If you've been stumbling around 8-bit cyberspace recently, you may have discovered M. J. Hillbert singing "Hey, hey 16K" in homage to how they "made a generation that can code". It really does seem quite startling that, once upon a time, you could arm yourself with your computer's User Guide and, in a few weeks, create a game that software houses were willing to release.
Naturally, if you're reading this, you probably were part of that coding generation - as was one Stephen Scott, who has recently released his two home-coded games, programmed in the mid Nineties, Androidz and Headcase Hotel. Originally programmed for a BBC B, both also work rather well on the rest of the Acorn machines, including the Electron.
Something that is immediately interesting about both home-grown programs however, is that they both have rather charming introductions. It's hard to put one's finger on when it no longer seemed 'right' even if you were programming out of your bedroom not to have a loading screen, or credits, before the game proper. Androidz is prefaced by a rather clever titling sequence, where the text CHR$ zip towards each other to create the copyright messsages; Headcase Hotel has a full loading screen with Reptonesque hunchback standing outside the hotel, beckoning you in.
Apparently, Androidz actually was published in the professional magazine Acorn Computing in 1993, - which was news to us all in many respects, because we didn't even realise any magazines that supported the Acorn series were still going by that time! We digress however. The actual game of Androidz, this first of the 'SAS Squad Games Collection', is set in a future of 2002 and pits you as a police officer, charged with visiting twenty factories and taking out the mutinous robots which inhabit each.
Each factory is rendered in Mode 5, although each individual sprite, made up of four 8x8 CHR$ definitions, is only done in one colour. Each factory has its own name, and the sprites alter the fit this 'theme' - so you are under attack from fawcett-looking robots in the 'Water Works', and icy-looking bete noirs in 'Ice Cream Land', etc. The colours used also change, helping to distinguish the levels. Each factory is really an overhead maze - a bit like Boulderdash without the boulders and diamonds - and, rather than throwing you in there and surrounding you with nasties before you really have time to react, the factory is displayed, the robots appear one after the other within it, and finally 'you' appear at the very end.
You move around with the Z, X, * and ? keys and can fire with the RETURN key. You get five lives. The aim of each level is extremely simple - blast anything that moves! You get a point for each kill, you always fire in the direction you are facing and your bullets traverse any area between you and an obstructing wall. Unfortunately, this does not always ensure your success as the collision detection routine sometimes allows your bullet to pass through an approaching robot. This seems to happen if the robot moves either just as the bullet reaches the space directly in front of where the bullet is. The robots can shoot back as well, but the collision detection has no worries in killing you off - so you can begin to imagine the frustration. If you find yourself firing down a long corridor towards an approaching baddy, the bullet may pass through him and, because you cannot fire again until your previous shot has struck a target, the same baddy has ample time to shoot a round at you which you cannot avoid.
This bug does not make the game particularly hard however. The robots move in very predictable ways and you can soon adopt a strategy of finding the location in the factory with the most space around it, and firing just before the robots drop into your line of sight. Doing this, you will progress through the factories pretty swiftly.
The movement of both sprites and your officer is rather jerky; they sometimes seem to move two paces instead of one, and he sometimes seems to delay too long after you press a movement key. This confirms that standing still and waiting for the robots to attack is definitely the best strategy to adopt, but this of course makes the game feel very unchallenging. Sound is passable, with a blip accompanying each robot that appears, and a sound like a bird tweeting when they shoot at you.
When your fifth life is extinguished, there is a huge explosion sound, your sprite disintegrates and you are given an incident report from 'Chief Superintendent Scott' which gives your score and assesses your performance, quite accurately.
Overall then, Androidz is quite basic stuff and, despite the varied maze themes and sprites, plays in quite a laboured, monotonous way. It's also rather slow on the standard BBC and Electron, and really benefits from a Turbo - or an increased speed under emulation.
Onwards and upwards then, to Headcase Hotel. This is a machine code jaunt, previously unpublished, in which you work for the Asylum Hotel. After the pleasing loading screen, the very brief instructions inform you that you must simply run around the hotel, avoiding any contact with the guests, tidying it up.
Whilst this is another maze game, it is quite evident that Scott's programming had moved on in leaps and bounds between the two games - this is less of a linear style of game. The hotel has ten floors, and you begin on floor one, with a number of suitcases to collect. On subsequent levels, rather Repton Worlds style, the suitcases change to half-eaten hamburgers, and incidendiary devices, which need to be tidied by touching them. Another item does not appear until the previous one has been collected, and as you progress up the floors of the hotel, the number of items you must tidy increases. To collect each one, you must negotiate your way around the patrolling nasties, which are intent on homing in on you.
All the sprites in Headcase Hotel are multi-coloured which, combined with the loading screen, gives the game the feel of a Blue Ribbon/MRM title. You enter each level by emerging from an elevator, whose doors obligingly open when the last item on that level is collected.
If you've been looking for a pretender to the throne of Corporate Climber, you may also hit bingo with this title - the action is also a lot more manic, as you do not simply have items to collect and nasties to avoid. No, no, no. Numerous other 'power-ups' keep appearing and disappearing all over the maze, seemingly at random. If these come between you and the next item, well, you will have to collect them just to clear them out of the way. So far, we've discovered power-ups that paralyse you for several seconds, transport you to another location in the maze (quite disconcerting of course if you wind up next to a guest you'd been trying to avoid), short-circuit the electricity supply - plunging the screen into an effect rather like 1980's disco lighting, removing all the guests, or sending you down a level.
As with Androidz, the colour palette of Mode 5 is changed for each floor of the building which helps to maintain interest. One small niggle is that the keys for up and down are different, however, with the Z X P and L combination replacing the more familiar Z X * ?. I'm sure I won't be the first person banging on the * and ? keys for a while without getting any response from Headcase Hotel!
Also, if you collect the 'descend one level' power-up, the 'things you need to collect' information bar at the bottom of the screen is not cleared. Therefore, at the time I had seven cheeseburger wrappers to collect. I descended to level one, where I needed to collect five suitcases. The five suitcases overwrote five of the cheeseburgers, leaving a confusing display which seemed to be saying I needed to collect five suitcases and two cheeseburgers, even though no cheeseburgers were available on level one.
As you may have guessed from the explanation of the power-ups, completing Headcase Hotel depends on luck as well as arcade skill. Sometimes you will find power-ups that disintegrate all the guests on virtually every level, whilst other times you will be forced to plod around large areas of the screen hoping to tempt a guest away from that item you need to collect. If you touch a guest, you die, although this is not too bad because you get a nice game over sequence and are invited to enter your name on the High Score table.
Once again, the game is just a little bit too slow if you do not have a Turbo Electron or the ability to speed it up using a PC emulator. Sound is minimal with a few blips as the guests meander around and a sliding scale of notes if you collect the electricity power-up.
Despite this though, this is actually quite a playable game and, once again, its release in cyberspace - nearly a decade after it was originally written! - does make us wonder how many more projects exist from that "generation that can code"... Dig them out! Acorn Electron World is just waiting to see them...!