It's not often one encounters a professionally released Electron game which is written completely in BASIC, is mind-meltingly boring and, it seems, so improperly programmed. All three are the case with Kansas' Maniac Mower, another once-upon-a-time mail order only tape-based game from the software house where quality is very often a mixed bag.
This time the words "Micro Computer Software" are in light green on the uninspiring white inlay and the game loads in two parts; part one first introducing the dubious premise that you are pushing a lawnmower and trying to outwit a killer lawnmowing neighbour and then drawing a primitive loading screen with BASIC commands.
The few blocks that then comprise "the main game" then load in and, for some odd reason locate themselves at Page &D00, causing all kinds of problems with the Operating System when the game is exited later. On screen, an 8x8 User-Defined "mower" CHR$ moves from left to right, the game's title and its author being written in a 'trail' behind it. Up to now, and until you choose a skill level, the game remains in monochrome. And don't expect any touches like a joystick option or redefinable keys! Kansas haven't even added a message reserving copyright!
By this stage my hopes were not high and, despite the sudden rush of colour to the screen, they sank even lower as the Mode 1 playing area appeared. The screen is divided vertically into two dark green areas - well, for dark green read dithered black on a light green background - and mid-area-a is a red blob, mid-area-b a blue blob. Across the bottom of the screen in the same font we're used to for text files is the "score line" showing your wages, the highest wages earned that day and the number of mowers remaining. Unfortunately, despite black being available, J. Morle has chosen instead to use red for this line. Red on light green on a TV screen just does not work, which means it is nigh on impossible to monitor how well (or badly!) you're doing. What's even worse though is that between the two areas runs a red path on which a green nasty moves constantly from top to bottom. He is just as difficult to see, meaning this game is only for people who don't mind permanently squinting or who own a good monitor.
A quick jangle of notes later and both User-Defined blobs are on the move. In fact, on a collision course, which you quickly appreciate, is just how the evil mower likes it. So a quick manipulation of keys ZX*? is in order. The response of your mower, the 8x8 red blob on the left of the screen, is, to say the least, sluggish. Why it is not possible to stop is never explained by the rules [Neither is there any explanation as to why there is no graphic of a man pushing it as per the introductory text! - Ed] and the advice to "surround" the killer mower also takes a good few turns to understand.
Ahem. That is, if the game will let you proceed for any amount of turns. When playing the original cassette with the Plus 1 or any disc system attached, after just a few blips as both mowers move one 8x8 space up/down/left/right, the game comes to an abrupt halt with the message "Arguments at line 1970". On disecting the program, I found this bug was caused not by a faulty line but by the unnecessarily low relocation address for the main file. A quick alteration so the game ran at &E00, not &D00, and all was well with any peripherals attached.
By this point, I returned to playing Maniac Mower with a really heavy heart; the repetitive blip-blip-blipping that is the game's soundtrack doing nothing to help its cause (and obviously there's no sound on/off option). Now, carefully hammering the necessary key whenever a direction change was needed, I very quickly had the evil mower crashing either into the obstacles littering the garden or the wall surrounding it, even on the most difficult skill level! Also, it seems that both you and the other mower will die if you happen to run over an 8x8 piece of grass you have already mown! Ah, so that's what the instructions meant by "surrounding" the enemy grasscutting machine! Still, a pretty damned stupid rule, isn't it?
Unfortunately there isn't really much more to say. As you will probably have gathered, all the 'graphics' in the game are as bad as one another. Your wages clock up as you mow more and more of the lawn, and you gain a bonus if (or should that be when) you lure the enemy to his doom. It's extremely boring stuff, the 'action' taking place on a non-turboed Elk at only about two moves per second. It regains some dignity by having a high score table, but not much.
Even accepting the relocation 'bug', the slow response to keypresses, the general crapiness of the scenario and the appalling palette, what really does for this game in the end is that it is a lot worse than the average magazine type-in. Kansas' titles were never expensive but neither did they have a sliding scale from good (e.g. Dracula Island, a 100% machine code adventure) down to this, which must sit at the very, very bottom.
No. Going by the name in the mail order advertisement alone, you could never be sure just what the quality of the game would be and whether your £3.95 would prove value for money. Maniac Mower, although indisputedly one of the rarest Electron titles out there, demonstrates this flaw in Kansas' marketing strategy perfectly. It is extremely poor, undeserving of a release by any software company, a perfect rip off at four quid and likely to dissuade any purchaser of it from buying from Kansas again. And so we understand why their titles are so difficult to find.