You probably have to drag even the most eager Elk owner kicking and screaming towards the Acorn Programs discs. Quality games are extremely few and far between, although one senses that by issue four, the publication had its own little army of contributors; some of the games included are evidently written by the same authors who had had previous submissions included in earlier editions. In no particular order, here's a look at the bang you get for your buck on this companion disc.
Firstly there's a large selection of games of the type that rely on string of 8x8 CHR$ definitions to create the illusion of graphics. You might remember Jungle Maze from Acorn Programs #1? [No? Ah well... - Ed] This disc has its author's follow-up, Babysitter. It's another maze game where you are tasked with collecting the 8x8 toys of the tiny tot you are minding, and getting back to it before it wakes up. Which means a dash around a pretty small maze in an ever decreasing amount of time. The baby is also at risk of being stolen by a would-be childsnatcher, so make sure you keep an eye on the menacing figure advancing towards its playchair at ever faster speeds.
The viewing aspect of the playing area is a tad extraordinary with the baby balanced on the top of an overhead maze but seemingly able to fall off the side of it, the same maze, if it wakes up - or perhaps it's running away? You also need to ensure you don't reach for that BREAK button during the unbearably long pause before each game starts whilst data is being sorted and the maze is being drawn. Oh, and don't even get me started on the introductory screens in Mode 7 which are tedious, as they are unnecessarily decorative and difficult to navigate. I will say more about this later as it is a criticism that falls on quite a few games included on this compilation.
City Bomber is, as you would expect, clone 5,412 of the game where you control a bi-plane and need to flatten skyscrapers in order to land it. As the game is so well-known and there have been so many versions of it produced, I tend to do a quick comparison with the machine code Bomber (EUG #45) every time I see another one. If I was being kind, I'd say this version, a 3K BASIC 8x8 CHR$ plod-along affair, doesn't come out favourably. As I'm not however, I'll just state baldly that it's shit.
Another absolutely appalling inclusion is Orchard Wall, its premise stating that you need to catch falling apples. Whilst all of the games on this disc do work on the BBC series, this one is designed solely for the Electron. Apples (which look like filled circles) fall from a wall in a BASIC 8x8 CHR$ yawnorama. On any BBC computer, they fall so quickly that you see a circle flicker for a nanosecond in one column of the wall - and then you instantly lose a life because it's too late to run and catch it. On the Electron you just about have time to position yourself to catch it. But, carrying on forever until you miss five apples in total, it's unrewarding to say the least.
At the rear of this is Rising Damp, a peculiar Orchard Wall-style upgrade where you manoeuvre around a giant bucket and attempt to catch leaking drops of water from the roof of your property. This game is at least playable and somewhat fun, with the droplet smoothly scrolling down to earth. Catch a droplet to gain a point. Let it hit the floor, and the floor will weaken. Let the floor weaken too much, and you lose the game. However, keep the water at bay for long enough despite a weakened floor, and 'The Carpenter' will come along and mend it. In a rather trippy message, you are given a great big beaming face to represent 'The Carpenter' whenever he shows up!!
There are two adventures on this disc, each written by Elk-renowned Steve Lucas. Perhaps more amazing than the sheer number of different adventures this man actually wrote for the BBC/Electron machines is how widespread they are - with different adventures appearing in A&B, Acorn User, Electron User and Home Computing Weekly. The two featured on this disc are the standard fare with little to offer the experienced adventurer - how many times have we had to THROW MATCHES across a moat for example, in order to use them to light a lamp later in time? Well, in case you haven't got sick of doing it, you get the chance to do so in Borgan Castle. The other adventure is called Pharoah's Curse, which cleverly attempts to strand you in the first location by not giving you an exit. In fact the pyramid is the exit and you need to type IN to begin (Not ENTER or GO PYRAMID).
As with all of Mr. Lucas' adventures, they are formatted slightly differently. I personally like my adventures to have white text on a black background, old school style. However, Borgan Castle is rendered blue text on a yellow background, which means the adventure is Elk-compatible, whilst Pharoah's Curse is a Mode 7 adventure, so it runs with lots of strange characters on the Electron unless you start stripping out bits of code.
Babysitter With Its Curious Viewing Aspect. The Baby Is Positioned On The Top Left Hand Corner Of The Maze!"> Mr. Lucas is also responsible for a mediocre offering in the form of Underwater Memory which is a Simon clone where you need to remember not flashes of light in LCD panels but the icons that appear in four locations of the screen. Each icon is an underwater fish, hence the strange title. The trouble is that the game does not flush the keyboard buffer between showing you the correct sequence and waiting for your input. You can easily get sequences of infinite length 100% correct, and have the game informing you of the stupendous size of your brain, by hitting the appropriate key when the icon appears in the preview stage. This is a similar problem to Babysitter which I mentioned earlier. Babysitter also does not flush the keyboard buffer during its very long intro sequence. Banging away on the space bar to try and skip it therefore merely results in the instructions flashing past when the sequence finally finishes! Argh.
Perhaps the best arcade-style game of the lot is Dennis On The Farm. You are a little 8x8 head, who glances back and forth as you move him around, on a Mode 5 grid peppered with guard dogs and the odd collectable egg. You need to store an increasing number of eggs on each level to make it through to the next one, and the number of guard dogs also gets higher. To make things a bit more complicated, and to introduce an element of strategy that otherwise would not be required, you also cannot cross your own path. (The instructions mentions some weird explanation about leaking weedkiller being to blame for this!) A bit more care seems to have gone into this title than some others, and the sprites are multi-coloured, even if they do remain BASIC-looking 8x8 definitions. The game is also colourful and fun to play.
If you have young children, they might also enjoy creating a colourful face with the aid of Facemaker, a BASIC version of the popular professional Identikit/Facemaker releases in machine code. You can, rather startlingly, choose to create a face with a different coloured nose, ears and even forehead in this version. Why you would want to is debateable - although a cyan nose, yellow mouth and black ears tends to produce an almost spitting image of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for example [You're not funny - Ed]. However, if your children are able to suspend their disbelief quite easily - and you haven't already introduced them to the more professional versions, you could get them started with this version. It accepts one letter input on most occasions, although it does assume that your children are able to understand sometimes quite complicated questions (for a child). Again, if you have young children, they might also appreciate the simple maths Q&A offered by Balance, which displays a scale that balances with a tick of a cross if you can answer simple questions like 1+3=?.
Two more games that I want to draw particular attention to are Tennis and Stunt Driver. Tennis is a game that I am always happy to see tried again - simply because all of the versions that exist for the Electron so far are rubbish. Yes, it boggles my mind that perhaps the oldest of all the videogames is always done so badly on the Electron! It is exactly the same case here - the computer controls its bat with about the Intelligence Quotient of a chronically depressed lemming, and you win every single time. It's a trap that all the versions available, even the professional machine code version on Firebird's Video Classics, fall into. This is only a crappy BASIC version too - and to my horror I found that, when you serve or return the ball, you cannot move your bat again until it connects with your opponent's bat! A crazy limitation that makes this altogether the worst version I've ever seen, and that's saying something!
Stunt Driver on the other hand is a Dare Devil Dennis clone which I rather like. You don't need any special skill to play it at all, just rev up your engine with the SHIFT key, and press SPACE when you want to instruct your car to 'jump'. You view the action on four levels all on one screen, and when you finally arrive on the bottom 'platform' you need to clear a certain number of barrels to complete the level. I managed to clear about ten barrels without problems but then it got too difficult!
There's a few Maths-based games in there - Mathsground, which combines shooting ducks at a fairground with answering multiple-choice maths questions, and Munchanumber, which subtly re-inforces counting upwards by presenting you with a small area and the numbers 1 to 9 in succession for you to gobble up Snapper-style. Both games are text (or should that be digits) only. Finally, there's the game Join 'Em Up, which is Connect 4, for two players only, each taking their turn at the keyboard.
As with all Acorn Programs discs, there's a few utilities best left skipped/forgotten. In this case, you've got Birthdays And Important Dates (a database of birthdays that you can add with DATA statements if you really want to spend several minutes fiddling with discs for information that you can get from a pocket diary), Areas (a text-only calculation of the areas under different shapes), Doodler (a basic 'draw with a cross in a small area of the screen for no reason' art package), History Quiz (a simple Q&A session on years when things happened, like The Battle of Hastings) and the Quadratic Equations Solver.
The only demo, The National Anthem Demo, displays a very 'square-looking' UK flag and plays the National Anthem.
If you tend to think programmers systematically improve with each program they produce therefore then you just might want to give Acorn Programs #4 a whirl. However, often actions, or lack of them, speak louder than words - the catalogue for this disc was uploaded to the Acorn Electron World web site some four years ago but, due to an oversight, the actual 'zip' file was not. No-one ever reported that the link didn't work, or that the 'zip' file was not retrieved. Hence I suspect no-one, apart from me, has ever even seen it!
This really is a shame. The games are not great, but some of them are good enough to while away a few idle minutes on a Sunday afternoon.