Dave Edwards casts an eye over more homebrew than ever before as the Retro Round-up doubles in size
Welcome to the Retro Roundup, Micromart's monthly look at new games for old computers. This month's article is 100% bigger than previous ones. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, there is a surge in production of new games for old computers, and I'm obsessive enough to want to document them all. The limited space of previous articles meant a more limited answer to the important question of whether each new release was actually any good or not. More space for more screenshots and to discuss the game itself is therefore very welcome. Secondly, it seems that you all love the Retro Round Up. And if you all love reading it, then that's as nothing to my love of writing it.
A Brief History Of My Computer Time
My first computer was a Commodore Vic 20 (8K of memory); my second an Acorn Electron (32K); my third the Spectrum light gun James Bond 007 pack (128K) and my fourth an Amiga 500 (1Mb). A natural progression in terms of capabilities, and probably one many of you reading will identify with.
However, coding on the Amiga wasn't as easy as it was on the first three as there was no Basic line editor, so I took a step "backwards" and, whilst I played games written by others on my Amiga, I simply continued my coding on the Acorn Electron. As time went by and the consoles took over, I inherited the Acorn Electron User Group. Finally, when the Internet began changing the world - and emulators on PCs began replacing the original hardware of days gone by! - I found a new passion, collecting up all the Acorn Electron stuff ever and archiving it over at www.acornelectron.co.uk
I now build new web software for a living and I review and archive old retro software for fun. I also have my own YouTube channel and have been active in this wonderful world for over two decades.
For this first extended foray into retroland, let's shine a light on some games currently on general release for the Spectrum, BBC Micro and Amstrad.
To the Spectrum first, and I'm sure I'm not the only one to raise an apostrophe-and-grammar-laden eyebrow at the title of Battery's Not Precluded. Surely, if anything it's Batteries Not Precluded, but even then precluded? For all I know, its title is a nod to some of the weirder cassette-based inlays of games in the early Eighties. The great Kenny Danglish Soccer on the Amstrad perhaps, or the wonderful Valley Of The Phoroah for the C64?
I digress. Odd title aside, Battery's comes from the Cronosoft stable for the standard £3.99 plus P&P (Cronosoft). It gives you control, on screen one, of a green remote-control car and the aim of this first game is to drive around the screen until a number of additional remote-controlled cars have teleported in. You must get all these nemeses to crash into each other and wipe each other out to proceed. Use the power of the brain, and accelerating and braking, to achieve this.
Each screen presents a different remote-controlled "hero" and mission. On screen two, you take control of a hot air balloon; on three, a racing car, and on four a bubble-bursting spacecraft. Throughout the action, a pounding beat by Spectrum music god Yerzmyey plays on interrupt.
The games themselves are from Jonathan Cauldwell and a refreshing alternative to another Egghead title. All of them use the same game engine and play very well, in a sort of mindless way that doesn't demand any real attention. A typical game lasts about six minutes.
Battery's is pretty addictive to boot, and a snip at £3.99 plus P&P. See it in action here.
Monument Microgames, who released The Mojon Twins' Zombie Calavera last month (See MM 1350), have announced another of the twins' games will shortly be unleashed on original cassette. Lala Prologue may be available from Monument Microgames by the time you read this. If so, it will probably cost the standard £7.00 including P&P.
Lala is another platform-based graphic adventure. You take on the role of a wannabe witch, who must collect up the ingredients for her spells from numerous rooms. You must jump from platform to platform, avoiding the bouncing pre-determined-path nasties. Areas of some rooms are accessed via locked doors - so best grab any keys you find too.
Though it's more colourful than Zombie, Lala uses exactly the same game engine as it does. What drives me mad about this game engine is the ridiculous punishment meted out for simply attempting to play both games in exactly the same way as you naturally expect to. If I approach a bad guy and jump, I expect to jump gracefully over him; I don't expect the "jump" to be a weak "thrust" that barely lifts me off the ground!
Additionally, the opening rooms of Lala's land are mostly arranged vertically. When you clash with a bad guy (Easily done considering the "thrust-jump" feature!) he not only wipes some of your energy but also flings you off him, either into further danger, exacerbating the situation, or into the space between platforms. You then get to watch as Lala plummets through all of the screens you had oh-so-carefully traversed over the past ten minutes, winding up right back at the very start. If the classic Rainbow Islands had done this to its players it just wouldn't have kept them playing - and that is precisely the case here. The game has all the lastability factor of an ice-pop in the Sahara desert, and manages to even make Zombie seem comparatively forgiving.
It's a waste really - the music is good and the sprites, though small and over-detailed, are passable. If I flip my perspective, I'd imagine the Mojon Twins would protest that learning the "thrust-jump" and deliberately hitting the bad guys to deliberately be thrown in a particular direction is the skill of the game itself. But sorry, that's far too silly; you shouldn't have to accurately hit bad guys at exact angles in a platform game of this type. Number one rule of gaming: Cute = Simple.
In fact, I hate Lala Prologue so much that, if Monument isn't already invested in professionally releasing this game, I think it should question whether it's actually deserving of it.
The best entrepreneurs look for a gap in the market, find it and then, as the business books advise, tell no-one about how they plan to fill it. Homebrew developers might often be well advised to take a leaf out of such books, rather than announcing a project when they've developed little more than a concept. Mountain Panic is even more of an offender than others. A playable first version appeared in 2009 - but the game itself then took five years to stagger to release.
Now finally released by Retro Software, Mountain Panic pits you in the role an adventure in the Antarctic. Your quest is to collect four stars to open the portal to the lair of a monster. Until you've done so, you're confined to caverns and mountains all pleasingly rendered in the BBC's highest resolution mode. You can't jump and you're in constant danger of being mauled by the icy wastelands' unkillable, unfriendly inhabitants.
Although you're initially defenceless, you'll quickly find a rope. With careful aiming of this at anything solid (and at a 45 degree angle) you can propel the rope outward and clamber out of danger.
Mountain Panic is quite mesmerising. Your eskimo-looking protagonist is supplied with a generous amount of energy, and the rooms are challenging enough for the exploration to feel that playing the game is exactly that - an exploration.
The only real disappointment is how small it is. There are only about half the number of rooms you'd realistically expect. To be as fair as possible to Retro Software, that is probably the resultant trade-off for using the best BBC screen mode and including the monster Big Boss fight at the end. Precisely because it is so small, you have a high probability of meeting it (the monster) and probably a better-than-average chance of completing the game entirely on your fourth or fifth try.
Mountain Panic costs £6.95 plus P&P and is available on original 5.25" disc. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TT1dBmnUN0Q
Battery's and Mountain Panic do feel somewhat influenced by modern games in their creation. Retro Software's The Krystal Connection is a polar opposite though. It is a fairly standard platform game where each screen is accessed serially, and might just as easily have been released in 1984. Apparently, this is when it was actually written.
Your aim is to collect up all the bones lying around. Each screen also features a few patrolling nasties which detect your presence and come hurtling toward you as soon as you both share a platform. They have to be either avoided, or temporarily trapped, allowing you to pass "through" them. Hence you must leave yourself enough time when moving onto a platform to: drop a trap, take a step backwards, wait for the trap to capture the bad guy and then run past him. You access each platform via a lift which you can direct up and down when standing on it.
As a game concept, this is quite a fiddly affair. Krystal Connection's execution of it is also wildly unpredictable. Dropping the trap seems sluggish; often the "drop" key just doesn't register. Yet when attempting to take a step backwards, the direction keys can register twice. Both tedious features of the game render it pretty unenjoyable, and the level design also feels unimaginative. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9cCvrWuyAs
A cassette-based copy of The Krystal Connection costs £2.95 plus P&P. Curiously, Retro Software also has free releases (amongst them Castle Raider (See MM 1350), Jungle Journey and Hard Hat Harry 1 & 2) which are, on any view, superior to this one.
Zap, our third and last Retro Software BBC release, is a straightforward shoot-'em-up which puts you in charge of a lone spacecraft. The aim is to conquer as many zones as you can by either blasting the bad guys out of existence or avoiding them and all of their bullets.
Zap is quite an engaging game - see here. It's intense, but you can develop a strategy to take you further and further. Moving around a lot in the central lane of the screen, for example, works very well. The cascading arrays of bad guys are the standard Space Invaders fare, and formations of them attack in ever more intricate patterns.
Control of your spaceship is also excellent, and frankly, with all of those bullets flying around, it needs to be. Disappointingly however, the big boss at the end of each zone is always the same and, because crossing a zone is fairly speedy, rather than sweating, you'll soon be yawning when he makes his appearance yet again. A cassette-based copy of Zap costs £2.95 plus P&P.
R-Type is the shoot-'em-up that refuses to die. Originally a coin-op, it has made it to every format from the Commodore 64 to the Playstation. The Spectrum conversion has even been immortalised in an eBook - a very illuminating read named It's Behind You, by Bob Pape (Available free at bizzley.com).
R-Type's latest incarnation is on the Amstrad; R-Type 128, by Easter Egg productions. As you might have expected, the Amstrad was famous enough to have received its own version of R-Type in 1984. However, the 1984 version was essentially the 48K Spectrum version converted to the Amstrad, meaning the Amstrad's extra memory wasn't used. The Easter Egg team have created a version of R-Type more suited to the Amstrad; from the name R-Type 128 you can deduce that it uses the full 128K.
When a new version of a classic game is created, reviewers sometimes lose track of what's important. Instead of judging it on its merits as a shoot-'em-up, they get diverted into comparing the old version with the new one. So, to make this easy, let's imagine R-Type 128 is simply a brand new shoot-'em-up for the Amstrad, and judge it by those standards.
It begins atmospherically, with your drone ship seized by a crane and flung into the title sequence. It also allows the player to slowly upgrade the ship by collecting power-ups, and the first power-up is a ball which can attach to the front or the rear of the ship. It can be detached at will to unleash a hail of bullets in various directions. All very useful for dealing with R-Type's plentiful supply of aliens without needing to manoeuvre too closely towards them.
The graphics and sounds are also wonderful, with everything scrolling without the slightest flicker. But the game itself is very hard.
Even with ball, guns and the super-laser (which you enable by holding down the fire button for a while) the odds against you are stacked. And, essentially, whilst everything may scroll magnificently, your drone ship moves in quite a jerky manner. Indeed, the playing area is so cramped that when you're under attack, the screen explodes into too many sprites for the human eye to track. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0-OM0uW7tU
Of course, that's not to criticize Easter Egg. They have achieved exactly what they intended, to create a superior version of R-Type that pushes the Amstrad to its limits and works within its limitations. Ultimately though, the Sega Master System version is still better than both Amstrad versions, and although you may indeed marvel at R-Type 128, you may also wonder what the point of it is.
R-Type 128, and a CD of its soundtrack, is available free from www.rtype.fr.
That brings us nicely to the end of this month's bigger Retro Round Up and I hope you'll agree that bigger in this case most definitely means better. The additional space means all new old games now get much more exposure than previously - and we might even have a few special features too in next month's article. Watch this space and see you next month.