Yet more and more programs for the Acorn Electron keep 'popping out of the woodwork' at the moment and, let's face it, you never quite know what to expect from most of them. With the old 'launch pad' of 8BS long gone, most of them are now making their debut either through Stairway to Hell or Acorn Electron World. The Danosoft Collection came through the former about six months ago, and is a collection of fourteen programs from one Danny Nicholas, who you may - but probably won't! - remember wrote Percy's Panic, published in Electron User #2.06.
The programs are a lot more than the average BASIC type-in and, once you boot up the disc - which is available on both ADFS 1D00 and DFS format! - you get a very nice menu which lists each of them in ascending order of year. At the top of the screen are two sequels to Percy's Panic and at the bottom is the alluring 'Space Exploration Probe (Master 128)'. This is a bit of a confusing title as it too was in fact programmed for, and runs perfectly well on, the Electron with DFS. (Apparently, when the menu was being constructed, Dan couldn't personally get it to run on the ElectrEm emulator, but it would run on BeebEm, so he added this machine proviso at the last moment. By the time Dan was writing his later games, he had upgraded his Elk by quite a bit, attaching a Slogger Turbo/64K RAM Board, an AP1 and an AP4. As his programming became more sophisticated, he quite naturally utilised some of the hidden power of these addons.)
Whilst enjoying all of the projects on his disc therefore, the layout of the menu system makes for a fairly interesting history lesson - whilst you can appreciate even from the very first title that its programmer was very aware of the importance of graphics, speed and layout, you can also see his skills being refined, as the much more impressive developments come towards the end.
One word of caution must be sounded however. Some of the projects are not complete. Whilst there's nothing so vulgar in there as a 'No such variable at line 120', two promising games were abandoned before completion and some of the routines were developed for snazzy loading routines but not ultimately attached to a game. They are interesting in their own right all the same though.
Wading in you have the rather drab Percy's Revenge, an overhead maze game which informs you that the arsonist responsible for setting Percy's house alight in the Electron User game Percy's Panik has fled into the centre of a maze. You need to grab two keys to open the door to the maze and then get to the centre of the maze in order to apprehend the arsonist before your bonus ticks down to zero.
Unfortunately, the work which has gone into the loading screen has not been replicated in the game itself here. You get a small wire-frame overhead maze on the left, in which the 'arsonist' is rendered as a big, disembodied, smiling face. The rest of the screen is bordered by what appear to be splashes of green ectoplasm, keeping you separate from it. The game reflects the rather risible scenario and Percy's movements are slow and doddery, only allowing you to move in straight lines up and down. The keys are thrown around the area outside the maze seemingly at random, hence you are sometimes lucky enough to have both at your feet as you start, hence you can gain quick entry to the maze, whilst, at other times, they are flung much further away and waste precious bonus points as they are located.
I also found that, instead of picking up the key, Percy sometimes just erased it. If this happens the door to the maze does not open and you are just left stranded until the bonus runs out! If you do manage to make it to the arsonist before you bonus reaches zero, you just start all over again with a lower time limit.
The sprites and gameplay of both the EU game and this one are identical but, happily, Percy III - Super Spy is a complete departure with a platform game in the Manic Mole tradition. You are a Secret Agent chasing one arch nemesis, Doctor Doom. However, en route you must bed as many Miss Moneypennys as possible in order to boost your score so there's ample cash at the end of the day to pay the Child Support Agency. Well, alright that's not quite what the instructions say - instead they drone on about destroying Doctor Doom's base. This I didn't catch sight of, although each level did feature Percy, a lot of platforms to leap between and a woman.
The game is not particularly bad - it has varied level design, Percy responds well to keypresses and the difficulty level is pretty easy. It is obviously a BASIC game in its entirety, all characters are 8 x 8 CHR$ blocks, and the instructions hint that some secrets do await you as the game progresses. Four notches into Percy's bedpost though and I gave up.
The next full arcade 'game' on the disc is The Supermarket Firm, a very odd beast indeed where you own (and christen) your own supermarket and then, as customers mill around the checkouts within it, open the till they are nearest to. Often it seems to take several seconds between a character waiting at a till and the till, even though you've turned it on, actually functioning. Again, this is a pure BASIC program with 8 x 8 CHR$ blocks representing people and shopping carts. The layout is quite pleasing on the eye but ultimately, what the whole thing is meant to prove eluded me.
The next game is perhaps the one that most people will enjoy the most, proving beyond all doubt that very simple games are the best. Named INVATRON, this appears to be Dan's first attempt at machine code programming: a Mode 5 blast-'em-up pitting you, a spacecraft at the bottom of the screen against a descending invader. You move left, right and fire, either taking out the baddy or ultimately being hit by one of its bombs, or it colliding with you when it reaches the bottom of the screen.
In text the game sounds terribly dull, and indeed, I recall a very similar machine code program in the book Creative Assembler which was just as dull as the description would suggest. However, Dan's wonderful looking, big sprites in this version coupled with the sheer speed it runs at, are more reminiscent of Galaforce than Monsterzap and it also has nice use of colour, sound and, of course, layout. Each time you successfully wipe out an invader, another takes it place but starts coming at you from further down the screen. You get five lives and the idea is to get the highest score possible; for each hit you get 150 points and there is a high score table to reach the top of.
There are two very different text adventures featured on the disc, both fully completable and both requiring either a 64K Electron or a BBC with Shadow RAM. The first, The Quest For The Gobal, begins as you arrive in Meton, Falconia, on a far flung planet near space-port Beta. You are charged with finding a crystal of supreme power, the Gobal, which is hidden somewhere in the south of Falconia. The depictions of each location in this deep space jaunt are excellent and, in the opening locations you will find nothing much on offer apart from an expensive anti-gravity machine. Steering clear of a lethal electric fence, you may soon also discover underfoot its exact cost in gold pieces, and then you'll be on your way.
Whilst this is an entertaining and quite simple adventure, there are certain grammatical errors ("The man draws knife" for example) and parser limitations (PRESS BUTTON is recognised, but not PUSH BUTTON) that are irksome.
The second adventure, Beastie Boys is a much smaller and more enigmatic production (produced a year later) where you are told that 'your quest will become clear to you'. Hopefully, as the loading screen and the boy in the second location suggest, this translates as "Get hold of a volkswagen badge, and get his friend's spare ticket to see the Beastie Boys." Not having ever been a big Beastie Boys fan, whether the game is ironic or serious is completely lost on me, although I suspect it is the former from the a poster that reports quite a lot of Beastie Boys tickets remain unsold. Having located the badge in the first location (!) my only problem now is in distracting the policeman who promptly arrests me if I try to force it off the owner's car!
The Beastie Boys Adventure is most certainly a beginner's adventure, and, although I have not yet completed it, one suspects it has, at the most, about twenty locations. The descriptions are vivid, perhaps lacking the wry observational humour of Terrormolinos, but entertaining all the same. No typos or parser limitations of any note whatsoever!
The last fully completed program on the disc is the 1990 production, Space Exploration Probe, Dan's final year A Level project with a perfect grasp of scientific calculations, theory and practice. Seeing this monster of a program, which can be played as both quiz, game or part-quiz and part-game, gave me more appreciation of why my own Newspaper Round Manager (EUG #32) only gained me a 'C' grade. This effort must surely have got Mr. Nicholas an 'A*'!
First of all, you get a nice loading screen, then a quick description of the project, followed by a demo which pays more than a passing nod to the Daddy of all space games Elite. Finally, there are pages and pages of Teachers' Notes, which explain the solid fundamental basis of the game itself, before it invites students to land a 'Lander' craft on the planet of their choice.
Students can create their own planet conditions, e.g. by defining atmosphere and gravitational pull, or load a pre-defined planet from memory, then attempt to load the landing craft on the planet. The skill is in using the formulae in the previous instructions to accurately bring in the lander at the right velocity based on its weight and the conditions it is descending in. It is the type of simulation which could be very dull were it not for the graphical charms of the pictoral displays which are second to none, and feature multi-coloured scouters and landers plus a whole host of constantly updating information on the far right of the screen.
This is quite simply a superb little project, of interest to both those with an interest in astronomy and those who just fancy a bit of skillful arcade manoeuvring. It does run a little slow, and some of the effects, such as the moving scouter ship, whilst graphically lavish, are not strictly necessary for the 'game' itself, but these are small points and do not distract from the quality of the program itself.
There is one more game there, Noughts And Crosses, a text only game in which the computer, as player two, puts up a very strong performance. However, as outlined at the beginning of this review, there are several other demos and 'development' (Read 'half-finished') games featured on the disc itself. One demo features the author's name and looks to have been a hobby project only. A second features a spaceman shooting the letters that make up 'DANO SOFTWARE' into space. A third demo Queue is more of a utility demonstrating how a 'queue' inside a computer actually works by the use of pointers.
The two games which did not ultimately see completion are Q-Jump and Invatron 2. Q-Jump is the whole pyramid-style game which Crazy Er*bert seemed to nail first time lucky on the Electron. You can view the level layouts Dan had put together, and move around the playing areas, but that is it, as far as Q-Jump goes. Again, it has loading screens and demos which indicate a polished product was in the making.
Invatron 2 has been split into an 'intro' and 'demos'. The 'intro' is a graphically astounding machine code instruction page, with scrolling parallax stars, overlaid with cartoony-style text and running and bouncing sprites galore. The 'demos', accessed from a subsequent menu, show (1) all of the sprites used in the game, and (2) the two rooms which were designed before work was abandoned. Another utility invites you to design your own rooms using what looks to be quite a versatile program. From what has been salvaged for this disc, Invatron 2 looked to be shaping up to be a Cybertron Mission/Star Drifter clone. Another game with a space theme from an author who clearly found this area of study fascinating.
Although the Space Exploration Probe project stands head and shoulders above the other thirteen programs on The Danosoft Collection, it is clear that many, many hours of work went into everything it contains. With the possible exception of Percy's Revenge, these programs may count as the most worthy of being checked out that we have seen this year. When you consider that great care has been taken to make almost all of them compatible with the most BASIC Electron setup, as well as B, B+ and Master 128, the disc becomes an absolute must-have.