Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Coming soon... a look at the games of 2012

Hey there!

So, what have I been up to, you might be wondering?  As far as the book goes, I've written about 30 mini-reviews and got some great screenshots for them all.  And I've got programmer quotes to go with a few of them, too!

The problem for the blog when doing that is, I don't want to write too much here so that it doesn't spoil anything that will be in the book.  That's where this is a bit of a balancing act... I do like to give out information and ideas on what I'm doing, but I want to be sure there will be plenty of fresh and interesting stuff to read in the finished article.  So forgive my recent lack of updates, but be assured, we're still moving forwards.  Yay!

Now that we're moving toward Christmas, I probably will put my work on the book on hold for a little bit.  Probably.  It's very easy to fire it back up at a moment's notice, and if I ever get bored of The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, James Bond or the other traditional Christmas fayre, there's a more-than-reasonable chance I'll do just that.

What I thought I might do, though, is write a round-up of the new games I've enjoyed this year.  It will keep the blog rolling, and show that I'm a slightly more-rounded gamer than you might think! There were loads of fun games released in 2012, and although I haven't played a lot of the really big names, that doesn't mean I can't talk about my favourites.  So, keep checking back here, and have a mince pie and a cuppa at the ready.  It won't be a list or a rundown, but you can certainly compare my picks with your own, recommend anything I might have missed, or perhaps even find a gem you've been missing out on.  Incoming!

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Christmas is coming... win stuff!

Hi all!

I'm working on some cool posts for the blog at the moment.  I'm also writing some nice reviews for the book (I promise to update the word count on the front page soon!).  In the meantime, though, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, I'm giving away some games on Steam throughout the run-up to Christmas!  Why not be part of the action and maybe win yourself something fun for the holiday season?

Saturday, 1 December 2012


When I were a lad, one of the main disappointments, if you can call it that, of owning a Commodore 64 was its lack of isometric 3D adventures.  The Spectrum had them in abundance, with Ultimate's offerings being particularly impressive.  I was a bit jealous of my Speccy-owning friends, and could often be found in their houses, pottering around Knight Lore castle in an attempt to rid myself of a lycanthropic curse.

I was delighted, then, when Firebird released, with surprisingly little fanfare, an isometric 3D adventure on the C64 called Chimera.  Set in the future, the game saw the people of Earth thrown into panic when an undoubtedly hostile alien craft was found to be orbiting the planet.  It had to be stopped, and the only way to do that was by beaming you onboard in a robotic space suit, with the aim of finding a way to destroy the ship from within.

This is how it started.
It wasn't a big game, but it was quite tricky and, crucially, it was fast and played pretty well.  It certainly scratched that isometric itch nicely for a good while.  It was also notable for some excellent Rob Hubbard music, and some quite frightening synthesised speech, with the game bellowing its name at you at the start and offering up a blood-curdling scream upon your death.  It was well-received on all formats, and rightly so.

Author Shahid Ahmad was responsible for a number of other games, including the C64 port of Jet Set Willy... which would be very interesting to discuss.  He also wrote the Spectrum and Amstrad versions of Chimera... the latter of those being done in just a week, with no prior experience of the machine!  Remarkable stuff.  There were versions on other platforms, too.

And this is how it looks now!  Which do you prefer?
I was very interested when I read last year that Shahid was attempting a remake of Chimera on the PC.  In fact, the project began in 2010, as his blog shows.  Have a read of it, there's some good stuff there.  There's no real reason for the remake, other than it was something he fancied doing.  Who needs a better reason than that, anyway?

Two years later, and it's finished.  Or, at least, the first playable version has been released.  You can download it on Shahid's blog page for either PC or Mac.  It's pretty faithful to the original, and quite basic as games go these days, but it's fun to potter around in that world again.  It has an appropriately spooky opening, with some random atmospheric sounds playing, and the famous speech makes a return.  Other than that, not much has changed... yet.  You still eat bread and drink tea and die because of radiators and try and make missiles to blow up the ship.

Hurray, I've created a missile! Hang on... where the hell am I?
And that's great, for version 1.0.  But it's just a stepping stone to more, promises Shahid.  There will be some updates to this, but it all appears to be leading toward a Chimera 2.0.  It should have lots more features and ideas, and be a much better game all round.  That makes me happy... it's great to have that to look forward to.  For now, though, have a go at Chimera 2010. It's a nice little piece of unashamedly retro gaming.  I hope to talk to Shahid about it, and of course his 8-bit games, for this book.

Tell you what, the first one of my readers to finish Chimera 2010 gets a free Steam game from me, from my stockpile of gifts.  How can you refuse?

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Day 175 - get a load of this art (Part 1)

I'm really busy at the moment... last night, for instance, I left for work at 6:30am and didn't get home until 8pm.  It's not conducive to blog writing, so for now I've taken the unusual step of having a guest writer critique some loading screens from some of our favourite 80s games.  Let me introduce you to Mr. Arthur Critic.  Take it away, Art.

Computer and video games get a rough ride from most art critics.  Roger Ebert has famously said that they cannot be art.  Surely that's a ridiculous assertion.  Art takes many forms, and just because Mr. Ebert likes films and not video games, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are a lesser art form than movies... rather, a different one.

I'm not here to discuss that, though.  I'm going to look at an aspect of computer games that are most definitely art... the loading screen and/or the title screen.

Graphic artists had a difficult job with loading screens or title screens.  They had to convey a sense of excitement and anticipation about the game they represented for a fleeting moment, with the creator having the knowledge that whatever they produced would be instantly forgotten when the "Start" button was pressed.  They could almost have been forgiven for knocking out some quick, barely-representative rubbish, and some did, but many took pride in their work and produced some top quality efforts.  Let's look at some.

Thrust (Commodore 64)

Thrust is an incredibly difficult game, which sees you piloting a craft into the mining systems of planets, retrieving an energy pod and then, if luck and skill allow, escaping before the planet blows to smithereens.

This dramatic piece offers the pilot the light of hope as he heads out of the darkness with his hard-earned prize, yet reminds the player that complacency kills, with even the exit to freedom looking more like the mouth of a monster.  The subtle use of monochrome with just a hint of colour in the ship's tail lights prepare the player for the simplicity of the game's wireframe graphics, but also serve to heighten the effectiveness of the piece.

Eliminator (ZX Spectrum)

The idea of a roadway in space seems ridiculous to those of us trapped squarely on terra firma, but when you think about it, is it any more ridiculous than the idea of a space elevator?  No, it isn't, and that's been mooted for many a year now.

Eliminator has the premise that you must clear these roads of alien infestation.  It's a bit like today's M6, but with more missiles.  This Spectrum loading screen leaves you in no doubt as to what you'll be up against, as it contains all elements of the game: aliens, space, explosions, and a futuristic highway (complete with what might even be road works).  The large spaceship emphasises the fact you are a bad-ass, and this is further enforced by the large yellow ELIMINATOR game logo positioned under your ship.  This is a very effective loading screen.

Tetris (Commodore 64)
Everyone in the developed world knows about Tetris.  It's not just a game, it's a cultural phenomenon.  However, as the game involves nothing more than manipulating coloured bricks into a fixed area, it doesn't really lend itself toward imaginative artwork.

Thankfully, then, this game's loading screen artist eschewed the notion of representing gameplay, choosing instead to portray a naked man in space.  In one image, he appears confident, even seeming to sprinkle magic from his fingertips.  In the other, his back is turned, and he holds his head as he is engulfed by a storm.

I think we can determine from this that the artist wanted to convey the simplicity of the game, with the naked man representing the stripped-back game mechanics.  He may also have been attempting to portray the mental anguish and torment that comes from actually playing Tetris, as the player finds himself addicted to the challenge of continually placing shapes in a manner that will prolong the game.

On the other hand, maybe he just didn't fancy drawing a loading screen featuring a purple 'L'.  We may never know.

Wizball (ZX Spectrum)

The Commodore 64 version of Wizball, a game about colours developed for and programmed on a machine that was very good at handling multiple colours, had a somewhat bland loading screen.  There was lots of white, and a frankly average looking wizard standing in the middle of what ends up being an ellipse, rather than a ball shape.

I find it slightly ironic, then, that the Spectrum version had a markedly superior loading screen, featuring bold images of all the main elements of the game, loads of character, and above all, bags of colour.  Remarkable, for a machine that was mocked for its problems in that area.  This is a loading screen that would have had any Spectrum owner excited at the prospect of the game to come.

Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo (Commodore 64)

The path of a samurai is a noble one.  Usagi Yojimbo is about a samurai rabbit... probably no less noble, but I can see why he would keep his ears under his hat at times.  That said, in the game itself, they are proudly on display, and the peasants he encounters recognise him instantly for it and are humble.

The Spectrum loading screen is a more literal translation of the game box.  I prefer this more imaginative image.  Its use of Japanese symbolism is strong, with the dragonflies signifying the courage and strength of the warrior, and the lotus flowers in the foreground indicative of the purity of the samurai's values.  The picture shows a serenity that the warrior is forced to give up a short way into his tale.

Hydrofool (ZX Spectrum)
At first, I didn't realise this striking effort was a game screen.  It was so markedly different to any Spectrum art I had seen that I thought it was a pack shot.  When  I discovered I was wrong, I was actually quite excited.

Although the game is set on a planet that is like a giant aquarium, I like to think that this image is a metaphor for life, with the protagonist feeling as though he is trapped in a giant fishbowl.  The giant eyes seem to express surprise, or maybe even fear.  Perhaps the artist here was implying that we are all like goldfish, with somebody bigger watching us all the time, in some way.

Sorry, what was I doing again?

Oh well, not to worry.  I've enjoyed this little guest spot.  Maybe I can come back and do it again sometime.  Art, out.

Well, I think that went quite well.  I've called this part one... perhaps our guest columnist will be persuaded to visit again sometime, and discuss more of the graphic delights of our 80s games.  I, for one, would look forward to that.  I hope you enjoyed this enough to look forward to it, too.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Day 168 - in loving memory

Seven years ago today, we lost my youngest brother, Jamie.  He was only 26 years old, which is no age at all.  November 10th will always be tinged with sadness, naturally, but we prefer to be more celebratory and remember all the great times.  As he was a real character, there were plenty of them!

For the purposes of the blog, I'm playing some of the Commodore 64 games that I associate with him.  Although he was only born in 1979, he loved computer games from an early age and was soon able to pick up my second Zipstik and get stuck in alongside me.  This was great, because my other brother, Steven, wasn't that much of a games fan.  So it gave me someone to game with when I wasn't with a mate.  To be fair, most of his gaming was done on the Sega Megadrive and Saturn, but we did have some fun with the C64, even if it was on the wane by the time he was interested.

Rock 'N' Wrestle

After the mighty Way of the Exploding Fist, hopes were high among magazine reviewers that the next fighting game from Melbourne House (Fighting Warrior didn't count, did it?) would be amazing.  But they seemed disappointed, with reviews being less than stellar.  I, too, was disappointed... I'd hoped it would be brilliant fun, and the reviewers seemed to be saying it was nothing of the kind.  But then I played it...

That's going to cause a bit of a headache.
It's fair to say that Rock 'N' Wrestle is not an amazing game... but it CAN be brilliant fun!  It certainly has its flaws, but back then, they barely seemed to matter.  The wrestlers were all the same sprite but in different costumes, which didn't impress the magazines.  But to us, with a bit of imagination, they were all wildly different!  Did anyone really want to play as the dodgy moustachioed leather boy, though?

The game had digitized speech... but it was terrible!  If you managed to pin your opponent, the referee would shout out the count, something like this: "KHAAAA!  KHOOOO!  KHREEEE!"  And yet, we loved that!  We'd even shout it out when we were play-fighting!

For all its lack of polish, though, Rock 'N' Wrestle had a lot going for it in terms of gameplay, mainly in its use of the joystick.  There were a variety of moves available, depending on your position in the ring.  When both wrestlers were standing, you could kick, chop or grab.  If you grabbed, you could swing your opponent round, headbutt them, lift them or do a backbreaker.  If you lifted them, you could do a number of moves, including the vicious piledriver.  You could even climb up the turnbuckles, if you wanted.

Woah!  Woooooah!  WOOOOAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!
Even then, there were flaws.  You could batter your opponent senseless, taking away all their energy, but if you got careless they could still beat you!  This annoyed in the single-player game, but it was a real leveller in two-player games, and on more than one occasion I would get cocky and toy with my brother, only for him to grab me, throw me and pin me for the ultimate humiliation!

The Willow Pattern Adventure

This was the first game Jamie ever bought with his own money.  I suspect it was the oversized and different packaging that appealed... it probably looked like you were getting a lot for your money, what with Willow Pattern (as it said on the box) being a budget game.

I want that huge diamond, but I don't fancy scrapping with that fat lad to get it!
He played it a lot.  It was probably a good game for a young un to play and enjoy.  It's quite simplistic, as were many similar games of the time.  The object is to roam around the palace gardens in an attempt to find your way in, then make off with your love, the Princess, whilst avoiding her father.  Naturally this isn't easy, with the palace guards proving a formidable enemy.

It always used to annoy me when I found my way blocked by a guard and I had no sword.  It took me ages to realise that if you could lure a guard into throwing his sword and then get out of its way, the sword would drop to the ground and you could pick it up.  Once armed with that knowledge I could progress fairly well, and games lasted a decent length of time.

The path to true love never does run smooth!
Willow Pattern was never a great game, but this was a popular genre in its time, and this was a pretty classic example of an early budget game.    It appealed to me until games got more sophisticated, but Jamie really loved it, so it will always be a special game for me.


I will, to some degree, feel bad about Bounder until my dying day.  Why, you may ask?  It was a great game, after all.  Well, here's the thing...

It was Jamie's birthday, and he'd been given some money as a present.  I was going into Newcastle that weekend, and he asked if I would buy him a game with his birthday money.  Naturally, I told him I would... after all, I would stand to benefit from this, too.

And so it was that I was entrusted with his ten pounds, and the task of returning home with... The Eidolon.

It's always nice to know you have fans...
I was quite excited about that.  After all, it had received a massive Gold Medal from ZZAP! 64, and it looked amazing.  The prospect of fighting those giant dragons was very appealing indeed.

And yet, when I stood in WH Smiths with the game box in my hand, something didn't feel right.  I'd been looking at all the games, and for some reason I'd found myself drawn towards a game called Bounder.  It was a much more unassuming package, coming in a box which was half the size of The Eidolon's case, and with much less flashy artwork.

It had, though, also received a Gold Medal from ZZAP! 64.  What's more, it had a second game on the other side of the tape!  Surely that would be a better use of his birthday money?  With that rational thinking, I went against my brother's wishes and bought him Bounder with his birthday money.  I made my way home, and handed it over.

It was probably half an hour before he stopped crying.

Not as many questions as I faced when I came home with the wrong game...
To be fair, he was only seven years old.  Even after explaining the "two games for the price of one" aspect, he wasn't remotely appeased.  He wanted the game with the dragons.  I don't think he ever got to play it.

Personally, I loved Bounder right from the off.  What a horrible shit.  He grew to enjoy it, but I don't think he ever really got over the fact that it wasn't The Eidolon.  And I don't think either of us played Metabolis, the "B-side", to any degree.  Oh well, you live and learn.  I've never done that with anyone's money again.

From these early beginnings, Jamie went on to be quite a gamer.  I'd always considered myself good at games, but he would routinely thrash me.  On the Megadrive, we played the very first FIFA International Soccer on Christmas Day.  It was a tense, well-fought battle, which remained goalless until the last kick of the game, whereupon he scored with a screamer from outside the box.  On the Saturn, I would cane the brilliant Sega Rally, only to be crestfallen on my returns home from work to find my high-score table filled with his initials.

Jamie died as a result of epilepsy, a condition that can be tied to video games.  We'll never know if games triggered his attacks, or if it was just one of those things, but his is a very sad loss that may have been avoidable.  To that end, I intend to dedicate this book to him when it's finished, and I'm also giving serious consideration as to what might be involved in donating part of any proceeds to an epilepsy charity.  It's certainly something I've started looking into.

This post in memory of Jamie Neil Morrison: March 2nd 1979 - November 10th 2005.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Day 162 - reviewing, and reviewing

I wouldn't say I've been having writer's block lately... although I have had a few problems with what I've been writing for the blog.  I've had a couple of articles on the go, one of which is unfinished because I realised it needed a lot more research, and one of which I'll probably bin because it just feels like something is missing and I don't know what that something is.  I might be able to re-use some of it, but for now, I've cast it aside.

It's not all bad, though!  The book is steaming ahead at a steady rate, although none of the recent work has been juicy, from-the-horse's mouth stuff.  Instead, I've been writing my mini-reviews of games, which has seen me do a bit of interesting re-evaluation.

I really wanted to be a games reviewer when I was younger.  The lads at ZZAP! 64 were to blame for that... they got to play games for a living, and made it sound fantastic.  You imagined that they had a right laugh in ZZAP! Towers, too.  I applied for a Staff Writer's job there when a position opened up after I'd left school... there was no chance I'd ever get it, though.

Howay the lads!
I used to write my own ZZAP!-style reviews of games.  I even had a BASIC program on my Commodore 64 which separated all my games by genre... you could select the genre you wanted, and then choose a game review.  I was quite pleased with it, even if it was made up almost entirely of PRINT statements.  Computer programming has never been my forte.

That's really how I've ended up doing this.  I was lucky enough to write for the fan-produced Issue 107 of ZZAP! 64, and its subsequent Def Guide tribute.  And from there, I went on to write a fair number of games-related articles online, which really whetted my appetite for writing.  Going from online magazine to blogs to book seemed the most logical progression.

I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride...
Anyway... back to what I've been doing lately. I've been choosing a programmer who I would like to include in the book and then playing through all of their games.  I've then written about each game, and taken screenshots.  My intention is to be well-armed when I go out to them about their games, and then I can add their comments and edit my pieces where necessary.

It seems so much better that way, that I don't know why I wasn't working like that before.  I suppose that organisation was never my strongest suit, either, but it's something that I've found coming to me over the last five or six months as I've worked on this, and that's how I'll continue with this from now on.  I'm improving my working practices all the time... which is pretty good for something that is essentially a hobby.

You saw me standing alone... I actually played this when it was originally released.
It's also forced me to have a look at how I intend to lay out the book.  My intention has always been to write about a programmer and their games, with comments from them on each where possible.  But an issue has cropped up there.  There are games, and there are conversions of those game.  Whenever someone wrote an original game, there was a fair chance it would be converted to other platforms... but not usually by the same person.

So, potentially I could be writing about the same games twice (or even more than that), on many occasions.  And it strikes me that, although there would be different challenges involved for each person's version of the game, it might not be that great to have different sections about the same game spread all throughout the book.

I don't know what I might do about this yet... it might be too early to tell.  I might find a way to tie together all comments under one heading... but then I'd be writing about the game, rather than the programmer.  Maybe my original idea is still the best one.  Luckily, it's something I can continue to play with as the words mount up.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Day 155 - twisted, but in a good way

I fancied a bit of old-school gaming this weekend, but then I remembered an e-mail I'd had earlier in the week from my Kickstarter account.  Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams had been released!

I quite enjoyed the original Great Giana Sisters back in the day.  It was as close to Super Mario Bros. as I was ever going to get, and it helped usher in a new breed of platform game.  It was epic, it was fun, and it kept you playing in an attempt to find all the hidden secrets.  It still annoys me that my parents threw my copy away after I moved out of their house!

Poor cute Giana, having to get through this horrible land!
Anyway, I wrote about all this on Day 76, so I doubt you want to hear it again.  You probably want to know whether the new game lives up to its origins.  I'll give you my first impressions...

The first thing you notice is that Giana is beautiful.  Platform games aren't generally renowned for making your jaw drop with their looks, but this game is gorgeous.  In fact, it's doubly gorgeous, because each level has a completely different background, depending on which sister you're playing as.

Musically, it's also a bit of a treat, with both Chris Huelsbeck and Machinae Supremacy providing twists on the original's tunes, and again, these segue seamlessly between one or the other, depending on which sister you happen to be.

Aargh! What a nightmare for punky Giana!
This is exactly the same place as in the screenshot above. What a difference!
The gameplay is a little harder for me to comment on at this point.  It's still early days for me, for one thing... I still have a lot of ground to explore, and many features to discover.  Also, with the game looking as good as it does, it's not running all that quickly on the laptop I played it on.  I'll be putting it on my new laptop soon, though, and I expect that one to cope substantially better.  I expect I'll comment further then.

That said, it's good fun, and retains the tradition of the original Great Giana Sisters while taking it in a different direction.  As you'd expect, collecting diamonds is a large part of each level, although there are now three colours of the gems: blue, which either sister can collect; yellow, which only cute Giana can collect; and red, which only punky Giana can collect (wasn't she called Maria in the original?).

He's a big fella! Bet I'll have to beat him, somewhere down the line.
There are hidden areas to find, as you'd expect, and these are also found through twists on the original's gameplay.  For instance, in the first game, if you stood on bridges for too long, they dissolved away.  In this game, the bridges morph between broken and complete, depending on which persona's world you inhabit, and this helps you find your way to otherwise unreachable areas.

All the hard work and the stress of the Kickstarter appears to have paid off, with Black Forest Games having produced something which is more than worthy of the original's name, and which wears its old-school heart on its sleeve whilst having a really refreshing look and feel to it.  There's a lot of game here, which might eventually pale through lack of variety, but I'm very happy with the outcome and look forward to getting stuck into it properly.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Day 150 - 10,000!

I'm now five months into this project, and today I hit 10,000 page views.  I'll be honest, I'm pretty happy with that.  It's not like I've got any major backing from big websites or anything... there's just me spamming Facebook and Twitter, and website message boards that I was already a member of.  Who knows?  Maybe I'll ramp things up when there's more to talk about.

That said, I'll always appreciate any efforts my readers might want to make in plugging this.  The whole point of doing it is to attract readers, so the more I have the better.  I might even dish out rewards for anyone that gets me some good publicity... I've got about a dozen games on Steam, just waiting to be gifted (I will state that they're not current releases!).

Is there a more recognisable 80s' software house logo?
I will give a shout out to ex-Ocean graphics wiz Mark Jones, who's support of this project is much appreciated.  It's great to have people I intend to write about being so enthusiastic about this book, and quite important to me, too... it helps to validate what I'm doing, and lends it an air of authenticity.

Actually, if you're any kind of 8-bit computer fan, you ought to check out what Mark is doing to showcase Ocean's contribution to computer gaming.  The Ocean Software Facebook page constantly has new material posted, as does the Ocean Software website.  You'll find tons of fascinating pictures, storyboards and background there... it's really interesting.

Questions, questions... but who will I be questioning next?
What comes next, then?  What would you like to see?  I'm conscious of the fact that behind the scenes work isn't terribly interesting.  I'm trying hard to get a pool of stock questions for people, because I intend to send out a big batch of requests soon, but it's pointless doing that if I get a load of positive replies, only to sit there for ages trying to think of good questions!

Anyway, here's to the next 10,000 page views, the next 100 posts, and the next people who jump on board with me.  We're still looking at a great book here, the like of which is just not out there.  Let's get as many people on board as we can!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Day 148 - Funkytown

It seems odd to be writing this just after saying how re-energised I am, but I've been in a bit of a funk lately.  I think part of that may be down to the fact that two of my biggest, most recent posts have been tributes to programmers that we have lost.  It's a blow to us all, to have these talents taken away, and it does put you in a bit of a down mood.

I've been perking myself up a bit through the medium of MAME.  When your mojo takes a hit, you can always rely on a good blast of arcade gaming to give it a shot in the arm.  I'm not saying they're necessarily better than the games I'm writing about for this book... just more immediate.

Something else I'm doing with old arcade games is making myself a big batch of ringtones.  I love messing around with stuff like that.  I first started out using bits of music tracks from my favourite artists, and then with bits of Commodore 64 tunes.  But it's much harder to make really good ringtones like that... they may be your favourite tunes, but they're not necessarily best-suited to the purpose.

Now, would any of these be good for texts?  No?
Well, there's another hundred or so to try.
Arcade sounds, on the other hand, are perfect.  Whether it's an "Insert Coin" sound effect or a game over jingle, there are a lot more sounds that are short, snappy and, well, ringtone-y.  So I've now got well over a hundred of the things that I can tailor to all manner of things.  I just find it great fun to play with things like that.

In other words, and connected to the start of my post, I've started reaching out to people who were connected to Gods that we have lost.  There's a number of people I would love to include in the book that sadly cannot speak for themselves, and while I'm able to write plenty about their games, I can't write much about the people themselves.  If I can include some personal tributes from those that knew or worked with them, it will be a nice touch, I feel.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Night has fallen... goodbye Mike Singleton, the Lord of Midnight

Man, this is getting quite upsetting... we're losing too many of our Gods.  News has reached me that legendary programmer Mike Singleton, author of bona fide classics The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge, has passed away.

ZX Spectrum fans will be most familiar with Mike Singleton's work, and although it might not be a surprise to learn he started his games programming career in the days of the ZX81 and VIC-20, it might be more of a surprise to find he worked on games right up to Codemasters' recent racing thrill-fest, Race Driver: GRID.  He also appeared to be collaborating on a version of The Lords of Midnight for mobile platforms... let's hope the author still manages to get that released, it would be a fine tribute.

The Lords of... GRID-night?
Although he moved on to be responsible for a number of Amiga and ST classics, I'm going to concentrate on the games Mike released in the time period I'm writing about... the games he wrote for the Spectrum.

I'll be honest, because I only got to play on Spectrums in short bursts, I found myself baffled by The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge.  They were far, far deeper than anything I'd ever encountered up to that point... I was all about arcade games.  It was after I'd been hooked by The Bard's Tale on the Commodore 64 that I went back to them, playing the C64 conversions.  I can't lay claim to having beaten the games, but I did learn to appreciate and enjoy them quite a bit.  But they weren't Mike Singleton's only games... I'm going to start with the 16K games.


When someone writes a game named after Gandalf's horse, you know immediately where they're coming from.  Having said that, with only 16K to work with you couldn't be expecting a Lord of the Rings-style epic.  What you get is a game that reminds me of Stampede on the Atari 2600.  Riding your beautifully-animated white horse from right to left, you must fire lightning bolts at the hordes of Sauron's dread riders.  And... that's it.  A high score is your reward for surviving for as long as possible.  It's simplistic arcade fun, and an innocuous start to a storied career.

Ride, my beauty... ride like the wind!

Taking on a more traditional military theme, Siege sees you atop a particularly high wall, which is being scaled by a seemingly-infinite army.  Luckily, you have a seemingly-infinite supply or projectiles to drop on them, knocking them from the wall.  It reminds me, oddly, of Kaboom! on the Atari, except you get to be at the top of the wall rather than at the bottom doing the catching.  Again, it's simple, but it's pretty good fun.

This isn't going to end well...
Snake Pit

A cross between Snake and PacMan, Snake Pit sees you as a yellow circular thing with a big mouth, who likes nothing more than eating eggs.  The trouble is, once you start eating eggs, you free some big, horrible snakes, and they like eating yellow circular things with big mouths.  A bit of a problem, that.  On the other hand, if you eat all the eggs, you then get to try and eat the snakes, so it's not all bad.  It's OK for what it is, and probably went down really well on the 16K machine at the time.

Snakes.  Why did it have to be snakes?
3-Deep Space

I thought that this was a straightforward space shoot 'em up with fiddly controls, until I did a bit of research, which revealed that this actually was, literally, a 3D shooter!  That explained a lot!  That being the case, I couldn't really give it a proper go, as you need 3D glasses to see exactly what you're doing... the ships move on a 3D plane, so you can only destroy them if you're on the same plane.  It's a pretty ambitious and innovative effort in that case, but one I can't really comment on properly.

I bet this looks better through funny glasses.
The Lords of Midnight

Nothing that Mike Singleton had previously done had given any indication as to what would be next.  You just couldn't imagine that someone who had programmed some fairly simple-but-enjoyable arcade-style games would suddenly come out with one of the most epic strategy-cum-adventure-cum-fantasy war games that had ever been seen.  Indeed, the combination of genres made The Lords of Midnight one of the most original games available in its time.

Luxor the Moonprince... the original pensive hero.
Intended as the first of a trilogy, this is not a game to play when you have a few minutes spare, although it's possible you can lose in minutes when you first start out.  But even after a few hours, you've only just begun to scratch the surface.

The object of the game is to take Prince Luxor and defeat the Wichking, Doomdark, who is threatening to seize complete control of the Lands of Midnight.  As you would expect of someone who is a Witchking, Doomdark is quite evil and has a huge force at his disposal.  But evil will always be opposed, and there are characters all across the land who may be willing to help Luxor in his quest... if you can find them.

This doesn't look good.  Do you think if I get a round in they'll be OK?

Fortunately, Luxor has three allies from the beginning, and you can also control them in your attempt to destroy Doomdark and his armies.

Once you begin, you start to realise just how impressive the scope of this game is.  For a start, the story, although heavily inspired by Lord of the Rings, is very well fleshed-out.  The number of unique characters you encounter is also surprisingly large, and given that you can send any or all of your four initial characters in any direction and in any combination right from the beginning, it could take you a long, long time before you encounter them all.

Rorthron the Wise is also Rorthron the Deadly, it seems...
For all that, though, you never feel as though you're stuck in a boring trudge across the landscape.  You always feel as though you're part of something epic, and that danger and evil is lurking around every corner.  And with two distinct ways of completing the game, the longevity is guaranteed.  The Lords of Midnight has inspired countless games, and is rightly regarded as a classic.

Doomdark's Revenge

How do you follow a game like The Lords of Midnight?  How about with a sequel that is bigger, more involved and which addresses any small issues that the original may have had?  That always sounds like a good idea, and so it was that Mike Singleton released Doomdark's Revenge.

He's back, and still awesome. As a side-note, the only time I ever played D&D, my
character was called Luxor.  Bastard DM killed him off within an hour of starting.
With Doomdark beaten, the Lands of Midnight are peaceful again... or so everyone thinks.  What they didn't take into account was that Doomdark the Witchking had a daughter... Shareth the Heartstealer.  And she is now consumed by anger and fury... not that her father is dead, but that someone else killed him before she could.  That's how you know she's especially evil, and that trouble is just around the corner...

Doomdark's Revenge sees you travelling to the Lands of Icemark, where Shareth dwells.  The quest is larger, more epic and more involved, for you are not just attempting to destroy Shareth, but also to find Luxor's son, Morkin, who has been spirited away by the evil Heartstealer.

Tarithel is attempting to win back her love, who was taken by Shareth.
A showdown at the end could be the 8-bit equivalent of female jelly wrestling.
This time around there are more commands at your disposal, and it seems slightly more user-friendly.  The map is quite a.bit bigger than in Lords of Midnight, but consequently seems less inhabited.  I suppose you might expect that, especially in a land called Icemark, but in games like this you actually like bumping into things.

Special mention must go to the superb packaging of these games.  The artwork is striking and excellent, and the inclusion of the novellas with the instructions really helps to set the scene and get the story across.

"Luxor is not at all despondent".
He obviously wasn't planning to watch Poland v England on Tuesday night.
Doomdark's Revenge is certainly a worthy sequel to The Lords of Midnight, and a great game in its own right.  It will forever remain our loss that we will not see The Eye of the Moon, and the conclusion of the trilogy

Throne of Fire

This game was designed by Mike Singleton, but apparently not programmed by him.  I'm sure there's a story behind that, maybe I'll be able to find out.  There's a story behind the game too, and it's typically involved.

King Atherik is dead, and the Throne of Fire is empty.  Atherik had three sons: Alorn, the Lion Prince; Cordrin, the Sun Prince; and Karag, the Wolf Prince.  Only one of these sons can take over the Throne... but the condition is that whoever takes the Throne must be the last one alive.  So begins a cat-and-mouse hunt throughout the castle, with ultimate rule being the prize, and death awaiting the losers!

Avast, ye varlet!  Oh wait, that's pirates, isn't it?
This is a very novel premise, and I'm not sure if I've ever seen it repeated, although I suppose it is a little like the forefather of the deathmatch, as it is possible to play a two-player game using the split-screen.  The castle interior is displayed on a map at the bottom of the screen, but you can only see a small part of it at a time.  Handily, it shows you which rooms are occupied, and by which Prince's men, so you always know whether you're going to be in a fight or not.

Sadly, the fighting is the least satisfying part of the game.  All that happens is you walk into a room with an enemy, the two characters waggle their weapons at each other, and one of them vanishes.  There's no feel involved, no feedback or even any real idea if you're winning or losing.  I don't know if it would have been difficult to implement some kind of energy system (besides the beating heart at the top of the screen), but it would have helped.

And with that, my dreams of being King are over.
That said, it's still a fun game and the allure of becoming King is strong.  With a little bit of tweaking, Throne of Fire could have been a classic.  As it is, it's "merely" a fairly entertaining romp.

Dark Sceptre

I will always remember the first time I saw Dark Sceptre in Crash magazine.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  The characters were huge!  And it looked like a fighting game... it had to be awesome!

Harry was late for his Ku Klux Klan initiation.
Of course, being a Mike Singleton game, it isn't really a fighting game at all.  It is, in fact, a very strategic game where although the characters fight, you don't personally swing a single sword in anger.  Instead, you're like the supreme commander, and you issue orders to your legion who will do their best to carry out your will.

The story goes that the Northlanders, their ships battered by wild seas, ended up at the Islands of the Western Sea.  Generously, the Lord of the Isles offered them shelter through the winter, and strong ships for their journey home when spring arrived.

The list of commands, as you can see, is quite extensive.
The Northlanders, though, chose not to leave, demanding land to make their homes.  The Lord of the Isles was not pleased, and fashioned a magical Dark Sceptre with which he planned to drive out the Northlanders.  The plan went awry when the Sceptre gave the Northlanders a terrible power, and turned them into Lords of Shadow.  The Sceptre would have to be destroyed to rid the Isles of this evil.

Dark Sceptre is not a fast, action-packed game.  Far from it.  But it's really quite compelling.  Choosing one of your characters, giving him a series of commands and then watching him stalk the landscape, attempting to carry them out, is compulsive stuff.  I found myself really intrigued as each of my warriors went to do battle with the Lords of Shadow.

Go on, son.  Get stuck in!
As you would expect, you're not going to beat this game quickly.  In fact, it takes a lot of planning and experimentation to get anywhere at all.  It will take weeks of in-game time to drive out the Northlanders, and it's not something that will be to everyone's taste.  Personally, I was easily interested enough to persevere, and I want to play it again even now.

War in Middle Earth

After all the games that were inspired by The Lord of the Rings, it was inevitable that there would eventually be a game based directly on The Lord of the Rings.  The only surprise is that Mike Singleton didn't actually design the game he programmed.

What isn't a surprise is that War in Middle Earth is an epic war game.  How could it be anything else?  The object of the game is to... oh, come on.  Really?  You must know this by now.  Oh, alright... the evil Sauron has lost his ring of power, and he wants it back.  The ring has found its way to the unlikeliest of owners, the unassuming Hobbit, Frodo.  An allegiance is made between all the races of Middle Earth, and a quest to Mount Doom to destroy the ring is undertaken.  It must be successful... Middle Earth depends upon it.

If only Peter Jackson had done the graphics...
The game displays a map of the whole of Middle Earth.  Highlighted on it are various factions, and you have a gloved hand at your disposal with which you can select any of these, or just magnify any part of the land if you want.

This is where your strategy comes into play.  You must move your "pieces" into place so that you can counter Sauron's forces.  You choose each unit, give them an order, then select the "Time" button, and everyone will begin to move accordingly.  Sauron's armies will also move at this point, so you must hope that your moves are strong enough to counter his, and that eventually you can drop the ring into Mount Doom, thus destroying it and returning peace to the land.

I'm not sure about that Frodo.  He doesn't seem determined enough for this task.
As quests go, there aren't many more epic than this one.  There's an enormous amount of game here for those that are strategically-inclined, and it will no doubt take months to achieve a successful outcome.  For me, personally, it's a strategy game too far.  It's just a bit much for my meagre brain to grasp, and though I struggled manfully with it I didn't get anywhere.  Anyone with a penchant for controlling armies and a love of little men with big hairy feet, though, would have no doubt loved War in Middle Earth.

There were other games, of course, on other systems, with various degrees of involvement.  The Midwinter games, especially, are highly renowned.  For Spectrum owners in particular, though, the legacy of great games is as strong as that of anyone you could care to mention.

I had hoped to talk to Mike Singleton about the games I've written about and his Eighties' programming days.  Indeed, I'd recently sent an email to someone asking if it might be possible.  Sadly, I didn't even realise he was ill, and it was not to be, but I will certainly be featuring his works in my book, and would love to include quotes in tribute from those that knew and worked with him, or were inspired by him.

We, as creatures, are not on this planet for long.  It's important to try and leave our own mark on it, in some way, while we are here.  Mike Singleton has left an enormous, indelible mark, one that has inspired generations and will no doubt continue to do so.  He will be sadly missed.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Day 138 - keeping house

Sorry folks, this is a very dull update.  But I suppose it's necessary.  It's all very well writing blog posts about games I've been playing, but I do have to work on the book as well... that is my primary focus, after all.  And in doing that, I have to do some less glamourous stuff, too.

Today, I've been doing some housekeeping.  I've had workmen at home and an almost-terrified two-year-old practically welded to my lap, so it's been difficult to do anything of note.  So I thought I'd take the opportunity to tidy things up... and that's led to a lot of additions, with more to come!

Oooh, what a tease!  I bet you can hardly make out any of those names...
I've been looking at my folders on my computer, and adding separate sub-folders to each person's folder for all their different games... or at least, for those where I hadn't finished doing that.  But, as you might expect, it helped me realise that a good few names were still missing.  So I've bolstered my line-up of potential subjects quite considerably this afternoon, and expect to do so further.

At this point, though, I've got in excess of a hundred people that I'd like to talk to and include in the book, and I'll be adding more.  Each of those people has their own set of sub-folders, and if each sub-folder took one page of book, I'd have over a thousand pages at the end of this.  The scale of this thing could be unprecedented, but it'll definitely be scaled back a bit before completion.  Still, I hope you like my ambition!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Day 137 - re-energised.

For weeks now I've been labouring under a cloud... the cloud of real work.  It wasn't that I've had too much on at work, although it has been very busy.  It was the fact that a couple of promotion opportunities came up.  It meant, first of all, that I had to put a lot of time and effort into the applications.  Then I had to prepare for an interview.  Finally, I had to sit and wait... and nobody likes waiting.  It eats away at your enthusiasm for everything else.

Finally, though, the waiting has come to an end.  I've actually been successful, too!  I feel uplifted to a degree, and relieved in turn.  And it means I can get on with everything else with a clear mind and new focus.  That's good news for this book (and the blog).

I can't promise that this will return to being a daily production... there's only so much I can do without repeating myself, and I do want this book to have a decent amount of original, fresh, exclusive words.  But the pace will pick up once again.

Next time will be harder...
In that regard, I'm going to be making substantially greater efforts when it comes to contacting people that I want in this book.  I expect that I'll be abusing Facebook privileges in this regard... many of our Gods have a Facebook presence, so I'll get past my British reserve and just message them outright.  They'll either say "Yes", or they'll say "No".  Or they'll ignore me because they get tons of requests like this.  One of those.

Hopefully, they'll go with "Yes".  Whichever way it goes, I'll be pressing on and putting a good amount of content together for the book itself.  I've been writing pieces on a number of games and people, so that they're ready to insert comments into.  You'll all be thrilled to know that I still have no idea how this will end up, and that I might need either a dedicated editor or half a rainforest for the number of pages it could run to.  I'll make that kind of decision when the time comes.  For now, I'll be running down my A-Z list and cracking on...