Micro Mart

Retro Round Up

Author: Dave E
Publisher: Cronosoft
Machine: Spectrum 48K/128K

Published in Micro Mart #1362: May 2015 Special

Dave Edwards imagines a world where the sites for new Spectrum, Nintendo and BBC Micro releases suddenly disappear...

One Of Our Archives Is Missing

Last month, something terrible occured. The web site World Of Spectrum - repository of just about every game ever released for Sir Clive Sinclair's world-beating 8-bit - went down. Without warning and for many weeks. Retro gamers panicked, congregating on forums to curse their "folly" in not downloading all 600 Gigabytes of it when they'd had the chance, and speculating on whether it had indeed gone forever.

The good news is - it hasn't, it's back.

The bad news is that, when something unexpected like this happens, the resurrection of the site can be the exception rather than the rule.

Until 2012, for example, the Amstrad CPC had its very own World Of Spectrum style site, aptly titled CPC Zone (cpczone.emuunlim.org). The dark blue html monstrosity that inhabits this link at this moment though is a shadow of Malc Jennings' former creation, where bustling forums, now-unavailable public domain software and all things Amstrad were preserved for everyone...until the day they suddenly weren't! In 2010, The BBC Lives likewise suffered a quick death, taking hundreds of early MS-DOS Beeb emulators and utilities with it. Acorn Preservation (an Archimedes site of cover scans and downloads) disappeared shortly afterwards. Those are the "big names". Smaller sites, and the programs archived on rapidshare.com, disappeared overnight when those services were suddenly terminated.

In the case of World Of Spectrum, the site was, and is, the focal point for hundreds of developers of new Spectrum games, and its disappearance left a big hole. Perhaps most surprising though was that there were no "mirrors" of it anywhere. The games themselves could still be had from the more dubious corners of the Internet, but not with any of the ease-of-discovery of a proper archive site, and certainly not without a retro gamer having to suffer a fair few "adult" adverts to get to them!

Don't Delay, Download Today!

A lot of retro gaming sites are one man's labour of love and the amount of time spent keeping them updated should never be underestimated. Further evidence, if it were needed, can be gained by simply flicking through a back issue of Micro Mart and visiting some of the links in its articles. Usually, half of them will no longer work. Now, some might say that software rises or falls on its own merits and if all evidence of a game has disappeared within a short period, it probably indicates that the game wasn't particularly good, right?

Wrong. The World Of Spectrum holiday proves that an entire library of good - and even great! - games can be gone in a heartbeat. It was first point of call, for example, for almost every Spectrum game going and this issue we're looking at one Spectrum game that it houses for free, whilst buying the same game from Cronosoft costs money. (That comparison is not a dig at Cronosoft. Cronosoft supplies collectors' versions of its games on cassette with superb inlays; its target market is different!)

I make this point as a rallying cry. If you read about a game that interests you in these pages, get it at once. If you procrastinate, even for only a few weeks, there is no guarantee it will still be available. With that in mind, here are this month's new pretenders to the retro crown...

Feeling Fruity

The title The Fantastic Mr. Fruity sounds more like a Roald Dahl book than a Spectrum game, and it may be that subconsciously that very connection led me to expect a wholly different type of game to what this actually is. Essentially, Mr. Fruity is a maze game where you must roam around a maze dropping portals to kill the demon fruit which also inhabit it. Despatching them isn't easy though, because the portal that you drop doesn't kill them. In fact, if they bump into it, it just gets erased.

When you drop the portal however, you simultaneously pull the lever on an one-armed fruit machine; those machines with three spinning reels of different icons. As the third reel comes to rest, the portal explodes, sending missiles in all four directions. These missiles are fatal to the touch, including to your touch - so once you've dropped the portal you need to get out of all four lines of sight. You have to hope that the missiles will strike one of the demon fruits instead. However, even if they do, the missiles won't have any effect unless the fruit struck also appears on one of the three reels spun.

When a fruit is hit, it turns into either some coins (you spend coins every time you drop a portal/operate the fruit machine) or into a collectible bonus. When all fruit have been hit by missiles, you proceed to the next screen and the number of demon fruit increases.

This is a fairly interesting idea and, frankly, it's unlikely any maze game I've ever played before. However, playing it isn't particularly satisfying. The demon fruit move completely at random, and so there's little skill in positioning the portal. The reels also take a random amount of time to spin, further making a "successful" portal bomb strike even more unpredictable. You can also increase the amount of money you deposit into the fruit machine too � but, with these sort of odds against you, increasing how much you feed the machine has the feel of gambling against the market every time you do it!

The Fantastic Mr. Fruity isn't quite chaos theory in action - but it's pretty close to it. See https://youtu.be/pVobSDnkkCQ for more.

What Shall We Do With The Drunken Speccy?

On then to Homebrew which, like Mr. Fruity, is also a Cronosoft release and also by Jonathan Cauldwell. The term "homebrew" is often applied in place of the word "retro" to describe new software for old machines. Not so here though. In fact, Homebrew is more fruit-based fare, and invites you to place fruits in a big demi-john and leave them to ferment into a nice alcoholic brew. Hence the title.

You take control of a red barrel which can glide around, shooting the various nasties that appear. Once hit, they turn into fruits which gravity then propels earthward. If you get your barrel underneath them in time though, you can pick them up and carry them to the demi-john. As you add more fruits to it, the level of homebrew it contains begins to rise. The object is to fill the demi-john and proceed to the next level. Colliding with a nasty (and they can be infuriatingly difficult to avoid!) drains what little energy the barrel has. Cakes and diamonds occasionally drop from the top of the screen too. Cakes raise the barrel's energy; diamonds turn all nasties into bonuses.

The game plays well enough, requiring a fair amount of skill and being just difficult enough to provide the player with something of a challenge. But it is difficult to get enthusiastic about Homebrew. It's the most underwhelming Jonathan Cauldwell game I've seen. Sound is limited to a few shooting noises and a blippy explosion when barrel and nasty collide. The action also takes place in quite a cramped playing area. This means that actually keeping track of all the bouncing nasties for long enough to fill up the demi-john is pretty exhausting stuff. After all of this labour, even a bonus stage might have alleviated the dullness factor a little, but the game simply empties the demi-john and begins over with a subtle increase in difficulty.

I played it until my three lives were gone - but I have no desire to ever return to it. Having witnessed the grand scale of Cauldwell's talents through other Cronosoft releases, both Homebrew and Mr. Fruity seem to lack the polish of, say, Egghead Round The Med (See MM #1346) or Quantum Gardening (See MM #1358). A final insult is that the Cronosoft "Special Brew" version promotes itself as having better graphics than the free World Of Spectrum version. Comparing the two, I see no difference at all!

You can download Homebrew from World Of Spectrum for free, or add physical tapes of both Mr. Fruity and Homebrew to your collection by ordering through Cronosoft's official website. Each game costs £3.99 plus P&P. To see Homebrew in action, visit https://youtu.be/OHkGVQCnvwM

Free Foodie Fun

Retro Software has been releasing a steady stream of commercial and free software over the past few years. Mixed Grill March is one of its less trumpetted releases from 2012 and is an interesting reaction test. You don't move a character in this game. Instead, your character moves of his own free will in hot pursuit of a bandit who has just stolen his mixed grill. Your task is instead to mimic the exact position of your quarry. So if he raises both hands in the air, that's your queue to make sure you put your hands up too.

Failure to do so and you won't be able to follow him through a solid brick wall, as he burrows through this leaving a tunnel in the shape of a specific impression. Hands down instead of up and, instead of following and gaining on him, you'll be flung unceremoniously to the ground with the message "Ow! That hurt!"

There are four levels, prefaced with a little sardonic wit and rounded off with a key-bashing final sprint to rugby-tackle the offender. Initial stages are overcome without too much difficulty and it's fair to say that the fact it's getting more difficult slowly dawns on you rather than being thrust in your face. This is because your character catches up with his prey almost imperceptively; you gain only a single pixel with each run from the left of the screen into the wall on the right of it. However, when you are almost on his tail is when mimicking his pose becomes most difficult, because your own body almost obscures it. This is clearly intentionally done and your own self-doubt as to your pose can just delay you by the additional nanosecond you needed to succeed.

Mixed Grill March (https://youtu.be/woAjTUc4DL4) has a musical soundtrack, and is rendered in the BBC Micro's most colourful mode. It may not be particularly visionary, but it's quite a fun game and it's certainly worth dusting off that BBC emulator to boot it up and give it a go. Especially when it's completely free.

Akira (Nintendo Entertainment System/Super Famicom) - Retro Find Of The Month

Akira, a seminal animated movie from Japan, had a phenomenal impact worldwide in the mid-Nineties. A few software houses picked up a licence to produce games based on the movie. Alas, the efforts were mostly failures; platformers, pinball games or sideways-scrolling affairs which bore little relation to the phenomenal movie. There's one version of Akira that you won't have heard of though. That's the Nintendo version - because it was only available in Japan. Until now.

Akira the game follows in the steps of the movie. Both introduce Kaneda and Tetsuo, members of a gang of young bike-racing thugs in a city wracked by gang-war. When a strange-looking child wanders in front of Tetsuo's bike, causing him to crash, the plot begins. Government agents appear, and whisk the child and Tetsuo off into the night.

The movie follows what happens to both Kaneda and Tetsuo, while the game allows you to "Choose Your Own Adventure" as Kaneda. Initially, you must discover where Tetsuo has been taken. There are several problems with Akira and they could be summed up by questioning what really makes a game a game. What you actually have here is a book and, although it may be nicely illustrated and have a few interactive elements, it can't really expect those to cut it. You make progress by choosing from a list of actions, typically by deciding whether to "Look", "Talk", "Ponder" or "Peep". That might just about be bearable per se, but you often have to repeat certain actions many times to avoid a wholly unconnected death in a later scene. To give one example, you won't get far into Mission: Rescue Tetsuo without the help of your girlfriend. However, if you haven't "look"ed at the members of your gang one by one before you start speaking to her, you'll be shot by the campus security guards when you try. The two events are illogically connected, and similar connections stalk the entirety of the game. This makes progress extremely tedious.

When Tetsuo emerges from Area 51, those nasty agents have fiddled with his brain to such an extent that he starts killing off his former friends. Your friend Yamagata is the first to be offed, and it isn't too long before Tetsuo is eying you up too. Amazingly however, on occasion a lucky blast from your laser will result in Tetsuo immediately biting the dust - bringing the game to a swift end with absolutely no resolution to the Akira mystery at all! On other occasions you'll miss and the game will go on for hours longer and tie up all those loose ends.

If you think that sounds pretty lame, then that's only the half of it. The menu of options sometimes doesn't include any option that allows you to proceed without dying at all - you have to press the B button, and then the A button to bring up a "secret" menu!

Akira puts its graphics, which are quite good, at the top of the screen. The bottom gives a text narrative on the action. The text narrative appears one character at a time and cannot be speeded up.

There's a lot more I could berate too, but you get the general idea. What's good about Akira are the graphics and the music and, of course, the fact that it exists at all. Akira is an "unofficial rom hack", meaning some developers got hold of the original, and replaced the Japanese text for its English equivalent. Rom hacking is an area of retro that so far we haven't touched upon so far in the Retro Round Up but the scene is massive, with Japanese and English fans working together to painstakingly disassemble old code, and introduce brand new games to each respective country.

Whilst the game itself may be underwhelming, as far as the rom hacking goes, Akira is as close to perfection as you could imagine, with not a single spelling fluff or a dubious "Japlish" phrase throughout. Also, as someone who has played all the other lousy Akira games, this game is actually the best Akira has to offer. Hence why, despite the criticisms, it's my Retro Find Of The Month.

Take a look at https://youtu.be/roJSNxO71w8 to see if you want to give Akira a go. As there's no physical ROM cartridge of it, you'll need both a NES emulator on your PC and to visit www.romhacking.net/translations/1725/ to download it.

Rounding Off

We can breathe a sigh of relief that World Of Spectrum has reappeared. But we should acknowledge the role of such sites in feeding the Retro Round Up. We are lucky enough that, for whatever reason, we have developers of games for obsolete systems, those who test them, those who publish them and sites to which they can be uploaded, and of course downloaded. Psytronik, Dragon Archive, Rom Hacking, Retro Software, Cronosoft... you undoubtedly won't be around forever but as long as you are, you'll keep us both entertained and constantly on guard for the day you do disappear. Assuming that's not going to be any time soon though, I'll be back next month with yet more new retro releases.

Dave E

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