk art?  Now I realize we're talking about a privileged few that own computers at this point in computing history.  But!  The C64 was hitting middle-and-lower-middle classes with their pricing and there's a good chance mom and dad didnt go to college but could still afford one of these things.  There's an even better chance the person writing this sofware didnt go to college, and in this particular case it's 100% true, this was made by kids.  How many games from this era were made by high school students?  This was the computer for the masses, not the classes.

John:  Yeah, maybe you're on to something.  There's a ton of non-commercial software for the 64, and I include the entire demo scene in this, as well as "trash" like  Smurf Massacre, that I would definitely consider to be folk art.  Shooting Gallery is ostensibly commercial software, but so much of this early commercial software is so naive and obviously unprofessional that I think it qualifies anyway.  It's debatable, because folk art is fundamentally non-commercial, non-professional.  Stuff like this rides the line.

Chuck:  This title sequence just says to me "OK , here's our little computer game here.  Just a dash of color and music, something to make you feel nice and cozy.  OK now you just wait a little bit for the game to load, it'll be right up.  Nice day today isnt it?  OK, on to the game with you, go on now.  Dont worry, it's nothing too loud or exciting.  Maybe get a cup of coffee first.  That would be nice."  It's the most staid, unassuming thing ever.  This is the furthest thing from "woo hoo let's play some vidjer games!!".


I think a lot of this could be Lobl trying to give this an old-timey shooting gallery vibe.  Chopsticks doesnt fit into that though.  Remember also, we're always saying that these games use music like this becuase it's public domain and easy to get the sheet music.

Chuck:  What I'm saying is that so many C64 games have this vibe that it's gotta be more than that.  It's not just that it's folky in the sense that it feels old-fashioned, it's a sense that it's completely divorced from mainstream video gaming of the time.  This is like homemade vs store-bought food.  It's like coming home and saying you played this great game at the arcade and then your parents whip up something similar for you on the computer that evening.

John:  I cant quite get to where you are on this, but I will say that the only thing that looks remotely like what you expect from a commercial video game in 1983 is their magazine ad.   Maybe Star Slayer has a different vibe, very hard to see that one coming up with a Chopsticks-backed title screen.

Chuck:  OK, on to the game itself.

John:  Finally.

Chuck:  Let's talk about the layout of the play screen.  Your score is in the top right, number of lives left,  There's an analog clock face on the bottom right.  Level/Round indicators at the bottom.  The game assumes you're going to press fire to start.  And when you do you hear this strange music.  It sounds so familiar but you cant quite put your finger on it.

 Dont give it away just yet.

Chuck:  OK.  When the game starts there are six alternately-scrolling lines at the top of the screen.  All are targets except for the second line from the top which are unbreakable barriers.  There are gaps between the barriers that allow you to shoot the targets at the very top of the screen.

All of the targets and wall blocks are character set graphics and each is as big as a single character.  The targets in the first stage are your usual ducks and rabbits.  Eventually you get to other stuff like little TV sets, little stick figures, bananas, Pac-Men(?), aliens and many various indecipherables.  Your gun at the bottom is a small sprite, very similar to the one used in arcade Carnival.

When you fire you'll notice that your bullets are very large, as large as the targets themselves.  It's not a smooth travelling bullet either, it sort of hiccup-jumps up the screen.  Similarly, some of the targets scroll smoothly across the screen where some are extremely jerky.  Perhaps this was intentional, to make them more difficult to shoot?

Not all targets are desirable.  There are hash blocks that will reduce your score when shot by 50 points and there are minus signs which take time off the clock.  Desirable targets include addition signs which add time to the clock and the letters B O N U S that gives you 100 points for shooting all the letters in order.  The targets themselves are worth more the higher up they are, with the bottom row being 1 point each, second row 2 points, etc.  That's a huge scoring discrepancy that we'll get to in a bit.

There is a time limit to each round represented by a wall clock face.  If you do not hit all desirable targets by the time the clock runs out the clock turns to garbage pixels and you lose a Rifle.  Sometimes the game lets you by with one target remaining.  If you lose all rifles the screen cyles colors and plays a long cymbal crash sound that I guess is meant to be the entire world exploding because you lost.

If you clear all the targets then you earn bonus time based on the amount of tick lines left on the clock, 100 points each.  Before the next round starts there is a "shoot the bear" sequence, which is a bonus round just like in arcade Carnival.  Except I dont think this thing is a bear.  Also he has something.. hanging down.  There's something going on down there if you know what I'm saying.

John:  Oh I know and it's sexy.  Actually I think this thing is an aardvark.

Chuck:  In case you havent played Carnival, the shoot the bear sequence works by having the bear run across the screen  and when you shoot it the bear turns around a moves in the opposite direction and speeds up.  Your job is to shoot it as many times as possible until it gets too fast and gets to the edge of the screen, escaping.

When a new round starts there will be a different set of targets and everything will move slightly faster.  There are several sets of targets, not rolling back over to the first set from the first round until round 14.

John:  There are also "red zones" in the first two and fourth rows.  When a target passes through this red zone it turns red and shooting it takes away points instead of earning them.  I like the way the color of the target smoothly transitions when it passes through the zone.  It reminds me of the old color overlays used in ancient black and white video games to add color.

Chuck:   In the first round the clock takes about 3 minutes and 33 seconds to time out.  With each subsequent round the clock moves faster.  Each line on the clock face represents about 13 seconds and when the round is over the game gives you 50 points for each line the hand didnt get to. You'll notice that as the rounds pass by the clock gets faster and faster.

John:  Well the game's secret is that the whole game gets faster, not just the clock, or the enemies.  The targets move faster, your gun moves and shoots faster.  What's happening with subsequent levels is just the speed of the entire game gradually increasing.  This is why the game's clock isnt digital, so you cant see behind the curtain as easily.

Chuck:  Right.  The game pulls the same trick with its' "shoot the bear" sequence.  You'll notice that as the bear gets faster your gun moves faster and you shoot faster also.  It's the entire game that's being sped up instead of a single aspect.

OK, now you can talk about the game's music.

John:  This game features much more than Chopsticks during the title sequence, even though that's the only SID that's been archived from this game.  Unfortunately, the archivists missed something.  Something huge.  Something mind-blowing.  And no wise man has the power to reason it away.

This Carnival clone features a monophonic SID rendition of What a Fool Believes.  It plays this while you shoot the little ducks and rabbits.  Chuck, it plays What a Fool Believes by the Doobie Brothers.  I'm serious.

Chuck:  Oh, I'm well aware.

John:  It's the most completely out of left field song choice imaginable.  Remember, Carnival has Over the Waves, which is perfect.  Shooting Gallery has WHAT A FOOL BELIEVES by the Doobie Brothers.  A Micheal McDonald sung hit from 1978.  Co-written by Kenny Loggins.  A yacht rock masterpiece.  It's this game's soundtrack!  And that's not all.

Chuck:  Nope.

John:  We also have "Jarabe Tapatio" otherwise known as the Mexican Hat Dance.  So, this song begins right after Fool ends.  These two songs play back-to-back in this game.  In glorious monophonic SID.  If you still have time left when Jarabe Tapatio is over then you just hear silence until the time runs out.

Chuck:  If this isnt the most bizarre, incongruent soundtrack any C64 game has, I'll eat my Hat.

John:  Friday the 13th's soundtrack is pretty bananas.

Chuck:  Ah, you're right.  Cant wait to get to that one.

John:  We'll have to get a gameplay video of this up.  It's probably very hard to imagine playing a game like this with mono-SID What a Fool Believes playing in the background.  If I didnt hear it for myself I wouldnt Believe it.

Chuck:  It's not even sped up to match the game, it kind of floats there.  Jarabe Tapatio itself wouldnt turn any heads, there's probably 100 C64 games that have that in it.  But Micheal McDonald?  What a strange design choice.  Kudos to Pete and Vinny, I really appreciate ignoring sense and reason once in a while.  So, kudos to you.

John:  As far as the sound effects go, it's far less special.  You mentioned the bells you would shoot in original shooting galleries, and the sound effects Carnival uses.  Pow - ding!  That's what a shooting gallery sounds like.  Unfortunately this game has none of that.  There's no feedback at all for hitting the targets.  For shame!

Chuck:  LOL - Hey we dont name and shame around here-

John:  SHAME.  There has got to be video game Commandments, and one of them has to be that shooting your target has feedback.  Almost anything is better than nothing.  At least your gun makes a firing noise.

Chuck:  Well, while we're shaming, let's talk about the game's other problems.  When you first play the game you'll find that the tiny amounts of points you get for hitting targets is practically meaningless.  The hash boxes that take away points are almost always right in front of a target you have to shoot to complete the round, so you just end up shooting them anyway.  So, what little points you get usually get erased.  Targets on the bottom row are 1 point.  If you shoot the target within the red zone it takes away 1 point.  Second row is 2 points, etc.  OK, and when you shoot a hash block it takes away FIFTY points.  That erases like 20 good targets you hit, potentially.

John:  Well you could try to make that up by shooting the B O N U S characters.

Chuck:  It's almost impossible to hit those in order.  There are so many tightly-packed targets that you almost always  accidentally shoot the letters out of order.  So you might find your score climbing up only to get knocked back down to zero multiple times during a round.

You might say that I'm being a crybaby complaining about the game difficulty, but then when you complete the round you get a huge time bonus.  You quickly realize that the best way to score is to not worry so much about what you're hitting, just clear the screen as fast as you can and get the big time bonus.  Since the targets are so close together, and there's so many of them, this is just a turkey shoot.  There's barely any thought involved.  Only the targets at the top are hard to hit and most of the time it's because there are hash blocks "following" them across the screen.  If you dont care about avoiding the hash blocks they're a lot easier to hit and you end up with more points anyway.

While playtesting this and wanting to see the higher rounds I barely had to look at the screen while I was playing, firing blind worked fine for most of the round.

Let me give a concrete example:

Case 1:  I start playing Level 1 Round 1.  I carefully  shoot around the hash blocks and avoid the minus sign that takes away a unit of time.  After the time bonus I have 482 points total.

Case 2:  I start playing Level 1 Round 1.  I shoot everything on the screen as fast as I can.  After the time bonus I have 591 points total.

John:  OK, I want to make sure we're meeting this game on its' own terms.  If you play the game carefully and skillfully you can avoid the hashblocks and pull of some pretty cool trick shots by shooting around them.  For the most part, this game is fair with target placement.  Sometimes you get bit by wonky collision detection.

And playing the game this way is the most enjoyable way to do it.  Yes, on Level 1 you can just shoot everything indiscriminately and never die and get a good score.  On higher levels the time limit actually matters and with no time bonus your only way to score or even survive is to avoid the undesirable targets.

If you hit F3 before starting a game you can change the Level number.  There's no way to advance levels while playing the game, at least not that I know of.  I managed to get to Round 15 before I had to quit because I couldnt stand playing anymore.

So, while in your current game the game gets faster with each Round.

Each Level, on the other hand, adds more minus symbols and hash blocks.  On Level 9 there are tons of em.

Chuck:  Yeah but then the game rewards you even more for wild shooting, you just get a lower score.  You only "die" if the time runs out and there's no chance of that happening on the lower levels.  On the higher levels you usually run out of time because the targets at the very top become almost impossible to hit due to the walls getting much larger.. and the walls are linked together with hash blocks.  Ouch!

That's how the game manages difficulty.  It tries to strike a balance between losing lives because the clock ran out and getting a good score, and I feel like they didnt find that balance.

John:  Even though this whole thing doesnt bother me as much as it does you, the real problem is that this isnt the way to manage difficulty in a game like this.  The game is trying to reward you for hitting and avoiding targets in  the shortest amount of time possible.  That sounds fine on paper, but in practice you have to carefully manage the game clock vs the amount of time the average player takes to complete a level, etc., and it doesnt punish you at all for wild shooting.  It just makes so much more sense to have Sega Carnival's ammunition mechanic where you have to watch your ammo count.  That way you are naturally punished for wild shooting and every shot really means something.

I find that I cant play this game for any great length of time.  Fatigue sets in early, usually before I've lost my first life.  It's not nearly as much fun to play as it is to talk about.  The targets are sometimes charming but they're just too small and they all look the same after a while.  Carnival has a variety of ways to get bonuses, bigger targets, better music and sound effects and better mechanics.  Shooting Gallery loses nearly all the good stuff and is pretty dull to boot.

Chuck:  It is, and it's not an unfair to compare it to Carnival, or even Mastertronic's Duck Shoot.  Look at Shooting Gallery's "shoot the bear" sequence and it's obvious this is meant to be a Carnvial clone.  But the Atari 2600 version of Carnival is so much more fun than this.  It's impossible for me to recommend this as a fun game, but the mystery, history and other epherma behind this game is fascinating.  It's folk art man, I'm telling you.

John:  It's not a complete disaster or anything, there's certainly been some thought put into it.   I had some brief moments of enjoyment trying to avoid shooting the obstacles on Level 9, in particular.  Overall though it's just not fun.  I had a hard time willing myself to play it for our discussion.  It's got the right amount of kooky weirdness for an early 64 title, though!  I hope the rest of Rensoft's library is discovered.  Someday, I believe they will be.

Chuck:  That's what a fool believes, John!  I want to make it clear that EVERY C64 game is worthy of archival, comprehensive research and discussion.  This game is awesome, Rensoft is awesome, and Pete and Vinny are totally awesome.

With that, I'd like to leave you with some words of wisdom from Pete Lobl, as seen in Commodore Power Play in the fall of 83:

"When the Commodore 64 was introduced, it drew comments from knowledgeable computer experts that shook the entire industry. By the time that you read this, there will be tons of quality programs available for the 64. But as I write, there isn't much out there in the way of 64 software, so my attitude is: why wait if I can do it myself? You can too, only don't be discouraged if everything doesn't make sense at first; in time it will all drop into place."