Dave E looks at the first Superior/Acornsoft game that was enhanced for Acornsoft's new BBC Master 128.
When I was sixteen (in 1994), I swapped my Amiga for a BBC Master. It was a move that my schoolfriends treated with some derision. The Amiga was the behemoth of its day and the BBC computers were seen as outdated "school" computers. This was an age where the Internet was still about a decade in the future and the world was much less inter-connected. All I knew as a child was that, not being able to get to the programming language on the Amiga (and yes, I had explored AMOS!) left me feeling bored. I missed my BBC Basic coding. A friend had a BBC Master with a double 5.25" disc drive that he didn't want and he wanted an Amiga. The BBC Master had the same programming language as the Acorn Electron, on which I'd learned to code. So we swapped.
Amongst the pile of software that came with my new toy was the BBC Master Welcome Disk, a load of Model B discs and the game Stryker's Run. I quickly realised the Master was an "odd" BBC machine to own because many of the Model B discs didn't actually work on it. The Disc Operating System was completely different, so if a software company had coded any protection into its software that did anything even slightly 'illegal', that disc would not load on the Master. The Master's memory map was also laid out slightly differently too, so many games ran (if they ran at all) with strange effects. In fact, the only things that seemed to work at all were very simple music demos or type-in games!
There was one game, however, that I'd originally played on the Electron, that not only did work but also had a bit of a treat on side two of the disc. That game was Stryker's Run, the run-and-gun adventure of Commander John Stryker with an inlay resplendant with superlative praise. On the Electron, Stryker's Run had been a flick-screen Mode 2 game with good graphics but plodding gameplay. On the BBC Master, it was a scrolling Mode 2 game with a bouncy soundtrack, a vast array of intricate backdrops and the familiar-but-faster gameplay of the original version. As it's been quite a while since I played this superior version, I booted it up today with a sense of anticipation. In my late teens I played it a lot, but mostly because, like I said, it didn't have a great deal of competition.
The basic premise of the game is that Stryker is a soldier who, in the middle of a war, has managed to acquire the enemy's invasion plans. He needs to get them from one HQ point to another, but between the two is the warzone, where allied soldiers mill about with enemy ones, and the skies are patrolled by planes and helicopters that shoot at anything that moves. The playing area fills the whole screen and, as you run (both left and right), it scrolls with you, keeping Stryker in the centre.
As you would expect, the Master version doesn't play very differently from its cousins. However, there are some differences and it's those upon which I will dwell upon here, because there are already countless reviews of the other versions of Stryker's Run that try to explain exactly what works and what doesn't.
Firstly, the 'range-war' game mechanics are slightly more unfair. As you run, an enemy soldier, standing to attention and pumping out bullet after bullet from his weapon, will often scroll into view ahead of you. In the original game, these bullets travel a certain distance and then disappear. This allows you to take up a position just shy of their range, wait for the right moment, run forward, fire, run back... and watch the enemy collapse into a skeleton and disappear. Try the same strategy in the Master version and, just shy of their range, you still get hit by them! Shooting the enemies is therefore much, much harder.
Secondly, the grenades that you can throw don't seem to work in the same way. The arc in which you throw them is slightly steeper, also meaning they don't appear to travel as far. Not that that's really a problem, because they still wipe out targets that are slightly out of range, in the same manner as bullets do.
These tweaks do not fundamentally change the gameplay but they do alter it. Sometimes it's safer to hope that an enemy is killed by a stray bomb from one of the overhead airplanes than to immediately steam in there and try to take him out. If you do try the latter approach, you find your nine lives get wiped out faster than you expected too!
Thirdly, having played the Master version this morning via an emulator, I was able to progress quite far by using Save States (and reloading if all my lives were depleted to zero). Yes, I know that's very unsporting of me but bear with me because, rather importantly, after passing the ubiquitous and very beautiful additional buildings, I encountered an enemy who was welded to the spot, firing a machine gun five times per second. He's not there in the original, which I have completed, and he is, I currently feel, impossible to get past. Even getting within an inch of him leads to immediate death, and unusually no helicopters patrol the skies over his head to help you out with a misplaced bomb.
The fact that I remembered this Master-enhanced Stryker's Run with some degree of fondness has, unfortunately, been overshadowed by replaying it. Quite apart from it being impossible to complete, and handling differently to the BBC and Electron versions, it retains all of the original's faults. Success still depends to a large degree the luck of an enemy plane not depositing a bomb on your head. And, if you run backwards, for example, more enemies spawn, which can give the rookie player the faint sense that he may need to retrace his steps. Yes, the graphics are amazing but it plays too slowly to really be considered fun, and there are long periods of time where you seemingly run free, without any soldiers or planes bothering you at all. And alright, this version does do away with the "slowing to a crawl" effect of the original when the screen became full of enemy combatants... but it does still have some appalling 'judder', particularly if you are running and a helicopter is trailing you.
And those extra sprites? Well, they don't really add anything extra to the game. One enemy looks more like the sorceror from Aladdin than a soldier! Others seem to have been changed for cosmetic reasons rather than to introduce genuine new enemies. Some of the familiar sprites from the original are gone completely yet the behaviour of the replacement 'upgrades' is completely identical.
One thing that did come as a complete surprise to me is what happens if you board a helicopter and then get shot down. In the original version, the helicopter would lose height rapidly but Stryker would escape without injury when it came into contact with the ground. In this enhanced version, the helicopter blows up in mid-air with Stryker appearing in the sky. He then falls to earth. This is a big change because he is flung into a sky often strewn with bombs and bullets, so there is much more risk of losing one of those precious nine lives in aerial combat than in the original.
I'm not 100% sure why I wanted to shine a particular spotlight on this Master-enhanced Stryker's Run; probably it's for no other reason than its existence is hidden from many BBC Micro fans. I haven't found the disc version of it on-line and, assuming I'm wrong and there is some way to get past the machine gunner, I think Stryker's Run for the Master deserves a little bit more exposure in 'Internet-land'. The packaging proclaims it to be the first ever Master-enchanced game ever written and, considering there are so few of these, it's probably worth a looksee, even if you're just interested in seeing exactly how much could be crammed into these "superBeebs" back in 1986.