We have a new word for you all, and the word is 'discified'. It means the long, and often tortious process, of transferring the BBC and Electron listings of old to a a companion disc of programs, complete with a menu. It also signifies that the completed companion disc is, in all important ways, identical to the magazine the code was transferred from. i.e. until the last character of the last program of Acorn Programs #2 had been entered, and saved, the programs were not fully 'discified', because that last character was still missing.
Ah yes, the Acorn Programs magazine. You may remember that, in EUG #66, I reviewed the companion disc of programs to the first issue (Acorn Programs #1), which had, at that time, finally been discified. This year your metaphorical Acorn series Christmas present is its second issue: 23 program submissions that originally appeared back in 1983. Apart from ACORN PROGRAMS #4, the full library of Acorn Programs PD discs are now available over in our PD World section. There are two reasons why this second issue has only been very recently released however. Firstly, despite all our searching, we could not turn up a copy of the magazine for our archives. Without the mag, we couldn't bring you the programs. Indeed, we still have not found a second hand copy of it.
Luckily a complete scan of the magazine is now hosted on www.acornmags.co.uk. This leads us into the second reason there was such a delay however. Because we only had a scan, not an actual mag, Acorn Programs #2 was actually created on a BBC emulator. Having invested in a big screen monitor for our PC recently, it became possible to position BeebEm, the BBC emulator, in a window on the left of the screen, and the scanned listings from the magazine on the right. Then it was simply a case of typing what was displayed on the right of the screen onto the left of the screen. But then - shock horror! - just when the whole of the magazine had been discified first time round, BeebEm then threw a wobbly and completely corrupted the whole of the disc image. Just brilliant - 70 hours' work down the toilet!
Rather deflated by the loss of this, we decided to discify it for a second time over a long period of time, to 'blitz' it again over a long weekend, especially considering the quality of the programs it actually held, was never going to happen. However, finally, finally, finally Acorn Programs #2 is with us. So what's it got to offer?
Well, rather as with the first issue, it's a mixed bag, so once again it behoves me to sort the good from the bad and the ugly. Happily, I did feel that the quality overall was somewhat better than the first disc of programs, and there were are some very playable games included. The big star, as signified by the cover of the magazine, is the mammoth adventure Escape From Time. It's true that it has an extremely limited parser (It does not, for example, recognise GET, only TAKE) and a very strange question and answer element to it at one point ("Do you have the crystal yet? Yes/No"), but for the time it must really have seemed quite an awesome game for 'free'. Kind of like Superior's Stranded without the graphics, it's not particularly difficult but the screen layout is neat and it's not riddled with bugs or spaghetti code.
Sticking with the good, I also thought that the short Hangman routine was quite passable - you can easily open it up and put your own words in as data statements, and the program itself draws a reasonable representation of a hanging figure as you try and guess the words. What I like is the program is short, and so you are left with the possibility of adding quite an extensive word bank. This is not the case with some of the other type-ins, which concentrate on providing excellent graphics but only allow a small number of words to be held.
Less playable were Bingo and Square Solitaire. Bingo is a program for the bingo caller, and keeps note of the numbers that have been called; you could use it for example with your own cards instead of drawing the balls 'National Lottery style' from a machine apparently named after a boring accountant. Square Solitaire is yet another version of the Solitaire game, except this particular version is text only which looks very, very peculiar. Do I mean peculiar there? No, make that cheap and nasty.
There are some extremely simple games like Catcher - an arcade game where you control a line and simply move around the screen collecting 'things' (cyan blobs) until you hit your own trail - which have some potential but are let down by a clumsy input routine. In this case, the program seems to pause whenever you change direction for no apparent reason. Some games seem downright incomprehensible, e.g. Cycles, a two-player Light Cycles clone, seems to end randomly without really explaining why, and don't ask me what is going on in Crazy Chase. On the other hand, Mind Reader provides a surprisingly tough mathematical challenge - and I haven't yet been able to complete this for different reasons, namely, my stupidity.
Before I cast a weary eye over the dregs of this compilation, a few words about Boxes, Gomoku and Worms which are three games on this disc written by the same author and which have exactly the same design and feel to them. Boxes is a clone of the 'squares' game, which was my distraction of choice in Maths lessons as a youngster, and whilst there are better interpretations of it on the BBC/Electron, is eminently playable. The other games have the same basic structure: Gomoku is the game its name suggests whereas Worms uses the same playing area but asks one player simply to connect all the squares according to a set of rules. The controls are a bit awkward - cursor keys and COPY - but that aside these are interesting, despite their naturally dated appearance.
As you can see, unlike the first issue, it's not all doom and gloom by a long stretch with this disc. The crap is in there, with four dreary one channel renditions of tunes you've never heard of; a Character Designer which is so clunky that it would be easier to use graph paper; a so-called strategy war-game Baron whereby you are assisinated as soon as you make any decision (!); Bank Robber in which you move a bucket around collecting £ signs that fall from the top of the screen; text only Scissors Paper Stone and a utility that converts numbers in one base to another.
Finally, to cater presumably for the schoolboy who may have wanted to revise his foreign languages and mathematics, there are two utility programs included: Simultaneous Equations and Language Tester. These are fully text-driven and pretty hard on the eyes.
Perhaps the most interesting program (and in fact the only demo) on this disc is the Illusion Demo which displays the famous Muller-Lyer illusion, whereby two lines of equal length appear not to be so with the addition of 'tails'. You can eventually compare the actual length of the lines using this version and, of course, the lines are equal, although, as the saying goes 'you won't believe your eyes' are telling you that beforehand.
I think the general impression of the programs from Acorn Programs is that they were dire and I found, on reviewing the discified Acorn Programs #1, that this impression was correct. Therefore it was surprising to find that at least half of the programs on this second disc were better than I expected. Obviously they don't stand up in any way to the quality of type-ins from the more 'professional' (and more expensive) magazines of the era, and I cannot describe any of these newly recoded programs as a hitherto undiscovered treasure, but the superior half are not drivel. Because I don't think a lot of people will ever have seen any of them, I therefore do recommend you take a look, and (very cautiously) I give the disc at least half marks.