Sad it may be but the reviewing of classic Elk cum PC remake software are this reviewer's dream. And they don't come any more classic than Orlando M. Pilchard's Arcadians; it has to be both the Acornsoft Space Invaders clone and one of the best 8 bit games of all time. This new version, which can be downloaded from www.8bs.com, is programmed by 'The Admiral', aka EUG contributor James Watson who has evidently come a long way from Bomber and Powerball in the past few years (EUG #55).
Some people rightly wonder, with the prevalence of BBC and Electron emulators on offer these days, why a standalone PC-executable file of any game is necessary. Well, the answer is threefold. Firstly, emulation can be a tad fiddly for those not familiar with the original (and now quite dated) machines - us Elk fanatics may still be CHAINing our files regularly every afternoon but not everyone remembers even this simple command. Clicking on an icon to launch the game in the same way as one would launch any other Windows application is much easier. Secondly, there are speed advantages with an .exe file - many of the emulators work quite slowly, even on modern PCs. And thirdly, and most importantly, emulation by its very nature, only allows a budding programmer to alter aspects of a title within the constraints of that system. By re-coding the masterpiece in a PC programming language, you can alter sprite size, quality, definition, number of colours, sound and music, etc to vastly improve the original - but keep the same je ne sais quoi addiction factor of the original.
We've seen some wonderful new versions of games which have done all three recently - Jet Set Willy Pc springs to mind. But, disappointingly, in The Admiral's new PC Arcadians, labelled on the opening screen as Version 1.1, practically nothing has been given the cosmetic 'lift' one might expect. Launching the file 'pcarcade.exe' from your Desktop brings up a blocky introduction that, far from making use of an increased number of colours, is practically identical to a Beeb Mode 7 Teletext screen. Not inspiring stuff - even the original version has a distinctive 'ARCADIANS (written in isoceles triangles)' logo on its title page! And, although there may be more colours in total on PC Arcadians's opener (compared to the black and white Mode 4 Elk opener), they are only utilised in the text. This text itself, while very easy to read, is also inconsistently formatted throughout the game. For example, the word 'Exit' is the sentence 'ALT-X ... Exit game' is written in a completely different font for no discernible reason at all. Also, your score begins with '0' but increases to '1O', '2O', etc (the '0' becomes an 'O'). It should obviously be one or the other - but not both!
That is not to say that the opener doesn't serve its purpose. In common with the original, it lists the keys the player must use to control the missile base. On both, you hit either key 1 or 2 to commence play or sit back and wait for a few seconds for the game to enter demonstration mode. On waiting, you discover the familiar Mode 2 right-to-left 'We are the Arcadians' scrolling messages and tabulated pictures of each of the Arcadian invaders and their score values do appear on the PC version. Unfortunately, several lines appear to be 'crushed' by a few pixels. The effect is the same as if you write text into an Art Package and then reduce the vertical size of the picture by a few percent. The tabulation is also slightly 'off' and no visual demonstration of how to play the game follows.
Beginning a game is similarly lip-strumming. The riff of one-channel music has simply been digitised for PC Arcadians, and that not very well. Ho hum. Couldn't a nice .mpg sample have been substituted instead?
Next, we're onto the game itself. This appears on screen to be absolutely identical to the original at first glance. Yes, no improvement to the sprites has taken place at all! However, it doesn't take a genius to work out everything seems to be moving in triple-time - all those familiar little targets weave back and forth at the top of the screen at quite an impressive speed, and one which your laser base matches admirably as you commence play.
After a few moments though, you quickly discover a whole host of differences. Some are quite small; there are four, not two, 'boss' Arcadians (at the top level) and the bullets fired by all of them 'veer' sideways according to the direction the Arcadian was moving when it loosed them (instead of plummetting directly downward).
Also, on the original it was possible to fire off a bullet at just the wrong moment and see it travel between the columns of Arcadians all the way to the top of the screen. This is simply impossible in The Admiral's version. You also find that if you are unlucky enough to collide with one of the swooping baddies, both you and it explode in a cacophany of blast noises whereas in the original you would bite the dust but it would pass through your smouldering wreckage and survive to attack your next laser base.
These small differences, when added together and combined with the huge speed increase, alter the game tremendously.
Another important difference, or oversight, is the lack of a high score table on PC Arcadians, although the 'RANK:' decrement from 30 to 1 which appears bottom of the playing area is included. I'm not quite sure of the logic to this. Your High Score is in fact saved, as it appears centrally during the scrolly demo mode and the game proper. But even finally crashing out with your Rank at 1 (First place) on The Admiral's PC Arcadians does not result in a prompt to enter your name. This makes your 'Rank' quite irrelevant.
On top of this, PC Arcadians is unnecessarily noisy. Despite the soundcard setup program it comes bundled with, its blasts are distracting even with the speakers at minimum volume. The low to high blipping which increased with each Arcadian destroyed on the original is gone and with the speed of the game dictating almost constant hammering on the ENTER key and the fact that all of your bullets usually do strike a target, you are likely to turn your speakers off sooner rather than later. Once again, the advanced sound qualities of the PC could be used to great effect here - a thumping, and quickening, pulse rate, for example, or even a background tune...
So, is in fact anything improved in PC Arcadians? Well, the graphical explosions are much better. In the original, you get little less than a buzz as you or the enemy expire. The laser base also handles very well and the peeling off of the aliens to attack is gorgeously smooth. And, on the PC setup at EUG HQ, the Admiral's version runs a lot faster than the emulated one does. But essentially that is all there is to commend it.
The last word: Well, die hard Arcadians fans will probably download this en masse. But the minor changes in handling this new version serve only to elevate the true classic, not to render it obsolete.