As anyone "up" on their history of Superior Software will know, not only was the company the longest running and most revered and celebrated of all the houses for the Electron, but the Elk was its flagship computer; Elk releases on cassette outselling all the other BBC machines. At the very height of producing some of the most awesome releases the Elk was ever to see, though, Elk versions and all cassette versions of new Superior software were discontinued. In fact, after this decision, they only released two further titles - Play It Again Sam 17 and 18 - before pulling out of the BBC series' market, such as it was.
Now, almost a decade later, not only has the recently unearthed Uggie's Garden phenomenon proved how Superior had completed BBC/Electron cassettes it never released to the moaning few [See EUG #6 - Ed] but we've also got hold of Tactic - the one game on Play It Again Sam 17 only officially released on BBC disk! With both these reviews coming in the same issue, you'd be forgiven for thinking Superior was still alive, well and supporting the Electron again!
Tactic represents some departure from the arcade-adventure or feast of graphically stunning shoot-'em-ups or Repton screens Superior's probably most famous for. This title belongs squarely in the "puzzle" pile, along with Tetris, Sim City, Master Break, etc. In many respects it actually looks like a Tetris rip off, but it implements some intriguing ideas making it really not the same game at all.
Advancing through the levels is not complicated. The screen is split vertically into two equal strips; player one's arena to the left and, fairly obviously, player two's to the right. At the top of the screen, a timer counts down from 99 to 0 and, almost in time with each tick of -1, a different styled piece falls from the top of the arena toward the bottom. Each player must learn where to put the pieces for maximum use in constructing the shapes which are displayed along the bottom of the screen.
The game is for one or two players, and if playing alone, area two remains empty (apart from the message "Not in use"). Each piece falling is 8 by 8 pixels, very different to the puzzly shapes of differing sizes that fall from heaven in Tetris, and can be one of four colours: red, blue, white or magenta. The game is set in Mode 1, on a black background hence there are five colours on screen so there's evidently some really sophisticated coding employed to achieve such an effect. It's the first Electron title I've encountered that has been able to squeeze an extra colour out of Mode 1!
Also, each piece can be one of three "styles": filled in circle, maze-type square or dot-pattern square. The idea is to get the same combinations (that is, the same "style" and the same colour) of shapes somewhere in the arena. On the first level, for example, you must create one horizontal line of three same coloured, same styled shapes and one vertical line of the same to proceed. This information is given by the number 1 next to each "shape display" on the bottom row. As you create one successfully, the number disappears. When all numbers have gone, you proceed to the next level.
The first level is easy beyond belief. Only a very narrow range of the colours and styles fall and you can get away with just watching them fall into place without even tapping the keys. Of course, this doesn't continue for long and soon you have a quite mammoth number of combinations to create and a confusing screen full of your previous failed attempts. This is not good because no pieces will ever disappear from your arena (unless you manage to complete the level) and pieces do fall constantly, not even allowing you a nanosecond breathing space.
As the levels build up at the bottom of your screen, the pieces have less time to fall before they 'land' hence you have less time to react to what colour and style they are and less time to decide where to put them. The pieces themselves fall extremely smoothly (pixel by pixel) but, even from the start, at a rather fast rate! The game is one of skill and reaction and it quickly becomes very difficult.
The two-player option allows two games to be played side by side. Whether or not this is necessary is for you to decide. The screen does look more professional and, with two players scrabbling away instead of one, the game really shows its metal with its ability to react to all keypresses without fluxation. But players are not actually battling against each other in the strict sense so the only real situation where you would need the function is where there is only one computer but both players are simultaneously desperate to play Tactic! Even then, if the players are unevenly matched, you would be left with the better player continuing alone while the other waits patiently to begin again...
Nice features incorporated into the game are a customised font, high score table, level change option (allowing you to progress to higher levels after you've completed the lower ones once) and level codes (to jump to the extremely difficult levels). There's also a fantastic Mode 1 loading screen announcing the author Andrew Pepperell.
The actual game graphics are, as you would expect, uncomplicated; apart from nice Superior and Tactic logos on the title pages, there's not a lot else. Then again, there doesn't need to be. With games of this ilk, the emphasis is on good presentation and addictive gameplay. Both have been achieved.
As outlined in the introduction, unfortunately this game is not 'officially' available from Superior; the version here reviewed arrived on rogue media which was probably never destined to leave the office. All the same, it does exist, it's complete, you'll shortly be able to download it from www.stairwaytohell.com and, like Uggie's Garden, it's up to the high standard we've come to expect from this software house.