Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Starquake - Sinclair Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 (1985) & Atari ST (1988)

[Commodore 64] The pick of the 8-bits

Starquake is an addictive and very slick arcade adventure with platforming elements.  It was released for a host of 8-bit machines in 1985 and for the Atari ST three years later in 1988. Your goal is to repair the unstable core of a planet that has appeared from a black hole before it destroys the Universe.  

You control a character called BLOB (Bio-Logically Operated Being) and your first task is to search for the planet’s core.  The core is made up of a number of objects that must then be located by searching the 512 screens that make up the planet.  The objects then need to be returned to the core to make it stable.

There are various aliens that inhabit the planet that can be dispatched with your laser.  Most of the aliens will drain your energy but there is one that can kill you immediately.  You can also build short-lived platforms beneath you to reach higher places as you are unable to jump. BLOB has a limited supply of ammunition and platforms, and his energy supply constantly depletes though further supplies of each can be picked up.  There is also a generous scattering of extra lives in the form of joysticks (remember them?).

While on foot BLOB can only move left and right (and fall down) so there are a number of other ways to navigate the planet.  The most useful form of transport is a hover pad.  These can only be boarded and dropped off in particular places but can fly in any direction. The major disadvantage of a hover pad is that you can’t pick up any core objects while on board. Teleports are another quick way of getting around.  Each teleport has its own unique code and one is handily located quite close the core.  In some areas there are also vacuum tubes which can suck BLOB up to higher levels.
[Amstrad CPC] BLOB about to pick up the most useful item in the game.
The most useful object that can be found is the Access card.  Numbered chips can be picked up to get you through security doors and to gain access to the Cheops pyramid.  An Access card can replace all these chips.  The security doors allow you to explore further areas of the planet and the Cheops pyramid can be used to trade one of your objects for another (usually one needed to repair the core).
[Spectrum] The Cheops pyramid allows you to trade unwanted items for something more useful
I had Starquake for the Spectrum back in the 80’s and completed it again with my old map.  I achieved an adventure score of 58% which is roughly the percentage of the map I used so I’m guessing you need to visit every screen to get 100%.

The game is very polished and would be worthy of being published by Ultimate.  Of the versions I played, none of them stand out aurally with the sound mostly consisting of effects.  The Commodore 64 has the best visuals of the 8-bits.  The graphics are colourful and forego the chunky sprites the C64 is normally known for.  The Spectrum version, as usual, is brightly coloured but has monochrome sprites.  In contrast the Amstrad version has rather subdued graphics which puts it in last place.  All games play the about the same which is the important thing.

Coming 3 years later and with more power behind it, the Atari ST unsurprisingly boasts the best looking version although it is hardly stretching the hardware with a game such as this.
[Atari ST] As expected the ST version has the best graphics of all.

**SPOILERS**  [Spectrum] Completing the game....

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Skool Daze - Sinclair Spectrum - 1985

Skool Daze is a quintessentially English game which takes a comic book view of school life.  You take control of a schoolboy called Eric, although you can change his and the names of the other main characters at the beginning of the game.  Armed with your trusty catapult, your task is to steal your report card from the safe in the school staff room.  You must do this whilst attending classes and trying to stay out of trouble.  For each misdemeanour you are given lines and are expelled if you collect 10,000.

The game instructions give steps which must be taken in order to reach your goal.  The first aim is to hit all the shields scattered around the school, either with your catapult or fists, in order to make them flash.  Many of the shields are out of reach so you will need to think of ways to hit them (e.g. you can punch a fellow pupil and use his prone body as a useful step to jump higher).  Once all the shields are flashing you have to shoot each of the teachers with your catapult and they will reveal their part of the combination to the safe.  The exception is the history teacher who is too old to remember his number so has had it hypnotically planted into his brain.  He will reveal his part of the combination if he sees the year of his birth written on a blackboard.

Once you have the combination you have to write it on a blackboard in the correct order to open the safe.  After retrieving your report you then need to hit all the shields again to prevent the teachers becoming aware of your deeds.

Skool Daze was an early example of a sandbox game and whatever you got up to all the other characters would follow their own routines.  The graphics are good, the sound fine and there is plenty of humour.  It’s a great game and can be just as much fun following the quest as it is running around getting up to mischief.

A sloppy conversion of Skool Daze was available on the Commodore 64. There was also a follow up available later in the year called Back to Skool.  In my opinion the quest in that game was too convoluted and lost the simple charm of the original.

The date of birth of the history teacher is revealed when the swot says what event happened in that year (normally a medieval battle).

Friday, 20 July 2012

Paradroid - Commodore 64 - 1985

Static screen shots do not inspire you to play the game.

Having not had much exposure to the Commodore 64 in the 80s, Paradroid is another one of those classics I'd heard about but never had the chance (or desire) to try.  Like Impossible Mission, it is one of those games the does not look much from the screenshots but really comes into its own when you start to play.

The game is based on a fleet of spaceships that has been overtaken by errant robots.  It is too dangerous to board each ship so an 'influence device' has been sent down to destroy all the droids.  The influence device is a helmet-like contraption that attaches to the hostile robots and allows the player to take control of them.  It is also armed with a rather puny laser.  Each spaceship is made up of 20 decks.  You know when you have cleared a deck as the lights power down. Once you clear a ship you are moved onto the next.

One deck cleared, nineteen to go.

The ship is viewed from a top-down perspective and uses line-of-sight mechanic so you can't see enemies around corners or through closed doors.  The play area, which is rather small, scrolls as you move about the ship.  You initially control the rather weedy influence device which is depicted as a white sphere numbered '001'.  The other droids are also depicted as numbered white spheres with the first digit denoting their power (1 is the weakest, 9 is the strongest).  You can destroy enemy robots by either ramming (only works against weaker enemies), shooting or temporarily taking control of them.  If the influence device is destroyed it's game over.

Each droid has a unique portrait though in-game they appear as white spheres.

Starting off with such a weak machine you will want to take control of a stronger robot as soon as possible. Attempting to transfer to another droid brings up a mini game where you play against the computer in an attempt to take over the enemys circuit board.  You firstly choose which side to work from and then, playing against a time limit, have to change at least 7 of the 12 rectangles in the centre of the screen to your colour by 'firing' down the connecting wires.  The more powerful the robot, the more 'shots' are available.  If the mini game ends in a draw you play again.  If you lose while already controlling a robot, the robot is destroyed and you return to controlling the influence device.  If you fail while controlling the influence device the game ends.  Once you take control of an enemy droid you can use it against its former comrades.  It will also start to lose power and will eventually burn out unless you transfer to yet another droid.  

Preparing to take over another droid.  The number of available 'shots' are shown down the side.

Also dotted around each level are lifts, energisers and consoles.  The lifts can carry you between the decks on the starship.  The energisers can be used to restore energy lost due to laser damage.  When accessing the console you can view a plan of your current level, a side view of the starship showing the decks and can access a database showing data for robots of a lower class than your host.

A plan of the current deck as viewed through the console

Overall Paradroid is an excellent game.  The bas-relief graphics are extremely effective and the scrolling is silky smooth.  The sound effects are nothing to write home about but are suitable for the game.  The blend of strategy and shooting is set just about right and there is quite a complex scoring mechanism.  I've still got a few years of Commodore 64 games to play but I'd be amazed if I come across (m)any games better than this one.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Kung Fu - NES - 1985

Kung Fu is a conversion of the Kung-Fu Master arcade game released by Irem in 1984.  The game is a simple side scrolling beat ‘em up in which you have to rescue your kidnapped girlfriend. I was in two minds on whether to include this as why have arcade conversions when the real thing is so much better?  I thought I’d give it a chance anyway and gave it a go.  Then another.  Then another.  It had me hooked so I had to add it to my list.

Not the most original plot.

The game is set over 5 levels, each ending with a boss.  The first level hosts only two types of enemies but more are added as you progress.  Your character only has a limited number of moves – he can crouch, jump, punch and kick. The punch attack scores more points than the kick but has a shorter range.  You have a limited time in which to complete each level and bonus points are added to your score depending on the remaining time and any energy left.

I’m not a massive fan of the Street Fighter style games that require 6+ buttons and memorising special moves so Kung Fu appealed to me due to its simplicity.  The graphics are obviously not as good as the arcade machine and neither is the animation; however I find the sound to be better.  Overall, Kung Fu is a great, addictive little title.  It is a bit repetitive though this is to be expected in a game such as this.

I felt bad beating on these little fellas.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Highway Encounter - Sinclair Spectrum & Amstrad CPC - 1985

[Spectrum]  The graphics on both Amstrad and Spectrum versions are more or less identical.

Highway Encounter is another isometric game from 1985.  It was programmed by Costa Panayi, the man behind TLL and Cyclone.  In this game you control a droid that has to escort a ‘Lasertron’ device from one end of a straight road that leads conveniently to an alien base at the other end.  Once the device has been pushed to the end of the road it destroys the alien base.  You then start over after a nice animated sequence.

The game begins with you controlling one robot that has to clear the way for the Lasertron. Ingeniously your extra lives are lined up behind the Lasertron and are programmed to automatically push it along the road until it meets an obstruction.  If the robot you are controlling is destroyed, one of the other robots becomes available.  If you get down to your last droid you must use it to clear the way and also push the weapon.

The highway is made up of 30 screens and contains various obstacles that must be cleared out of the way.  Among the obstacles are simple barrels that bar the route or indestructible moving mines that need to be made safe.  This can be achieved moving objects in front of the mines to stop them moving across the centre of the road.  These objects can be moved by pushing or shooting them with your laser.  Your laser fires three shots in quick succession then you must wait a second or so for it to recharge.  You will also need your laser to shoot the aliens which patrol some areas.

Highway Encounter is a very good game but if anything is too easy.  Clearing the obstacles requires very little head scratching and the enemy aliens are quite easy to destroy.  The main challenge comes from the time limit which can get a little tight if you are slow at clearing a path through the obstacles.

[Amstrad] The two versions only really differ in sound effects.  Neither is better.

On a side note, in early 2010 a previously unreleased Atari ST version of Highway Encounter came to light.  I haven't had a proper chance to play the game but it has a different road layout to the 8-bit versions and is noticeably harder.  Costa Panayi kindly gave permission for the game to be freely distributed…

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Fairlight - Sinclair Spectrum - 1985

The obligatory 'pile everything up to reach the treasure' puzzle.

Fairlight was one of the first and one of the best of the isometric perspective games that started appearing in the wake of Ultimate’s filmation series.  It was a 1985 release for the Sinclair Spectrum and came out in 1986 on the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC.  I don’t remember much about the game though I do remember falling to my death within sight of the Book of Light.  Apart from some of the rooms the only other thing I really remember are the pygmy type guards which when killed leave behind their helmets.  They regenerate when you leave the room but the helmets can be picked up and disposed of in a safe area.  The Spectrum really struggled when there were around a dozen of these guards wandering around on the same screen.

There is a lot of waffle in the instruction booklet about the history of the land of Fairlight. All you really need to know is that you play a character called Isvar tasked with finding the Book of Light in Castle Avars and returning it to a wizard. 

To this end you have to explore the castle while avoiding or killing enemies.  The enemies variously range from whirlwinds and bubbles to monks and man-eating plants. A lot of the enemies can’t be killed while combat just involves hitting the attack key.  You start off with 99 health points and lose some if falling too far or coming into contact with the enemies.  Food and drink can be found which replenish 10 health points at a time.  A discovery I made this time is that if a whirlwind touches an item it permanently disappears – this is a good way of getting rid of the guard helms.

There are many items to be found and the puzzles mainly involve discovering their uses.  You have 5 inventory slots in which to carry items but, unusually for the time, each item had a given weight so the heavier the item the less you could carry.

The Commodore 64 version looked and sounded good but played too slow.  On the right is one of the less garish Amstrad CPC screenshots.

It’s not difficult to distinguish the best version but they all have issues.  My vote goes for the Spectrum version. It has the best graphics in my opinion though they are monochromatic. During the game it plays a tune that can get annoying after a while and you don’t get choice of effects or the music.  The tune cuts out between screens too which makes it more annoying.  The Commodore 64 has the best sound and a choice of playing the tune, footstep sounds or silence during the game.  The graphics are virtually the same as Fairlight on the Spectrum though the game plays at a much slower pace.  Although the Amstrad version runs at a fair lick the footstep sounds would soon drive me mad (there is no way to play music in game).  It also has the same bizarre colour choices (only more so) that afflict Ultimates isometric CPC games. The Amstrad can display yellow and red so why have dark blue torch flames?  Weird.

The caves contains a hidden door that leads to the Book of Light